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The ultimate nemesis for actors in outdoor theater: those loud helicopters

The ultimate nemesis for actors in outdoor theater: those loud helicopters
A helicopter flies over the Hollywood Bowl. Actors have different approaches to coping with the noise during performances. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Raccoons, owls and rabbits may crash the stage and steal the scene in Shakespeare productions held in the great summer outdoors, but for many actors, there’s a more aggravating intruder hovering overhead: the helicopter.

“It's frustrating, and it's incredibly distracting for the audience,” said John Douglas Thompson, who played Cassius to Corey Stoll's Brutus in “Julius Caesar” at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York last summer. “You are competing against noise, and noise always wins.”

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Thompson’s solution is sometimes a simple pause, if the opportunity presents itself. But Stoll said pressing forward to maintain the play's flow matters more than a few missed lines.

“You have to trust your soundboard operator,” he said. “If you don't remind yourself with all these things that the crew has your back, it can become too much.”

Los Angeles Philharmonic fans have long suffered the buzz of helicopters over the Hollywood Bowl, but even the more intimate outdoor theaters in the region have had to cope with urban noise pollution. Before it moved to Griffith Park, the Independent Shakespeare Company started out next to a children's hospital with a helipad, so the actors learned to incorporate the frequent interruptions. In “The Tempest,” cast members would act as if they were hoping the chopper was coming to rescue them, recalled Managing Director David Melville.

But sometimes the show cannot go on. Four helicopters suddenly appeared overhead during an ISC production of “Macbeth” and stayed there. It turned out a hiker was lost in the park's woods. The show stopped for 45 minutes until the hiker was found. Most of the audience stayed and applauded.

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