Shakes on a plane: Airplanes keep interrupting Shakespeare in the Park, so actors improvise

Fans of Kentucky Shakespeare know the feeling. You’re sitting in the park, enjoying a show performed by the oldest, free Shakespeare company in America. Suddenly, there’s a distant rumble. Thunder? No. A train on the near by tracks, no… Look! Up in the sky!

The rumble gets louder, the audience’s eyes snap back to the stage to enjoy a moment that has by now become a favorite for longtime fans.

That moment when the screaming jet-powered turbines drown out the sound from the stage, and we get to watch those poor bastards up there try to figure out what to do until the rumbles and screams from above subside.

Through hundreds of actors, dozens of plays and a half dozen artistic directors, one single performer, or perhaps a character, has been consistently featured in the performances at the C. Douglas Ramey amphitheater in Central Park: The airplane.

And the actors at KY Shakes are adept at navigating the difficulty of competing with jet engines.

Comedy Tonight

“If it’s a comedy, you can acknowledge it and use it,” said longtime Kentucky Shakespeare cast member Jon Huffman.

Classic responses include everyone onstage slowly looking up and giving the plane an annoyed look, maybe biting their thumb at it. A stupid or timid character might give a goofy shiver, feigning fear.

But there is a limit to this approach.

“Once, or twice a show, after that the joke is done, it’s not funny anymore,” said Huffman.

Alisha Espinosa, an actor from from Missouri, is in her first season with Kentucky Shakespeare, and her first experience battling the auditory supremacy of airplanes. Espinosa said the comedic responses are a little more daunting for a first timer: “[It makes me] a little more nervous on Much Ado, because on the comedies, the onus is on you to make a joke.”

This season’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of Shakespeare’s best, has been drawing record-breaking crowds for the company, and it’s a chance to see two masters of improvisation and humor.

Abigail and Greg Maupin play opposite each other as Beatrice and Benedict, a couple who mock and ridicule each other, swearing they’ll never fall in love. It’s great comedy, but comedy is all in the timing, which a 747 can really screw up, unless you can make second-by-second adjustments.

Abigail Maupin explained how the jokes can still work: “[You’re] thinking two lines ahead, can I make this joke work? If they’re gonna laugh here, that means I need to throw in that extra three seconds into that line and a half ahead… it turns into a lot of math.”

The pauses in comedy can turn into surreal and hilariously drawn out moments. Huffman said that the audience is willing to follow the actors into these absurdities.

“I think the audience is definitely on our side,” Huffman said. “In a perfect universe, none of us would have to deal with [airplanes], but the audience is sympathetic to our plight and will stay will us.”

Tragedy Tonight

But when the two hours on the stage is tragic — or even a somber moment in a history — there are a somewhat different set of skills that come into play.

Espinosa, a self-described “rookie learning from the pros,” isn’t as worried about the more somber instances of the sudden interruptions.

“In the tragedy, we’ve all just been playing with the idea of stretching out the sounds, or playing with dramatic sounds,” Espinosa said. “The ‘dramatic pause land,’ I’m less worried about that.”

Playing through by stretching out sounds is an option that has only really become feasible in recent years. One of artistic director Matt Wallace’s first big moves when he took charge was to raise money for a fleet of new wireless microphones. Before the new mics, fighting against the airplanes wasn’t much of an option.

Abigail Maupin said the mics have created something of a generation gap in the way performers handle the airplane problem: “I’ve been noticing the people who worked before the mics have more tendency to really hold — like, take a long hold.”

For Abigail Maupin that hold isn’t just a random cessation of speaking.

“You have to think ahead a little bit,” she explained, before giving LEO an almost real time explanation of the thought process. “You can see the plane, or you can hear it coming, and you have to start tracking your lines in your head, as you’re saying some, thinking just far enough ahead to say, okay it should get here about the middle of the next two lines, there’s gotta be a place for me to pause… yes, I’m gonna speed up, or no I’m gonna slow down.”

Maupin also considers how the pause will affect what she’s saying dramatically. It’s easy to find a place in the rhythm to stop, harder to find a place that doesn’t break the tension.

She gave a for-instance from the current KY Shakes production of “Richard II,” in a scene where she laments the murder of her husband, and begs her brother-in-law to exact bloody revenge.

“That scene, it’s so hard to stop without feeling you’re loosing momentum,” Maupin said. “I sped through the first main thought, until I knew there was a spot where there was a thought change, and a tactic change, because that’s the only logical place to stop.”

Comedy or tragedy, pausing or fighting through, keeping an eye on how the pros and the rookies handle this novel element of outdoor theatre adds another layer of enjoyment to an already rich experience.

You can watch Maupin, Huffman, Espinosa and all the other actors take arms against a sea of airplanes most nights through July 23 as they perform “Richard II,” “Julius Caesar” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” All shows start at 8 p.m., at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in Central Park, 1340 S. Fourth St. For a full schedule of performances, check out Kentucky Shakespeare online.