As You Like It opened this weekend, as we usually do, on the road. This year we returned to Highlands Ranch, a suburban community south of Denver, sponsored by the good folks Douglas Country Library. For me, these road openings are full of stress. The show has never met an audience before, the cast is performing in an entirely new venue, the elements are in play, and I consider us very lucky simply to survive. In nearly every major and some very small communities throughout the land, Shakespeare is being played outdoors each summer. So there must be something to be said for it. But every opening weekend I think of only how much of our work is being thrown to the winds. What are those actors doing on that stage that looks like mall-land with a dumb flat in the middle of it? Can this park, surrounded by faux-Italian villas and flapping vinyl banners listing festival sponsors truly be the forest of Arden?
Can these shouted words piped through a tinny sound system really be the music of Shakespeare's? It's not the vision I had.
We did somehow survive our opening night, as we always seem to. Rain threatened but did not fall. Wind wiped out a scene or two. It seemed to me the limited sound system exposed and magnified every vocal weakness. The actors were clearly not quite at home, but they battled bravely on. The audience of a few hundred people stayed and even seemed to enjoy it. I heard a man sitting behind me chuckling all night long—somehow he seemed to get every joke and nuance. To my mind we sounded like a decent community orchestra giving a heroic performance in an indifferent corner of a large field, and of course I want something better than that. At the end, I just wanted to go home, and I did. I took the next night off, which was a very good idea, but got regular text briefings from my stage manager reporting that the audience was twice as big,enjoying themselves hugely, with some standing at the end. I slept well.
I went up to see the first act last night: what a difference a day can make. Here are a few of my notes:
6:00 p.m. In the dressing rooms, eating Chinese, the cast looks happy and relaxed; they had a good time on Friday night. Out in the park there are lots of people spreading themselves comfortably over the lawn and in front of the stage. It's been a clear, still summer's day. The soft ice cream truck, run by a friend of ours, is doing a brisk business.
On the bench in our outdoor "green room" Corin is shooting rubber bands at Silvius. Celia arrives with her fool.
6:30 p.m I give a director's preview of the play to 20 interested audience members gathered in a gazebo for the talk. I don't say anything very interesting, but they all can see I love the play. One rather distinguished looking couple (he's wearing a linen suit and gaucho hat) say they remember our King Lear of several years ago—the woman tells me she still thinks about the performance. Wow. I tell them if they like the show here, they should come down and see it in our theater with real seats, lights, and acoustics.
7:30 The show starts on time, in daylight. I realize I have failed to make proper adjustments in the opening scene, which will open in the dark in our theater. So the two actors walk out as if no one can see them, sit down and start to talk. A very lame opening. But our young Orlando, who has been told repeatedly he must punch up and drive his opening monologue, finally delivers, and his words come out strong, clean and full of energy.
7:45 I'm thinking the opening scenes of As You Like It are not vintage Shakespeare. Even the bad guys—the elder brother and the usurping Duke—seem generic (strange in Shakespeare who reliably produces evil men of charm, power and danger). It's nice to meet the girls, but they have nothing particularly wonderful to say, and even Touchstone, the clown, opens with an uninspired routine about honor, pancakes and mustard.
7:50 The wrestling scene gets the crowd into the show for the first time. Our Orlando has a black Belt in Tae Kwan Do, and our wrestler IS a wrestler, a pro. So when they throw each other around the whole stage shakes like a drum. The crowd onstage and off is groaning and oohing and ahhing, and when Charles is head kicked upstage, falling with a giant thud into unconsciousness, you can feel the whole field light up in delight. Can this be Shakespeare? Yes, it can.
7:55 Rosalind and Celia are talking about escaping to the forest of Arden. The lights have come on, bathing Rosalind's face in warm light. There's a dark blue romantic sky in the background. The wind picks up slightly, blowing their hair. For a moment it looks like 1950's technicolor and cinemascope. I must admit, we couldn't get this in our theater.
8:00 Going to the woods for the first time, I realize we have not sufficiently developed how Arden feels to the characters who have entered it. The forest is magical, and we need to do more to make it feel that way.
8:05 A large woman sitting down and to the right of me is a little too relaxed in the forest and manages to slip out of her chair and fall to the ground while the first lord is talking about wounded deer. I see her fall in slow motion, and she makes a soft and well padded landing. I ask her if she's all right, and she is. She sits up and is back into the play.
8:10 Silvius runs off calling "Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe" all the way over and down the hill, his cries fading into the night. Beautiful.
8:15 Touchstone goes up on his most famously difficult line in the play: "as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly." He says something like "Love is mortal in nature" and stops cold. Rosalind rescues him with "thou speak'st wiser than thou art ware of." We go on.
8:18 As Jaques begins his "all the world's a stage" speech, a jet plane flies overhead—perfect timing for the second most famous speech in Shakespeare. It's not quite as intrusive as the skater who yelled "fuck you" to a rival rumbling down the sidewalk to our right on dress rehearsal.
8:23 I look upstage and in the middle distance, there is Touchstone standing on the little hill that rises behind the stage. Has he no idea he's just put himself into the scene? Evidently not. Oh well—Jaques did say he met the fool in the forest, and there he is.
8:20 It is still light outside. Across the park from our stage three large fountains are pouring water loudly into a pool—I had asked if they could be turned off, but was told no, because kids counted on playing in them. They are playing in them now, and you can hear their laughter flooding on through the park as the Duke and his men sit down to their evening banquet in the quiet of the woods.
8:30 Our first act ends in exactly one hour, just is it is supposed to. There have been no shortage of distractions. But the play seems assured, clean, clear and smiling on this summer night. Shakespeare shares the park easily with dogs, skaters, fountains, jet planes, motorcycles and soft ice cream. It's all good.
8:45 On the way back to Colorado Springs, I tell our producing director about the elegant couple that loved King Lear in similar conditions five years ago. I had sent them over to our tent so they could get a brochure; they wanted to be on our mailing list. He said, "I have news for you. That elegant man was a woman." Apparently she was wearing her costume—and moustache—from a performance she had just given as a member of an old time brass band. She/he had not spoken during my director's talk, where I had made a point of saying how everyone in the audience will recognize Rosalind when she's playing a boy, and that Shakespeare had meant it that way. But now, realizing I had been taken completely in by a woman playing a man five feet away from me, with a strange twinkle in her/his eye as I was talking, I think maybe we should put a gaucho hat and a moustache on Rosalind—wouldn't it be great if she really DID look like a guy? You can never stop imagining this play. That's Shakespeare for you.