Site-specific theatre is any type of theatrical production designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre. This specific site either may be originally built without any intention of serving theatrical purposes (for example, in a hotel, courtyard, or converted building), or may simply be considered an unconventional theatre space (for example, in a forest).
When the location is meant to imitate, or is itself, the setting of the theatrical story (as is common with site-specific theatre), the performance may also then be called environmental theatre. Site-specific theatre is commonly more interactive than conventional theatre and, with the expectation of audience members predominantly to walk or move about (rather than sit), may be called promenade theatre. Site-specific theatre frequently takes place in structures originally built for non-theatrical reasons that have since been renovated or converted for new, performance-based functions.
Examples of site-specific theatre include Psycho-So-Matic and Downsize, staged by Chicago's Walkabout Theater in a landromat and a series of public restrooms, respectively; Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$, staged by Women's Project in the lobbies, escalators, and bridges of New York's World Financial Center; Supernatural Chicago, staged in an allegedly haunted nightclub, and Small Metal Objects, staged by Australia's Back To Back Theater at the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. Another example of this form is the Ramlila, dramatic enactment of Hindu epic, Ramayana, started in 1830 by Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh of Varanasi. It is held each year over the period of 31 days, during autumn festive season of Dussehra at Ramnagar, Varanasi in India, and is staged in permanent structures created as sets throughout the three square mile area, where the audience follow the actors. Ramlila has been declared by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
A recent example of site-specific theatre is This Is Not A Theatre Company's Pool Play (2014, New York City): a play about America's long and complicated history with pools, set in an actual pool. Audiences sat at the edge of the pool with their feet in the water to watch a play that included synchronized swimming, a snarky fish, stories about segregated pools, and a meditation on pollution. Sarah Lucie of Show Business Weekly said: “Pool Play, while undeniably light-hearted, manages to communicate some profound and political themes to those who choose to pay attention.” Theatre is Easy noted that it provided: "a cohesive look at our fascination with the water, entertaining and engaging the audience along the way." Pool Play was written by Charles L. Mee and Jessie Bear, and directed by Erin B. Mee.
These are examples of productions which have been labeled site-specific simply because they took place outside a traditional theatre space. A strong argument can be made here that more information is needed to know whether or not these productions are specific to the site or if they are "site-generic," meaning they could be staged in any physically similar venue.
Another definition of environmental theatre is any production that attempts to immerse the audience in the performance by bringing the action off the stage area. For example, some acting may happen in aisles. In the case of a black box theater, acting platforms may even be built between audience section. Sometimes a performer will talk to, or otherwise involve an audience member in a scene. This can be a real audience member, as in interactive theater, or an actor planted to appear as an audience member.
There are a couple variations on site-specific work worth noting, including:
- Environmental theatre, in which a pre-existing production is placed in an environment similar to the one in which the play is set (e.g. performing Hamlet in a Danish Castle).
- Promenade theatre, in which audience members generally stand and walk about rather than sit, watching the action happening among them and even following the performers around the performance space. An example of promenade theater is the performances put on by Punchdrunk, a UK-based theatre company, such as Sleep No More.
Levels of Site Specificity
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- Studio-/stage-based: not site-specific at all; the traditional stage or theatre
- Studio as site: using the theatre space (or site) in an unusual way, for example, performing in the aisles; also not site-specific.
- Site-specific: using a one-of-a-kind site as a contextual container (e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a forest).
- Site-generic: using a generic kind of site (one that is not perfectly unique), so that it can be replicated or modeled elsewhere (e.g. performance for football pitch or Stephan Koplowitz's "Grand Step Project" staircase performances)
- Site-responsive: using the site as resource for the performance material (e.g. #3 HOLD by Scrap and Salvage of San Francisco, created and performed in the bottom deck of a cargo ship: the USS Golden Bear)
Companies performing site-specific work
- bluemouth inc. (Toronto, ON, Canada)
- Dummies Theatre (Montreal, QC, Canada)
- Litmus Theatre (Toronto, ON, Canada)
- Sundown Theatre (Kincardine, ON, Canada)
- The Only Animal (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
- Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders (Seattle, WA, United States) http://www.lucianeare.org
- Skewed Visions (Minneapolis, MN, United States)
Austria / Switzerland
- Café Fuerte http://www.cafefuerte.ch
- Pearson, Mike; Shanks, Michael (2001). Theatre/archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues. Routeledge. ISBN 0-415-19458-X. ISBN 978-0-415-19458-7
- Kaye, Nick (2000). Site Specific Art: Place and Documentation. Routeledge. ISBN 0-415-18558-0.
- Schechner, Richard; Shanks (1973). Environmental Theater. Hawthorne Books. ISBN 1557831785.
- Field, Andy (2008-02-06). "'Site-specific theatre'? Please be more specific". The Guardian (London).
- Sondak, Justin (2007-07-27). "Overnight Lows, Low Down". Chicagoist. Retrieved 2008-12-29.
- Hoffmann, Babara (2007-05-15). "Interest compounded at world financial center stages". New York Post.
- Armour, Terry (2005-10-27). "Supernatural Chicago". Chicago Tribune.
- Soloski, Alexis (2008-01-01). "Under the Radar Tries its Hand at Site-Specific Work". The Village Voice.
- Ramlila - the Traditional Performance of the Ramayana UNESCO.
- A Maharajah´s Festival for Body and Soul New York Times, Monday, March 30, 2009.
- Lucie, Sarah. Show Business Weekly. January, 2014.
- Risinger, Zak. Pool Play. Theatre is Easy.
- "Promenade" (Press release). Scottish Arts Council. Retrieved 2008-12-19.