You are on page 1of 12

Non-Traditional Theatre Space By Marvin Carlson

Normally when we think of theatrical performance the image that comes to mind is an event in a building specifically designed for that purpose. In the West, this is a tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest development of the art, in classic Greece. In modern times, the allied forces of colonialism and commerce have carried this Western model to every part of the globe. Even without this Western tradition, however, a similar association of mimetic representation with structures created for such representation is very widespread, as may be seen in the imperial theatres of classic China, the Noh stages of Japan, and the Sanskrit temple stages of classic India. In more modern times, however, particularly from the late nineteenth century onward, there has developed an extremely varied and widespread interest in and experimentation with the theatrical use of spaces outside these traditional structures, a trend that intensified in the latter part of the twentieth century, so that today performances in spaces outside traditional theatre buildings comprise a major part of the contemporary theatre, especially the experimental theatre Perhaps the most common term associated with such performance today is that of site-specific, but despite or perhaps because of its ubiquity, it is open to many interpretations. A 2009 article in the leading British newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, attempted to clarify the term in an article provocatively entitled: Site-specific theatre? Please be more specific. The article reports that the term site-specific has far expanded beyond its first rather narrow use, which the Guardian traces to the

beginning of the 1980s. At that time students in the newly formed program of Performance Studies at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales began to collaborate in creating what they performances they called site-specific in local villages and castles with a group of artists called Brith Gof. A later site specific company based in Exeter, Wrights and Sights, described these creations as performances specifically generated from or for one site, the implication being that the performance was not imposed on a site but was inspired by the site, perhaps involved with the specific history of the site and in any case unique to that site. The most famous European site-specific company, Dogtroep in the Netherlands, was in fact created earlier still, in 1975, and over the next two decades the Netherlands became the European center of site-specific work. As site-specific theatre became a more and more important theatrical activity in the United States and a number of European countries after 1980, the term began to be applied to an ever-wider range of activities, resulting in the vagueness and potential confusion complained of by the Guardian. These days, the article complained, sitespecific can be just about anything that doesnt happen in a theatre. While this complaint is clearly somewhat exaggerated, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that generally speaking today there are two rather different ideas of what constitutes site specific theatre and the tension between those two shows itself in the Guardian article. On the one hand there is what might be called the traditionalist view, recently well articulated in an essay on the weblog Arts Journal whose author quoted his friend J, identified as a site specific theatre aficionado. According to J, so-called site-specific performances such as Samuel Becketts Happy Days on a beach or Hamlet on the battlements of an actual castle are not in fact site specific in the true sense of the term.

In this true sense, a production is site specific ONLY when its conceived specifically for the space in which it is produced. In other words, the space comes first and the creation of the performance, second. Site specific work is therefore always newly written or devised and can never be replicated in any other venue or locale. 1 The most common alternative definition is far more open and has been well articulated by the Scottish Arts Council. According to this view, site specific performance fully exploits the properties, qualities and meanings of a given site. The chosen site can be one of endless possibilities, from abandoned docks, to graveyards, to small hotel rooms. The only real consistent factor in these productions is that they do not take place in the traditional theatre arena. 2 Viewed in this light, it is relatively easy to see how much of the interest that emerged in site-specific theatre during the late 1970s and early 1980s was a part of a more general reaction in America and Europe against the conservative and highly traditional mid-century theatre, with its formal and well-established conventions of performance, architectural arrangements, and audience/actor relationships. Not surprisingly, an important part of the avant-garde experimentation of that period took place, in the words of the Scottish Arts Council, outside the traditional theatre arena. Before we leave the conventional theatre building to consider the development of space outside traditional theatre, however, I would like to note a few interesting transitional experiments, in which experimental directors broke open the traditional stage space to theatricalize the world outside. A major pioneer in such was the Russian director Yury Lyubimov. As early as his second production, of Ten Days that Shook the World, in 1965, he began the performance outside his Moscow theatre, the Taganka, with

