Four Principles about Site-Specific Theatre: A Conversation on Architecture, Bodies, and Presence
Amid the flashing neon signs for Bally’s, the replica Eiffel Tower, and people dressed in oversized Spongebob Squarepants costumes, four figures dressed completely in white, with stark white makeup, move slowly down the Las Vegas strip. A small girl ignores the jumping fountains of the Bellagio behind her to stare in seeming wonder at these silent people progressing toward her. She reaches out and the person is real and present with her, reaching back. In this glittering city of spectacle a different form of spectacle has been momentarily introduced.
Site-specific performance is nothing new. In Western theatre the Futurists and Dadaists in the early 1900s to 1920s, the Happenings and Richard Schechner’s environmental theatre of the 1960s and ’70s, and the recent trend in immersive theatre from the 1990s onward have all grappled with activating unusual, nontheatrical spaces for theatrical experimentation. Throughout theatre history and across cultures artists have experimented with nontheatrical spaces, from the commedia dell’arte troupes wandering the markets and towns of Italy, to the epic thirty-day ritual performance of the Ramlila of Ramnagar, to the festive processions of the Tucson All-Souls Day procession. Rather than viewing a space as a place to construct a theatre, site-specific work takes the space for what it is, without major alteration, and reveals it in new ways through performance. The site location, architecture, spatial layout, audience placement, and degree of audience participation all influence the type of experience audiences will receive.
Within the context of ATHE 2017’s focus on the examination of spectacle, the authors held a panel titled “Placing Spectacle: Examining Site-Specific Performance,” sharing their experiences in creating site-specific performance. Afterward, the authors ventured out onto the Las Vegas strip to perform Vessel Project’s Transfix, an “atmospheric” performance examining the art of presence (figs. 1–3). Using this experience and pulling from their creative projects in public parks, subways, vast desert landscapes, storefronts, industrial warehouses, and art museums, the authors here distill some principles for creating site-specific performance.
Principle 1: Exploring Unique Spaces and Architecture
We are inside Planet Hollywood Casino. The jangling sounds and spinning lights of slot machines effectively capture all attention. Ahead is a large column that doubles as a light fixture. Unlike the movement and color of the other lights flashing around us, this fixture is a simple, constant source of warm light: ambience; background; ignorable. As each performer approaches the column, they discover and interact with the beauty and wonder of this warmth, and slowly the people around us turn from their gambling to take in this light fixture. A new element of the architecture and space has been revealed. [End Page E-5]
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Part of working site-specifically is finding unusual, provocative spaces that have theatrical potential. Creating this work becomes about dialoguing with, and potentially around, the uniqueness of what the space and architecture have to offer. How can urban architecture be activated and transformed into realms of theatrical potentiality? How can performance reveal alternative layers to the reality of a landscape? Below, we offer some examples of working in unique spaces from our own work.
In the winter of 2015 I partnered with the Fargo Public Library in North Dakota to develop and perform a site-specific piece, muss es sein (it must be) (fig. 4). Performers created a movement score responding to the unique architecture of the building, and a complex soundscape was composed and performed by Colin Holter and Jessica Narum. The library, a traditionally quiet, solitary place, was revealed to the audience as a space full of tiny nooks for echoes and long hallways for dances. Beyond the audience intending to see the piece, there were patrons of the library who found themselves in the midst of a performance as they checked out books, sat drinking coffee, or listened to music on their smartphones. Passersby were also surprised to discover performers running back and forth past the windows of the warmly lit [End Page E-7] library. In a space designed to foster curiosity, muss es sein celebrated curiosity about the space and sounds and triggered a new curiosity about what a library can hold.
As a performer in Los Angeles I belonged to Tanya Kane-Parry’s site-specific company Opera del Espacio (fig. 5). In creating performances the ensemble would always begin by asking: What does this space have to offer? What does the architecture say to us? We were very much interested in making the space and architecture an active partner in the creative process. In 2011, the company decided to use the site-specific confines of a late 1990s Jeep Wrangler in a parking garage at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA). Being a company in Los Angeles, the architecture inside an automobile provides an opportunity for dialoguing with the intimate spaces we all spend hours in each day. Everyone has a very specific relationship to their car. The performance vocabulary centered around the functionality of the space—namely, deconstructing what could be done inside the vehicle. We began with quotidian behaviors and expanded into abstract gestures during the forty-five-minute composition. This pop-up performance was viewed by outside onlookers and also captured on video by a camera stationed just behind the Wrangler’s opened trunk.1
For each of my examples I am going to refer to a solo show I created called Many Heads Are on My Shoulders. In this performance an audience of twenty is invited to go on an epic quest led by a 7-year-old boy named Onfim. As they search for a wise person known as TW, they battle monsters, overcome obstacles, and answer riddles. Upon reaching TW, Onfim and the audience discover that TW is already dead. Then a personal story of a traumatic shooting I experienced is slowly revealed, and the actions the audience took to escape the imaginary monsters of the first half are given a new context within this autobiographical story.
