Most set designers work within the confines of a “stage”- a stable, predictable environment that is constructed specifically with theatrical performance in mind. Within this setting, most designers can assume the set and actors will be consistently lit (or lighting can be fully controlled), that sound quality will remain constant and that the set or performance will not be affected by the state of the weather.
But the creative minds behind Serenbe Playhouse (and other similar outdoor theatre production companies) are not like most designers. These production artists work within a realm of unpredictability – nature.
Unlike typical theatre companies, Serenbe Playhouse holds performances around the Serenbe Farm grounds, granting patrons a uniquely active and immersive experience. Attending a performance here might mean traversing a chilly wooded path to meet the Snow Queen, lounging under the stars as fireflies alight around Don Quixote in the midst of a ballad or sheltering yourself in a stable stall as the Headless Horseman gallops past in a blaze of terrific glory. Every performance is an escape in more ways than one.
However, successfully executing an outdoor production requires a great amount of planning and design. Just as architects must analyze site conditions in order to appropriately locate a building, so must these set designers consider the natural surroundings in order to pick the perfect spot (or spots) to stage the performance. Along with a plethora of technical and show-specific criteria, the designer must also consider the following:
- Solar Orientation- How will the sun affect the show’s lighting? Will it rise/set during the show? Can this natural lighting shift be utilized to create dramatic effect? Might the sun shine in the actor’s eyes? Or the audience’s? Is the site shaded?
- Site Slope/Grading- How can a flat area affect the show set up vs. a sloped area? If slope is desired, how much? And in what direction?
- Natural Features- Are there big boulders on the site that can be used? A field? Is there a natural bluff? How about water features? Can a stream run through the set? Can the whole show be set on a raft on the pond?
- Built Environment- What kinds of structures exist on the site? A barn? Horse Stables? Fences? Telephone Poles? Roads? Docks? What existing structures can be utilized? Which structures need to be avoided? Is there a parking area nearby?
- Utilities- If access to power/data is needed, what utility lines are in place to tap into? What about plumbing? Where might restrooms be located?
- Flora/Fauna- What kinds of plants and animals inhabit the site? How will locating the show on a particular site affect them? How can they contribute or distract from the show?
- A corn field might provide an air of mystery and surprise during a performance of Sleepy Hollow
- The canopy of a weeping willow might serve as a more-intimate setting for a scene from Romeo and Juliet
- Lightning bugs might contribute some “fairy” magic to a performance of Peter Pan
- Weather- What if it rains? Or snows? How can inclement weather be anticipated/addressed/remedied? Or how can it be utilized as part of the experience (and how good are the actors at improvising?)
While this is not to say that designing for a traditional theatrical stage does not come with it’s own constraints and considerations, it is inarguable that designing for the outdoor environment offers a whole new set of challenges (and opportunities) for the creative minds behind these performances.
If you’ve yet to experience this form of immersive storytelling, I encourage you to break out of your comfort zone and find an outdoor performance near you!
Atlanta Theatre Companies that offer outdoor theatrical performances: