All the parks a stage

Celebrate summer with theater in the parks

WHITTIER — Actors who perform theater in Minneapolis’ city parks learn to deal with a set of variables they rarely encounter on stage.

Nature stands ready as ever to deliver a curveball, like winds to carry off an actor’s voice or a sudden downpour to wash away an audience. Low-flying jets and ambulances rarely wait for a character to wrap up a monologue before they come screaming past.

“It’s a whole different animal, being outdoors,” said Derrick Washington of the Cromulent Shakespeare Company. “Everywhere you go, it’s a new adventure to be had.”

For all that can go wrong, there’s plenty that can go right, too.

When Cromulent performed “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Washburn Fair Oaks Park on a Sunday afternoon in late June, it was sunny, with temperatures in the upper 70s and a gentle breeze. The long, cool grass was a pleasant alternative to a seat in a darkened theater.

So pleasant that hardly anyone blinked when a ragged man got up off a nearby park bench and walked into the middle of a scene, tapped an actor on his shoulder and held out a feather. Washington, the director, got up from his seat in the grass and quietly led the man off.

The play went on.

A few minutes later, the man wandered back and improvised a line. Maybe it was the intoxicating weather or a mass reverie brought on by rhyming couplets, but no one paid him much attention. He left and didn’t come back.

That story didn’t seem to surprise Stevie Ray. The comedy troupe from Stevie Ray’s Improv Company is in its 17th summer of performing at the Lyndale Park Rose Garden, and in that time they’ve dealt with unexpected audience participation more than once, Ray said.

There also was the time a parakeet “flew out of nowhere” and landed on Ray’s pants, he said, and the time a computer glitch set off the Rose Garden’s automatic sprinkler system during a performance.

“It was like the Titanic going down,” he recalled. “There were people running, screaming, grabbing blankets.”

There’s the occasional monkey wrench in the gears, certainly, but it’s good training for his Ray’s improvisers, he said.

The park performances also are a chance for the improv company to get in front of a wider audience. Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret in Bloomington is only open to the 21-and-up crowd, but whole families show up for shows at the Rose Garden.

“A lot of people who show up at our cabaret say they first saw us at the park,” Ray said.

Theater in the parks tends to be a more democratic experience, in part because the shows are often free and open to whoever happens to be wandering by, said Bethany Ford, an actor and member of the Cromulent board of directors.

“Cromulent’s philosophy and my personal philosophy is that theater should be enjoyed by everyone, should be available to everyone and should be shared by everyone, regardless of income level,” Ford said.

Cromulent has presented theater in the parks for a decade, and usually produces one or two free outdoor shows every summer, she said. The company is careful about which shows it performs outdoors because not every play is suited to a sunny Sunday afternoon.

“One of the reasons that ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ and ‘Othello’ and ‘Macbeth’ would not work outdoors is not only because there’s so much darkness in those plays, but because the subject matter is so heavy,” Ford explained. “It would be hard to adapt [those plays] to the lightness of a summer-in-the-park setting.”

Not so for “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” a broad comedy with some light romance that attracted about three dozen audience members that afternoon at Washburn Fair Oaks Park.

Among them were Tym and Kathy Shaw, who sat on a blanket in the front row with their boys Charlot and Greyson.

“It’s a good way for the kids to come out and see theater,” Kathy said.

Tym grew up in a theater-going family; Kathy didn’t. But they shared one childhood experience. “My parents didn’t do theater,” Kathy said, “but we did Shakespeare in the park because it was free.”

More chances to see theater in Southwest parks:

Washburn Fair Oaks Park,
200 E. 24th St.

July 17: “The Adventures of Juan Bobo,” a theater puppet show presented by Open Eye Figure Theater. 7 p.m. Free.

July 31: “On the Day You Were Born,” presented by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. 7 p.m. Free.

Lyndale Park Rose Garden,
4124 Roseway Rd.

Sundays through Aug. 31: Stevie Ray’s Comedy Troupe presents improvisational comedy built around audience suggestions. 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Free.