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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). A performance in a traditional theatre venue, which has been transformed to resemble a specific space (for example, a junkyard), can also be considered as site-specific, in as it doesn't have the functionality (i.e. seats, stages) that a traditional theatre would have.
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 Ferry Play, a podplay for the Staten Island Ferry in New York City, Psycho-So-Matic, and Downsize, staged by Chicago's Walkabout Theater in a laundromat 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), and Pool Play 2.0 (2017, Kerala, India & New York City): a play about America's long and complicated history with pools, set in an actual pool. Pool Play was written by Charles L. Mee and Jessie Bear, and directed by Erin B. Mee. 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." Listed as a March 2017 "Voice Choice," Village Voice writer Nicole Serratore praised Pool Play 2.0's ability to find "the outfit embedding a political intensity beneath a layer of outward frivolity." The play received critical acclaim for its theatrical ingenuity, lauded by The New York Times' Laura Collins-Hughes as a "buoyant daydream of a show;" OffOffOnline's Chloe Edmonson as "a treasure trove of off-off-Broadway creativity," and New York Theatre Review's Lisa Huberman as "daffy, thought-provoking, and splashing good fun." Mee discussed the project on the March 23, 2017 "Go See a Show!" podcast.
Since 2011 Laura Hooper has been performing a one woman site-specific play "Crumble" in real life kitchens internationally. This is described by the Daily News as "the immersive, curvy little psychodrama". Hooper is quoted in the New York Post as saying "“Art is about moving things forward, and we mix things up by bringing performances directly into people’s homes.”"  "Crumble" was written by Mark O'Neil and produced by MORA Theater.
Another example of site-specific theatre that is also participatory is This Is Not A Theatre Company's Versailles 2015/2016 Set against a backdrop of global crisis, the characters of Versailles 2015/16 questioned the responsibilities and obligations of their privilege at a cocktail party set in an actual New York City apartment. Guests rotated through the space's five rooms, discussing gentrification over hors d'oeuvres in the living room and dietary privilege over cake in the kitchen, witnessing scenes of social alienation and existential conflict in the bedroom and guest bathroom, and viewing dancer Jonathan Matthews' performance in the master bathroom's tub. Versailles 2015 originally took place in an apartment in Manhattan's Peter Cooper Village, with textual references to the neighborhood's history and building complex's evolution. In February 2016, the show was picked up by En Garde Arts, and given an additional run at the home of founder Anne Hamburger in Hastings-on-Hudson. Versailles returned to New York City in October–November 2016, appearing in select apartments throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each successive performance received textual changes referencing its location's history and socioeconomic climate. The New York Times' feature "Starring Me! A Surreal Dive Into Immersive Theater" referenced Versailles 2016 as an example of the genre, and Mee's March 2016 HowlRound.com article used the show to illuminate the challenges of stage managing immersive productions.
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 (for example, 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.
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)
- Field, Andy (2008-02-06). "'Site-specific theatre'? Please be more specific". The Guardian. London.
- Pearson, Mike (2010). Site-Specific Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 7. ISBN 9780230576711.
- Ferry Play
- Sondak, Justin (2007-07-27). "Overnight Lows, Low Down". Chicagoist. Archived from the original on 2008-04-01. Retrieved 2008-12-29.
- Hoffmann, Babara (2007-05-15). "Interest compounded at world financial center stages". New York Post. Archived from the original on 2013-01-30.
- Armour, Terry (2005-10-27). "Supernatural Chicago". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 2011-09-22.
- 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. Archived 2015-01-25 at Archive.is
- Risinger, Zak (February 10, 2014). "Pool Play". Theatre is Easy. Retrieved September 21, 2018.
- Collins-Hughes, Laura (2017-03-20). "Review: In 'Pool Play 2.0,' the Audience Is Welcome to Make a Splash". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- "Pool Play 2.0". Off Off Online. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ""Making Water Ballet Great Again" Lisa Huberman on Erin B. Mee's Pool Play 2.0". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- "Erin B. Mee of "Pool Play 2.0" | Go See a Show!". goseeashowpodcast.com. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- Versailles 2015/2016
- "Stage Managing Immersive, Site-Specific, and Participatory Theatre". HowlRound. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- "Promenade" (Press release). Scottish Arts Council. Retrieved 2008-12-19.
- Pearson, Mike (2010). Site-Specific Performance. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978023057611.
- 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.