Kevin McKillip knows what it's like to suffer for his art.
Since college, the classically trained actor has spent the better part of his summers performing Shakespeare under the stars.
He battled a bat during "The Comedy of Errors" and caught a splinter in his behind "the size of a cross country ski" playing Hamlet's death scene. Backstage during First Folio Theatre's 2007 production of "Richard III," McKillip lost his footing on damp grass, hit his head on a support beam and nearly knocked himself unconscious.
He has sweated. He has shivered. And he has fought with swords in the rain on outdoor stages in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.
And he's loved every minute of it.
Open-air theater has a certain allure for McKillip -- and for audiences. Local theater lovers can see outdoor productions at, among other places, Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook and along the lakeshore in Chicago.
Part of the attraction, McKillip says, has to do with the tradition of performing 400-year-old works outdoors as they were originally staged. But it's more than that.
"There are no walls. Clearly there is no ceiling. Artistically, it gives all of us an opportunity to make bolder choices as actors and push creatively, dramatically and comedically farther, because we have that much more space to fill," he said.
For actors and audiences alike, outdoor theater offers "moments of magic" not easily duplicated indoors, said McKillip, a longtime artistic associate with Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre who has performed at Court, Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare theaters and is a regular at Peninsula Players in Door County, Wis.
Much of it has to do with the beauty of the setting, of being under the stars, watching a performance, said David Rice, co-founder and executive director of First Folio.
"There's nothing like live theater and there's nothing like live theater outdoors ... performed against beautiful backdrops," said Bradley Baker, artistic director of Theatre-Hikes, which performs at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, as well as various Chicago locations.
Appealing as it is, live theater outdoors poses challenges, particularly for actors trying to stay cool under hot lights in the summer heat.
"The elements can be brutal and (performing outdoors) requires focus. But I think there's fun and adventure in that," said Halena Kays, artistic director for The Hypocrites and co-curator of Chicago's Theater on the Lake season.
But by far, "the hardest thing is to be dead onstage in an outdoor theater," said Alison Vesely, First Folio co-founder and artistic director.
"The bugs will find you," agreed Rice. "Inevitably a fly or cicada or mosquitoes will decide you're a good landing pad."
And if you're playing dead, you can't even swat them away.
Designers face their own obstacles. Props and sets have to withstand the elements. Lighting designers have to account for the transition from dusk to dark. Sound designers have to deal with ambient noise, which may include sirens, airplanes and, in Oak Brook, the occasional howling coyote.
Costumers must keep the heat in mind, says Jack Hickey, artistic director of the 39-year-old Oak Park Festival Theatre, who survived playing Falstaff thanks to cold packs the designers sewed into his heavily padded costume. This year Hickey says they're compensating by staging their production of "Twelfth Night" as a beach party film. Unfortunately, says Hickey, OPFT's second summer show "Amadeus," doesn't lend itself to such liberties.
First Folio designers use light fabrics to achieve period looks and supply the actors with shanty cloths soaked in water and Sea Breeze to keep them cool without wetting the costumes. Theatre-Hikes resolves the dilemma by representing period costumes with a single piece or a silhouette.
"We rely on the audience's suspension of disbelief and their imagination," Baker said.
It takes a robust, dedicated team of artists and actors to produce shows outdoors. That's especially true of Theatre-Hikes ensemble members, who during arboretum performances trek up to two miles carrying costumes and props.
Audiences are equally hearty, said Rice, who illustrated his point by recalling the closing night of the company's inaugural performance of "The Tempest" in 1997.
The rain started at the top of act two. When it became clear it wasn't going to stop, the stage manager asked the actors what they wanted to do. They voted to continue, and Rice got the same response from members of the audience, who applauded and shouted for them to finish the show.
"We finished in the rain and not a single audience member left," said Rice, who acknowledges precipitation is a perennial concern that forces First Folio to cancel, on average, three performances a year.
During its worst summer, OPFT canceled six performances because of rain, Hickey said.
"If it's a light drizzle, we'll try to work through it. But there are safety considerations, especially if there's stage combat," said Hickey, whose company produced outdoor shows exclusively for 32 years before adding a third indoor production in 2006.
Weather isn't the only issue open-air theater companies confront. Sometimes fauna intrudes; occasionally to fine effect, like the time rabbits joined the audience for an OPFT performance of "Of Mice and Men." Their presence actually suited the story, Hickey said.
First Folio's apple-munching deer, on the other hand, merely distracted the audience.
"With any live theater, you never know what's going to happen," said Theater-Hikes' Baker. "Add nature and the elements and there are so many more things you wouldn't expect: a butterfly flying through, the wind dusting up at the perfect time."
A spider dropped from the ceiling and spun a web mid-stage during a Barrel of Monkeys performance at Theater on the Lake, Kays said. The actors improvised around the industrious arachnid, recalled Kays, who likens performing at the Chicago Park District's annual storefront theater showcase to doing a show at summer camp.
Hickey feels the same way about his Oak Park productions.
"We start out with natural light. As the play goes on, the sun sets. The lights we have focus on the stage, and there's a small ember glowing in the darkness. It's like being around a campfire at night," he said.
And yet, not every actor shares these performers' enthusiasm. Some are bothered by bugs or swampy grass, McKillip says. They usually don't stick around long.
