As outdoor theatre sweeps across the country this summer again, many companies are staging innovative approaches to hot and sticky summer nights under mosquito-bitten stars, presenting plays in partnership with local institutions like a zoo, drive-in options for car-bound audiences, and mixed programs of digital and in-person shows to accommodate patrons at all comfort and vaccination levels. But while the dominant image of outdoor summer theatre may still remain amphitheatres, stages constructed in fields or on city corners, and Shakespeare in the Park-type gatherings and Renaissance fairs, other theatres have used the pandemic shutdown of indoor spaces as an opportunity to recraft their vision of outdoor theatre, making art to fit the environment they’re in rather than conforming their work to an artificial environment.
Flint Repertory Theatre in Michigan staged outdoor concerts on the roof of their building throughout the pandemic, and decided to branch out further into the city by producing works centered around the many murals adorning Flint’s streets. Though the Flint Mural Plays are the first outdoor walking adventure for Flint Rep, they represent a sophisticated community project that connects local mural artists and the Flint Public Art Project with playwrights and performers around the country.
Each of the 25 audio plays corresponds to a different mural in the city, and “there’s hundreds of murals in the city right now,” producing artistic director Michael Lluberes (he/him) says. “They really represent what I think is happening in Flint right now. You walk in an alley and you’re surprised by this beautiful mural, or you see on abandoned building with this beautiful thing painted on it, and it’s so inspiring.”
Still, 25 murals and 25 plays—all independent of one another—posed a logistical challenge, with local actors recording audio in pairs if they’re vaccinated, as well as others recording remotely from their own cities. In the end, Lluberes hopes the project will take residents to parts of the city they’ve never explored before, with walking paths in two neighborhoods and driving paths in two more.
Other theatres, accustomed to working in non-traditional spaces before the pandemic, have used the limitations of COVID as a chance to continue experimenting with work that disrupts audiences and their expectations. Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore, for instance, was no stranger to the outdoor theatre space before the pandemic; their celebrated 2017 original work Promenade: Baltimore, co-produced with the Hungarian collective Stereo AKT, saw performers on city sidewalks with audiences on a touring bus.
When COVID made indoor site-specific work infeasible, Single Carrot mounted Keep Off the Grass: A Guide to [Something] on the grounds of Saint John’s in the Village, the church where they’re in residence, taking theatregoers through a “museum audio guide” tour of performances. Like Flint Rep’s mural plays, Keep Off the Grass featured individual audio tracks associated with different installations, and this summer they plan to take in-person actors out of the equation entirely, for self-guided audio walking tours in different Baltimore parks.
The folks at Threadbare Theatre Workshop were also experts in site-specific and immersive works before they relocated to Maine, having staged their Moby-Dick adaptation or, The Whale on Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79, better known as Brooklyn’s Waterfront Museum. This summer, Threadbare’s founding artistic director Kate Russell (she/her) is bringing both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a play by a local writer and scenic carpenter to life on a farm in a different Brooklin—i.e., the Maine town on the coast near Acadia National Park.
Jon Ellsworth’s Mackerel Sky takes place in 1971, when the anti-war and counterculture movements of the 1960s reach rural Maine and bring along newcomers. “There were a few back-to-the-land movements in this country, but in the ’60s and early ’70s, there was a massive one to this particular area on the Blue Hill Peninsula,” Russell explains. “A lot of young people moved here, and they were trying to go back to the land and live off the land. Mackerel Sky is kind of this microcosm of what was happening in the world, but through this very particular lens of rural Maine.” To create a sense of disrupted stasis, Threadbare will perform Mackerel Sky in one rooted spot on the farm, while their Midsummer will travel from barn to woodshop to orchard as the play’s chaos unfolds.
All three companies cited above have embraced the ethos of making theatre fit for their given environment, whether that’s a mid-sized city like Flint or Baltimore or a rural community isolated from other arts and culture programs. The work that Flint Rep, Single Carrot, and Threadbare seek to produce this summer varies by theme and aesthetic, but shares the common ground of community-based work that centers the experiences of their local audiences and incorporates artistic input from community leaders.
In Flint, Lluberes was concerned about the role that public transportation would play in getting audiences out to the different murals, so he worked with the city’s seasonal trolley service to adjust their routes for the project. “A lot of people in Flint stay in their own neighborhoods and are in these little boxes, so this is really about mixing them up,” he says, adding that the trolley offering is meant to make the Mural Plays more accessible for audience members who can’t walk long distances or don’t have cars.
In addition, Flint Rep will distribute listening devices to audience members without smartphones so they can download the audio plays, and will offer two plays in both English and Spanish. One of the plays was inspired by Kevin “Scraps” Burdick’s mural of Martin Luther King Jr., “probably the most popular mural in Flint,” and Flint Rep will stage a community event there to correspond to the Mural Plays. “I always wanted to find a way to connect to the community more, and this [project] has given us the opportunity to do that,” Lluberes says. “We can’t have people in the theatre, so we’re literally bringing it to them.”
While Single Carrot has always sought to connect local and global art by working with groups and artists from throughout eastern Europe, their partnerships throughout Baltimore remain an essential part of their devising process. They moved out of their old venue in part to be able to engage with multiple neighborhoods and neighborhood outreach organizations at once, through site-specific work in a city known for racial and economic segregation.
Artistic director Genevieve de Mahy (she/her), who has been an ensemble member since the theatre’s founding in 2007, says that Single Carrot’s goal is not to “build a theatre in a space” but to “look at a space, listen to the space, and respond to it,” whether that space is a historic mansion in the middle of northeast Baltimore or at their physical home at Saint John’s in the Village. They’re used to “half outdoor, half indoor” shows and tours, and are toying with the idea of a show in a parking garage that sees audiences approach actors performing scenes in cars. In the meantime, they’re working with a neighborhood historian and Saint John’s to research the 40 formerly enslaved people who are buried in an unmarked grave in the church’s cemetery. Once the research is solidified, Single Carrot plans to commission a Black playwright to create a piece about the experience based on feedback from neighborhood residents and congregants.
Threadbare also works from a community-based approach, not only to support the local economy and artists, but to acknowledge the larger history of the land that grants them space to make art. They will donate a portion of the proceeds from this summer’s tickets to Wabanaki REACH, a restorative justice, cultural enrichment, and child welfare organization for people of the Wabanaki Confederacy, in what is now New England and Canada. They have no intention of abandoning community-based work, even if they produce more shows from pre-existing texts in the future, and as they have no permanent physical base, they plan to continue making outdoor theatre in a post-pandemic world.
Single Carrot and Flint Rep similarly plan to keep making outdoor theatre, both to accommodate a world adjusting slowly back to pre-pandemic norms or because they’ve enjoyed the experience of branching out of their comfort zones.
“There’s this kind of stuffy thing of, you come to see a play, you buy your ticket, it’s two hours,” Lluberes says of the more traditional and transactional model. “With [Flint Mural Plays], you can do it for five minutes, you can do it for three hours, you can do it communally, you can do it by yourself.” This “choose your own adventure” mindset may have come from a pandemic that limited choice in our lives, but as with the artists of Single Carrot and Threadbare, it has grown into a flexible process that puts the land and its people first.
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is editorial assistant for American Theatre. @Miajmerrill
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!