The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster celebrates 25 years of open air theatre

PUBLISHED: 14:28 01 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:38 20 February 2013

Merlin and The Legend of King Arthur presented by The Dukes in Williamson Park, Lancaster, from July 8-August 13. Photograph by Darren Andrews

Merlin and The Legend of King Arthur presented by The Dukes in Williamson Park, Lancaster, from July 8-August 13. Photograph by Darren Andrews

As The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster celebrates its 25th year of promenade performances in Williamson Park, we go behind the scenes to see what makes these shows so successful<br/>Photography by Darren Andrews

Many people look forward to a change of scene at this time of year and the theatre folk at The Dukes in Lancaster are no exception. While many theatres remain dark during July and August, a team from The Dukes travels just a mile up the hill to Williamson Park to stage the UKs biggest outdoor walkabout theatre event.

Its a well worn route for The Dukes, as this summer marks its 25th outdoor season. This years offering, Merlin and The Legend of King Arthur, will play to an audience of thousands during its run between July 8th and August 13th. But producing such a rare form of theatre is no walk in the park. It takes months of planning and preparation.

Dukes director Joe Sumsion is hoping to cast his own brand of magic over the production. Its his responsibility to choose the play audiences will see more than a year in advance.

I think that big, epic stories like Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur work particularly well in the park environment, says Joe, whose first experience of working on one of these shows was in 1988 when his role as assistant stage manager including mucking out the pigs appearing in As You Like It.

The play has to work for three generations and were especially interested in it being an interactive experience. The audience needs to feel part of the drama.

Theres also nothing quite like the experience of seeing things for the first time so we like the audience to discover new areas of the park during the show.

Thats why, in this special anniversary year, after numerous reccies have been done to make sure they will work both dramatically and practically, two new locations in the park, will become backdrops for some of the action.

During the run of the play, maintenance of the set, lights and props is ongoing. In this years show alone, The Dukes will use 16,500m of speaker cable, 5,700m of mains cable, 4,500m of data cable, 4,000m of cable in the trees, at least 90 floodlights and 25 other hanging lights in the trees and 15 audio amplifiers.

Production and operations manager, John Newman Holden says: We often get calls from other theatre companies asking for advice on producing outdoor promenade theatre.

Its very difficult because there are lots of restrictions and all weathers to contend with. But we did pioneer promenade theatre here in Lancaster and were now national leaders in this field.

Alison Heffernan designs everything for the show including a dragon, a Round Table and costumes for the eight-strong cast. Practicality is just as important as spectacle, she says. Costumes must be easy to wash and dry and be comfortable for actors to wear come rain or shine. Footwear is particularly important for performers needing to run, jump or even fight during scenes set anywhere from woods to grassy banks.

The behind-the-scenes team moved in to the park at the beginning of June to begin their work and a week later, the cast, chosen from more than 1,000 applicants, arrived for rehearsals.

And thats when the hard work really begins: Rehearsing in the park is unpredictable so everyone has to be quite flexible, says Joe. But its all about creating those magic moments.

Its a privilege to direct a park show; theres a lot of directors who would want to do it. I love being outdoors and directing plays and this is a rare chance to do both.

Magic moments

Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream was The Dukes first ever promenade production in Williamson Park, opening on Midsummers Day, June 24, 1987.

The actors who have achieved film and television fame after appearing in The Dukes park shows include: Andy Serkis (Golum in The Lord of the Rings; King Kong and Ian Drury in Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll); Cherylee Houston (Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street) and Andy Wear (Alun Morris in The Royal)

Lancaster actor, Ian Blower, is the most experienced park actor to date with ten shows under his belt.

In terms of attendance, The Hobbit was the most popular park show, attracting a total audience of 21,474 people in 1994.

Over the past 25 years, 460,000 people have attended The Dukes promenade plays, making it the UKs biggest outdoor walkabout theatre event.

Eight directors have brought their own special touch to The Dukes promenade season over 25 years: Jonathan Petherbridge, Ian Forrest, Jon Pope, Han Duijvendak, Simon Corble, Ian Hastings, Joe Sumsion, and Amy Leach.

From 1988-98, The Dukes presented two promenade productions in Williamson Park, usually a Shakespeare play and a show targeted to attract a family audience.

Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur will be The Dukes 36th promenade production in Williamson Park.

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