News and Features

Keeping Shakespeare Cool in the Texas Heat

sunset fight call“Fight call” – running through the tournament scene in Pericles just before showtime. Image(s) outfront from Shutterstock.

It was a mild spring in North Texas, but forecasters are saying this summer may well be hotter and dryer than average. KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with some North Texans who regularly face that heat – while sporting coats and wigs and even armor.

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To ‘go dry’ is an old theater term; it means forgetting your lines onstage. Backstage at a Shakespeare Dallas performance of the play, Pericles, no actors are going dry. They’re shlurping on popsicles and downing water. They can’t gulp water straight from a cup because they wear tiny body microphones near their mouths. So they’re all sipping with straws.

Shakespeare Dallas has been performing live theater outdoors in the Texas heat since 1971. They’ve learned a few things about surviving our summers — and our triple-digit temperatures. In fact, one reason Shakespeare Dallas switched several years ago to running shows in rotating repertory is it has the two casts (for the current productions, Pericles and A Midsummer Nights Dream) alternate performances. This way, an actor will be fighting the heat for only three shows a week — instead of six in a row.

Raphael Parry, executive director of Shakespeare Dallas, heads down into what they call ‘the bunker.’ It’s the concrete building underneath the stage that holds the dressing rooms – and some merciful air-conditioning.

“So it’s relatively cool down here, as you can see,” Parry says as he walks past the dressing rooms and bathrooms. He stops at a common room with refrigerators, opens one (left) to show all the frozen items inside the freezer. “We have a ton of ice packs and stuff in the refrigerators. So when [the packs] get cold, we take one of these and put ‘em on their wrists. Or wrap around their neck if they start looking like they’re overheating or something.”

popsicles

The troupe can go through 10 pounds of ice a night. But it’s more than just having water and ice on hand. Preparations for working in the heat began weeks ago, before the actors even came to Samuell Grand Park to rehearse.

“Usually we tell our actors to start hydrating three to four days before they ever come out to the park,” says Parry. “What we’ve found is that if they come out here the first day and they haven’t hydrated in the previous three days, then they’re going probably to have some sort of heat exhaustion.”

Actors on low-salt diets also may ingest a little extra salt before rehearsing. Salt helps the body retain water.  But ironically, sweating causes the body to lose salt at a high rate — so you’re quickly depleting both your water supply and the stuff that helps hold that water.

And the actors do sweat. Pericles is a late and lesser play by Shakespeare, probably written with another playwright named George Wilkins. Shakespeare’s late ‘romances’ like this — like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale — reflect a fad at the time for more fantastical elements, more plot twists. With Pericles, there are storms, a riddle, a shipwreck, a knights’ tournament, pirates, incest, a famine, a woman coming back to life and even divine intervention. Indeed, Pericles is the only play in which Shakespeare actually used a narrator — the medieval poet John  Gower ‘in person’ — which underscores the fairy-tale-like nature of everything (Shakespeare Dallas has changed Gower to a chorus representing the goddess Gaia). Such an event-rich story has the actors running and fighting, singing and dancing (often to the music of Seth Magill, head man for the band Home by Hovercraft and the guy playing Pericles).

Sweat can complicate all these activities, increasing mistakes and stumbles. Christian Taylor plays Lysimachus, a young lord who weds Pericles’ daughter. He says heat can make your head blurry, and that may be manageable when you’re just reciting or singing, but when you’re slinging a sword, even the smallest error can be dangerous:  “If you have some kind of stage violence or maybe you have to stop a person in place, like you grab them by the arm — and your hand slides right off. ” And they just keep on going.

hydrating 2Worse, your costume may not be your friend. Cindy Beall, who plays a comic brothel owner in Pericles, points to the way sweat can turn quick costume changes into sticky layer-peelings (she recommends lots of baby powder). For his part, Taylor recalls an earlier show in which he wore a British mod overcoat, “which buttoned all the way up the side, double-breasted – and I had to dance in it. And there was at least one night when I was rushing offstage, and just lying down, collapsing, tearing the buttons off. It’s a miracle I didn’t hurt the costume.”  

Lining up backstage for some sweet, sweet hydration.

But costume designers do try to work with the actors. For the ‘exotic’ look of Pericles — like something out of the Arabian Nights — designer Lyle Huchton has given the actors beautifully light, gossamer outfits, complete with harem pants, veils and fezzes. The costumes look more velvety and layered and densely spangled than they actually are.

Costume design certainly can help in extreme cases. An actor playing a long, physically demanding role like Hamlet or Cyrano rarely has a chance just to leave the stage and cool down. So his costume will have hidden pockets built in to hold ice packs against his torso. He’s more or less wearing an ice vest. When the actor does step backstage, he doesn’t change clothes, he swaps in new ice packs.

Audience members Susan Gregory Drexler and her husband Rob knew about the heat coming to see Pericles. It didn’t stop them: “This heat don’t bother me, I was born in June,” laughs Susan, a native Dallasite. She adds, “If you don’t think about it, it doesn’t bug you.”

Actually, Samuell Grand Park can be 5-10 degrees cooler than the surrounding city. And when the sun dips below the tree line, the temperature drops with it.  

Audiences and actors appreciate that – when our triple digits are here.

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  • Sara Weeks

    Cool story…kickstart for ice machine for Shakespeare Dallas? They currently
    do not have an ice machine

  • Les_Bergeron

    Sounds like an investment in Dallas ice machines may be worth it for next summer.