The theater is moving outside to Fort Atkinson’s Barrie Park this weekend.
For the first time since the final performance of “Blackhawk!” in 1986, the Fort Atkinson Community Theatre is hosting an outdoor performance.
With the production designed to feel like an old-fashioned town picnic, audience members are encouraged to bring blankets, lawnchairs, snacks and beverages and settle in to enjoy a production of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2 and 3, at Barrie Park.
Unique to this setting for FACT is that the two performances of “Our Town” will be free to the public. Traditionally, there is a charge for performances; however, being in an outdoor environment, it is not feasible.
“That was not our main intention for this,” FACT President Jason Teeter said. “It is really more to showcase the facility and partner with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and do something fun that hopefully the community will enjoy.”
The play is divided into three acts, each lasting about half an hour and separated by 10-minute intermissions. Concessions will be sold during the intermissions with profits benefiting Family Promise of Jefferson County.
“The community is embracing the event,” Teeter said. “We are looking forward to it and hoping that it will be a success.”
“Our Town” rounds out a summer of outdoor entertainment at Barrie Park with a variety of music and now theatrical performances.
Since installation of restroom facilities earlier this spring, the park has played host to the 53rd season of the Fort Atkinson Community Band and has hosted the first two Fort Atkinson Summer Charity Concert events. “Our Town” signals yet another “first” for the improved park.
“It is obviously going to be a challenge to do an outdoor play because it is going to add a different element for the actors involved,” Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department director Scott Lastusky said. “I think it is going to attract people that wouldn’t normally purchase a ticket. It might draw more families and just drive-by interest; that can be a win-win, for the public to see a play outdoors and for FACT to draw people that normally don’t go to plays.”
Teeter noted that performing out side presents numerous uni que challenges and opportunities for the actors.
“In the theater, you have a very controlled environment with lights and sounds and everything,” he said. “You have a very controlled environment. Outside, you have very little control at all over things such as sound.”
Teeter cited the proximity to Robert Street and passing traffic. To address some of the noise concerns, the Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department has shut off the fountain in the park temporarily.
“It’s beautiful, but you would be surprised how loud it is when you are trying to talk over it,” Teeter said of the flowing water.
Also, because a sound system is installed at the park, the hope is to provide enough microphones in front of the stage to catch the voices of the actors and project them far out.
Lastusky noted that it will be a challenge to determine how best to arrange the sound system to ensure it is set up to allow all spectators to hear the actors.
“If we can accomplish this, we can pretty much take on anything else that would come up at Barrie Park,” he said. “We’re going to use this as kind of a trial to see how it works and whether we need to change our plans to how we were going to set it up as a more permanent sound system.”
Teeter said it has been made very clear to the actors that no wireless microphones would be utilized, and it is up to them individually to project more.
Aside from sound, perhaps the most significant challenge faced by the performers will be being at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“It looks like we’re going to be in the clear,” Teeter said of the scheduled performance times being negatively affected by the weather.
Rain dates are set for Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10. Each performance will be handled individually, so if Friday, Aug. 2 is rained out, that show will move to Aug. 9, while the scheduled Saturday, Aug. 3 show would move forward, weather permitting. For details on whether the show will go on, check www.fortfact.org.
“It’s exciting,” Teeter said of the outdoor challenge.
“Our Town” director Doug Reed said he came up with the idea of taking the play to the Barrie Park bandshell while out walking his dogs and seeing two families picnicking in the park.
Reed has directed at least 10 FACT shows over the past 15 years.
He presented FACT his idea of producing “Our Town” at the Barrie Park bandshell in early October 2012. At the time, Reed was not even aware of the ongoing improvements at the park, such as the new restrooms installed earlier this spring.
From his perspective, the bandshell seemed perfect for a performance of a play such as “Our Town,” which requires minimal set pieces such as tables, chairs and benches.
“It was neat when Doug pitched the idea to us about having an old-fashioned town picnic and then presenting one the most classic pieces of American literature,” Teeter said. “‘Our Town’ is very well-known in the theater world.”
FACT board members spoke with Lastusky, who was excited about the idea because he was looking for alternative ways to promote use of the park.
“Scott was very excited and very supportive in providing logistical support,” Teeter said. “The city is really pitching in and is 100 percent behind it.”
He noted that it was a unique opportunity to partner with the city and Parks and Recreation Department and do something new for the community.
Generally, it is up to the directors to present ideas to the FACT board about what shows they want to do and where they would like to do them. Thus, Teeter said, there is the potential for shows to be held at Barrie Park in the future.
“It is entirely possible, provided we have a director with the right show that would work in there, I would think we would,” he added.
Reed agreed, noting that if “Our Town” goes over well, FACT always could do something a little bigger in the future.
“It is really the perfect setting for this nice little quiet show,” he said. “It all has worked out exactly how I had it in my head.”
“I hope people show up and enjoy themselves having a old-fashioned picnic and watching the show,” Teeter said.
During its five decades, FACT has presented more than 130 plays of all kinds. Starting with “Harvey,” its plays have run the gamut from Shakespeare to popular Broadway musicals and even a homemade production telling the story of the Blackhawk War. Written by Fort Atkinson’s Bill Starke and titled “Blackhawk!”, the pageant won the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Award of Merit in 1973.
Based on the recollection of current members of FACT, it appears the last outdoor performance of a FACT production would have been the final show of “Blackhawk!” presented in 1986 for the city’s sesquicentennial. That was presented in the Fort Koshkonong stockade replica in Rock River Park.