Free Theater Options for the Month of July

Shakespeare outdoors, anyone?

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 11, 2012

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Village people: Our Town is being staged at 13 public places in and around Philly.

There is a perception shared by many that theater is expensive to attend and therefore is an art form enjoyed exclusively by the well-to-do. That may be true for Broadway, but in Philly there’s affordable theater everywhere you turn. And this month, there are several events in the area that are better than cheap—they’re free.

The three full productions are Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company’s Our Town (July 12-28); REV Theatre Company’s urban punk version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which plays in an innovative, physical production in a parking lot on the Avenue of the Arts (July 14-15); and Shakespeare in Clark Park’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (July 25-29). In addition, PlayPenn is offering readings of the six plays developed at the new-play conference on July 19-22 at the Adrienne Theater.

The first and most ambitious of the four offerings in terms of the number of performances is Our Town, which is staging Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece in 13 public spaces in the Philadelphia area, including a July 15 visit to Love Park. (The play was written to be staged without sets or elaborate design of any kind, which makes it the perfect play for an outdoor production.)

One of the most innovative plays ever conceived, Our Town is a groundbreaking theatrical work that embraces the artifice of theater to investigate the complex realities of everyday life. Wilder famously described his play as exploring “the life of a village set against the life of the stars.” It’s an appropriate description for a cosmic work that explores the unpredictable journey that is life.

In director Allen Radway’s production, the lives of the town’s characters will literally unfold beneath a starry sky. In the vision of Commonwealth producing artistic director Mary Ann Baldwin, the play is not about the town, but the people in it—they are ordinary, and therefore serve as representatives for all humankind.

“Theater needs to go out to the people” says Baldwin, explaining the company’s populist approach and its desire to perform in a wide array of communities. “We embrace the opportunity to offer our productions out of doors, because it offers an exhilarating experience, and it reflects something liberating, basic and elemental in the plays we choose to do.”

Also embracing the importance of bringing theater to the people is PlayPenn, an organization dedicated solely to the development of new work. PlayPenn hosts a two-week conference, during which time six playwrights collaborate with a director, dramaturge and actors to develop their new work. Each year, the conference concludes with a free, staged reading of each play. For some of the plays, it’s the first time they will be exposed to an audience, which PlayPenn’s artistic director Paul Meshejian views as an essential part of the developmental process. “The audience is the final piece in the puzzle,” he explains. “The only way you can make sense of what you have is to put it in front of an audience. Until an audience sees the work, it doesn’t have any meaning.”

The month’s final free performance is the annual Shakespeare offering in Clark Park. Staged in West Philly’s greenest space, the company’s sixth summer of free outdoor theater features director Rebecca Wright’s staging of the Bard’s raucous comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. The audience for SCP’s production reflects the community around the park and is among the most diverse in local theater. Managing director Adam Travia says that of the 3,500 theatergoers who attend the five performances each summer, many are experiencing live professional theater for the first time—which just goes to show how important free can be.

Our Town: July 12-28.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: July 14-15.

PlayPenn Readings: July 19-22.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: July 25-29.

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