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The great outdoors: 15 years outside with Ten Bucks Theatre

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BREWER – One of central Maine’s beloved cultural traditions is marking a milestone this summer.

Ten Bucks Theatre Company’s production of “Richard III” – running July 18-21 at Brewer’s Indian Trail Park, July 25-28 at the Orono Public Library Amphitheater and Aug. 1-4 at Fort Knox in Prospect – marks the company’s 15th outdoor production.

Since their first Shakespeare Under the Stars production – “Taming of the Shrew” in 2004 – Ten Bucks has produced a show almost every summer since, with 2008 being the lone exception.

Julie Lisnet is one of the co-founders of Ten Bucks Theatre Company and was there at the table when the decision was first made to set off on this Shakespearean journey.

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am also a co-founder of Ten Bucks Theatre and I was also part of the conversations that led down this path.)

“Hard to believe TBT will be 20 in 2020,” Lisnet said. “I’m getting old!

“So, it [Shakespeare Under the Stars] came about because in 2002, PTC shut down the Maine Shakespeare Festival. Most of us co-founding members – you, me, Catherine LeClair, Bob Libbey, Rebecca Cook, Ron Adams, Kenny Volock, Sharon Zolper – we had all been involved with Maine Shakespeare. After PTC shut it down and no Shakespeare was had in 2003, people started asking TBT to take up the mantle. So we did.”

What followed was the aforementioned “Taming of the Shrew” in Brewer’s Indian Trail Park and a long list of outdoor shows:

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2005); “Macbeth” (2006; “As You Like It” (2007); “Twelfth Night” (2009); “Romeo and Juliet” (2010); “Hamlet” (2011); “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2012); “The Tempest” (2013); “Julius Caesar” (2014); “Dracula,” the sole non-Shakespeare of the bunch (2015); “The Comedy of Errors” (2016); “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (2017); “Macbeth” (2018); and opening this weekend, “Richard III.”

Over the years, Ten Bucks has expanded into new venues. Early on, shows stayed put in Brewer, but subsequent productions have hit the road – the current run sees them play three venues in three weeks, starting at Indian Trail Park before spending a week at the Orono Public Library Amphitheater and then closing out the run with a week at Fort Knox in Prospect.

All of it done out of a love of Shakespeare and a passion for their craft. Scores of people coming together with a simple singular goal – to bring out the Bard.

In an effort to look back at this history, I spoke to six people who have been extensively involved with the outdoor productions of Ten Bucks. Joining Lisnet are Aimee Gerow, Katie Toole, Nathan Roach, Ben Layman and Adam Cousins. Each was invited to share thoughts and memories of their times on the outdoor stage. And share they did.

How long have you been involved with TBT outdoor productions? How many have you participated in? And in what capacities?

JL: I’m the old bag in the group, so I’ve been involved with every production in some capacity: “The Taming of the Shrew” - marketing/publicity; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” - marketing/publicity; “Macbeth” - director/producer; “As you Like It” – producer; “Twelfth Night” - director/producer; “Romeo & Juliet” - director/producer; “Hamlet” - director/producer; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” - co-director/producer; “The Tempest” - director/producer; “Julius Caesar” - Mark Antony/producer; “Dracula” - Van Helsing/producer; “The Comedy of Errors” - director/producer; “The Merry Wives of Windsor” - director/producer; “Macbeth” - First Witch/producer; “Richard III” - Queen Elizabeth/producer.

KT: I played Audrey in “As You Like It,” Fabian in “Twelfth Night,” the Nurse in “Romeo & Juliet,” Trinculo in “The Tempest,” Cassius in “Julius Caesar” and Adriana in “The Comedy of Errors.” I was also a costume assistant on “As You Like It” and was costume designer on “Twelfth Night” and “The Comedy of Errors.” 

