The Actors' Survival Guide To Summer Shakespeare
Linda Blase Chris Hury as the title role in Cyrano
"Fear no more the heat o' the sun," wrote William Shakespeare. Easy for him to say. He didn't have to endure three-hour productions of his works outdoors in a blistering Texas summer.
This has been a particularly punishing season so far for Shakespeare Dallas. Getting people through the gates isn't the problem; crowds have been good. But the blast-furnace winds and high humidity day after day have been tough on the casts and crews of Cyrano de Bergerac and As You Like It (running in repertory through July 23). Scenery has had to be rebuilt twice after overnight storms, with the wind-damaged set of As You Like It repaired and replaced just in time for the show's well-attended opening last Saturday night.
It's no problem for the audience to cope with the heat out at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park. Just pull another cold one out of the cooler (picnicking is half the fun of watching Shakespeare from a quilt or lawn chair on the grass). And don't worry about dressing up. Shorts and tees are the tuxedos of this event.
For actors costumed in layers of period clothing made of heavy fabrics, it's another story. In past summers, a few Shakespeare Dallas performers have suffered heatstroke, which is why this summer they're taking special precautions to stay healthy and hydrated when temps are still hovering in the upper 90s at 10 p.m. To find out how they're coping, we asked some of Shakespeare Dallas' stars for their top tips for staying cool in character. Like, ice packs in their pantaloons? Who knew?
Joanna Schellenberg, starring as Rosalind in As You Like It:
I start in late April, early May to condition myself, spending lots of time outside. Your body gets used to it. I've always been a big water drinker. Gatorades and Vitamin Waters always help. Lots of actors count on icepacks in the lining of a jacket or pants just to keep the core cooled down. I've also found a great thing in eating beef jerky to keep salt in my body and that makes electrolytes better. I learned that trick from [actor] T.A. Taylor [also in the cast of As You Like It]. You can eat it in costume on set and not worry about dropping anything. I also try to stay calm when I'm not onstage. I find I work better if I don't go down to the bunker, the dressing rooms with air-conditioning under the stage. There are fans and fridges down there, but it's very crowded.
At least with the winds we've had this year, the bugs aren't quite as bad. The worst was when I was playing Juliet one year and had to be dead onstage for a long time. Junebugs were going into my ears and down the top of my dress. This year, these little gnats fly into your nose and throat. The last few days have been hilarious. You're in the middle of a speech and one goes in the wrong way.
I sweat a lot. I could wring out most of my costumes by the end of the show. Because our As You Like It is set in Spain in the 1930s, these are some of the most heat-free clothes I've had to wear ever. Not too many layers. No wool socks. No sweaters. Best thing is it's the first year I haven't had to wear a corset. A corset will kill you in a second at the park. You can't breathe. But [designer] Claudia Stephens' costumes this year are beautiful. I'm freed up.
Chris Hury, playing the title role in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac:
I grew up in deep South Texas so I handle heat quite well. That being said, sword-fighting in a costume made of wool and velvet while the sun is still up out there is challenging. I try to lose extraneous costume pieces such as hats or capes whenever possible. I also wear a mesh shirt fitted with pockets for ice packs between my costume shirt and undershirt and we switch out all the icepacks at intermission. I wear a high wick Under Armor shirt as my undershirt to keep me from sweating all the way through my doublet. And, finally, hydration is absolutely key. This character is rarely offstage, but whenever I am, I take down as much water or Gatorade as I can, as well as hydrating throughout the day. Even with all that, I probably lose up to 5 pounds in each show.
Stew Awalt, stage manager, Cyrano:
I have been working as a stage manager for Shakespeare Dallas every summer since 2004. I've seen the super-hot and dry, the rainy, and this year, the windy. It's always going to be hot no matter what, so you just have to be ready to sweat. Lots of water and some Gatorade or something with electrolytes. I don't like the way sunscreen and bug spray feel and smell, so I load up on garlic supplements to keep bugs away and I wear long sleeves, pants and a straw hat to survive the sun. Sometimes if it's particularly hot, I'll wrap a damp handkerchief around my head or neck. Once it gets dark out, I ditch the hat, but usually keep the long sleeves because if the wind picks up, it can get kind of chilly (relatively speaking). I feel like I just took all of the fun out of it, but for my job, finding a spot in the shade and catching a breeze are all that it really takes to make it bearable because it starts getting dark, and although it's still warm, the sun isn't beating down on you.
Amber and Eric Devlin, actors, Cyrano:
We at Shakespeare Dallas have a constant backstage supply of ice water courtesy of our backstage crew led by Jeremy Escobar. Hydration is the main thing. It also helps when you're backstage to sit still and hike up your skirts á la Toulouse-Lautrec's ladies of the night.
Hydration, indeed. Onstage, of course, you're focused on what you're doing so you usually don't feel the heat much, despite the distraction of the sweat running down your scene partners' faces. It's all part of the experience. When the sun goes down and the breeze picks up, it can get pretty nice out there.
Raphael Parry, Shakespeare Dallas Artistic Director and director of Cyrano:
I guess the question of why we produce in Dallas in the summer is part of the issue. I can say that on 80 percent of the nights at the park in June and July, after the sun goes down, it is quite pleasant. There is almost always a breeze and honestly there is nothing like performing for a crowd of 500 to 1000 people who are relaxed, have plenty of room and really want to be there. My personal experience as a performer is that the crowds are very giving and very receptive. That makes the heat bearable. The chance to perform on a big stage and have your work experienced by a huge group of people is a payoff as well.
In terms of how we survive the heat, it is manageable with lots of hydration and a great sense of humor. And although I am sure this seems simplistic, the cast and crew who work for Shakespeare Dallas are unbelievably committed to the work we do. In an age where most artists are thinking about career and making it, I think you'll find these people really care about what we do in the creation of the work and presenting it to a large group of people each year. I have worked for almost every theater company in the area and while they are committed to their mission, I think there is a strong sense of community and being a part of a larger whole at Shakespeare Dallas. The audience we serve is diverse and unique and I believe that that uniqueness spurs the actors and technicians onward. Our space is large and our crowds are large. We get the opportunity to produce on a big scale.
We overcome the heat, overcome the bugs, overcome the weather in general. It is truly the most athletic actor who has great capacity and smarts who can survive on our stage. And the stories we get to tell after the season seem to have more texture and vibrancy as we are creating in a difficult environment at times. But when I am successful outdoors, it is so much more memorable and meaningful. Maybe there is an adventurist spirit that inhabits us. I know I like to hike and climb mountains. Maybe the challenge of working outdoors is part of a larger connection to being successful in the toughest environments.
Shakespeare Dallas' two shows continue through July 23 (no shows Mondays). Park opens at 6:45 p.m., with shows starting at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are $10. Go to shakespearedallas.org for more information.