Celebrating the bard

Theater in the Rough brings its annual summer Shakespeare production to a Jerusalem park.

Much Ado About Nothing (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Much Ado About Nothing
(photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage,” but few take that more seriously than the actors of Jerusalem’s Theater in the Rough. The amateur theater company, now in its third season, performs without a stage entirely – each show takes place in a Jerusalem park, often changing locations within the park between scenes.
For this summer’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, audiences can expect to follow the cast to at least seven different locations around Bloomfield Gardens during four evening performances between August 19 and 23.
So where is the lobby of this theater? Or the coat check? Well, meet at the large fountain, diagonally opposite the Yemin Moshe windmill at 5:30 p.m., and you’ll find out.
Theater in the Rough’s “panoramic performance” makes for what could be Jerusalem’s most unique theatrical experience.
Theater in the Rough was founded in 2008, when they performed Twelth Night in Liberty Bell Park, but the company has its roots with a mother-son duo over a decade ago in Brooklyn.
“We’ve been working together doing theater since he was 12,” says Beth Steinberg, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, of her son Natan Skop. “In New York, he pushed me to direct a play and ultimately, I formed a theater group for home-schooled kids. Each time I get involved in theater, it’s been upon his push.”
The family made aliya in 2006, and before long Skop, now 22, felt the theater itch again, with his friend Toby Trachtman.
“When we came to Israel, I got involved in English-speaking theater in Jerusalem,” says Skop. “But I felt there was a lack of the community theater experience I was used to, where people were focused on the process as much as the end results.”
Steinberg was eager to re-launch a theater project, but under certain terms. She was inspired by New York Classical Theater, the renowned group led by Stephen Burdman with a specialty in outdoor, park-based performance.
“I said that if we did anything, it had to be Shakespeare, and it had to be based on New York Classical,” says Steinberg. “In New York, there is so much to see in the summer that’s cheap or free. You can expose your kids to fun, great theater. I wanted to bring affordable, quality theater to Jerusalemites in the summer.”
The first season was an experiment. Steinberg, her son and Trachtman spread the word of a new theater group to stir up interest.
“We didn’t even hold auditions, and we put together a core of interested people – 11 or 12 actors. We only did two performances,” says Skop. The group expected an audience maybe 100 strong. The first night, over 200 people turned up. The second night drew well over 300.
“We were so amazed. People enjoyed it so much – one father of a friend told us it reminded him of the street theater of Vilna when he was growing up,” says Skop. “They all asked us what was coming next. We said, ‘Well, looks like we need to do it again.’” Theater in the Rough was off and running.
Last year, the company performed Romeo and Juliet. This season, they chose Much Ado About Nothing, a “nice, easy summer comedy that would be something the audience could access easily,” says Steinberg.
Theater in the Rough’s interpretation sets the play in Europe in the 1940s and ’50s, rather than the Shakespearean period – chosen to toy with ideas of gender roles at a time when they were shifting.
Company members believe that the outdoor setting allows for a wholly different experience than traditional theater, both physically – parks don’t exactly come with cushioned seats – and on a deeper level.
“The audience feels like they are a part of the play. The connection is much deeper than normal,” says Skop. “The setting keeps you interested in the play. It’s a long performance; it’s Shakespeare. So it’s very important to be able to show the audience the play in a new way.”
Locations within the park aren’t chosen at random, but rather to fit each scene. In a scene where a character is eavesdropping, Steinberg chose a spot with some trees to provide a logical hiding spot. Moving the audience multiple times takes planning, and assisting ushers, “but by move two or three, they get it, and they’re running ahead,” says Steinberg.
“There are always people who complain. My grandmother, before moving to the last location in last year’s Romeo and Juliet, said, ‘I don’t want to get up again. I know how it ends,’” laughs Skop.
The open settings provide opportunities for more imaginative performances, says actress Andrea Katz.
“You have to imagine you’re at a party, or in jail. Everything rests on the actors and the illusions we create. This isn’t even bare bones – we don’t even have chairs,” she says. “We use what we have. We have rocks that could be a podium, or a chair. It makes us ask, how do we use the space without losing the space?” With park performances come audience intrigue, of course, but also a set of challenges not faced on a stage. Namely, nature.
“You deal with bugs in the mouth,” says Katz. “And we have to do an animal poop patrol before the audience comes. This is a park, after all.”
The real challenge is volume. Without microphones, actors need to project strongly to overcome church bells, nearby traffic and the occasional ringing cell phone. For the first time, though, Theater in the Rough is working with a grant from the Jerusalem municipality’s Cultural Department Municipality, making for a more polished, professional romp in the park, as the company brought on a stage manager, production assistants, a vocal coach and stage combat training. But production is still very do-it-yourself.
“We invested in four rechargeable, powerful Maglite flashlights,” says Skop. “With the light on the actor’s faces, you don’t feel so in the dark at the end of the show.
But the budget isn’t big enough to take a salary. It’s the double-edged sword of community theater: we can’t exactly plan ahead for the next few years.”
The company’s actors remain volunteers – meaning performance in the park must be a passion for each.
“Community theater is really a one-of-a-kind thing. It’s people coming in because they love theater and acting and performing,” says Skop. “Everyone has a day job or is a student. I’m sure no one would say no to getting paid, but it’s a different dynamic when people are there just because they believe in it.”
Much Ado About Nothing runs August 19, 20, 22 and 23 at 5:30 p.m. at Bloomfield Gardens, Jerusalem. Act 1 begins behind the large fountain, to the right of King David Hotel. Performances are free.