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Moving Places - Kevin Dyer

Published in The Lowdown July 2008

Kevin Dyer explores the challenges and pleasures of creating theatre for the great outdoors...

‘The rain is pissing down, some moron in front has the biggest golf umbrella in the world, and the actors are just shouting at us'

The first play I wrote for ‘the outdoors' was for London Bubble. I knew nothing about the differences between making plays outdoors or in. I phoned up Sue Hill who had plenty of experience with Kneehigh and their splendid outdoor work in the south-west.

She gave me two bits of advice. ‘Use music and use less words.' 

Sue's advice was invaluable, and I pass it on.  

I've been working on two outdoor shows this summer (Beauty and the Beast for The Dukes and Scratches in the Earth for Action Transport) and when the weather is doing its worst the question does come up, ‘Isn't this why we build theatres?'

But the glory of outdoor work is the space it is in - or should that be the space it is out? Just as intimate studios allow a particular type of play, a particular type of performance, so the same is true when you are on location. The first ever outdoor play I saw was Hamlet at Ludlow castle. I can't remember the play or the actors very much but I do know it was a sublime theatrical event - because the stuff about princes and inner turmoil fitted perfectly with the castle walls and the temperature dropping and the ravens wheeling and calling as the darkness fell upon us all. This is just the generic value of quality outdoor settings though. This isn't site-specific theatre - because I'm sure the ravens and the castle have given a boost to lots of other plays in search of a backdrop.

So, for me, the extra juice from the lemon is when an outdoor play becomes specific to its site. Both shows I'm working on now started with walks around the park. They are both promenade pieces, and it is the interconnection between the content of the scenes and the landscape they are in that is important. For me, the plays could not be written until the specific locations (and also the journey from location to location) were integrated into the journey of the stories. The Action Transport play, about a world without oil is in sight of Shell's refinery. That helps with meaning.

Of course, it would be silly and precious to say this scene can only be played here. But it would make a mockery of it all to move the scenes to other places. In Beauty the journey from man-made environment to the wild wood is central to both the plot and to the inner state of Beauty herself. And the journey to find inner beauty fits with taking the audience to a beautiful place - an environment that surrounds, wraps round it, so the audience is itself inside beauty.

In Scratches the walk taken by the audience is a loop around the Edwardian house that is both at the centre of the story and the hub of the audience's journey.

Both shows have live music. Both plays have seen a process of de-wording going on in rehearsals. The sparer, the simpler, the richer is as true now as when Sue Hill told me it was. Some lessons are hard to learn though; a week before opening in Lancaster the delete button on my laptop was very busy. The same place in Scratches (about four-fifths of the way through) needs similar economies to keep the audience on the tightrope to resolution. How often have we seen outdoor plays where the actors are gesticulating madly to pump up the visuals? Note to self: outdoor theatre is not the place for verbal landscaping.

It probably won't rain, but it very possibly will. Note to self 2: don't write action or events that need cleanliness and dryness.

There is a different contract between audience and actors in outdoor shows. Sometimes this doesn't make for the best theatre. OK the audience is having a picnic as well, but it is still a play and not just some accompaniment to a sandwich. Without getting precious, we can still write outdoor plays that move and influence and change our audiences. One of my very favourite outdoor performances was by Jennifer Rigby who played Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She effortlessly filled the huge outdoor space with her voice; she was clear and open physically; she was engaging and welcoming to a large audience; she could move furniture and be funny; she moved easily from character to narrator and back again; but also she retained a psychological truth and depth of character that is often lost in outdoor work.

Sure, some large scale spactaculars don't attempt a character's individual personal inner drama, they are going for visual grandesse - and I love those huge events. But the plays I try and write are emotional journeys made by characters, actors and audience together.

Scene changes. The price you pay for ‘added value' from a location is the problem of changing set. It's also about convention. When a company is doing the ‘travelling player' non-promenade model - bring on a raised set and change scene by narration or simple props and a few chairs, the audience get the convention very early. Fine. It's the same as studio theatre but outdoors.

At The Dukes and at Whitby Park the ‘deal' is different: that this place where you are watching this scene ‘is'. So I can't (easily) jump time, and I definitely can't jump place - well not until the audience move to somewhere else. That is, both plays say ‘what you are watching takes place here'. I ask the audience to accept the specialness and importance of ‘this place' - these trees, this ground, those birds on these branches. They ARE the same things in both the play and in the real world. All the time as a playwright I am trying to make an audience really believe in something. The real outdoor world helps. And that is why, to my taste, flats and built stuff that we see in theatres can appear just that, flat and sham outside.

Hooks. In outdoor prom plays, you do a scene, and then the audience gets up and goes for a walk. I have to hook the scenes together very strongly. Narrative and suspense are vital to the play's success. The audience has to want to know what is going to happen more than in a theatre - because the gaps between scenes can be 10 minutes long, and there are many more opportunities to walk out and go home.

Entrances. There are, often, no ‘wings' in outdoor theatre, and this means ‘instant' entrances are very difficult to achieve. Saying that, it is easier to ‘sneak' a character on outdoors. But when I don't give Beauty's dad an entrance line in Scene 4 I do make it very difficult for him - and the danger is that, if they don't notice him come on, some of the audience will fall off the story. Also I have to plot the beginning of every scene around the arrival of the audience. Who arrives first? Performers or watchers? What difference does that make?

Towards the end of scene 1 in Beauty two characters called Darke and Titus enter with a cart and a drum. On day one of rehearsal it took them a minute to get from first-sight to the centre of the action. I hadn't allowed for this. So I shifted some dialogue from elsewhere in the scene and I wrote another bit too, to ‘support' their entrance. By the second week Titus and Darke were making the entrance twice as fast - so half of that dialogue went in the bin.

Space. Meaning and dialogue work best when in tune with the spatial relationship of the actors. Expanded scale, which can be achieved in few theatres, is a gift to us when we write outdoors. Putting big space between lovers is very powerful visual storytelling. It heightens the audience's desire to bring them together. And as the audience twist and turn their necks to see one then the other they are active in a way they rarely are indoors.

Does all this theorising work? Not sure, I'm just struggling to understand the craft - and each outdoor space has its own problems and potentials. I'd be very keen to receive further advice and thoughts on how to write outdoor plays - to add to Sue Hill's wisdom, and to help me do it better the next time.

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