Performing in a Shakespearean play is the acting equivalent of a marathon, says Jennifer Tober, founder of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks. “Performing in a Shakespeare play outdoors, well, that’s like a triathlon,” she adds.
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks is in rehearsals to present the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in four of Pittsburgh’s parks in September. Each park has a different feel with different challenges.
In Schenley Plaza, where the company will perform a twilight show at 6 p.m. on Sept. 23, the actors and the audience have to contend with diners, exuberant college students and buses, all of which can create an atmosphere where even the audience could treat the play as background noise.
“We can’t tell the entire [University of Pittsburgh] track team to go someplace else,” Tober says, describing a past interruption of a performance.
Over the 18 years of performing in Frick Park, as they will again this year at 2 p.m. on Sept. 3, 4, 24 and 25, the troupe has had to deal with dogs and even a drone.
But the accessibility of Shakespeare outdoors allows children to come who might not be taken to a traditional play and encourages even reluctant theatergoers to sit outside to see a free play.
This year, the theater company will perform in Westinghouse Park for the first time. Tober says the company had wanted to perform in the park in 2007 before the city was allowing public events there. Now that gatherings are permitted at the site — and a year after Quantum Theatre used the space for a production — Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks will perform there at 2 p.m. on Sept. 17 and 18.
For those who haven’t been to a Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks show, the stage is defined by a rope that is laid on the ground. The audience is on one side, the performers are on the other. Audience members bring blankets or chairs and by courtesy, people with lower seating options, blankets or ground-level chairs sit up front. Lawn chairs are placed in the back so they aren’t blocking other people’s views.
Sitting close to the rope is desirable because the cast does not use amplification. In Westinghouse Park, for instance, that might mean competing with passing trains, the busway and the announcer for the football game at nearby Willie Stargell Field.
Tober says her favorite location is Highland Park, where the company will perform at 2 p.m. on Sept. 10 and 11, because the land forms a wall so that the sound is directed at the audience.
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks uses equity and non-equity actors. And Tober, who is also the organization’s president and artistic director, encourages directors to try new takes on classic shows. In 2019, the company performed “Julius Caesar” with an entirely female cast. Tober says she does not limit roles by race, gender or body type.
“It’s a story; anyone can tell a story,” she says. “We can’t appropriate them to only certain people. Who are we to say that?”