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Garden Performances

by on October 25, 2012

As we have been reading, gardens were beginning to be seen as a theatrical spectacle in the 17th century. They were filled with automata-filled grottoes that performed stories from ancient mythology or biblical tales, mainly for an exclusive audience. Similarly this caused gardens to become popular settings for theatre productions and, of course, it then became popular to perform theatre in gardens themselves too.

This got me pondering about how this is still a convention that can be widely seen today, especially in the UK. It isn’t necessarily a mainstream form of theatre but very traditional and still very effective. I imagine we have all visited stately homes and their respective grounds where it isn’t uncommon to come across a troop of actors. More often than not, they will be performing renaissance pieces such as Shakespeare, Marlowe etc rather than modern text/devised pieces. There is some form of renaissance charm that appeals to us when we see a Shakespeare piece being performed in these sorts of settings. What is it about the gardens of a wealthy estate that encourages this charm?

As some of you know, I run a company back home (Shameless plug, we’re called New Kings Players, find us on most social networks) and we have performed in settings such as this. It’s interesting to me that merely performing in these sorts of spaces can add to a show in such a way. In many ways, it is similar to the contemporary concept of site-specific performances but differs from this too. Site-specific productions occur in a certain location to make it relevant to the piece, either by complimenting the setting of the play or strongly contradicting it. Performing traditional theatre in stately gardens, however, does not necessarily do this.

I would be so bold as to say that an actor performing in a garden such as these, is more of a performing object here than on the stage. A stage production makes the actor the centre of attention, yet a garden performance leaves the actor exposed to weather conditions of all sorts, other elements such as the position of the sun and the direction of the wind have a stronger impact and, most importantly, in a garden, the spectator has the choice to stop and watch. The actor becomes a feature of the garden that the spectator can choose to enjoy or not, at their leisure.

 I feel this choice is a large part of the historic charm one feels in these situations. You haven’t paid to see one show that you’ve probably researched etc, but instead you come across a feature of the garden that attracts your attention, in a similar way, I can imagine to that of the automata in gardens such as those of Saint-Germain-En-Laye. 


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