AG: I’ve been involved with Ten Bucks for nine years now but was away in New York for five of those years. My first production with the company was “Romeo & Juliet” in 2010 I think, and this summer will be my sixth outdoor Shakespeare: Juliet; Ophelia in “Hamlet,” Luciana in “The Comedy of Errors,” Mistress Page in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Lady Macduff in “Macbeth” and Lady Anne in “Richard III.”

I’ve been an actor with the company for the majority of that time, but this will be my second year on the board as vice- president.

AC: My first summer production with Ten Bucks was in 2010, and the last one I did with them was in 2016. There were a few years that I missed, but all told, I’ve done five shows - acting in each of them. 

NR: I have been involved with TBT outdoor productions since “Romeo & Juliet” in 2010 and have been an actor in every Shakespeare show up to and including “Richard III” (that makes nine of them), fight captain for a few, and I was the fight choreographer for “Dracula.”

BL: I have been involved for seven seasons as both a director and an actor.

What are some of the challenges that have come with doing outdoor theatre in general and outdoor Shakespeare in particular? How have those challenges evolved over the years?

JL: Mosquitoes. The first three years we did shows we started at 8 p.m. and used lights. The mosquitoes almost carried us all away. Now we start at 6 p.m., use natural light and end before it gets dark. That and three skeeter vacs keep the biting beasts at bay. And then there’s the weather. One year we got all 12 performances in, but we usually lose one or two shows. Trying to determine Maine weather can prove extremely frustrating. We’ve called shows and the sun has come out. We’ve refused to give in and have been poured on. It’s all part of the outdoor theater experience.

KT: One thing people might not think of: it's exceptionally tricky to costume an outdoor show, especially a Shakespeare or anything period. When working outside, the costumes really help to establish the setting as we can't rely as much on set or lighting. But balancing the need to create something lush and textured and that evokes the time period and something that will not kill the actors when it's 90 degrees and humid is tough.

I made a joke several years ago about people in the audience not realizing we weren't on TV or a movie screen, but in reality it is challenging for both performers and audience that we can see each other. Stage actors are used to having strong light shining in their faces, and seeing what the audience is doing isn't usually part of the picture. Likewise, the audience isn't used to being visible to the performers. The performance can be a little more intimate and responsive because of this, and that's exciting. It's also weird when you're acting and you can see or hear people in the audience who are . . . distracted. We love our audiences though, it's all good. 

The things that are inconvenient or odd about performing outside are trade-offs for how magical it is to do a show when the weather is just right and the sun is starting to set. Even the years I am not performing, it always feels like "Shakespeare season" to me. 

AG: After doing so much outdoor theatre you develop certain tricks and muscle memories that kick back into gear each summer. The biggest being that you’re outdoors and sometimes have to compete with helicopters and wind and the occasional waterfront concert! I always warm up quite a lot for any production, with stretching and vocal exercises but with these the breath support is really import. I don’t have a super loud voice and project without hurting myself is so important. Even with a role like Lady Macduff in Macbeth, I didn’t have much stage time, but I had to let loose with some blood- curdling screams so you warm up!

AC: Oh, there are so many. Sound would probably be the biggest challenge though. Voices carry differently outdoors than they do indoors. All of those quiet moments - the dawning realizations, the intimate confessions, the conspiratorial plots - they all need to be shouted! And it goes against all of your instincts, but there's just no way to ensure you'll be heard otherwise. And it's not just making yourself heard over nature. There are so many other noises to compete against. Airplanes, helicopters, traffic, chainsaws, other people enjoying the park, concerts … there's no way Shakespeare could have known his work would one day be shouted over the distant rumblings of Rob Zombie's "Dragula", but that is absolutely a thing that's happened. But in each instance, we'd press on. Sometimes that pause for effect becomes a pause for necessity. But in most cases, you just learn to act louder. 

NR: Doing any theater outdoors is the perfect training for actors in projecting their voice. Depending on our location, our volume must compete with wind rustling leaves of the surrounding trees, birds, road traffic, trains, planes, waterfront concerts, neighbors doing yard work, and of course the Life flight helicopter. And still emote believably. 

