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The backstage battles of producing outdoor theater in NYC

Outdoor theater is one of the great summer

Outdoor theater is one of the great summer traditions in NYC, but along with the fresh air and sunshine comes raccoons, helicopters and more.  Photo Credit: iStock

Outdoor theater is one of the special perks of summer, but thanks to Mother Nature, furry scene-stealers and noise pollution, putting on a show isn’t always a picnic.

“I was warned that we’d have to deal with a variety of unexpected things,” says Daniel Yaiullo, who’s making his al fresco stage debut as the title character in Hudson Warehouse’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask,” a swashbuckling classic set in 17th century France. “I’d heard about children kicking and throwing soccer balls,” he tells amNewYork. “And people walking through scenes.”

That there’s no air conditioning in this pay-what-you-can production running in Riverside Park near W. 89th Street through July 28 is another issue — especially since his character is buried under a scraggly “Whisker Wars”-style beard and wig and a tricked-out paintball mask (plastic, not iron, but still). 

“Yes, it’s hot. I have found myself in more comfortable situations,” says the NYU Tisch School of the Arts grad from Long Island, who now lives in Washington Heights. “Luckily, I don’t have to keep the mask on between scenes,” he says, adding that he’s become glued to weather apps thanks to this gig. “We’re all hoping for clear skies. Judging by last month [and all the rain], we’re crossing our fingers really hard.”

On the Lower East Side, Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, now in its 25th season, and the company are all doing likewise with their digits. Their free presentation of “Romeo and Juliet” runs Thursday through July 27 at the Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk St.

“We’ve sweat through many a costume. But we’ve never had to call a show for heat,” Clancy tells us. Precipitation is another story. “Our rule is that if you can play baseball, we can do Shakespeare. And we’ve had memorable performances in rain — light rain,” he says. “But there have been times when the sky just opens up and everyone runs for cover.” 

Nature keeps the cast and crew on their toes at Classical Theatre of Harlem, whose free revival of the classic Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” is underway through July 28 at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park.

“I think the squirrels think we’re interlopers, and intruding on their turf,” says Ty Jones, CTH’s producing artistic director, who has acted in a number productions. To keep the critters off the stage and cables, these areas have been dusted with cayenne pepper, a natural repellent, he says. (Internet sources concur.) “It keeps them away,” Jones says.

Like other companies, New York Classical Theatre, which recently wrapped “The Importance of Being Earnest” at three city parks, plans in advance what to do about noise, according to artistic director Stephen Burdman. “One of our ongoing challenges is with helicopters,” he tells amNewYork. “We actually have, and rehearse, a technique if a helicopter flies directly over the performance and the actor cannot be heard. In this instance — we call it a “Helicopter Cue” — the speaking actor looks up directly at the helicopter and all the other performers do the same. This almost always generates a big laugh — even in tragedies — as we are breaking from a moment in the play to acknowledge the real world.”

Stay tuned: The Helicopter Cue may become unnecessary if efforts to ban unnecessary chopper flights in the city eventually go through.


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