California's Best Outdoor Summer Theaters

Summer Theater and Festivals: Drama Under the Stars

California summer nights are made for being outdoors, and what better way to spend a balmy summer evening than watching a theater performance?

The Golden State may be best known for entertainment on the silver screen, but it's also a place to see excellent live performances, summer theater, and summer theater festivals.

Even if you think you don't like stage plays, who could resist being outdoors in beautiful surroundings, snuggling up to your partner as an evening chill sets in? Imagine feeling the cool breeze brush against your skin as you watch some of the best performers act out plays both classic and new against a natural backdrop.

If that sounds like a delight, here are some of the best places to enjoy summer outdoor theater in California.

  • 01 of 08

    California Shakespeare Theater, Berkeley

    John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven at Cal Shakes
    ••• John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven at Cal Shakes. California Shakespeare and Kevin Berne

    Cal Shakes (as locals call it) stages four plays per season, two by The Bard and two other classic pieces, such as Uncle Vanya or Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

    The location is a natural amphitheater in the hills. You can take in the beauty of Northern California nature as you sit back and enjoy a good glass of wine and some outstanding performances.

    They've got plenty of things to explore and places to picnic. It's a good idea to arrive early with your picnic basket in hand and to hear what their docents have to say about what you're going to see. Get their schedule at the Cal Shakes website.

  • 02 of 08

    Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

    Tahoe Shakespeare Festival
    ••• Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Reno Tahoe Territory/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    At Lake Tahoe, the Shakespeare Festival is staged on the lake's shore, with the sky for a roof and Mother Nature for the walls. The players are good, but it's easy for the surroundings to upstage the acting. In a place as lovely as the shores of Tahoe, that's just fine with us. If you love theater and nature, you're sure to get some of the best of both worlds at this festival. 

    Visit the Tahoe Shakespeare Festival website to get some useful tips and find out what you need to know to enjoy it.

  • 03 of 08

    Mountain Play, Mt. Tamalpias, Marin County

    Watching the Mountain Play
    ••• Watching the Mountain Play. Nate Bolt/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Mountain Play is a San Francisco Bay Area favorite held in a natural amphitheater, making it a perfect "to-do" during summer nights. They produce one play per year, typically a musical performed on weekends, May through June or July. Showtime is in the afternoon, but many people take a picnic and turn it into an all-day experience. 

    Tickets and schedules are at the Mountain Play website.

  • 04 of 08

    Old Globe Theater, San Diego

    Old Globe Theatre in San Diego
    ••• Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Stefanie Seskin/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    In 1984, the Old Globe won a Tony Award for excellence in regional theatre. You can find out why by attending one of their outdoor performances during the warmer months. 

    Although their summer season includes outdoor Shakespeare performances, it's perhaps better known for the indoor productions it stages the rest of the year.

    Get a review, tips for how to see it, and all the other details in the Old Globe guide.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland

    Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
    ••• Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Jenny Graham

    We do realize that Ashland isn't in California, but it's close to the border and such an outstanding company that we wanted to be sure you knew about it. Their season runs for months, from spring through fall, with performances outdoors and indoors on several stages, making it the ideal destination to gorge on great theater. 

    If you've gone to all of the theaters as mentioned above, it may be time for you to head just north of the California border. Check out all the things you need to know to plan your trip at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website.

  • 06 of 08

    Theatricum Botanicum

    A Play at the Theatricum Botanicum
    ••• All's Well That Ends Well at Theatricum Botanicum. Miriam Greer/Theatricum Botanicum

    Their location in a wooded canyon is almost reason enough to go, no matter what they're doing. But don't get me wrong, the show is well worth the trip, too.

    Check out tips, pointers, and things you need to know at the Theatricum Botanicum website.

  • 07 of 08

    Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach

    Getting Ready for a Scene at Pageant of the Masters
    ••• Getting Ready for a Scene at Pageant of the Masters. Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach

    It sounds simple, but it isn't: Just pick a series of classic paintings and display them using live models. In reality, it takes most of a year to plan and execute, and the results are eye-popping realistic.

    Get more information, pick up some handy, first-hand tips and find out about other events that happen at the same time with this Pageant of the Masters guide.

  • 08 of 08

    Santa Cruz Shakespeare

    Hamlet at Santa Cruz Shakespeare
    ••• Hamlet at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. Courtesy of Santa Cruz Shakespeare

    Their summer program includes a couple of Shakespeare classics, adaptations of more modern works, world premieres and readings.

    After years of being at UC Santa Cruz, they now perform in an outdoor amphitheater at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park in the heart of Santa Cruz.

    Check out tips, pointers, and things you need to know at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare website.