Noises, sounds, and sweet airs

When Coaster Theatre Playhouse moved its Shakespearean shows outdoors, it confronted a new challenge: being heard

Like a singer on a bar stage, Coaster Theatre Playhouse thespians know their park audience may not always be paying the closest attention. Nonetheless, it would be nice if the audience could at least hear them. That, however, may be easier than it sounds – as Playhouse director Patrick Lathrop discovered in 2020, when the group first took its Shakespeare performances outside.

This summer, the playhouse presents the “Shakesperience” with Sixty-Second Shakespeare in Cannon Beach’s City Park at 6 p.m. Fridays, July 9 through Sept. 3. The group also will stage a whodunnit, The Case of the Coaster Clambake, at 6 p.m. Saturdays, July 10 through Sept. 4.

The park performances started last year when COVID restrictions caused the cancellation of live theater performances. In-house theater performances remain iffy, but theater in the park may be here to stay.  

“COVID originally moved us to the park, but it’s not the reason we remain,” said theater spokeswoman Jenni Tronier. “When we realized how fun and delightful presenting in the park was, we decided to continue the program in subsequent seasons.”

It does, however, come with its own set of difficulties. Namely, sound.

Last year, COVID restrictions prompted Coaster Theatre Playhouse to move outdoors, presenting Don't Fear Shakespeare (In the Park!). The theater company will continue summer performances Cannon Beach City Park this year. Photo courtesy: Coaster Theatre Playhouse
Last year, COVID restrictions prompted Coaster Theatre Playhouse to move outdoors, presenting “Don’t Fear Shakespeare (In the Park!).” The theater company will continue summer performances this year in Cannon Beach City Park. Photo courtesy: Coaster Theatre Playhouse

“It’s really a completely different experience than staging in the theater,” Lathrop said. “Sound is one of the big challenges and dictates everything we do. We deal with sound in the theater all the time, but usually we can solve it, and make sure everyone in a small auditorium can hear.”

Last year, the Playhouse presented Don’t Fear Shakespeare (In the Park!) with costumed actors wearing lavalier — or clip-on — microphones to perform short Shakespearean readings.

“That didn’t quite do it,” Lathrop said. “It’s such a big space and … with actors moving around, the sound is very problematic.”

This year, actors will use “Madonna” mics, headsets that clip around the ears with a microphone that sits right in front of the actor’s mouth. Lathrop is hopeful that will  improve the sound.

“To be honest, I recognize that some people won’t hear it,” he said. Consequently, it’s important that the play be staged “really big with lots of movement and lots of activities,” so people who are too far away to hear well can at least enjoy the visuals.

But even if they can’t hear, many audience members will probably be OK with that. Admission is free, it’s entertainment outdoors, and there even are other people present. After more than a year of COVID, that may be plenty.  

“People are very understanding,” Lathrop said. “It’s not a negative thing. It’s simply a recognition that this audience is different than the audience that pays money to come in and have a seat in the auditorium. A lot of people come for the park experience.

“They’ve come, brought a picnic, set up a picnic area; the kids are playing hula hoop, the adults are having beer and wine.”

For those people, the actors are “kind of a backup thing,” Lathrop said. Those who really are there for the show will gravitate closer to the stage. Lathrop will gear his efforts for them — as much as he dares.  

“I recognize I can’t possibly fill the whole field” with sound, he said, “I’d be filling the whole city. And I don’t think the city of Cannon Beach would like that.”

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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