Not All Site Specific Theatre Is Created Equal
August 25, 2009
A friend of mine, J, who's a site specific theatre aficionado, provided some interesting insights into his favorite subject over the weekend which I would like to share.
According to J, site specific theatre isn't about staging a production of an existing play in a non-traditional venue. For example, by his standards, Urban Opera's version of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas that I caught on Sunday evening does not qualify as site-specific theatre even though the director made clever use of the non-traditional space -- an outdoor plaza in front of an abstract sculpture in the waterfront Mission Bay area of San Francisco. This is because Purcell didn't create his Dido for that particular space. The same goes for any production of a pre-existing work for the stage. In other words, mounting productions of Beckett's Happy Days on a beach or Shakespeare's Hamlet on the battlements of a castle doesn't make these shows site specific in the true sense of the term.
J says that in order for a theatrical production to be site specific, it needs to be 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, by J's standards, is therefore always newly written / devised and can never be replicated in any other venue or locale.
Thoughts? Is this too narrow a definition of site specific work? I personally quite like it. It forces us to think of space as more than just a holding area or background for a performance. In this definition of site specific work, space becomes a performer, with the potential to change the entire relationship between text, visuals, sounds and the human body in fascinating ways.
Postscript - August 31 2009 - Warren Stewart, the director of the early music ensemble Magnificat, has posted a response to this blog post on his blog. Read it here.