Shakespeare in the Arb turns 15 in ’15. Each performance—which takes place outdoors in Nichols Arboretum—makes for a moving theater experience for audience members and cast alike. Literally. Cast and audience move to different locations in the Arb depending on what scene is being performed. This engagement with the outdoors makes for a true integration of play and nature. In fact, the outdoor setting is one aspect of Shakespeare in the Arb that makes it unique. (For information on this season’s productions visit our Shakespeare in the Arb page. Dates are Thursdays – Sundays, June 4-28.)

David Zinn’s poster from the
2002 production of

Shakespeare in the Arb began in the spring of 2001. Then Matthaei-Nichols director of development Inger Schultz applied for a three-year Ford Motor Company Grant for the Arts. Having received the grant, Schultz invited director Kate Mendeloff from the Residential College to use the first part of the award to produce a play in Nichols Arboretum. Schultz had been impressed by Mendeloff’s outdoor production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Mendeloff, who specializes in early modern and modern drama, originally considered directing Chekhov’s work once again. Instead she chose Shakespeare’s masterpiece A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play she says is “perfect for the Arb,” with its natural setting, structure, and language. Midsummer, a crowd favorite, has enjoyed a repeat performance every five years and will be performed again this summer for the fifteenth anniversary.

Opening weekend performances in 2001 struggled at first, battling low temperatures and cold rain, and as a result small crowds. But under the clear skies of the second weekend, roughly two hundred visitors appeared for each performance. In 2002 the show featured a double cast, charged for tickets, and sold out every performance for three weeks. The Ann Arbor tradition of Shakespeare in the Arb bloomed in full.

Fairies in the 2010 production of Midsummer run through the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden.
Often the the timing of Shakespeare in the Arb
coincides perfectly with the blooming of the
 peony garden, adding an extra layer of magic to
 the performances. 

The Arb is a unique stage, and as long-time actor Joe McDonald says, “It’s an essential part of the cast.” Mendeloff loves the way productions and rehearsals in the Arb unravel organically, and the way the setting provides inspiration, countless unusual challenges, and moments that are “magical and serendipitous.” Each performance of Shakespeare in the Arb is unique and filled with the unexpected. Butterflies and deer often drift through the backdrop. Other sights are slightly less majestic. Joggers, curious dogs, hospital helicopters, joy-riding pilots, trains, and hail storms have all graced the stage with their presence. But as actor Carol Gray put it, “Arb audiences are extremely hearty and brave,” and the cast humorously compensates for interruptions as if they had actually happened in the world of the play. “What dark magic is this?” one actor yelled as a train roared through a scene in The Tempest, a play that features “dark magic.” Another obstacle is the unusual acoustics of the natural setting. Mendeloff tries to choose locations for scenes that are natural amphitheaters, like Heathdale, or that have trees in the background to project sound towards the audience.

Director Kate Mendeloff with Shakespeare in the Arb musicians
in the background. Music often accompanies the Shakespeare
in the Arb performances.

The organic nature of the Arb and the development of each show is a source of inspiration for Mendeloff and her crew. In the winter of 2003, Mendeloff was walking through Dow Prairie when she slipped on the ice. As she sat and collected herself in the snow, she envisioned a horse galloping towards her down the path. Sure enough, that summer’s production featured a horse jogging through the prairie and into the scene.

Actor Carol Gray says, “Kate is a fearless experimenter and a gracious leader, and the diversity of Arb alumni is a testament to her collaborative directing style.” Shakespeare in the Arb serves as an important link between the mission of Matthaei-Nichols, the academic side of the university, and the Ann Arbor community. In particular, these performances provide a remarkable experience for the students involved, who range from theater majors to future engineers. With double and triple casts each year, actors are forced to work interchangeably with other actors whom they may have never rehearsed with. And of course, actors have to project their voices and be physically fit in ways that a traditional theater environment wouldn’t require. Mendeloff also hires a crew of assistant student directors. “It’s a very non-hierarchical structure of rehearsal,” she says, “It has to be. We have to take advantage of every day it’s not raining.” As a result, the actors split into groups all across the Arb, working simultaneously on a variety of scenes under the leadership of student directors, while Mendeloff oversees the greater creative project.
Shakespeare in the Arb joins many people to the Arb who might never have visited otherwise. Mendeloff hopes the audience leaves thinking, “I want to come back and take a walk.” And she hopes that their walk is populated with the ghosts and language of the performances they’ve seen. Arb and Gardens director Bob Grese says, “These plays encourage audiences to see the Arb from new perspectives, which is really quite wonderful.  As I walk through the Arb these days, I can’t help but reflect on how one setting became a magical place in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or something different in The Tempest.” Mendeloff claims her own appreciation and awareness of nature has expanded dramatically as a result of her experience with the program. “I love these trees,” she says. “They’re like my children.”
These performances also influence the Arb’s development in more concrete ways. Former Matthaei-Nichols’ employee April Pickrel recalls how Shakespeare in the Arb forced staff to introduce now vital resources to the Arb, such as a golf cart, a cash register, and restrooms.
Many potential visitors might feel intimidated by the difficult nature of Shakespeare’s plays. But even Mendeloff herself says she was originally nervous about directing Shakespeare, which was outside of her area of expertise. “I mean, it’s Shakespeare!” she says, speaking about the early days of the show. But she has learned so much about each play and continues to learn each year and during each performance, and she believes audiences will have a similar experience. The Arb as a setting makes the plays more enjoyable and more accessible. The audience drifts to new locations from scene to scene, allowing people to give their minds a break and to enjoy themselves and the Arb before they dive back into the world of the play. The setting creates an immersive and interactive experience; rather than “imagining” the Forest of Arden in a dark theatre, the audience is in an actual forest. Children can sit right in the front row without having to worry about being fidgety or noisy. Rather than letting their eyes wander around a dark, enclosed theater, visitors and children can look off and see squirrels, birds, and trees. “And,” Mendeloff says, “I always put in a sword-fight or two for the little boys.” fifteen years, Shakespeare in the Arb continues to develop, grow, and find success. Mendeloff enjoys revisiting plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and says the experience always deepens everyone’s understanding of the play and the audience’s engagement. But looking ahead, she would like to experiment with more difficult productions, which she finds more gratifying as a director, and would like to produce some of Shakespeare’s great histories and tragedies. With another nod to the children in the front row, Mendeloff says, “I’d like to put on Henry V, and have all the soldiers come charging across the field towards the audience.”

Shakespeare in the Arb 2015
June 4-7;  11-14; 18-21; 25-28
1610 Washington Hts.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

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