loudspeakers playing revolutionary songs, and ushers dressed as Red Guards punching tickets with their bayonets. The New York experimental art world offered a striking variation on this theatricalization of reality in1976, with Robert Whitmans piece, Light Touch. Here, the audience was seated in a trucking warehouse and the main warehouse door before them was opened to reveal the actual street outside, framed by gossamer curtains like a stage setting. According to phenomenologist Bruce Wilshire, who provides a fascinating study of this experiment, the normally banal spectacle of passing traffic was thus converted into a strange and fascinating kind of theatre simply by an alteration of perception: Cars appeared occasionally, framed by the door, as they passed on the street directly outside. Appeared, but appeared transfigured, as if a spell had been case over them. Details of their shape and movement ordinarily not noticed, leapt out, as if from a numinous aura. It was as if cars were being seen for the first time. [need reference] One of the most memorable uses of this sort of theatrical framing of the external world I have ever encountered was in Lyubimovs Moscow production of Three Sisters, which opened in 1983. This was the first production in a new theatre built for the Taganka, but still entered through the old lobby. The audience entered a new, still only partly finished auditorium, with the main stage in front and a smaller runway stage at the side backed by four panels of mirrors, reflecting the audience. During the evening the sisters knocked at the mirrors as they expressed their desire to go to Moscow. This gesture was explained at the conclusion, when the mirror panels turned, to open to the audiences view the actual contemporary Moscow, no dream city but a dark jumble of

unattractive lots and low buildings against a skyline of grim Soviet apartment towers. The ironic contrast of what had become of the dreams of these characters was truly stunning, with interpretive resonances far beyond the phenomenological effects noted by Wilshire in Light Touch. Let us now, however, leave the theatre building entirely and consider nontheatrical spaces adapted for theatre work in recent times. A variety of nineteenth and twentieth century experiments may be seen as precursors of such performances. With the rise of realism and an interest in settings of scrupulous accuracy, it is hardly surprising that some directors were inspired to seek out locations outside the theatre that would reproduce the exact or approximate setting imaged by the playwright. Thus we find the Pastoral Players in England in the 1880s, presenting woodland plays of Shakespeare and Fletcher in actual woods and meadows, the annual productions of William Tell in Alpine villages in Switzerland beginning in 1912, Max Reinhardts Merchant of Venice in a Venetian Square in 1934, and productions later that decade of Hamlet at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Such performances of classic plays in the sites of their presumed actions has proven an irresistible attraction in the modern era of global tourism. Hamlet is still being performed at Elsinore (most recently by the British Globe Theatre in August of 2011) and Wilhelm Tell is staged annually in the Rugen forest near Interlaken. Similarly, at the Peer Gynt festival by Lake Gl in Vistra, Norway, Ibsens epic play is performed against the scenic background associated with his picaresque hero. Even more common in the contemporary theatre is the staging of classic works like these neither in traditional theatres nor in these realistically-inspired authentic locations, but in all sorts of found spaces which may or may not have some historic or

metaphoric connection with the content of the play. A major inspiration for such activity was the productions and writings of Peter Brook, one of the most admired and influential directors in the modern theatre. His 1968 book and manifesto, The Empty Space, begins with the often quoted sentence: I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. There is an interesting parallel here to the process known in the social sciences as interpellation, by which process Althusser, the theorist most associated with the concept, means the creation of social subject by his or her being called out. The classic example is the policemans challenge of hey, you there. Similarly Brook proposes calling a theatre into existence not by the construction of a particular kind of building, but simply by interpellation. Implied in this concept of course, is the acquiescence of a participating audience, who accepts the interpellation and views its experience in the newly claimed space as a theatrical one. Probably the best-known of the many empty spaces that Brook interpellated as theatres was an abandoned quarry, the Callet, near Avignon. It was inaugurated as a performance space with Brooks Mahabharata in 1985. Since that time the Callet Quarry has been so often utilized during the Avignon Festival that it is no longer a sort of found space, as it was when Brook first utilized it, but has become one of a number of accepted theatre venues within the Avignon area. Such conversion of non-theatrical spaces into theatres has become frequent in contemporary design, and many examples were on display in the 2011PQ. The Spanish exhibition, to take a single example, showed performance spaces created from a former granary, a military barracks, an industrial workshop, textile factory, slaughterhouse, and supply market. All of these converted spaces continue to be used, but found spaces may also be utilized for a single production

