June 2013

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June 2013

News From David Grindle, USITT Executive Director

A Reflection on the Venues of Summer
From the Executive Director

It's been a long winter. Groundhogs across North America have been cursing their public spokes-rodent for the ill will we humans have been steering their way. People continually think, "Surely this will be the last snow storm!" I believe our friends in Minneapolis and Denver have given up that thought. But soon, soon we shall all forget this and begin complaining about heat and humidity.

Summertime brings summer theatre. For that we should all be thankful. Whether that theatre is outdoors, indoors, or indoors with sliding walls to let us think we are outdoors, summer venues hold memories for all of us.

The back wall of the Santa Fe Opera stage can be opened to create a dramatic backdrop of hills and high desert, an almost perfect setting even if nothing is on the stage.

Photo/Barbara E.R. Lucas

I remember my very first opera at the Santa Fe Opera with the back wall out so the setting sun over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains provided the backdrop for Gustav Holst's Savitri. It is an esoteric first opera, and frankly, I remember the setting far more than I remember the music. That is to be expected when the venue has been designed as an experience that can equal the performance.

Think about the great venues we see in the United States and even around the world. The Elizabethan Theatre at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Barns at Wolf Trap, American Players Theatre, or Ravinia -- each has a history and excitement to it even without a performance. For that, we owe a "thank you" to the architect and now the theatre consultant.

So often we at USITT get caught up in the design and technology on stage, we forget to appreciate the design and technology that is the stage. Summer venues, for some reason, seem to highlight this for me. Perhaps it is the ability, especially in an "outdoor" venue, to incorporate the landscape in a way that remains visible to the audience. But think about the additional challenges.

One of my favorite indoor venues, Sidney Harman Hall, has a fire station across the street. A couple of well-constructed sound doors properly placed and properly functioning mitigate the sound of the fire trucks leaving during a show. Summer venues don't get that luxury.

Before moving to the Paramount Theatre in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, the Ashlawn-Highland Festival produced shows in an outdoor space on the grounds of Ashlawn-Highland, the historic home of James Monroe. That space was also home to a historic flock of peacocks – birds that can be noisy when the summer heat puts them in an amorous mood, which would happen during shows. A peacock strutting the dance of love will overpower a fire truck siren any day. So, in outdoor venues the beauty of nature can often be upset by the nature of nature.

On the other hand, the Santa Fe Opera, in its last renovation, became a model for water reclamation and reuse. Being in high mountain desert, every drop of water must be used wisely. From capturing winter snow melt to using grey water for landscaping, Santa Fe Opera is a wonder to behold and that is before you ever hear the glorious music. Getting a tour of the facility should be on people's theatre bucket lists, in my opinion.

In summer venues, both indoors and out, we should take the time to appreciate the work of the architect locating the facility for a certain wind pattern, or the consultant working to insure the water drains were properly insulated to avoid hearing every flush; While I should appreciate them in any facility, I think I appreciate them more in our summer venues.

Even in my current job, seeing a show is something I don't get to do nearly enough. But I try to make sure to get to an outdoor venue for a performance of some type. It is where our art form started all those many years ago.

Take the time and make the effort to see a show this summer. We get to be indoors plenty all year long. Enjoy nature and thank not just the people who perform, but those who create the venue. They have toiled to insure we could enjoy the place as much as the performance.

David Grindle

We'd like to hear your comments on this story.
Please e-mail David at david@usitt.org.