"But for everyone who complains about the mosquitoes, there's someone standing next to him saying, 'isn't it sensational to do the final act of "The Merchant of Venice" with a full moon over the stage, the air silent and the stars as clear as anything you've ever seen?'" he said. "Those are the people I stand next to."
"If this was a bad idea, we would have learned it by now," he said. "There is a reason people continue to produce outdoors" and a reason audiences patronize those productions.
"The reason is with all the drawbacks ... it affords opportunities you don't get anywhere else. And it can lead to moments of magic."
Outdoor theater options this summer
First Folio Theatre
June 19-Sept. 1 at Mayslake Peabody Estate Forest Preserve, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Shows: "Cymbeline" (June 19-July 21); "The Rainmaker" by N. Richard Nash (July 31-Sept. 1)
Motivated by tradition as well as an affection for nature, David Rice and Alison C. Vesely founded First Folio Theatre and began producing shows outdoors on the grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate in 1997. They expanded the season to include indoor productions in 2004.
They typically alternate comedies and tragedies, and over the last four years have averaged about 3,400 patrons each summer. First Folio's production of "The Rainmaker" marks the second year the company has presented two plays during the summer.
Oak Park Festival Theatre
June 13-Aug. 24 at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park, (708) 445-4450 or oakparkfestival.com
Shows: "Amadeus," by Peter Shaffer (June 13-July 13); "Twelfth Night" (July 18-Aug. 24)
Now in its 39th season, Oak Park Festival Theatre produced shows outdoors exclusively for 32 seasons, before adding an indoor production in 2006.
"There's something about the outdoors that allows that extra theatricality," said artistic director Jack Hickey, who finds outdoor productions foster a sense of community among theatergoers.
Many audience members bring picnic dinners and refreshments to the performances, which typically attract between 100 and 120 people.
July 6-Oct. 27 at The Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle (also Blue Island, North Park Village Nature Center and The Pullman State Historic Site), (872) 202-4963 or theater-hikes.org
Shows: "The Three Musketeers" by Ken Ludwig (July 6-28); "James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl (Aug. 3-25); "A Walk With Mark Twain" adapted by David Birney (Sept. 7-29); "The Passion of Dracula" by Bob Hall and David Richmond (Oct. 5-27)
Because the company requires all its venues to have an indoor space in case of inclement weather, Theatre-Hikes has canceled only one performance in the last seven years, said artistic director Bradley Baker.
The company attracts about 100 theatergoers to the Morton Arboretum, where the cast and the audience typically hike about two miles during a performance. For that reason, says Baker, "we bring only what we need to tell the story."
The first Sunday in the month is a low-impact, half-mile hike over paved paths that accommodate strollers and wheelchairs, said Baker, who recommends audience members wear comfortable clothes and shoes and bring a reusable water bottle and a chair or blanket to sit on.
"Our slogan is 'stories that move you.' It's punny but true," Baker said. "You'll experience the sunshine, maybe some rain and an afternoon of family-friendly theater."
Theater on the Lake
June 12-Aug. 11 at Fullerton Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (312) 742-7994 or chicagoparkdistrict.com
Shows: "The Bear Suit of Happiness" from The New Colony (June 12-16); "Blackademics" from MPAACT (June 19-23); "Lula del Ray" from Manual Cinema (June 26-30); "There is a Happiness That Morning Is" from Theater Oobleck (July 10-14); "That's Weird, Grandma" from Barrel of Monkeys (July 17-21); "The Quality of Life" from The Den Theatre (July 24-28); "Long Way Go Down" from Jackalope Theatre (July 31-Aug. 4); "The Chi-Town Clown Revue" from Chicago Physical Theater (Aug. 7-11)
Now in its 61st season, the summer series showcases Chicago storefront theater productions, offering theatergoers "a taste of what makes Chicago great," said co-curator Halena Kays, adding "we try to create a festival experience."
Of the eight productions staged in a three-sided theater that seats about 300, two are family-friendly.
"We try to give (audiences) a wide gambit of options," said Kays.
"The lake and park district make it possible for people who don't see theater all year long to come down and experience it in a welcoming environment," Kays said.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Shakespeare in the Park
July 25-Aug. 25 at 18 Chicago neighborhood parks, (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Show:Free performances of David H. Bell's 75-minute adaptation of "The Comedy of Errors"
American Players Theatre
June 8-Oct. 20 at 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wis., (608) 588-2361 or americanplayers.org
Outdoors: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (June 8-Oct. 6); "Too Many Husbands" by W. Somerset Maugham (June 14-Sept. 14); "Hamlet" (June 21-Oct. 4); "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" by Tom Stoppard (Aug. 2-Oct. 5); "All My Sons" by Arthur Miller (Aug. 9-Sept. 23)
Indoors: "Molly Sweeney" by Brian Friel (June 8-Sept. 28); "Dickens in America" by James DeVita (June 26-Oct. 19); "Antony and Cleopatra" (Aug. 11-Oct. 20)
June 11-Oct. 20 at 4351 Peninsula Players Road, Fish Creek, Wis., (920) 868-3287 or peninsulaplayers.com
Shows: "Saloon" by Terry Twyman (June 11-30); "Once Upon a Ponzi Time" by Joe Foust (July 3-21); "Sunday in the Park With George" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (July 24-Aug. 11); "The Game's Afoot" by Ken Ludwig (Aug. 14-Sept. 1); "Miracle on South Division Street" by Tom Dudzick (Sept. 4-Oct. 20)