Another challenge is the weather. Maine's is already unpredictable, and in the summer you never know when you it will be scorching hot (sometimes in Elizabethan garb), chilly, misty, raining, pouring or thunderstorms. In the event of the last two, we have to cancel, or now we can move the show indoors (for our first week only). Then there's the matter of finishing a performance (or rehearsals) before dark.

Performing outdoors means the stage floor is not the nice, even, or level boards of a theater. Being aware of trees, rocks, roots, sticks, mud or dirt, concrete and the general lay of the land is key for safe entrances and exits, stage combat, and sleeping or lying "dead" on the ground. Installing a set in different locations can also get tricky. Actors must be vigilant to listen for cue lines and work out the timing of entrances when going around or through the audience in various locations.

With so many roles in Shakespeare's plays, actors often play multiple roles, and so also have to work out the timing (and proper places) for costume changes. Then there's things like applying or removing makeup outdoors, using the port-a-potty in costume (e.g., manly tights and pumpkin pants, or a full-on hoop skirt) and picking up everything in near darkness at the end of the show.

BL: Shakespeare is all about the words and often it is hard to project outside and be heard. Weather and losing daylight are challenges. Often, it is hard to justify doing certain shows in broad daylight. Sight lines in an open park are also tricky.

What are some of your personal highlights from being involved with these shows? Favorite roles?

JL: As a director my biggest thrill is watching young actors embrace and grow to love Shakespeare. At first, they can be intimidated and fearful. When they realize it’s words like any other play, but with the power of the Bard behind them and that they don’t need to be nervous, it’s so gratifying. He gives you everything you need to craft an amazing character and helping them discover that really makes me very happy. They stop being intimidated and start relishing. I especially love when people bring their kids and the children are enthralled. If you have a good first experience with Shakespeare, you tend to love him for life. I love playing men, so Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar” was a huge thrill. The “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech is power personified. The way he turns the mob against the assassins is masterful. Being a woman, it was such an honor to play that part, since women in Shakespeare’s day weren’t allowed on stage at all.

KT: I’m grateful for all of the people I’ve met from doing Shakespeare Under the Stars. TBT’s “As You Like It” was my introduction to Bangor’s theatre community.

Playing Cassius was fascinating because I got to do a deep-dive into the details of the text. As a nerd, that’s really thrilling. When I was in ninth grade, I found the history plays impenetrable and couldn’t understand why we were reading “Caesar” instead of something fun like “Midsummer.” Returning to it as an adult and finding such depth in a complicated “baddie” was really exciting. It was the first time I had to die on stage too - always a highlight.

I had a real soft-spot for Adriana. She’s been described as proto-feminist and I absolutely agree. I think she gets a bad rap (as do, unfortunately, many high-status female figures) for being a difficult woman. She’s the fun-killer in a comedy. But she’s more multi-dimensional that people give her credit for, and she gets her “happily ever after.”

AG: I’ve always been a Shakespeare nerd, probably since I was 10 or 11 and I loved reading the plays. And Julie cast me as Juliet in my first Shakespeare show all those years ago. I was terrified for a good couple of weeks into rehearsal because the play is so iconic and I was a complete newcomer being welcomed into this close- knit group of actors. I love the week where we get into the park for the first time; everyone’s got their beach blankets and bug spray and you finally see what it’s going to look like for the audience. 

Juliet’s probably my favorite role so far, but Mistress Page from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was a blast as well. Comedy and tragedy are such different beasts that you have to have the chance to jump back and forth.

AC: I just love the opportunity to perform outside. So much of Shakespeare involves directly addressing the audience. So when you take actors who are used to being on a stage, an audience that is used to seeing without being seen, set them both outside of their comfort zones, and tear down that fourth wall … there’s really nothing quite like it. The level of engagement from all parties is just that much higher.

