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Director Michelle Denise Norton sat down with DreamWrighters to answer some questions about Theatre Under the Trees. You won’t want to miss a performance. There are three performances left! July 31 @ 6:30pm William Kain County Park, Aug 1 @ 6:30pm Codorus State Park, and Aug 2 @ 2:30pm at DreamWrights Youth & Family Theatre. Admission is free!

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DW: What is Theatre Under the Trees?  

MDN: Theatre Under The Trees is a branch of DreamWrights that tours the comedies of William Shakespeare in local parks.  Admission is free.  

DW: When/How did it get started?

MDN: In 1998, I wanted to direct an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the DreamWright’s Board agreed to support it.  The first year was a success and we have continued evolving over seventeen years.  I like to say I want to direct a show I’d love to sit in the audience for.  We aim to show people why Shakespeare still draws audiences after more than 4 centuries.  And to remind the world that Shakespeare wrote comedies as least as well as he wrote anything else.  I am amazed and very grateful that so many people have volunteered their time and talent for a program I feel so strongly about.

DW: How has it changed over the years?

MDN: Well, I took a year off, only to discover I missed it terribly and everyone still talked to me about Shakespeare anyway. <wink> Each year is really different.  I have learned to plan just enough ahead that I am ready to see who auditions and build the show from there.  Some years have different needs. The last time we did The Tempest, I knew I wanted to create a storm with dancers so I started discussing the show with a choreographer several months in advance.  But what we were able to do started from the people who showed up at auditions to share their talents. 

DW: What is your favorite performance and why?

MDN: I have two. One was a dress rehearsal of the original production of Twelfth Night and it was just a beautiful night outside, listening to one of Shakespeare’s best plays, done well by people enjoying the challenge. The actors had responded to every note I’d given them. Everything clicked.  It was perfect. The other was sitting in the grass at Sam Lewis Park watching Merchant of Venice.  One of the actresses had missed the previous performance due to a family emergency. I’d had to perform in her stead and when she came back, the entire cast had a new energy.  It was amazing.  Plus, I could sit in the grass in casual clothes rather than being onstage in a sweater, skirt and pantyhose.

DW: How is Shakespeare challenging and rewarding?

MDN: It’s rewarding for me because I get to see some of my favorite characters, vibrant, on stage, having new dimensions thanks to the actors who make them live.  The challenge is taking a random group of people and merging them with a play I’ve picked far in advance.  It can be a little scary the night between audition days.  

MDN: From a directing standpoint, I try to forget a lot of what I’ve done before so I can discover things again with a new cast.  It’s a group challenge to work out the meaning and dynamics of each play and relationship, as well as the physicality required by comedy in the Theatre Under The Trees style. With Shakespeare, we have to pay a lot of attention to the language, but the reward is the wonderful pictures Shakespeare created that the actors get to paint for the audiences.  

DW:   How is performing outside different then in a traditional theatre setting?

MDN: Performing actually started outside, with the Greeks and their theaters with seating cut into the sides of hills for better acoustics.  And in Shakespeare’s time, theaters lacked roofs and were open to wind and weather.  For our actors, we spend a lot of time building our voices and becoming aware of the mechanics of projection.  Changing locations for every performance brings unique challenges.  We learn to be flexible. We rehearse outside as much as possible and have tech and dress rehearsals in people’s backyards, weather permitting.

DW:     How can/ does weather play into your performances?

MDN: We stop for lightning.  The rest we mostly adjust to.  Everyone who has done Theatre Under The Trees has at least one good weather story. It’s always fun to hear people recalling their rain/hail/wind adventures for newcomers.  

DW: What’s the best thing for you about Theatre Under the Trees ?

MDN: The people I’ve met.