When is a free outdoor performance a thing of public service and culture and art, and when is it just noise?
That’s the debate currently being battled in Mill Valley, where residents near Old Mill Park have petitioned the city to reduce the auditory impact of an annual Shakespeare festival that comes to the park’s small amphitheater for nine afternoon performances over four weeks every summer.
“The duration of practices and performances needs to be addressed,” stated a letter, anonymously distributed throughout the Old Mill Park neighborhood and sent to the city. The letter went on to request “a substantial reduction” in the noise and other disruptions in the park.
According to the actors and artists of Curtain Theater—the nonprofit that has staged the productions annually for 19 years—the company is already complying with city ordinances prohibiting amplification of any kind in the park, along with other curfews, limitations and restrictions designed to limit the impact of the productions on residents.
Whatever the company has done or is doing, it’s not enough.
Or so insist the letter writers, who appear to have been stirred into action by last summer’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, a history play crammed with battle scenes and war trumpets. The suggestions in the letter include a request that the Curtain reduce its number of shows from nine to four, that it limit rehearsals in the park to just one or two, and that each rehearsal be much shorter.
The sound-battered citizens also want the city to limit the number of large weddings held in the park, and to some extent, their size and duration.
City rules have long allowed up to three events in the park per day, according to Jenny Rogers, director of arts and recreation for the city of Mill Valley. But in response to neighborhood feedback, large-scale events have recently been cut back to one per day. Food trucks have been eliminated, and all catering activities have been banned.
Many nearby residents would love to see such actions expanded even more, reversing the steady evolution of Old Mill from a neighborhood park into an event venue. At the very least, many would like the city to charge enough to make the aural inconvenience worth the trouble.
At the March 6 meeting of the commission, the public was invited to share its thoughts.
“I can hear every word of every rehearsal, and every performance, all through the day,” said Nell Marshall, who lives on Cascade Avenue, near the park. “There have been times I cannot take a work call at home, because even with my windows closed, the sound of the actors voices is so loud.”
Steve Beecroft, who lives right behind the park and serves on the board of the Curtain Theater, countered the call for fewer performances in the park, reminding the commissioners that the theater company provides its shows for free.
“I think it would be a travesty if a few loud complainers were able to dictate what happens in a park created for the benefit and enjoyment of all in our community,” he said, pointing out that the Curtain Theater has circulated its own petition with more than 700 signatures and 400 comments supporting the company. “If the number of performances were reduced, the Curtain would not be able to raise enough funds to continue.”
Linda Maxwell, who identified herself as having lived near Old Mill Park for 25 years, also addressed the impact of Shakespeare in the Park.
“While the audience hears one performance,” she said, “the neighborhood listens every weekend, for months, to the same play, including rehearsals and performances. I propose that the Curtain Theater compromise by agreeing to rehearse elsewhere. This would provide a needed balance, giving the neighborhood some peace and quiet to enjoy their weekend.”
According to Moore and Rogers, the group will return in the future with action items and recommendations. The commission is committed, Moore said, to finding a fair solution to the issues discussed by the public.
“We really are. We may not make everyone 100 percent happy,” added Rogers, “but we’re going to try to get as close as we possibly can.”