Site-Specific Theatre: Does the Best Work Happen in Traditional Theatres?

Site-Specific Theatre: Does the Best Work Happen in Traditional Theatres?

Holly Webster

If I ask you to describe a typical theatre trip is like, you’d probably imagine a stage and traditional seating. With audience members sipping beverages and marveling at an elaborate set. 3 years ago, I would have given the same answer. However, after studying site-specific work during my degree, I know that good theatre can be so much more.

Just like anything, site-specific theatre has its pros and cons.

One of the biggest joys of working on this type of art is the amount of creative freedom it allows, particularly joining disciplines together. In a typical theatre piece; acting, writing, music and movement play their individual part in telling the story. However, site specific tends to steer from linear storytelling and creates fun art that doesn’t necessarily have to be understood explained. This freedom of pieces not having to fit quite as neatly, means that there is a lot of room for experimentation. I have learnt so much about being a writer, by trying to figure out how to fit it amongst other disciplines whilst still standing on its own. In my first year, I did some work with a musician and an actor, about the bridge we use to get to University. We weren’t prescriptive about how to incorporate the bridge. This meant that we had to create some sort of flow out of completely different art. Not only did this force us to understand our own works context but consider the standing of disciplines we’re not as competent with. As an artist, albeit a challenge, this has been an experience that has helped me grow significantly as a writer because I can experiment with where my work could fit.

Secondly, site-specific work means that utilizing a space is made a lot easier. Depending on the timescale of the project (including rehearsals), artists would get a significant amount of time at their chosen location. Allowing them to familiarize themselves with the space and utilize it to full advantage. I feel that this simplifies the rehearsal process because once you have found the best space for a scene or prop, you can keep it there. This is why I prefer seeing productions that are only showing in one place, they fit and truly feel like they belong there.

Okay, so it’s clear that I see beauty in site-specific work but what are the disadvantages?

I spoke earlier about the chance for more than one discipline to come together and how this can work well. However, to flip that on its head, there is a fine line between this working and not. Although, allowing each discipline the creative freedom to use the environment as stimulus and then piece everything together later can be fun, it can also create messy work. If what you are doing is being presented as one piece and not separate, then you need to find a way to make all of the individual artwork come together somehow. This con of site specific work depends on what your intention for the work is. If you intend to put on a performance of a few separate pieces that are based in the same area, then it is fine for them to draw upon different topics and genres for inspiration. However, if your intention is to use different disciplines together to work towards the same stimulus and same environment, then there needs to be some cohesiveness.

My final point about site-specific art isn’t necessarily about the work itself, more about the nature of it. It is a lot harder to get an audience to a show that isn’t in a typical black box theatre space. This could be for a couple of reasons. A lot of theatre goers, do so for the standard experience. They go for the elaborate sets and sitting in a theatre space. So getting to shows that are outside of this norm can be difficult but of course this varies from person to person.

A lot of site-specific art happens outdoors, which brings a lot of unpredictability to the table. Will it rain? Will an audience be up for a walk through the woods? Can everybody find the area okay? Will there be unavoidable distractions? There are so many questions and occurrences that could change the course of the performance and ultimately its success, which means that often a lot more planning and consideration needs to be put into place, that would not be necessary for a controlled performance area.

That wraps up my views on site-specific work, from both artist and audience perspective. Although it has it’s down sides, I believe that there is room for more site-specific work to bend and challenge the art world. What do you think? Debate and let me know your thoughts below!

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Holly is a third year Creative Writing led Community Practises student living in the UK. She has an avid love for story-telling in all its forms, and adores watching this stories physically come to life in front of me at the theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

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