Like many labels, “site specific theater” emerged as a way to understand a new trend that was already underway: plays exploring the untapped potential of non-traditional spaces. Over time, however, the term has expanded to cover a wide range of theatrical events, tied loosely together by being staged anywhere that isn’t a standard stage space. The potential pitfall here is a kind of cinematic realism: Hamlet performed on the battlements of a Danish castle or A Streetcar Named Desire in a New Orleans Bungalow, which may provide interesting ambiance but can rob a production of potential theatricality and some of the magic we have come to expect from the empty, neutral canvas of the theater. So while the initial avant-garde thrust around exploring non-traditional theater spaces has been incorporated into the main streams of theatrical production, there are even more ways of exploring “site”, the audience’s relationship to it, and how it might be incorporated in the production.
What does it mean to be truly site-specific? There are opinions and dissertations galore that seek to answer this question, but in general it should do more than copy and paste a play beyond the theater walls. After all, performances have been happening outside of purpose built theaters since the beginning of story telling. In a nutshell, a production is site-specific if it engages with the location as a means to deepen the meaning or experience of the work. Some companies prefer the term “site responsive” as a way to indicate a dialogue with the space, that may not be wholly unique to a particular locale such as if the work can be understood in new ways because of the location, or if they play would be irrevocably altered without a kind of site. Other production may engage with “site” by including elements of promenade or processional performance: moving throughout the space in a guided way or independently. And as with almost all art fields- technology is changing the parameters of what it can mean to be site specific. All of these production techniques seek in some way or another to disrupt the audience’s preconceived notions of the work or of theater in general.
Some current examples here in New York include Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a promenade performance that transforms a block of Chelsea warehouses into the fictional McKittrick Hotel. Audience members are encouraged to explore the entire space on their own, catching bits and pieces of the action, while being completely immersed in the experience. In this production, audience members give up their individuality by wearing identical masks for the duration of the performance, effectively making them a piece of the site as well: no longer audience members but anonymous guests at the McKittrick. The story of Sleep No More could not happen in the way it does without this very specific, purpose built location. Third Rail Project’s Ghost Light, which turns Lincoln Center inside out for a “benevolent haunting” and invites audiences into hidden nooks and crannies of the building, is another example. Ghost Light, while it does occur in a theater, is site specific because it was developed with this site in mind and is inextricably tied to the architecture, using it in new ways unique to Lincoln Center.
Companies like Rimini Protokoll, recently featured in The Public’s Under the Radar Festival, use technology to create a new relationship between audience, site, and performance. In Top Secret International which they staged at the Brooklyn Museum, each audience member responds to a series of prompts and guided exploration of both themselves and the space. A question like: “Would you harm one person to save many others”, may lead you to the sarcophagus on your left or a new exhibit on your right. Past Protokoll productions like 100% Philadelphia have used entire cities as “site” by proportionately representing the audience on stage: young, old, well off, impoverished, by neighborhood and by ethnicity. They invite the city, and through various exercises ask this representative sample to answer questions: reflecting the personality of the city back on itself. Similarly, This Is Not a Theater Company’s production of Ferry Play, a single audience member’s journey on the Staten Island Ferry performed through headphones uses the entire city and its infrastructure as the site. In Ferry Play, the experience of being alone and inconspicuously anonymous allows the audience members to see city and inhabitants in a new light.
So what about our production of Oh My Sweet Land? It might technically be called “site responsive” because while we are producing it in private kitchens throughout the city, each home will provide a new set of production parameters and new opportunities to engage with the audience through small sizes and intimate proximity. We are using the notion of “home” as our site: Where do you call home and how does that inform who you are? Being invited into someone’s home and inhabiting the communal kitchen space helps to lift these abstract ideas out of far away headlines and serves them up fresh. Performing in homes provides new context for Oh My Sweet Land and asks the audience to let these people with such incredible stories of resistance into their own lives. To look their struggle in the eyes and see a fellow human across the table.