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Outdoor Theater Calls for a Different Lens

July 22, 1996|BEN DONENBERG | Ben Donenberg is founding artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/LA

Theater critic Laurie Winer's review of Shakespeare Festival/LA's production of "Othello" applauds "the festival's good works" and cites our Food for Thought admission policy that has raised more than $1 million worth of food for the needy in lieu of an admission charge ("Good Intentions Aside, 'Othello' Takes a Tumble," Calendar, July 15).

Winer also compliments the festival's Will Power to Schools program that annually introduces more than 5,000 students from middle schools and high schools to Shakespeare via festival seminars that train hundreds of teachers while providing them innovative curriculum materials and the buses to transport students to performances.

But her interpretation of our evening of outdoor theater differs greatly from my company's and from the consistently enthusiastic response of our diverse audiences. To me, her view of what she experienced seems to rely heavily on expectations that are more appropriate for controlled indoor staging.

Winer doesn't seem aesthetically attuned to the performance style, pace and production elements required for outdoor Shakespeare productions presented from what we consider a modern roving pageant wagon. Our festival sees itself as having a divided duty: to entertain and enlighten audiences with the same diversity -- groundlings as well as royalty -- of Shakespeare's time.

The review disagreed, for example, with the moment we have chosen to break for intermission. Not everyone knows that Shakespeare's plays were written in five acts and that the modern choice for placing a single intermission is discretionary. We chose our spot because it focused attention on a major plot point and divided the evening's two halves somewhat equally. A more conventional interpretation would have asked our outdoor audiences to sit for an hour and a half in the cool evening air without a break.

In the same vein, the criticism of the sound system suggests an expectation that our 11 years of outdoor production has taught us is simply unrealistic. If our actors are to be heard by every audience member, there must be trade-offs. Outdoor audiences seem to understand that nuances of sound are less important than hearing the words. First-rate professional sound engineers accept the fact that wireless sound technology in outdoor settings is not an exact science and that it is a fantasy to expect complete subtlety when you design a system to project over open fields.

A last point: The critic expressed dismay over hearing Othello say, "Pray, chuck, come hither." That quibble should be taken up with the author. "Chuck" is a derivative of either "chicken" or "woodchuck," depending upon the source, and appears commonly as a term of endearment, in this case in Act 3, Scene 4, line 49 and again in Act 4, Scene 2, line 24.

I would ask your future reviewers to keep in mind that we at Shakespeare Festival/LA cherish our responsibility to provide equal enrichment opportunities to a broad and diverse community. We try to fashion our productions to speak exactly as our Othello does.

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