I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of different roles - all challenging in their own right. But I love having the chance to make people laugh. There seems to be this hangup about Shakespeare not being accessible to everyone, which is weird, because a lot of the jokes he’d write were pretty crude/lowbrow. There’s kind of something for everyone. So when I see a line that I think is funny, and I can get the audience to laugh at it, that feels pretty good. Like I’ve helped someone connect the dots and made the language a little less intimidating. It’s also kind of nice to know that fart jokes were as funny then as they are now.

Probably my favorite role, though, was Paris from “Romeo and Juliet.” It's not a huge role – there’s no real acclaim that comes from playing that part. But he has a line right after he gets stabbed by Romeo (spoiler alert) “Oh! I am slain!” And it’s such a hard line, ‘cause it’s an inherently ridiculous thing to say upon being stabbed. But I thought about it a lot, and the best way to deliver it. There’s surprise and disappointment and acceptance that maybe not everyone gets that storybook ending they were hoping for. And there was a complete stranger that came up to me one night after a show, and she told me that I was the only Paris she’d seen that understood the weight of that line. It was a nice feeling.

NR: Despite the challenges listed above (and maybe due to overcoming them), I love doing Shakespeare outdoors and in Fort Knox! Sitting or lying down under trees (and under the stars) on warm summer evenings, sometimes backstage with castmates or at other times behind the audience and observing their reaction to my peers onstage, or occasionally just looking at the clouds or closing my eyes and listening for favorite lines, is all greatly enjoyable. Many Shakespeare plays involve swordfighting (or knife fights this year) and other stage combat, and I’ve enjoyed playing roles like Benvolio, Laertes, Julius Caesar, MacDuff and Richmond that requires this extra discipline and adds to the excitement of the show. Benvolio, in “R&J,” has a neat mix of action, comedy, and drama as he gives accounts of two fights (and two deaths) in the play. I had lots of fun with (and compliments on) the silly French accent of Dr. Caius in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” And portraying the sorrow, rage and revenge of MacDuff in 2018’s “Macbeth” was quite rewarding.

BL: I was very proud of the final product of “Julius Caesar,” which I directed. And playing Prospero in “The Tempest” was my favorite experience as an actor to date. Performing at Fort Knox is always my favorite part of doing summer Shakes.

Any fun/funny memories from past shows? Any mishaps or other weirdness that could only come from being outside?

JL: We took one summer off from Shakespeare and did “Dracula” and I played another male role, Van Helsing. We were at Ft. Knox and I had a long and intense speech before chopping Lucy’s head off. Suddenly the audience started shifting around and giggling. I thought that was pretty weird since it’s pretty serious stuff. Then I started thinking maybe my fly was unzipped. It’s funny what you think of in the middle of acting. I surreptitiously reached down and checked and my fly was up. I continued with the scene and chopped her head off. It wasn’t until the end of the show that my cast mates told me a rather large bat had come out from the bowels of the Fort and was flying above my head. Rather appropriate given the show subject. The year I directed Macbeth (the cursed play), opening night a black cat came out of nowhere and sat on the set just before the show started. There was an audible gasp from the audience. A lot of people asked how we trained the cat to do that. I of course honestly said it was a fluke. The next night the same cat showed up at about the same time and when I was asked that time I said, “Well it took several weeks, but we finally got him to come out on cue."

KT: There was that time that you, Allen Adams, assignment editor and lead critic of the Maine Edge, licked my face during rehearsal of “Romeo and Juliet” while you were playing Mercutio and it became part of the show.

(Editor’s note: I regret nothing.)

When your character dies and you have to lie still on stage, it’s already hard. When it is the height of summer, you’re on the ground, and there are mosquitoes landing on you, it’s even harder.

