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Twelfth Night and the Accessibility of Outdoor Theatre in Philadelphia

Dec 14, 2018

By Ang Bey
Theatre Philadelphia Intern

This winter, how can all theatre reflect the accessibility of outdoor theatre?

This summer, I performed in the cast of Shakespeare in Clark’s Twelfth Night directed by Jack Tamburri. My first professional theatre gig in Philly, I delighted in spending the summer rehearsing and performing at the Bowl, only three miles from where I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia.

Now, Clark Park is a much different place than what exists in my neighborhoods' memory. When I booked Twelfth Night, a neighbor said she now had reason to "cross the tracks". The implication that I infiltrated a no-man's-land, a white space, is terribly fraught. Afterall, was she wrong? Gentrification is more than just housing developments and Whole Foods markets. Gentrification establishes physical and invisible social, political, and economic blockades for displaced communities. There are valid reasons why Clark Park feels unwelcoming and unrecongizable to folx. So, what does this mean for the audiences of theatre in those spaces?

Productions like Twelfth Night should not be a rarity. Theatre should not be exclusive. Theatre should reach audiences and serve them. We must mind and bridge this gap. How?

Often affordability is the first hurdle. The average, working class family in Philadelphia cannot afford regular outings to professional theatre-- let alone those on or below the poverty line. Intersections of race, gender, and physical proximity make it especially difficult for some folx. Outdoor theatre is peformed in commual, public spaces. Another piece of the puzzle is representation. Like my neighbor, I am more inclined to see theatre I can relate to. This is reflected in the diversity of the cast, the storytelling, and/or directorial concept. Outdoor theatre in  Philadelphia tends to be cognizant of these factors. This is why I revelled in our glam-rock Twelfth Night-- venue accessiblity, free admission, and a queer, ethnically-diverse concept and team. This is active advocacy through the arts.

Shakespeare in Clark Park, Theatre in the X, and Revolution Shakespeare all offer outdoor theatre. All three produce with the intention of community engagement, diversity, and accessibility. This season, Theatre in the X produced The Wiz at Malcolm X Park (5100 Pine Street) and Revolution Shakespeare produced Troilus and Cressida at Hawthorne Park (1200 Catherine Street). All three had progressive casting; The Wiz was all-POC, Troilus and Cressida was all-womyn+, Twelfth Night was mostly queer and/or POC. All three were free to attend. Though inclement weather forced many of us to lose tech and performance time, our audiences showed and our peformances were well recieved. Without active commitment to our communities, this wouldn't have been the case.

To neglect companies like Shakespeare in Clark Park, Theatre in the X, and Revolution Shakespeare is to overlook the pulse of form. The griots of West Africa, the thespians of Greece, and the kyōgens of Japan were oral, outdoor storytellers-- for the communites, by the communities. These are the true origins of theatre. Why have some of us diverged so far from this history? This dissent is much deeper than enclosed, proscenium spaces.

Free, outdoor theatre in Philadelphia helps wipe away the greasy sheen of elitism. It emphasizes accessiblity and normalizes diversity. It welcomes "non-traditional" audiences  and voices to the mainstream. It reminds us of the electric spirit of the form.

As my neighbor expressed, tell atypical stories, curate inclusive spaces, cast "non-traditonal" people, and we will show up. Contrary to the myth, we want to show up. Give us more reason, because it is not diffcult.

Inclusive, diverse, and accessible theatre is made with far less resources in far less expansive, polished venues. Ask yourself, "What communities am I really serving?" and "Why?".

We have much to learn from free, outdoor theatre in Philadelphia.


Revolution Shakespeare:

Shakespeare in Clark Park:

Theatre in the X: