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Not All Site Specific Theatre Is Created Equal

August 25, 2009

sitespec.jpegA 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.


  • I was talking to the sound designer on a show of mine and I described what he was doing as "noise" as opposed to music. This was not to disparage what he was doing, it was simply an attempt to be specific. He turned back to me and said "I don't make a distinction between music and noise." Needless to say we didn't work together again.

    While I appreciate the philosophical point, its not a terribly useful idea in real theatre-making terms.

    We have words so that we can be specific. It behooves us to seize every opportunity to be as specific as possible. The words we have now are already grossly inadequate (this is the main reason I take my theatre without tea without milk.) Why would want to blur definitions even more than are already?

    I make site-specific theatre and so I'm biased and stubborn on the subject. However, it seems to me that we would have much more meaningful conversation, both between artists and with audiences, if we were to be clearer about our work.

    If you like to stage shakespeare in disused industrial spaces, by all means, please do! But calling it site-specific is disingenuous at best. Just because you had Ophelia standing on a window sill does not mean your production is specific to that site. it is generically associated with A site that has a window sill.

    I believe that a site-specific production should be a purely creative act of art making - not an interpretive one. I know theatre artists hate the distinction but the truth is that most theatre making is not a purely creative act, it is an interprative act.

    If you walk into a space with an agenda you're already too far ahead to make something site-specific. You have to let the space tell you its stories, share with you its myths and ghosts, and show its form - fully, before you can create in that room.

    I've made some terrible site-specific work. I have failed in many ways trying to achieve my own goals. But I always tried to show how potent space is and how deeply it affects us. What Joe Goode did in the Mint was a travesty. He took a space with incredible and tangible theatrical depth and he turned each of its rooms into little theatres. He laid down marley, covering the amazing floors, and used theatrical lighting fixtures, completely ignoring the space's own suggestions. And he almost never had a performer make physical contact with the physical space. I was nearly brought to tears at the missed opportunities.

    I'm afraid we have cut our ruts so deeply that we won't be able to forge new paths. In order to make new vibrant work we're going to have to have some serious and rigorous debate about our current work. In order to have such debate we're going to need a common vocabulary. We'll need to know what one says when they say "more music, less noise."


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