From seven years of doing outdoor Shakespeare, Seattle actor Kelly Kitchens has an all-time favorite memory: a little girl who watched wide-eyed as the cast unpacked their truck, set up their scenery, got into royal costumes; who stared as they acted onstage and prepared backstage, helped them pack up afterwards — and then told them solemnly that she, too, wanted to be a princess when she grew up.
Actor Heather Hawkins, though, has another enduring memory: wearing an ice pack down her underwear to cope with a heavy costume in 100-degree heat.
Inspiration and perspiration are the two sides of the outdoor Shakespeare coin, and Tacoma will get to see both Friday (July 31) as the Seattle Shakespeare Company brings an outdoor production here for the first time in the company’s 25-year history. “As You Like It” will fill Wright Park with laughter, love and disguised identities, along with a live bluegrass band onstage and the chance for Tacomans — like Kitchens’ adoring little girl — to see just what it takes to set up an outdoor theater from scratch.
“Our mission is to offer free, accessible Shakespeare for everyone,” explains Kitchens, who says she herself grew up in circumstances in which free outdoor theater was the only kind her family could afford. “I’m happy to set up a tent in 100-degree weather (for that).”
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And setting up a tent is exactly what Kitchens and the rest of the 15-strong “As You Like It” cast has to do every single time they perform it. In parks from Tacoma to Sammamish, they arrive about two hours before showtime and begin unloading the truck. Two big white tents serve both as costume rooms and backdrop, if the park has no natural theater-scaping. While two cast members unload costumes and another sets out props on tables, four begin assembling the metal canopy decorated with ribbons and banners that serves as the forest headquarters for Duke Senior (Heather Hawkins), whose daughter Rosalind and niece Celia disguise themselves only to fall in love with a couple of quarreling brothers in typical Shakespeare mayhem. As stage manager Xandii Barber checks the string lights, four more actors are setting up the sound system that connects to Barber’s control tent way up the back. Another four actors are on hands and knees laying down ropes for the stage area and aisles — which isn’t necessarily going to keep the audience out of the acting zone.
“We’ve had people walking onto the stage, people walking their dogs through the backstage area,” said Kitchens. “Some parks are more challenging than others, like being right under a noisy flight path. You just roll with it.”
For the audience, the setup is part of the entertainment. At a recent Mercer Island performance, the audience began arriving nearly three hours before showtime, bringing rugs, picnics, kids, dogs and friends.
“We came early to get a good spot,” said Melinda Teeny, who’d come the year before also. “And to take the dog for a swim, and to visit with friends. We like (Shakespeare in the park) because it’s more relatable than other classic plays.”
“It’s more relaxed here,” adds Teeny’s friend Brian Kornaga, from the other end of the picnic rug.
Meanwhile, backstage the musicians warm up: a five-piece band dressed like the cast in vaguely vintage attire (fitted 1950s dresses, slouchy 1930s linen suits) and playing original bluegrass on fiddles, guitars, a mandolin, ukulele and banjo. Half an hour before showtime, the assistant stage manager announces the fight call, and Hawkins begins practicing fake slaps with her laughing castmates. The musicians do a sound check and the actors begin doing each other’s makeup and hair. By five minutes to showtime, the speakers are playing more bluegrass, the 250-strong audience is happily chatting, and a woman wheeling a bike is politely directed out of the backstage area. The air is heady with citronella, and some folks have even brought out the plastic wine glasses.
Finally, the company’s site manager gives a funny opening speech (including mentioning the hat that he’ll pass around later for donations) and Rosalind and Celia waltz onstage to the old-timey theme song, “You’ve Got To Live Your Life As You Like It.”
“It’s a different style of acting,” said Kitchens, who plays the Duke’s cynical adviser Jacques. “You have to look at the audience, play with them — and they play back! That’s something you can’t beat.”
“We get to be big and huge out here in a way we can’t be inside,” adds Hawkins. “And when I give my speech about the natural world … I get to look up at the trees and describe how beautiful it all is. That’s the magic of being outside.”
“It’s classical theater, and we’re connected to the great stories of the past, but we’re also part of the great tradition of players who’d take theater out of London and into the pubs and open places,” explains Seattle Shakespeare director George Mount, who says he’s bringing the company to Tacoma this summer because of local invitations and patrons. “We want to bring free high-quality theater ... across as much of the state as possible, not just Seattle.”
And if the weather reaches 100 degrees Friday in Wright Park? Well, the show will go on.
“It’s not a Seattle Shakespeare season until Heather Hawkins has put an ice pack down her Spanx,” said Hawkins with a grin.
IF YOU GO
What: “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare.
Who: Seattle Shakespeare Company.
When: 7 p.m. Friday (July 31).
Where: Wright Park, 501 S. I St., Tacoma.
Also: 7 p.m. Saturday at Des Moines Beach Park, 22030 Cliff Ave. S., Des Moines; and Thursday-Aug. 9 at Mercer Island and Bellevue.