One memorable moment for me was during “The Tempest.” Trinculo is not introduced until well into the play, after most of the exposition. TBT has a philosophy of trying to labor through a show if there is a paying audience, non-optimal weather be darned. The radar forecast showed a heavy approaching storm. We thought we could squeeze in the show before the worst of it arrived. Trinculo appears, fearfully looking toward lowering skies: "I know not where to hide my head: yond same cloud cannot choose but fall by pailfuls." One night, the sky is starting to get very dark just before I go on stage. I start the monologue and the wind picks up. What great fortune--so authentic! People in the audience start popping open umbrellas. I guess they’re here for the long-haul! Ok! I get to the line that includes "an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt." A massive crack of actual thunder happens. The sky opens up and there is an immediate soaking downpour. I shouted my next line: "Alas, the storm is come again!" I didn’t get any further. Julie ran on stage and said we were stopping the show. It was disappointing to stop once we’d already gotten underway--but that was such a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing to happen, it was kind of worth it. 

AG: Oh boy, in “R&J,” the life flight helicopter from EMMC would start up just as I was starting a big monologue and that happened two or three times. And then you just hike up to the very front of the stage and belt it out so the audience can hear you!

We had another performance of “R&J” where an audience family had brought their dog to see the show. They were in the front, off to one side, and the dog was very well- behaved. But when the time I came that I started to get very emotional and finally (spoiler alert) Juliet stabs herself out of grief, this dog was so concerned he couldn’t stop whining and trying to get to us onstage to comfort us. 

When I played Ophelia in Hamlet, my last scene (alive) involved her succumbing to a crazed grief, singing nonsense songs, and talking gibberish. At one point I laid on the ground, I believe trying to connect with a dead father. So at our last week of performances at Fort Knox it started to rain, which didn’t bother the audience at all. The cast is carrying along and this “crazy” scene arrives. Because of the rain and the stone floor of the Fort there is a giant puddle in the center of the stage. Actors are a strange people and we get really excited by opportunities like this and sure enough, I lay down right in the middle of that puddle and it was amazing! You never know what’s going to motivate or change a scene like that!

AC: Oh, just a ton. There was one night where we were performing and a couple had brought a little grill with them. Trying to focus on my scenes while smelling delicious barbecue was something I wasn’t prepared for. There was another night when mid-scene, a couple of people walked their bikes along the outskirts of the playing area. Probably my favorite memory was a night where it had rained a little earlier that day. Romeo and Paris were squaring off for their final fight, and just before what should have been the final blow, Romeo slipped and took a knee. In a show of respect, Paris took a step back and allowed him to regain his footing. But part of me always regrets not finishing him then and there and getting to improvise the alternate ending where Paris and Juliet end up together! 

An unfortunate side effect of performing outside is that we’ve had our set vandalized many times. Spray painting was obnoxious, but at least it could usually be covered up or hidden somehow. But one year, I think for “Caesar,” we had a set with a lot of fabric involved. We showed up one day to see someone had cut each panel of fabric right up the middle. It’s hard. But, as they say, the show must go on. I think even given all of the chances for something to go wrong, the opportunity to perform and view Shakespeare outside is worth the risks.

NR: Fun memories include: devising the ‘Banishment drinking game’ with “R&J” castmates Aimee Gerow, Alexa Steele and Dan "the Page" Bullard (take a shot (of water) every time Romeo or Friar Lawrence say ‘banish’, ‘banished’ or ‘banishment’)!

Waiting to see what Brent Hutchins as the Gravedigger in “Hamlet” would pull out of the coffin in Act 5 (it was different every time). Performing the Laertes vs Hamlet fight at the end of the show one night at Fort Knox essentially by the light of tiki torches and one floodlight, when the audience front row had gotten pretty close. Seeing Ben Layman appear and disappear as the ghost of Hamlet’s father on the upper level of the Fort.

The magic and hilarity of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” playing Oberon opposite Moira Beale’s Titania and Ben Layman’s Puck. Sitting with Ben eating popcorn and drinking soda on stage while watching the lovers quarreling as if it was a movie (complete with 3D glasses) was a blast!