and concept. A memorable recent example of such performance was the 2007 Paul Chan staging for the Classical Theatre of Harlem of Waiting for Godot, Becketts tragicomedy of hopeless waiting, outdoors in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans, reduced to a desolate flood plain by Hurricane Katrina. In the contemporary theatre, an ever-increasing number and variety of so-called site specific performances do not utilize scripts with a previous performance history, but present material either created with a particular non-theatrical space in mind or even are created out of improvisational work within the space. An excellent description of the thinking behind much of such work was provided by French director Armand Gatti, a leader in politically oriented site-specific work in that country. Much of his work has been staged in spaces associated with the working class, especially factories. The entire German exhibition at the 2011 PQ featured converted factories, which in the Ruhr valley have become an important element of contemporary German theatre architecture. Of one such factory production Gatti explained: With this kind of subject its mostly the place, the architecture that does the writing. The theatre was located not in some kind of Utopian place, but in a historic place, a place with a history. There was grease, and there were acid marks, because it was a chemical factory; you could still see traces of work; there were still work clothes around; there were still lunch-pails in the corner, etc. In other words, all these left-over traces of work had their own language. These rooms that had known the labor of human beings day after day had their own language, and you either used that language or you didnt say anything. 3

Not all site-specific performance has so politically grounded a concern, but the majority of it shares Gattis conviction that the place inspires the writing. This can be seen in much of the work of En Garde Arts, which operated in New York from 1965 to 1999, under the direction of Annie Hamburger, who went on to work in the creation of Theme Parks for Walt Disney productions. One of the first major productions of this group took place in New Yorks Victorian Chelsea Hotel, where a series of rooms were devoted to short works dealing with people who had stayed at this famous New York landmark. Stonewall, dealing with the modern gay-rights movement, was staged in the neighborhood of the Stonewall Tavern, where the protests which began that movement in the city took place; J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation took place on the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, close to the New York Stock Exchange and across the street from the headquarters of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company which was founded by J.P. Morgan. One production, Crowbar, was even set in an abandoned New York theatre, and performers embodied the ghosts that inhabited that location. As theatrical production increasingly utilized non-theatre spaces in the late twentieth century, it still almost always maintained the tradition spatial arrangements of the physical theatre it was deserting, at least initially. Productions might take place in quarries, factories, warehouses, churches, parks, indoor and outdoor spaces of all kinds, but these almost invariably involved the establishment of a fixed stage area for the actors facing rows of seats for the spectators. During the last years of the century however and much more commonly after 2000, this imposition of an imaginary traditional theatre space on non-theatre locations was increasingly challenged.

During these years many designers and directors interested in site-specific work began to introduce more flexibility into their use of these sites, abandoning the stationary spaces of conventional theatre for productions in which actors and audience moved about into different parts of the new found space. Such productions have come to be commonly designed in Great Britain as promenade productions, a term now gaining currency in other countries as well. An early prominent example of such work was John Krizancs Tamara, created in Toronto in 1981 and moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and New York in 1987. For each production, ten rooms of the palatial villa of the Italian author Gabriele dAnnunzio, were created in some elegant, pre-existing Victorian building; in New York the Park Avenue Armory was used. There was not a single line of action, but multiple scenes playing simultaneously, so, although audience members did not have total freedom of movement, they could freely choose which of a number of these scenes they would watch or what character they would follow. Woodshed Collective, organized in 2002, initially presented conventional proscenium-style productions, but in 2006 turned to site-specific theatre, presenting their Twelve Ophelias in a vast abandoned swimming pool in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn that had been built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. Despite this unusual venue the audience remained conventionally seated and static. Then however the Collective turned to Tamara-style locations divided into multiple areas, with audiences free to move about and put together their own collage of performance. Their 2009 adaptation of Melvilles The Confidence Man scattered acted scenes and YouTube videos throughout the spaces offered by a decommissioned US Coast Guard ship through which audiences could wonder as their fancy took them. For their most recent work, The

