September 3, 2023
If I’ve learned anything in all my theatre classes, I know that any space can be a stage. Can any stage be a “theatre”? Of course. Some folx don’t buy that.
The Cherry Orchard Theatre, where I’m directing H5: What Is Honour?, a solo adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, is literally in a cherry and apple orchard. The wooden stage is 20’ x 20’, some of the planks are loose, and the steps at the rear of the stage have long fallen from rot. Frank, the owner, mows the area around the stage and where the audience sits on Friday afternoons. People bring lawn chairs. There is no bathroom, much less a port-a-potty. I’ve seen an occasional deer, tell everyone to bring bug spray as well as a jacket for when the sun dips towards the mountains.
Last night, an old friend came to the show with her friend. Her friend was visibly irritated, making remarks about the weird parking situation (park anywhere!), lack of facilities, being out in a field, and “That’s the stage?” I was polite. I didn’t want to be, but I was. As soon as the show was over, she in her car. Well, can’t please everyone.
I’m thrilled I have a standing invitation to mount a show on Frank’s stage every summer. It has become an incubator for trying things out in a low-risk environment. It’s a haul, driving an hour down winding country roads, to get there. The audiences are sparse but eager and engaging. (Well, most of them!) And what about that view?!
Frank tells the story of how his grandfather, Ralph, found the place. In Fall 1907, he started in Roanoke and walked his way south to Mount Airy, North Carolina, seeking a place to plant an orchard and call home. He started again in Winston-Salem and walked north. He encountered the spot twice. He was seeking a thermal belt on the side of a mountain which would have warmer temperatures than the valley or the mountaintop. That three-degree difference matters when it nears freezing early in the embryonic stage of fruit. Frank’s grandfather’s wife, Clara, had two stipulations: she would have a 50-mile view, and it would be near a Quaker community. She got both. And in 1999, Frank started the outdoor theatre. Over 25 seasons, the stage has seen plays, concerts, storytelling, and other types of performance. When it rains, the packing house becomes the stage.
Theatre is not confined to four walls and rows of seats. It can be anywhere. The medievals took carts from town to town and performed in the village squares. Street performances are commonplace. I once saw Julius Caesar performed in an office building being renovated — construction material all around us. The hot thing in New York is an intimate show traveling from one home to another. In France, a caberet in a nursing home. During the pandemic, it was Zoom theatre. The places of performance are limitless. Life is theatre. Theatre is always life.