'We’re very keen to ensure that each show has its own unique feel' - setting the scene for festival at St Albans' Roman Theatre

Simon Nicholas, design director of the Roman Theatre Open Air Festival.

Simon Nicholas, design director of the Roman Theatre Open Air Festival. - Credit: Simon Nicholas

Theatre company OVO and the Maltings Theatre are bringing open-air productions back to the Roman Theatre in St Albans this summer.

But how do you stage shows at the Verulamium venue? A Roman theatre with a stage rather than an amphitheatre, the site in Bluehouse Hill dates from 140AD.

Design director Simon Nicholas explained the technical challenges of creating a theatre festival at the historic location. He said: "The Roman Theatre is an extremely important archaeological site.  

Simon Nicholas, design director of the Roman Theatre Open Air Festival, at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans.

Simon Nicholas, design director of the Roman Theatre Open Air Festival, at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans. - Credit: Simon Nicholas

"It's protected by English Heritage, so there are understandable restrictions as to what we can and can’t do.

"For example, we can’t put a single tent peg into the ground so everything that we have to fix – such as the canopy over the sound and light desk – has to be weighted down with dozens of stage weights. This year we’ll have about half a tonne of stage weights on site."  

Simon's first production at The Roman Theatre was As You Like It in 2016 – a thoroughly modern taken on Shakespeare’s classic pastoral comedy.  

"Adam Nichols [artistic director of The Maltings Theatre and The Roman Theatre Open Air Festival] was directing and had the play set in 1967 – complete with campervan and psychedelia," said Simon.

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"That was my first insight into the challenges of working in such an historic location.

"I realised there was no physical way we could get a real campervan onto the site – we’re talking over 2,000 years’ worth of history here – and, with no way to drive one in we quickly realised we’d have to be very creative to replicate the real thing.  

"We had a lot of ideas before settling on designing a wooden campervan and making it like an enhanced garden shed!

"It came apart, which enabled us to transport it onto the set and re-assemble it and it looked as near as it could to a classic hippy vehicle."

Last year's festival ran for two weeks with a programme of different shows and COVID rules for cast, crew and audiences.  

Simon said: "It meant the stage had to work for more than just one production; audience seats had to be legally distanced from each other in line with government regulations; the dressing tents had to be big enough for all the actors and cleaned every night, hand sanitiser stations everywhere and our front of house team helped our audience reach their seats – and the bar! – comfortably and without fear of bumping into anyone else."

This summer’s festival sees a variety of shows, including OVO/Maltings Theatre productions Peter Pan, The Winter's Tale and The Comedy of Errors.

The Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans will stage the Maltings Theatre's Roman Theatre Open Air Festival this summer.

The Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans will be the setting for the Maltings Theatre's Roman Theatre Open Air Festival this summer. - Credit: Simon Nicholas

"This year’s staging is very exciting," said Simon. "We’re turning it around 180 degrees and building the stage directly opposite where it was last year.

"This means we’ll have five levels of staging from the banks, where the audience sat last year, down to the staging in the auditorium.

"It will enable us to utilise lots more space for each production."

Each of the shows presents different challenges. Simon said: "Peter Pan brings its own challenges with its flying sequences: while we can’t hang flying wires from clouds or frames, the staging levels will enable the cast to employ physical theatre in a very magical way.

"The Comedy of Errors is set in a colourful seaside resort, think 1950s kiss-me-quick hats, seaside postcards and a lot of karaoke singing! The design is very bright and cheerful and I think will be beautifully enhanced by the magic of The Roman Theatre.

The casts for Peter Pan, The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale have been announced.

The casts for Peter Pan, The Comedy of Errors and The Winter's Tale have been announced. - Credit: OVO / Maltings Theatre / Rob Ryan

"The Winter's Tale takes place in two very different locations; austere Sicily and lush Bohemia. At the beginning of the play we’ll convey the sharpness and harshness of Sicily by using a simple set, scaffolding, stark trees… and as we journey to Bohemia we’ll be using gorgeous colours, fabrics, lovely lighting.

"The key to The Winter’s Tale is the transition through the seasons. We start in the cold bleakness of winter and follow the seasons into Bohemia and by the time we return to Sicily, it’s much more about the beauty of winter.

"Ultimately we’re very keen to ensure that each show has its own unique feel."

The festival's design director estimates it will take about five days "to build the stage, the dressing rooms, the new bar, the lighting and sound desks, to rig up all the lights, to wire it up for sound, and to arrange all the seating and ramps to ensure full accessibility and an entirely safe environment for everyone visiting and working there".

He added: "And, of course, we bring in our own generator and toilets.

"The experience of working at this incredible site is second to none; as a crew we feel really honoured to be able to work there to make the shows happen."


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