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Essay: From Greece to A Minnesota Parking Garage, My Great Outdoor Theater Odyssey

Liam Callanan

Lake Effect essayist Liam Callanan essayist goes on a thematic road trip.

Earlier this summer, I went on one of the world’s great outdoor theater odysseys, a 5,500 mile trek across the globe that not only skipped New York and London, but also, for that matter, any city with a population of more than 40,000.

In fact, the population at our first stop was roughly 10, unless you include my daughter and me, in which case it was 12. And the audience at our last stop was around 100—but it was in the darkened lower level of a parking garage, so it was hard to tell.

I should back up.

Survey your friends’ top summer destinations, and you’ll find a pattern emerges: the beach (any beach), a baseball game, fresh air, anywhere. Ask me and you’ll hear one word: a theater, any theater, as long as it’s outdoors.

I know some people—members of my own family—think differently. Watching a performance outdoors means sweating under sunlight, swatting at bugs at night, or worrying that the skies are about to pour. But for me, part of the drama in drama is the drama of watching it. Indoors, in the dark, the rest of the world too easily falls away. Outdoors, I really have to focus—and the actors really have to focus me—to make the story come alive.

And so they did this summer.

Credit Liam callanan
A panorama shot from the top of the Epidaurus Theater in Greece.

In late May, my 11-year-old daughter and I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit one of the oldest, and greatest theaters in the world, the ancient theater of Epidaurus. Located about two hours west of Athens in Peloponnesian Greece, Epidaurus saw its first stage productions nearly 2,400 years ago—and is still putting them on today. My daughter and I weren’t able to time our visit to see the theater in use—so on a lonely, sunny afternoon, we put it to use ourselves. The acoustics of this outdoor amphitheater are famous—its exacting geometry means even a whisper at centerstage can reach every last one of its 14,000 limestone seats. My daughter tried it, I tried it, the handful of other tourists tried it, and we were all held spellbound—not just by the sound of each other’s voices but by the fact that voices had been echoing on this hillside for almost two and half millennia.

Credit Liam Callanan
The Parking Garage theater and audience in Mankato, Minnesota.

Is it a stretch to say I felt something similar in a parking garage 10 days later in downtown Mankato, Minnesota? Not really. Another daughter—my oldest—and I were there for a festival that turned out to be even more clever and fun than its title: Shakespeare in the Park…ing Garage. Four short plays, all original riffs on Shakespeare, performed in the great outdoors, atop a parking garage with all downtown Mankato as a backdrop. Or that was the plan—a thunderstorm arrived and the production quickly moved downstairs so that actors and audience could have a roof over their heads. I had a play in the mix but what was more thrilling was to be part of that evening’s theater community, that seemed as ancient as it was instant. Seated on blankets and lawn chairs and benches (ours was claimed between acts; it was needed as a prop), people had come out at the start of summer to watch other people cast a spell. A simple spell—words and gestures, some costumes, props. Not unlike what you might find at any outdoor theater—even Epidaurus. I mentioned to some people how sitting in that parking garage felt very much like sitting in those acoustically-perfect stone benches in Greece—and they were shocked.

But I swear: as the audience quieted in anticipation of the next play’s first words, you could hear from as far away as the furthest parking space, from as far away as Greece, from as far away as the most distant spot on theater history’s timeline. Because as the rain fell, the light faded, and the night air swirled, none of it mattered. After more than 2000 years, the show indeed goes on.

Liam Callanan is a professor of English at UW-Milwaukee, and author of the novels All Saints and The Cloud Atlas. Read more about his trip to Greece with his daughter in The Wall Street Journal.