How do you navigate a theater performance in a pandemic? By recruiting one of the Box Canyon’s most crucial, well, players for guidance advice.
This person will not be on stage when “As You Like It” debuts Saturday night. For that matter, no one will: Telluride Theatre’s annual Shakespeare In the Park presentation will be performed where the Bard’s play is meant to take place — in a forest.
How live theater even managed to get the go-ahead to be performed this summer in Telluride at all … well, thereby hangs a tale (as a memorable expression from “As You Like It” goes).
To pull it off, director Colin Sullivan worked closely with San Miguel County’s Public Health Director, Grace Franklin. The challenge was, “How do we reimagine” the annual Shakespeare performance so the show could still go on, Sullivan recalled.
“A month in from talking to Grace” about what the theater’s summer season might look like — if there was even to be one at all — “they had enough science (and health protocols) from within the state and the county that they were able to work with us and say, ‘Okay, listen. You want to do this thing without masks.’”
It’s impossible for an audience to perceive an actor’s expression — much less for his or her voice to carry — from behind a mask, Sullivan explained. Which brought up another point:
“You want these actors to be able to project, and to aspirate.” (Yet another reason masks had to be a no-go.)
The result was an extensive, intensive set of safety protocols.
“We have all this documentation, all these things that the county set up for us,” Sullivan said. “Without their guidance, and these measures, we couldn’t do this. We’re really fortunate to have a health director who was willing to talk with us every week.”
There has been big buy-in from the public, as well. Telluride Theatre was able to raise enough money online from its fans and supporters so that for the first time in 30 years of live summer Shakespeare performances, there’s no admission charge.
“We fundraised enough to make the show completely free,” Sullivan said. “Shakespeare in the Park has never been free; even during its first season, in 1990, a ticket cost $8.”
The director chose one of the Bard’s most delicious, light-hearted comedies to mark the (it must be said) unlikely opening of its summer season. “I believe we’re the only Shakespeare in the Park in Colorado this summer,” Sullivan pointed out, “and as far as I know, one of the only troupes performing.”
He takes care to make his troupe’s performances something that audiences can relate to.
“The idea of doing Shakespeare, for me, is to do it at the highest possible level,” Sullivan explained, “which means not destroying the text, but also making the play accessible. The costumes and the setting, in a time that we understand, is really important to me.”
The director set this rendition of “As You Like It,” “a really high level of pastoral comedy which is sort of about returning to the woods, and a sense of peace and freedom” in a logical spot: “Telluride in the mid to late 70s, when people were coming here to get away to what was kind of a magical world. I wanted to remind people of that this summer.”
The comedy poses its own challenges: it includes five songs, more than any other written by Shakespeare.
“In this play, the big thing is the music,” Sullivan noted. “We’re not using the original music, which was never scored.”
The lack of a specific musical score left the director free to substitute his own.
“The music itself has a poetry and a rhythm,” he pointed out. “I took the feeling of each piece and set it in the folk era of the mid-70s” (“pieces of songs” by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Band and more will be performed live).
One member of the cast not only plays a musician, she’s a musician in real life. What’s more, singer-songwriter Emily Scott Robinson — who is well known to local audiences, and whose album “Traveling Mercies” made Rolling Stone’s list of Top Country & Americana Albums for 2019 — will perform during “As You Like It.”
Scott has written a new piece, “The Time for Flowers,” which manages to capture the spirit of the late 1970s, and also to channel the present moment. “It sounds very old, but it’s actually about what we’re going through right now,” Sullivan said. “She’ll sing it during the play. The song frames the show.”
Telluride Theatre’s production of “As You Like It” runs Saturday, Aug. 22-Sunday, Aug. 30 (there’s no show Wed., Aug. 26). No seats remain on opening night, but reservations are still available for the remaining performances, Sullivan said. Visit telluridetheatre.org to learn more.