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At Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, the constant drone of planes is part of the act

Stephanie Wolf

When performing at an outdoor venue, especially in a city park, ambient noise is to be expected.

But at Central Park in Old Louisville, Kentucky Shakespeare has a particular acoustic challenge: low-flying air traffic.

“So there’s this thing we do called the ‘plane pause,’” actor Mollie Murk said.

No other outdoor space Murk has performed in has quite the “plane prominence” as this amphitheater. They explained that some of the plane noise, the more distant aircrafts overhead, is “not even a problem.”

“But sometimes, especially in the nighttime, you can see the lights coming,” Murk said. “And I know, OK, that one’s going to come really close to us and be really loud in like five to seven seconds.”

Too loud to hear dialogue, even with the actors mic-ed, which means actors must quickly figure out how to fill the time until the plane has passed.

In a recent performance of the slapstick play “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the aircraft soared over after an actor delivered a rather on-the-nose line: “Nay, do not fly.”

Then the cast froze.

And froze.

Learning how to handle a “plane pause” is just part of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival gig. The amphitheater is a few miles from the Louisville airport, and something that will come as no surprise to many Louisvillians, the planes are not only loud, but frequent, as the airport is also a hub for UPS.

Everyone has their own approach to “plane pauses”

“You’re here long enough, and you have to accept it,” said Jon Huffman, who has performed with Kentucky Shakespeare on and off since 1980. “Accepting it makes it easier to navigate.”

Actor Keith McGill said sometimes it’s like a game of hot potato.

“Actors, if they hear the plane coming, they’ll speed up a hair just to get their line out,” McGill said. “And it’s like, now you’re stuck with it, you’re stuck with the plane pause? What are they gonna do?”

Gregory Maupin recalled a show of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” set right after World War I. He yelled “something about the Kaiser,” and dove behind a bench as if the plane were a bomber.

Maupin also delivered a memorable “plane pause” earlier this season in a performance of “Twelfth Night.” The plane approached as Maupin was singing. He chose to hold his note the entire duration of the “plane pause.”

Some feel comedies are easier because you can turn it into a joke.

“There are people who are so funny, and able to fill it with such masterfully crafted comedy, and it does lead to some pretty funny situations,” Murk said.

McGill, however, prefers the tragedies.

“Because 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, walk and try to find the next angry words I’m going to say,” he said. “So it lends itself more into incorporating it into the play.”

Some shows have only a few plane pauses. But this summer has been particularly brutal.

Natalie Chaudoin, director of public relations at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport, said there’s been “pavement rehabilitation work” on the east runway since the spring. Much of that maintenance has been occurring on the weekends and requires that it be temporarily shut down, pushing more planes to fly closer to the venue.

“The approach for Runway 17R/West Runway does go immediately over Central Park,” Chaudion told WFPL News in an email.

The record so far this Kentucky Shakespeare Festival season is around 20 planes in one night.

Maupin said anticipating the possibility of planes “keeps you on your toes” during the show. But there are limits.

“It’s nice to do the whole show as if you’re waiting for a plane until there have been too many. At which point, forget what I said. It’s terrible and I wish it would stop.”

In Shakespeare’s time, the acoustics weren’t pristine either 

Carla Della Gatta, an assistant professor at Florida State University who specializes in the auditory experience of Shakespeare’s plays, said those early modern theater actors had to deal with all kinds of noise and audience reactions.

“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,” she said, adding that it wasn’t total mayhem.

Controlled environments are a modern-day expectation of theater, Della Gatta continued. Shakespeare wrote for the technology and mechanisms of his time.

“Much of what happens in Shakespeare is on the part of the audience to imagine because the dialogue tells us that’s what we need to do,” she said. “We know that it’s nighttime because the characters are going to hint at us or tell us directly that it is nighttime.”

He also wrote in a way that embraces improvisation, she added.

“This type of interplay is actually the pleasure of theater, that it is unstable, that it is open… And 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.”

That interplay is very much alive at Kentucky Shakespeare.

Producing artistic director Matt Wallace said the “plane pauses” can spark unexpected magic with those out in the crowd.

“The audience is with us for it very often,” he said. “The plane bits get applause and we’re all experiencing it together with live theater.”

A disclaimer: Kentucky Shakespeare is among the financial supporters of Louisville Public Media, which WFPL News is a part of. Additionally, LPM is a media sponsor of the company’s summer festival.

Stephanie Wolf
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