Our Tempest’s Tempest
By Jena Necrason, Co-Artistic Director Vermont Shakespeare Festival.
April 23rd 2018
Summer of 2012, we are doing The Tempest. Performances are scheduled at Knight Point State Park in North Hero and Oakledge Park in Burlington. Knight Point State Park is where we founded the company, our original home. I don’t remember if it was Friday or Saturday, we are at Knight Point and the weather report is not looking good. I am in the show playing Ariel and John has directed. Actor brain says– “man if we cancel the show tonight, I will FINALLY have a night off!” (I had been going straight for probably 30 days or so with no time off as we rehearsed, plus I was teaching 15 classes a week at Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York). Producer brain says“OM*G this is going to KILL US financially.”
We keep an eye on the weather reports but cell service up on our performance site is sketchy so we periodically send someone down to Route 2 to check in on radar weather service. We spend the day watching the storm approach the Champlain Islands. We have rehearsal scheduled before the show, it has been very hot, and we have all been sweating profusely in costume for the past couple of days- the show is very physical, we are all playing instruments and singing and it’s wonderful. With rain moving in, the humidity increases and the wind starts blowing, now we are sweaty and oddly cold, but at least the wind is keeping the mosquitos at bay. At a rehearsal earlier in the week, I had climbed a tree onstage thinking it would be a good place for Ariel to perch as she watched the mortals fumble about during Act 3 Scene 3. Only to realize that there was a beehive nestled in the tree just above my head- I quietly slipped down that tree and found another perch as the scene continued.
Our set is composed of various old furniture and antiques picked from throughout the Champlain Islands by our innovative Set Designer Tim Baumgartner, some of these items are on loan- meaning they can’t get wet, warped, and wracked by the rain. We also have a broken down boat on our set, and its ok if that gets wet. Our brilliant Composer, Joanne Maffia, has 20 various instruments onstage including her Vibraphone. Instruments cannot get wet.
At this point in VSF’s history we had been producing outdoor theatre with no tent or rain cover for seven years, it was difficult, but it was also magical. We had been rained out once before (our very first performance ever in 2005 was a rainout), we had held shows for rain, both before curtain and during performances. We spent a lot of time praying to the weather gods. We had tarps. We had plastic. We had makeshift carriers to quickly get things on and offstage in the case of sudden rain. I can tell you that producing theatre outdoors like this, with no back-up space or rain protection, takes years off your life. I will curse VSF someday on my deathbed. I will think “If only I had not spent all those years producing theatre outdoors without a tent, I would be alive and well right now facing another decade of good living”.
Here’s the hardest part- the moment you have to make a decision as to whether to cancel the show. People have purchased tickets, some are already on their way to the park, actors are ready- sometimes this decision just can’t be made with a sense of really knowing– sometimes the weather forecast is iffy but not definitive. It takes a lot of guts to say“ok, screw it, the show must go on”, and hope for the best. This was not the case as we headed toward curtain time for The Tempest that evening- about two hours before the show time the rain came, hard. Accompanied by strong wind.
An. Actual. Tempest.
We had endured hard rain before at the park, we had waited it out in cars or backstage tents, or, if you had unlucky timing, a porta potty. We made the decision to cancel the evening’s performance. Someone ran down to Route 2 to get reception and put the word out on social media, call flynntix, update our website. The actors looked at both John and I with love and worry in their eyes; they knew how hard this was for us as producers and the financial toll it would take to lose a performance. I wanted to cry. But there is no crying in theatrical producing, so I waited until later at home.
We got everything covered onstage and moved as much as we could into our dressing rooms, four 10×10 pop-up tents lashed together with rope – and although securely fastened into the ground – not exactly what one might call a good place to be at that moment, but it was all we had. It was raining so hard we could do nothing but stay where we were and wait it out. Then the Tempest and its rain and wind decided to kick it up a notch. Our backstage masking started ripping. The pop-up tents started collapsing with the weight of the water on top, one of our actors, Parrish Hurley, took Prospero’s staff and started to battle the sagging tents pushing the water up and out- yelling lines from the play as he did it, which added some levity to what was starting to become a dangerous situation. We had to get all set pieces, costumes, instruments, props, and people (!) that we could into cars as the protection of the tents was fading. When we started to move out of the tents we realized that the ground all around the site was starting to flood. Actors are resilient, everyone rallied and ran out into the storm and did their part.
The ‘scene’ in our Tempest that evening was a group of 20 or so actors, designers, and student interns running and slipping in the storm, soaking wet and covered in mud. No one abandoned ship, and we worked together to save the show.