The magic of “The Tempest” and hilarity of playing half man/half fish monster Caliban in scenes with Katie Toole’s Trinculo and Brent Hutchins’ Stefano. That character is the most unlike me that I have ever played, I think. The costume by Rebecca Wright with incredible makeup with prosthetic half mask and "moss" designed and applied by Elaine Bard, and finishing touches of press on nails, nail polish and color contact in one eye was worth the extra 45 minutes of getting ready, even with the show being cancelled for actual tempests a couple of days. It was also during that run that I developed a DVT blood clot in my left shoulder, swelling my left arm and forcing me to miss the Fort Knox shows. I appreciated the concern and love shown by the cast, and the ability of Padraic "Packy" Harrison to cover my role then. It was also fun explaining the realistic looking scar temporary tattoos and nail polish to doctors and nurses at the hospital.

Well, there’s certainly more, but I guess this is plenty.

Some others may have said these about weirdness of performing outdoors, or you may remember yourself, but the audience is different. There have been dogs and cats on leashes, little girls having a princess (dress up) party, a guy with his own little charcoal grill set up and cooking during a show, some following along with their own copy of the script, etc. And out in the daylight, we can see them all, even when we’re not delivering a soliloquy.

BL: Does a rogue prop mustache count? Or how about passing out briefly from heat? 

Why do you think this sort of ambitious undertaking is so important? What sort of impact do you think it has on the region’s cultural scene?

JL: I’m extremely proud that a small theater such as Ten Bucks was able to pick up the mantle and keep bringing Bangor area audiences summer Shakespeare. He’s the most produced playwright in the world and in every language. His plays, because of their universality have been with us for 500 years. Here’s to 500 more and beyond. Bangor deserves outstanding theater and you don’t get any better than the Bard.

KT: Performing Shakespeare is great for people of all ages and all backgrounds--with time, the language becomes familiar, and because it is so old, there is a lot of flexibility in interpretation. Shakespeare’s plays are both stylized and naturalistic by turns, even within the same play. There is something for everyone. There aren’t many pieces that are as rewarding and deep and give lots of performers opportunity that are also in the public domain and free to perform. It’s good that our area can sustain contemporary offerings as well as classical works – audiences are enriched by variety too.  Since the conclusion of the Maine Shakespeare Festival, it only seems that more communities are hosting similar projects all over the state. The Bard endures. 

AG: Live theatre isn’t always accessible to communities. The greater Bangor area is so lucky to have a number of groups providing a variety of productions as year. Ten Bucks wants to bring Shakespeare to the people, as it was originally meant to be. It was written to be shared and experienced. His plays are not written to be above people’s understanding and it’s certainly not just for a “certain class of people.” Our job is to understand his text so well that when we get it, the audience gets it. We need words and texts that make us think, form opinions, and learn how to empathize and what’s the point of art if not that? It’s ambitious and crucial.

AC: Shakespeare’s plays are for everyone. The jokes are clever and crude, the romances are silly and heartfelt, the deaths are sad and cathartic. Even if the language is a little different, the themes are absolutely as relevant today was they were then. There are a lot of challenges associated with performing outdoors, but I think it’s worth it for the opportunity to connect with the audience in a way you wouldn’t typically. There’s really nothing quite like it.

NR: Almost everyone in the English-speaking world has had to read a Shakespeare play in school, although that might not be happening as regularly now with the “common core” curriculum (ironically). Whether you understood or enjoyed that or not, it’s so much more understandable and enjoyable to see the plays performed. The actions translate the old English to the audience better than any “Sparks Notes” can (though admittedly, it’s sometimes with their help). And it’s important in part because these plays are part of the history and culture of our primary language. But more importantly, the various themes William Shakespeare [probably] wrote four hundred years ago are still relevant today, still entertaining today, and still thought provoking today as they “hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

BL: Our summer Shakespeare program has become a tradition for many folks in our area. It’s always a delight to see families and young people attending and expressing love for these classic stories.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 July 2019 18:13

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