On Hauling Water: Outdoor theatre as re-enchantment amidst climate crisis

While there are macro challenges to making theater outdoors, the risk factors are different for each artist and are disproportionately higher for people who are systemically discouraged from taking up public space—BIPOC, queer/trans artists, artists with disabilities, artists who have experienced houselessness , etc. Police presence, harassment, lived or generational memory of exertion in extreme temperatures, and body needs can arise at any time. My experiences thus far have taught me the value of proactively planning for these possibilities and designating a few onsite personnel to bottom-line de-escalation efforts and/or be available to support colleagues when access needs arise. Practically, I also recommend having the basics on-hand at all times: water (yes, ask everyone to bring water, but always have extra), hydration tablets, sunscreen and aloe, bug spray, and whatever else your team has identified as essential—fruit juice, an EpiPen, etc. Like climate change, not planning for these scenarios only makes them worse when they arise and perpetuates inequity in our artistic processes.

Particularly when producing events in outdoor spaces with a few built-in amenities, audience accessibility is a key consideration. This topic could be its own series! Here are a few takeaways from my experiences with outdoor theater production:

  • Terrain: Are you counting on your audience to navigate unpaved or uneven terrain to get to your performance site? If so, how are you communicating this in your promo materials? Is there anything you can do in advance (mow pathways, cover divots, remove manure—seriously) to make terrain more accessible?
  • Bathrooms: Bathrooms are an accessibility issue. Are they present and if so, how far are they from your performance site? Will they be accessible during the time of day/year you are performing? Is there at least one mobility accessible bathroom?
  • BYO_: Even when you advise audiences to come prepared, some people miss the memo. If asking audiences to bring their own seating, can you have a few spare camp chairs on hand for people who forget/need soft seating? We also keep a small audience stock of umbrellas, sunscreen, and bug spray (a pro tip from Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta) as well as a water cooler and cups. I try to avoid plastic water bottles at all costs.
  • Whatever you do, communicate: Whatever you’re able to provide in terms of accessibility, be as clear and as detailed as you can be in your promo and ticketing materials so that people can get the most accurate gauge of or not your event meets their access needs.

While theatermaking outdoors places unique demands on our attention and organization, I wouldn’t be writing this if it didn’t also offer some of the most boundless moments of beauty; when suddenly, the world around you conspires to offer a glimpse of majesty. One of my mentors, Sandy Spieler—who, for over forty years, directed the much-beloved MayDay giant puppet parade and spectacle in south Minneapolis—would say that we do all the work of MayDay so that at the precise moment when of thousands of people are watching, a heron can take flight. Some of my most transcendent moments of performance were also the most impossible to plan: dancers sharing the stage with stands of sunflowers in full bloom, a blazing sunset improvising a duet with a performer’s song, a rainbow providing the perfect archway for a character’s final exit . These moments remind us of why the miracle of life is worth celebrating through storytelling and reanimate the magic that drew me to the theater in the first place.

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