Theatre Hikes performs The Hobbit at the North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N Pulaski Road.
Photo: Erica Gannett
“Magic comes from doing theater outdoors and how unpredictable nature can be,” says Frank Farrell, founder of Theatre-Hikes, the nature-bound theater company that came into full bloom ten years ago. “A bird will fly over a scene at just the right moment. One time, a squirrel jumped off a tree branch and landed right on my shoulder.”
Indeed, Farrell, an actor and avid hiker, sprouted the idea for Theatre-Hikes while running his lines during a country trek. “My voice sounded so good in the outdoors, and I began to look around and it just seemed like a natural progression,” he recalls.
Farrell eventually established the uncommon company, which asks its audience to hike from scene to scene along with the actors, in September 2001. Today the company primarily performs at two scenic venues—Morton Arboretum in Lisle and the city’s North Park Village Nature Center.
Artistic director Bradley Baker says he’s seen plenty of unexpected moments in the last five years. “In our production of Peter Pan, a group of kids came dressed up as pirates,” he recalls, “and they jumped into the scene to fight the Neverland kids.”
Audiences for these creative walks, which can range up to three miles, include everyone from toddlers (whose tendency to fidget finds an outlet here) to awestruck seniors. Adults typically enjoy the experience too—in fact, one previous performer, Kimberly Boulton, so loved her Theatre-Hikes experience, she developed a sister company in Boulder, Colorado.
“The kids love the action,” affirms Marilyn Baysek, special-events manager at the Morton Arboretum, who offers advice for first-timers: “Make sure to bring your water. Make sure to bring your bug spray. Do bring your lawn chairs for the longer scenes.”
Each year, the company packs several shows into its weather-condensed season. This year, they focus on stories with epic journeys: The season opener (which closed in July) was The Hobbit, while September brings the ambitious Around the World in 80 Days. Farrell says he’s excited about August’s The Wizard of Oz. “This is our second time doing the show,” he notes. “We’ve added lots of puppetry elements, which are a wonderful device.”
But the most successful device in the company’s arsenal is its deft incorporation of the woodsy locales. For example, North Park sports an often-utilized, hauntingly twisted tree stump that no props department could have dreamed up. Meanwhile, the actors change costumes in the shade nearby, which lends behind-the-scenes appeal.
Most important, Baker believes, “We offer up shows for the whole family.” Even the October production of horror classic Night of the Living Dead aims to be kid-friendly: “That one is going to be a blast,” he grins. “We are going to emphasize the comedy, and everyone is sure to have a great and rambling ride!” Hopefully that tree stump will trip up the zombies long enough for the audience to escape to the next scene.
To get moving with Theatre-Hikes, see Calendar and visit theatre-hikes.org.