ASHLAND, ORE. — Smoke and verse float up into the night sky as little boys cheer the battle scene and blanketed grown-ups sip from thermoses. This is "Cymbeline" beneath the stars on a cool Saturday night.
It is also Summer Theater. Ahhhhh.
Whether it's the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Canada's Shaw celebration, "Kismet" in Kansas, or August Wilson in Atlanta, the farming months are an opportunity for audiences to consume culture more casually and for actors to restock their creative larders.
Summer audiences are at once simple and demanding. They want escape, a change of pace, but often, in a good Yankee spirit, mental edification at the same time.
While the tradition of open-air theater dates back to
the Greeks, a more casual approach to culture blossomed in the United States, as New Yorkers fled the heat early in this century into the Poconos' straw-hat circuit. As Americans have become more mobile, summer theater has burgeoned.
There are some 110 locales devoted to Shakespeare (many of them outdoors). The Summer Theater Directory lists 75 strictly musical theater houses, 46 nonmusical, 21 historical or outdoor drama locales, four specializing in melodrama or vaudeville (several on riverboats), and 24 theme-park stage performances.
Not to be overlooked, however, are the legions of small local fests that don't make it into the national registry.
Ashland's OSF (the nation's oldest devoted to the Bard) began as a summer facility and has expanded over 63 years into an eight-month repertory group with a $13.7 million budget. But the open-air, Elizabethan-style stage still runs only in summer when audiences "let go of their winter worries and have a good time," says artistic director Libby Appel.
The theater has an ambitious repertory schedule, including a highly stylized "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And "Cymbeline" joins "Henry IV, Part I," and "Comedy of Errors" outdoors in Ashland for the summer.
Dramaturge Barry Kraft says the more casual environment relaxes everyone. But it also puts special demands on the actors because the outdoor setting is not amplified, "so actors must focus on their clarity and diction."
This challenge is compounded by the complexity of Shakespeare's verse. It also underlines the bracing mental environment sought by summer-culture mavens, says Mr. Kraft, who points to the 110 theaters devoted to the Elizabethan poet. America, he muses, "has gone crazy for Shakespeare." And in Ashland, he adds, the surroundings are an integral part of the theater's attraction.
Indeed, notes Christopher Newton, artistic director of Canada's Shaw Festival, locale is a key part of the storytelling experience. When audiences enter a new environment and see a play "it's an intrinsic part of the experience to have the surroundings support and extend the shift from their everyday world."
Since many theaters have prospered through a connection to local schools, summer breaks also allow professionals to mix with students.
The Music Theater of Wichita, Kan., has summer-only access to the facility it shares with the local college and high schools. The 10-week season, including "State Fair" and "Kismet," supported by a $2 million budget, offers an apprentice program that fosters a strong educational environment.
Producing director Wayne Bryan points out that this is critical for the aspiring professional. It also allows professionals to stretch creative muscles and "pass on some of their professional wisdom." Bryan notes that his theater has alumni in nearly all current Broadway musicals.
In Daytona Beach, Fla., the Seaside Music Theater has had a fully professional summer theater for 22 years. The theater's mission is to find and revive lost American musicals. It recently mounted the first full production of "High Spirits" in more than 30 years, and two years ago restored a lost Cole Porter musical, "The New Yorkers." And despite the worst wildfires in years, the (indoor) theater managed to begin this summer with its highest attendance in history.
Rob Kent, editor of Backstage West-Drama Logue, just returned from Ashland's OSF. He says it is a good example of the best regional and summer theaters have to offer. While it trains young actors in the classics (one actor equates OSF to a master's degree in theater), audiences also enjoy its picture-perfect country setting.
OSF's Ms. Appel notes that the festival has a devoted local audience that studies and prepares for the shows beforehand. The outdoor experience just adds that extra magical touch. "Summer theater in the country isn't pseudoculture," Appel muses. "It's just more relaxed."
Highlights of Summer Theaterfests
Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland: outdoor theater, through Oct. 11. Henry IV, Part I; Cymbeline; The Comedy of Errors. Also, indoors: A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Music Theater of Wichita, Kan.: through Aug. 9. Once on this Island; Kismet; Where's Charley?; 42nd Street.
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario: through November. Major Barbara; You Can't Take It With You; Lady Windermere's Fan; The Shop at Sly Corner.
National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta: July 10-19. August Wilson's Jitney, plus related events.