Nothing says summer is here more than the return of Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Artistic Director Timothy Sheader discusses his vision for the 2015 season
Timothy Sheader is in a lively mood, fresh in from a Peter Pan rehearsal on the first bright sunny day. There will definitely be flying, lots of it, arrangements are being made. Timothy can’t be daunted by the mere detail of having no roof to fly from – only unpredictable sky over his vast al fresco theatre, the biggest in London (40 seats more than the Olivier, by my reckoning).
Since his arrival in 2007, Timothy has certainly made its programming aim for the sky, shaking it out of a rather staid picnic-Shakespeare-in-the-park image and setting it up in reputation alongside the great London theatres. There have been six Olivier awards – three for Best Revival of a Musical, a very competitive category. Musicals flourish here: light-hearted ones like Hello Dolly and Crazy for You, which won more five-star reviews than any other show that year; but also intense, darker ones like the arresting Porgy and Bess, or the Beggar’s Opera directed by the ever-bloodthirsty Lucy Bailey. He did Into the Woods, a tricky piece that had never before been performed outdoors with real trees. Stephen Sondheim himself turned up at an early rehearsal and offered, says Timothy, some ‘very helpful, supportive notes’. This summer, the big one is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.
As for straight drama, the new Artistic Director at the time shocked some diehards in 2010 by programming Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. ‘Half the people at the auditions said no, you can’t do that play outdoors, it’s all about rooms, enclosed space. But we made the chorus of women, sitting on the tree trunks, into a sort of wall…’ And indeed as the daylight decayed and the trees became threatening in the second act, that production suddenly made a new sort of sense, tapping into something behind the play. That nervous superstition of witchcraft comes, after all, from the terror of demons in the deep dark woods. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘the sea on one side, that pilgrim fathers came over; and beyond them, the forest.’ His production notably brought Regent’s Park a new audience: 72% of those who turned up had never come to the Open Air Theatre before.
But it was a risk. So is his bold programming this summer of Chekhov’s The Seagull, with Janie Dee and Matthew Tennyson. ‘Well, it’s the most robust Chekhov, I think – and it starts with an outdoor theatrical production, and in Act 2 there’s a garden. It’s time we did him here. I have felt from the start that this quality we have, sky overhead, no ceiling, shared light, the audience and the players seeing one another – all those aspects of staging that served Shakespeare so well – should be able to serve other writers.’
The fascinating thing is that this outdoor uncertainty has often in his time done just that: opened up a new mood and freshness in well-known plays and stores which then transferred to more conventional theatres. His powerful staging of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird toured nationwide, before heading to the Barbican; his Lord of the Flies tours too, returning to its home for a fortnight this autumn. Working with children and teenagers, Timothy says, is ‘wonderful, I love it. You never quite know the outcome, and what will suddenly emerge from them’.
Theatre has been his life since he was a boy, being a part of Alan Ayckbourn’s youth theatre in Scarborough. ‘I acted until I was 17 and loved it,’ he says, ‘but I came to realise I was just showing off, not as good as I thought I was.’ He discovered directing, with its many facets and artistic relationships and openings for creative expression, and directed up at the Stephen Joseph Theatre before moving on to work widely elsewhere. This unique outdoor role, however, sees him come into his own as not only a director, but guide and nurturer of other talents.
For Timothy rejoices in his theatre’s openness to weather and the world, delighting at the ‘shared light, actors and audience can see and be aware of one another, part of the same event. Then there’s the way that as dusk falls everything focuses down. Early on in the first half you might hear outside sounds, a distant rugby match, or the lions being put to bed in the Zoo. Have you heard that? I always do. Then at dusk there’s deeper silence, and the light falls on the stage alone. There’s this tunnelling-down, focusing – you can get a great intensity’.
Intense it sometimes is: but the man who grew up in Scarborough readily recognises the holiday-vibe around summer and the Park. ‘I am not at all snobbish about it being an event. I love the Pimms and the prosecco and burgers. There’s nothing wrong with the sense of an outing, of people leaning back happily in their seats. But sometimes, you know, you can get them leaning forward too – feeling something troubling and serious.’
Working outdoors, though, in uncertain British weather makes particular demands of everyone. For a show to be called off by rain is very rare (there was a press night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when for all the doughty willingness of the audience to plasticize itself in crinkly ponchos, they had to give up at the interval). More likely are moments like one in Timothy’s splendid feel-fab Gershwin musical Crazy for You, when the show had to pause for five minutes after a brief rainstorm to swish away the water for the dancers’ safety. The stage crew, some of whom did a little shimmy with their rubber mops, got a round of applause of their own. It made the evening, in its way: nobody comes out to a show wanting it to be as bland as cinema.
And actors here, says Timothy, who addresses his casts at the start of every rehearsal period, can never get away with being ‘precious’, or thrown off balance by any disturbance of their performance. They had to be ‘present in the moment, to accept that journey through shared light, make weather their friend, cold or cloud, summer heat or even drizzle. Embrace the uniqueness of the theatre. It’s as close to a sporting match as theatre can be. We’re gathering together in a royal park to tell a story. How wonderful is that?’
Words: Libby Purves
Peter Pan opens the new season from 15 May-14 June – find out more at openairtheatre.com