ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Shakespeare in the Rain

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Shakespeare in the Rain A look at the decision-making process behind canceling a Shakespeare in the Park production due to inclement weather.
Lauren Ambrose in Romeo and Juliet.
Lauren Ambrose in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Michal Daniel

***********

Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.

Question: The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet in Central Park had to cancel its first preview because the dress rehearsal was rained out, and had to end the June 11 performance early (though late in the play), also because of rain. How does Shakespeare in the Park decide whether to delay or cancel a performance?

Answer: To answer this question, Playbill.com consulted two veteran Shakespeare in the Park production stage managers (PSM): James Latus, who will be working his ninth Shakespeare in the Park show when A Midsummer Night's Dream begins in August, and Rick Steiger, who worked on Mother Courage and Her Children starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline last summer, and On the Town in 1997. Shakespeare in the Park PSMs don't wait until 8 PM to check the weather. "Once I'm running a show in the park, I'm addicted to The Weather Channel," Latus says. He also has about seven weather websites that he checks throughout the day. If it's drizzling right before a show, he checks Turtle Pond — the big pond located behind the stage to eyeball the intensity of the raindrops.

When making the decision to delay a show, resume a show or cancel a show, the production stage manager, house manager and company manager will discuss the situation, but the PSM makes the final call.

Delays can happen before the show or during the show, but beforehand is better, since the chaos is controlled — the audience isn't let inside the uncovered theatre, and they're already standing underneath the overhang right outside the entrances.

During the show, the PSM, who sits in an enclosed indoor booth behind the audience, will gather information from the other stage managers and members of the crew. Some of them check the weather websites on office computers backstage. Others will monitor the situation onstage or from the back of the audience.

In making these decisions, safety is the most important factor. A slick stage can be a hazard for actors, especially for dances or sword fights. Lightning can also be a threat, especially for the spotlight operators up in the towers. Damage to equipment such as costumes and microphones also comes into play.

The show will often go on in light rain. The audience's comfort is obviously a factor in the PSM's decision-making, but typically the audience wants to see the show to the end, regardless of rain. (Opening an umbrella during the show is forbidden because no one behind you can see). When a show gets cancelled, none of the ticket-holders gets a ticket for another performance — not the person who stood outside in line all day for a free ticket, and not the bigwig who gave a donation of $150 in return for a reserved spot. "I will get told by audience members, 'Please don't cancel!,'" Latus says. "If I have to make the cancellation call, I have been booed."

The actors also have to be managed a bit. When there's a delay before the show starts, "They say, 'When are you going to cancel? When are you going to cancel?'" Latus says. "The cast is totally stir crazy. They have their cards, they have their board games. They say, 'When can we get out of the costumes?' Once the show is up and running and I have to do a rain delay, they're a little more understanding."

One issue is that Central Park closes at 1 AM, and the PSM is told to get the show finished by midnight so that everyone's out of the park in time. "I'm constantly back-timing — if I know I have a three-hour show, I have an hour to play with," Latus says (shows start at 8 PM). If the delays last long enough such that "we can't make the show by midnight, that's when I will choose to cancel the show."

The PSM will keep a Plan B in mind for many different aspects of the show. For instance, on Mother Courage, Steiger says, a backup spotlight was set up at a lower level than the regular spotlight, so that if lightning threatened, the spotlight operator could climb down and do his job from a safer place. Troilus and Cressida in 1995 had a huge sail with Helen of Troy's face on it. On windy days, Latus would nix it from the show.

One night during the 1998 run of The Skin of Our Teeth, before Kristen Johnston went onstage to give the play's opening monologue as Sabina, rain was threatening, but Johnston and Latus agreed not to stop the speech no matter what. As she recited her lines, it began to drizzle, and then it got worse. Unfortunately, Johnston was wearing a fur coat. "Rain is coming down harder and harder, and I can see from my vantage point our wardrobe guy, and he's just shaking his fist at me," Latus recalls. At the end of the speech, Sabina is supposed to speak to a fictitious stage manager, but instead, Johnston called out to the real one: "James, are we going on? What are we doing?" Latus announced to her and the audience over the PA system, "No, Kristen, we're stopping."

Sometimes rain can be invigorating, especially with a show like Mother Courage, in which actors trudging through the onstage mud added to the overall effect. Another helpful factor was that many of the actors wore hats, which happened to protect their wireless microphones. One night, Steiger recalls, the rain caused a delay during the first act, and then action stopped again in the second act. "We talked to both stars and the rest of the company and said, 'We think we can get through this.' And Meryl said, 'Let's do it.' She grabbed a towel, went out and sort of mopped the stage. The audience went bananas." To help the situation, Steiger says, "A few of the actors who didn't wear hats wore hats" that night.

On some nights the rain is a non-issue, but the heat is a problem. For Mother Courage, Steiger says, "We had a wood turntable. Sometimes if it got too hot it would make scraping noises when the wood would move." Before one performance of Twelfth Night in 2002, Latus says that he allowed the cast to dress in T-shirts instead of dresses and bodices. "I would have had a dead cast," he says.

Lucas Papaelias, Alexander Sovronsky and Oscar Isaac in <i>Romeo and Juliet</i>.
Lucas Papaelias, Alexander Sovronsky and Oscar Isaac in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Michal Daniel