For 2½ weeks every summer, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company takes over Boston Common for free nightly productions of Shakespeare’s plays. This year, audiences will get to see a contemporary interpretation of “Macbeth” that begins performances July 19. What they won’t see is the year of planning that preceded it.
“We build everything from the ground up,” said CSC’s general manager, Brittney Holland. “Part of what makes it so magical is that somebody walking through the Common now would never know that in a week, an entire theater will exist in that spot.”
For each production, CSC must hire actors, design sets, sew costumes, and block scenes. And with the unpredictability of outdoor theater, especially in one of Boston’s busiest parks, there are always challenges.
One year out, the first thing organizers do is choose the play. CSC’s founding artistic director Steve Maler tries to pick shows that “speak to the moment” while also alternating between comedies and tragedies. “Macbeth,” a play about narcissism, ambition, maniacal leadership, and insurrection, struck him as an obvious selection.
Eight months out, the theater company starts to organize a production team. They’ll choose a director, costume designer, set designer, stage manager, and technical director. Then brainstorming begins.
According to production manager Jenna Worden, the set is the most difficult aspect to figure out, so it’s usually tackled first. This year, the challenge fell on technical director Kevin Parker.
“The park is not designed for this,” Parker said. “We can’t just screw something down into the ground or tear up the landscaping. Everything we do has to be temporary.”
For this “Macbeth,” there will be a Jeep onstage, multiple stage levels, and some “magical” elements that made planning more difficult than usual.
“There’s a trap door in the show, which is always fun and incredibly hard to do,” Parker said. “You see a vanishing act, but what’s not known is that there’s a whole other structure to a trap door. We have to think about: Where does the actor fall? How do they get out of there? Do we have to light it?”
If that wasn’t enough, set designers also have to take weather into account. Set pieces have to be largely waterproof and wind-resistant.
Six months out, while contractors are building the set, the production team begins casting. They hold open calls around Boston and reconnect with veteran CSC performers like Faran Tahir, who stars as Macbeth.
When the show is fully cast, the costume team can start their work. This year’s show has 21 cast members with one or two looks each. The designers start by taking measurements and researching and sourcing materials. Then they’ll make the outfits, hold fittings, and make alterations all before the first dress rehearsal. For the upcoming show, set in the ruins of a civil war, attendees can expect to see a fair amount of military garb.
“One of the biggest concerns with a summer show is the heat of the actors,” said costume shop manager Lindsay Hoisington. “With military outfits, it’s really tough. It’s a lot of long sleeves, long pants, and layers. But we do try our best to get the lightest materials possible.”
Laundry is another important consideration, Hoisington said. Organizers will have to assemble onsite laundering facilities so that costumes can be washed between shows.
One month out, rehearsals begin in a converted storefront near the Common. Before actors arrive, stage managers line the floor with colored tape to mark out where the real stage border, staircases, balconies, and props will be.
“Actors rehearse in a space where there’s no set, so we have to represent to them exactly where everything is going to be,” Parker said. “Measuring out and taping the room is a whole project in and of itself.”
Off-site rehearsals last 3½ weeks. Then, five days out, rehearsal moves to the Common where any passers-by can watch. Maler, who is directing this year’s production, says this move is important so actors get used to performing with “the firmament” above them — something that’s impossible to mimic in a rehearsal space. In the past he’s seen as many as 300 people watch an outdoor rehearsal.
Two days out, actors will have their first dress rehearsal. According to Holland, that’s when a “Christmas Eve energy” comes out.
“The actors have been looking at pictures of things and imagining in their head what everything’s going to look like, and then they finally see it all in reality,” Holland said. “There’s a lot of excitement and a little bit of nervous energy.”
Around this time, Holland said, everybody starts to wish there was an extra 12 hours in the day.
Eight hours out, organizers check on the weather. The company has a weather operations plan for all kinds of scenarios, and they contract a weather events service to advise them. There’s even an anemometer on top of the stage to measure wind speeds. Actors will perform through light rain, and if things get unsafe, they’ll pause for 15 minutes while the company reassesses. Their goal is to avoid cancellations.
“The Common is always an adventure,” said Maler. “There are hawks out there, there are bugs out there, birds like to nest in our trusses, and squirrels like to chew through our cables.”
The challenges are worth it though.
“To be able to bring the theater to the people is really powerful,” Worden said. “We don’t have to wait for people to come to us. We get so many people who are just walking by and decide to sit down. And for some it’s either their first time experiencing Shakespeare or even their first time experiencing a play.”
Three hours out, people begin to lay their picnic blankets around the Parkman Bandstand. Front and center spots typically fill up first, but because the theater has no walls, Worden said, you can have a good view from anywhere in the rotunda area.
This year, organizers expect about 50,000 people over the course of 17 performances. While those attendees lounge on the grass, the production team will be making last-minute adjustments behind the stage.
At 8 on opening night, after a year of preparation, the imaginary curtain will lift. What happens next is up to the actors, the audience, and the elements.
At Parkman Bandstand, Boston Common, July 19-Aug 6. Free (chair rentals available for $10 in advance). commshakes.org