Theatre Under the Stars

Summertime in Door County.  For those of you who have experienced it, just saying those first four words seems to force your eyes to close, and you sigh deeply as you reminisce about the incredible things you did when you were in Door County.  You have a few precious moments when you block out the ringing of the phone, the screaming kids or the sounds of traffic around you.  You can think about what summertime in Door County means to you.

For me, summertime means endless opportunities to see plays.  We are very fortunate to have many venues for the performing arts, and especially the theatres that perform “under the stars”.  American Folklore Theatre, Door Shakespeare and Peninsula Players are 3 of these in Door County.

Too often I find myself in the middle of August and realizing that I haven’t been to all three of these star-worshiping places and I have to scramble to make time to see a show.  This year has been quite different from most in the past: I’ve made a commitment to myself to get out and play tourist in my own town on a regular basis.  Of course, that means that our house and the gardens have suffered so that I can play, but so far I have no regrets (Phil hasn’t fully embraced my 2011 carefree attitude… yet.  I’ll do the laundry tomorrow.  Yeah, tomorrow.  Definitely.)!

My first outdoor performance for the summer of 2011 was AFT’s “Bing! The Cherry Musical”, with Phil and Hadley.  Driving off the highway in Fish Creek and slowing down to enjoy the winding roads of Peninsula State Park helped to put us in the mood to sit back, relax and enjoy after a day of work.  After parking the car in the designated field, we casually strolled along a path in the woods before we arrived at the outdoor theatre.  AFT has upgraded from the split logs that once served as seats and they now have rows and rows of wood benches with backs to enjoy their shows.  This year, they are offering 3 different musical comedies during the summer, and 2 for the fall season – all their shows are family-friendly and SO enjoyable!  The opening act for “Bing! The Cherry Musical” is a cherry pit spitting contest with volunteers from the audience.  Hadley’s hand shot in the air so fast and she was selected as a contestant along with 2 others.  It’s a great warm-up for those of us in the audience – we were already laughing before the play itself began!

A couple of weeks later we had the opportunity to attend Door Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”.  Their theatre is set up at Bjorklunden, south of Baileys Harbor.  Again, after a long day of work, Hadley and 3 of our friends set out to see what a “roaming performance” was all about.  Door Shakespeare is experimenting with something new this year at 2 performances a week for “Twelfth Night”.  After we were seated, we were given the option of roaming the grounds to see some of the opening scenes, or staying in our seats.  We opted to roam and set off towards the shore of Lake Michigan to watch as Viola appeared after having been shipwrecked.  After that, we followed along to the next scene where we were introduced to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria.  One more scene helped to lay the groundwork for the story that was about to unfold back at the main theatre setting.  We fully enjoyed the roaming option and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Door Shakespeare also takes audience participation and interaction to a new level: handing various items to audience members, talking directly to others, and once even pulling a woman from the crowd to be part of a scene.  Well done!!  Seating for Door Shakespeare is individual folding chairs set on risers……. Or, treat yourself to seating in the Queen’s Box which offers the only overhead cover with royal tenting.  Door Shakespeare is also performing “Pride & Prejudice” this summer on alternating nights from “Twelfth Night”.

Both AFT and Door Shakespeare use their outdoor setting to their advantage: At AFT, on especially windy or slightly rainy nights, you feel more a part of the play – especially with “Bing!”, which has the majority of their scenes in an outdoor setting.  As the massive trees around you sway and leaves twitter, the cherry orchard is within reach.  Door Shakespeare uses a natural hill as their stage, with the only set being a gate at the rear of the “stage”, an open doorway at stage-left, and a bench or two.  Actors pull branches from trees around them as disguises and run across the open area surrounding the seats, appearing and disappearing from all directions.

At Peninsula Players, their beginnings were every bit as humble: starting in 1935 in the open-air, later improvements included draping canvas over the audience, and today a magnificent roofed, open-sided structure has been so beautifully placed in the wooded surroundings that it still feels like the trees are unobstructed overhead… and the occasional theatre-loving bat still flies through. Solid performances and impressive set designs are assured at Peninsula Players.  Somehow they manage to put together 5 shows each summer between mid-June and mid-October, each one with about a 2-1/2 week run. 

This summer, my sister Pamela drove up from Green Bay after work one day and after a tasty dinner in Egg Harbor, we were treated to a performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” that still has me shaking my head and chuckling.  I just love that English humor and the nonsense that always surrounds mistaken (and false) identities!!  We loved the entire night – from the delicious drink in the beer garden, watching the sun drop lower in the sky over the Bay, striking up conversations with some of our county’s visitors and taking pictures of groups who needed an amateur photographer “on-the-spot”.

Seeing a play at these theatres isn’t just about the show – it’s about the memories you create that surround the play.  It’s about the appreciation for the actors who strive for perfection with an intensely shortened rehearsal period.  It’s about the surroundings of the theatre that have everything to do with nature.  It’s about closing your eyes and enjoying the moment that you’re in, so when that phone starts ringing and the kids are screaming and the traffic noise is unrelenting………. You have something incredible to remember about your time in Door County.