New York has the Delacorte Theater in Central Park where the Public Theater has put on free Shakespeare productions since 1962. Washington has the Shakespeare Theater Company’s summer performances at Carter Baron Amphitheater, a 15-year tradition.
This week, outdoor summer theater arrives in Potomac with the Heritage Theatre Company’s production of "The Tempest" at the Amphitheater in the Woods in Cabin John Regional Park, a so far little-known and little-used space tucked between a playground and the miniature train station.
The amphitheater has a concrete platform and a wooden shelter at the base of a gently sloping grass hill.
"I happened to see it back in April or May of last year. I fell in love with it," said Karey Faulkner, Heritage’s founder and artistic director. "It looks like a miniature Wolf Trap."
Faulkner approached the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which owns and operates the park, to arrange to use the space.
"They are so supportive in this," Faulkner said. "They said, ‘Grow our park. At the same time this will grow your theater as well.’ It’s just like a win-win-win situation all around. I’m just happy that it’s us."
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays May 18-June 10 and adult tickets are $20-$25.
AFTER STRIKING a deal in late December, Faulkner had far less time than she would normally need to produce a play.
"Something of this magnitude should really take a year’s worth of advance preparation," she said. Producing outdoor theater presents challenges like wiring outdoor lighting, keeping borrowed costumes clean and dry, and helping actors be heard in a space where their voices dissipate quickly.
Many actors already had summer commitments, leading Faulkner to select an adaptation of the Tempest (her own) with six actors portraying eight characters, rather than the full 16 parts in the original play.
The short lead time is also the reason why Heritage is only producing one play this summer. Faulkner hopes to have at least two shows next year and a full three-show outdoor season stretching into July during the third year. She sees the upcoming performances as the beginning of a new tradition.
"My intention for this is for this to become a showplace in the entire region," she said.
Actor Michael Harris is commuting from Easton, Md. to play Gonzalo in the show.
"Every theater … whether it’s Center Stage, whether it's Arena Stage — whatever big theater you want to name — it started out in somebody’s basement, in somebody’s church," he said. "It started out somebody in a park doing a show on the cheap just as best as they could with what they had."
FAULKNER, WHO GREW up in Montgomery County and attended Richard Montgomery High School, started Heritage in 2003 with the aim of evoking what she calls the artistic heyday of the Arena Stage in the 1970s combined with the in-your-face style of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company.
The company has focused heavily on the work of Eugene O’Neill and also performed the psychological thriller "Equus" and a one-man show, "That Certain Cervantes," using a church space in Chevy Chase.
"The Tempest" is family-friendly and has "mass appeal," Faulkner said, making it a perfect choice for outdoor summer theater.
"It appeals to all ages. It has elements of magic, elements of romance, of comedy, of drama. … You have to tap into it initially to get the audience to come. Once you get the audience to come you can be more your own person," by choosing less frequently produced works, she said.
With the show going up Thursday, actors are now focused less on their blocking and more on wishing for warm temperatures and clear skies.
"We’ve been very lucky with the weather," said Greg Mangiapane, who plays Alonso. "We’ve been in this gorgeous space. We’re doing Shakespeare. It doesn’t get any better than that."
Added Faulkner, "We’re just hoping that we don’t have a tempest of our own."