Ice House

How Do Shakespeare Festival Actors Survive the Houston Heat?

To sweat or not to sweat: That is the question.

By Abby Ledoux June 22, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead

For all 43 years of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, a major player has remained unseen, but everyone has felt its presence: the heat. It’s an inescapable reality that cast, crew, and audience contend with each summer when UH produces a pair of plays at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. This season brings Comedy of Errors and Hamlet, from July 27 through August 5.

To perform is to participate in the “decathlon of acting,” says HSF artistic director Jack Young. The Bard’s works are notoriously wordy—averaging around 1,000 lines an hour—and physically demanding, requiring feats of athleticism for actors sweating beneath the weight of intricate, period-specific costumes.

Last year Young played Richard III, a role that included wearing a prosthetic hunchback topped with layers of clothing and, eventually, armor. He trained for months before taking the stage, swimming and traipsing around his block in a heavy vest and ankle weights. Actors in this year’s Comedy of Errors get off easier—the play is set in a seaport, which calls for cooler clothes—but as it’s a farce, there’s a lot of running around stage.

Hamlet, set in Denmark, presents the unique challenge of conjuring winter. To beat the heat, lightweight linens are treated to look like polished, darker fabrics, with wrists, ankles, and necks exposed whenever possible, as these are places that “bleed heat,” Young says.

There are small mercies, like air-conditioning pumped through the Miller’s floorboards and jugs of water and Gatorade placed strategically offstage—the company will go through several cases per performance.

“The guys who really suffer are the guys on the spotlights,” Young says. “They’re up there holding these light cannons, and the ceiling they’re under is metal and has been sitting in the Houston sun all day.”

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