Why Shakespeare Gets Weird in the Summer

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 27 2013 11:40 AM

Shakespeare Gets Weird in the Summer

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Marching band onstage during a production of Love's Labour's Lost? Why not, it's summer!

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Following my last week of classes freshman year, during the freedom fake-out that is the study period before finals, my friend and I quite literally stumbled upon a production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was on our way from dinner to the dorm and we practically tripped over the props. Smack dab in the middle of campus a small crowd gathered, many holding cylindrical-shaped paper bags from which they would discreetly take sips. Then, all of a sudden, they started to run. Summer Shakespeare season had begun.

Shakespeare-on-the-run productions—in which actors move around a designated area and the audience follows along, by running—are quite fun, and more common than you might think. Two years ago, I went to one that presented a pivotal scene on a boat to Governor’s Island; a colleague recently told me about stumbling upon a production of As You Like It on his walk home from work.

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While they are not unique to college campuses, such productions are particular to summer. “Shakespeare among the elements is intrinsic to summer in the city,” as Steven McElroy wrote in the New York Times a few years back. But being outside isn’t the half of it. After all, the Bard’s plays were originally performed outside, so that’s nothing new. But summer seems to inspire a mood of carefree adventure that infects all sorts of Shakespeare productions. Ask a friend if she wants to join you at a boy-band musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost in November. Unlikely. Come August, though, people will line up outside and wait for tickets.

That version is courtesy of the flagship for warm-weather Shakespearean weirdness, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte. They’ve gone in for straight-laced performances as well, but those rarely resonate like the ones where people break out into song or a raccoon appears on stage. Because summer, like Shakespeare’s many forests, offers an escape from our regular lives. The shackles of society come off, and we are no longer content to sit and watch in the dark. Come summer, I want my Shakespeare served with an extra dose of crazy.

This summer in New York City, you could see Richard III in a parking lot. (I see what you did there.) In Toronto, you can see the same play in the ruff. Another colleague told me of the Goth skinhead-themed version of Titus Andronicus in a pub in London—fake blood, real nudity, and roughly the same number of people in the audience as onstage. A third, D.C.-based colleague went to a production of Bootleg Hamlet at the Folger Theater—the cast had one day to memorize their lines from a “bad quarto”—and, in a fit of madness, Hamlet ran across the stage buck naked. Earlier this month, I dragged a friend to ShakesBEER, a Shakespeare pub crawl. And it was excellent. We got our beer cozy and our beer tickets, and just as we sat down to take our first sip, plain-clothed actors popped up and did a scene from Romeo and Juliet. (My friend ended up playing an important nonspeaking role.) There were four unconnected scenes from four unconnected plays. Normally, I’d prefer a theme of some sort, even something as amorphous as, say, love. But it’s summer, and I had a blast. Also, for some reason, the acting got funnier as we moved along.

It was Shakespeare himself who said that “summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” and that never rings truer than during the last week in August. There will be no dearth of great productions come fall, but they will almost certainly lack this summertime wackiness. Summer’s honey breath cannot hold out forever against the wreckful siege of battering days, after all, so find one of these strange theatrical productions while you still can—and let us know your favorite summer Shakespeare experience in the comments.

Miriam Krule is a Slate assistant editor.

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