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Outdoor theaters have to compete with a lot of noise including low-flying planes


The cadence of Shakespeare's work may be as important as the words themselves. So what happens when something keeps disrupting that flow, something like low-flying air traffic? Stephanie Wolf of member station WFPL has this story of how one Shakespeare company in Louisville, Ky., has incorporated the constant drone of planes.

STEPHANIE WOLF, BYLINE: Kentucky Shakespeare's summer venue is outdoors in a city park, so there's going to be competing noises - cars, trains, sirens, wildlife. But when a plane flies low over the amphitheater - and I mean really low - all you hear is this.


MOLLIE MURK: So there's this thing we do called the plane pause.

MARTIN: Actor Mollie Murk says no other outdoor space they've performed in has quite the plane prominence as this one.

MURK: Like, a plane that we're hearing right now - that's a little bit further away. Like, that's not even a problem. But especially in the nighttime, you can see the lights coming. And I know, like, OK, that one's going to come really close to us and be really loud in, like, five to seven seconds.

WOLF: Too loud to hear dialogue. That means actors must quickly figure out how to fill the time till the plane has passed. In a recent performance of Shakespeare's slapstick play, "The Merry Wives Of Windsor," the aircraft soared over after an actor delivered a rather on-the-nose line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Page) Nay, do not fly. I think we have watched you now.

WOLF: In case you didn't get that, he said, nay, do not fly. But of course, you can't really hear it because of the plane. Learning how to handle a plane pause is just a part of the gig. The ampitheater is a few miles from the Louisville airport. The planes are not only loud but frequent, as the airport is also a hub for UPS. Actor Keith McGill says sometimes people try to pass the buck.

KEITH MCGILL: Actors - if they hear the plane coming, they'll speed up a hair just to get their line out. And it's like, OK, now you're stuck with the plane pause. What are you going to do? What are you going to do?

WOLF: Everyone has their own method to incorporate the pause. One actor recalled a show of "The Two Gentlemen Of Verona," set right after World War I. He dove behind a bench as if the plane was a bomber. Some feel comedies are easier because you can turn it into a joke. McGill prefers the tragedies.

MCGILL: 'Cause if you're in the middle of a really heated - and I'm talking to you and I'm so angry and - I could just take a moment, just walk and try to find the next angry words I'm going to say.

WOLF: Some shows have only a few plane pauses. Others have many. The record so far this summer is 20 in one night. But back in Shakespeare's time, the acoustics weren't pristine either. Carla Della Gatta teaches at Florida State University. She specializes in the auditory experience of Shakespeare's plays and says those actors had to deal with all kinds of noise.

CARLA DELLA GATTA: People did not sit quietly, and the audience had the power to say things to the actors and even change what was being performed if they didn't like it.

MARTIN: Della Gatta says controlled environments are a modern-day expectation. She thinks Shakespeare wrote in a way that embraces improvisation.

DELLA GATTA: This type of interplay is actually the pleasure of theater. That it is unstable, that it is open - that's actually what keeps us going back to seeing Shakespeare, is that it is different every time that we go back to see it.

WOLF: That interplay is very much alive at Kentucky Shakespeare. Actors say the planes, while annoying at times, also take their performances to new heights.


WOLF: For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Wolf in Louisville, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephanie Wolf