Tenant, audiences were asked to put together pieces of the complex story as they wandered through five floors of an abandoned parish house and adjacent church in New Yorks upper West Side. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, this sort of interactive environment became in effect a distinct sub-genre of performance. Indeed the British company, Punchdrunk, formed in 2000 and a leader in such work, has coined the term immersive theatre to describe it. Their productions create elaborate environments within abandoned buildingswarehouses, factories, hotelsand people these with performers who interact with spectators in partly scripted but largely improvised openended evenings. Their first production in New York, Sleep No More, in 2011 (with earlier versions in London in 2003 and Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2009), presented material from Hitchcock, gothic novels and Macbeth on several floors of three adjacent abandoned warehouses that had more recently been used as a massive nightclub. It was identified in publicity material, however, as the abandoned McKittrick Hotel. Even more ambitious is the Scandinavian group Signa, formed in 2004.Typically, they occupy large abandoned spaces or buildings and create within them installations in which their actor inhabitants live for a number of days and interact with visiting spectators on an improvised bases. The 2007 Ruby Town Oracle was one of their most elaborate works to date, creating a complete slum community with several dozen dwellings inhabited by 40 actors and opened non-stop for 84 hours for improvised interaction with visitors (who had to obtain visas to enter). Promenade productions have also moved outside of individual buildings to cover whole areas or districts. One of the first of these was Reza Abdohs 1990 Dostoevsky


adaptation for En Garde Arts, Father was a Peculiar Man, presented in various locations over a four block area of New York's meatpacking district. The 2011 PQ exhibits suggested something of the range of such work today, from guided walking tours along mountain paths in Norway (in the architecture exhibits) to Brazils prize-winning production by Teatro da Vertigem, which unrolled along the banks of the Tiet River as the audience passed on boats. Among other means of transportation adapted to promenade style work have been buses (Foundry Theatre, New York) and subways (Gob Squad, Germany). Experiments with more technological variations of promenade work have been conducted by groups in Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and elsewhere. One of the first and surely the best known of these is Berlins Rimini Protokoll, who first combined promenade work and electronics in their 2005 project Call Cutta, which provided participants in Berlin with cell phones connected to operators in India who then guided the participants individually on interactive tours through the Kreuzberg section of Berlin. The sites they visited were all related to the negotiations between India and Germany early in the second World War. Ghostly sounds from the past haunted the visited sites and the living people encountered by the one-person audience were in some cases aware of the performance and in most cases not. The Netherlands Looking for . . . project at the 2011 PQ provided a variation of Call Cutta, using a set of historic Prague photographs to organize its smart phone walking tour. In 2011 Rimini Protokoll extended such experimentation further in their 50 Aktenkilometer, based on the history and activities of the notorious Stasi, the secret police of East Germany. For the production Rimini Protokoll recorded memories concerned the


Stasi from more than a hundred Berlin residents, and assembled an archive of other recorded material from that eranewscasts, official meetings, music, and so on. These were then beamed to one hundred hot spots extended over a large area of East Berlin, Audience members received headphones, a cellphone with electronic map to show their location, and a physical map showing the locations of the hundred bubbles. They were then free to wander about, at their own pace, composing their own trajectory, creating a performance of and within the city center out of these pre-selected materials. By first expanding into non-theatrical spaces, then by giving the audience increasing freedom of movement within these spaces, and finally by providing flexible electronic networks of urban spaces, experimental theatre companies in the past two decades have created a kind of performance environment that has altered in almost every respect traditional reception strategies and experiences as they have existed in the theatre for centuries. Published August 25, 2009, accessed March 11, 2010. 2 Theatre Style: Site-specific theatre, Accessed March 11, 2009. 3 Armand Gatti, Armand Gatti on Time, Place, and the Theatrical Event, trans. Nancy Oakes, Modern Drama 25:1 (March, 1982), 71-72.