Prior to even entering the space where the rest of the play takes place, the audience encounters Onfim’s grandpa, who asks them to help Onfim and invites them to enter. From there Onfim comes charging in, battling imaginary monsters. He finally sees the audience and tells them to hide. Audience members always act differently in this moment: some people [End Page E-8] immediately leap into action, throwing themselves behind anything they can find, while others hardly move, and still others fill every possible variation in between. Nevertheless, no matter how small the movement, the common response from audience members afterward is that this moment changed their perspective and relationship to the space. In both of the runs of this show I have performed in spaces that were familiar to my audience, but through this simple action they saw the landscape of the space through a new lens. Rarely do most people think of hiding places in familiar public spaces, but now they saw the escape routes and possible protective barriers. Later, the audience will learn that being aware of escape routes and hiding places is one of the manifestations of PTSD, a recontextualization that in turn alters the spectacle.2
Principle 2: Being in Conversation with the Elements of Performance
August in Las Vegas. It has rained. We take this opportunity in the cooled-off desert to perform outside. Clouds are covering the sky and large puddles fill the street. Crossing Las Vegas Boulevard, the performers have to hop over the puddles. Suddenly, it becomes a game as they hop from one crosswalk stripe to the next. Their white clothes and makeup matching the stripes on the road—an unexpected element shifting the whole performance. Behind them a child joins in the hopping.
Working site-specifically means that many of the elements of performance that are controllable inside a theatre are defined by your location: wind, rain, sun, traffic, sand, heat, cold, light, sound, and so on exist already. How can the performance adapt to, flex with, and use these elements to create meaningful theatrical moments? (See figure 6 for an example.) [End Page E-9]
An example of working with the elements was a Vessel Project performance, Unreal City, a silent, site-specific performance that explored the beauty, poetry, and fragility of the desert, the reality of water shortage, and the prospect of Phoenix becoming one of the largest ghost towns in the world when its water supply runs out (fig. 7). Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland and his concept of the unreal city, this performance considered the idea of Phoenix as a mirage. Scattered throughout the Arizona landscape are abandoned towns and dwellings that once prospered. The fragmented remains of these ghost towns are haunting reminders of what happens when resources vanish and people are forced to relocate in order to survive. With Tucson-based artists Logan Phillips, Adam Cooper-Terán, and Glenn Weyant, we did two expeditions to the abandoned towns of Gleeson, Pearce, Courtland, and Bisbee in Cochise County. Moving in slow motion, Transfix figures silently moved around and between the remains of what used to be a hospital, a flourishing mine, a jail, and other traces of once-lived-in spaces. We attached sensitive sound-recording devices to the ruined buildings to essentially “play” the ghost town by tapping on the structures. We recorded the natural sound-scape of insects, birds, wind, grass, and crickets mixed with the gnarled metallic, rusted barbed-wire, [End Page E-10] broken glass, and abandoned mine shafts. Poet Logan Phillips would respond directly to the sites by writing poetry onsite—these sounds and texts were later recorded and woven into the performance. We premiered the work at the Phoenix Art Museum, and the performers dressed in all white moved at a glacial pace for three hours holding two long bamboo sticks in each hand, tracing their movement on a large fifty-foot-by-fifty-foot piece of white paper with charcoal. Behind them on the museum wall was a live remix of the ghost-town footage mixed with historic maps of Arizona and a live remix of ambient soundscapes from the ghost towns and the original poetry by Phillips.3
At the center of The Oil Project was the question of “boom or bust?” In a state where the fortunes of the economy rest squarely on the availability of vast expanses of oil beneath our feet, the question looms large. Theatre B asked me to lead a devising process at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo that responded to the question. The museum, once a manufacturing space for agricultural equipment, feels both natural and unnatural at once. Rough-hewn wooden beams and massive windows clash with the carefully curated fine-art displays. This clash of nature and human interference perfectly reflected the central question of the piece. Performers and audience transformed the space. Audience members wore bright orange work vests, and the ensemble guided them through three floors of the museum sharing stories, movement, and music inspired by the terrifically disruptive, lucrative, precarious oil boom (fig. 8).
In 2011 Opera del Espacio held a pop-up performance in a public restroom at Cal State LA (fig. 9). The performance spaces were limited to the restroom stalls. Through improvisation, performers conversed with the space and one another by focusing on rhythm, the duration of time, and repetition. As the functionality of the space lent itself to the slamming of stall doors, the echoes of shoes squeaking on the tile floor, and the noise of water being flushed, the element of sound arose as a key component in the dialogue. Performers developed repeatable physical phrases specific to a timing, creating what we called “metronomes,” where each performer looped their phrase over and over again. Individual metronomes were layered in relation to one another, pairing sound scores with physical choreography that dialogued with the environmental elements of the space.4 [End Page E-11]
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A few months ago I was directing a show at the Fort Collins Fringe Festival in Colorado. One of the other acts dropped out, so I slotted Many Heads Are on My Shoulders into the festival (fig. 10). With only two days to prep and rehearse, I had to make some adjustments to the show to fit within the time constraints. One major change was revelatory for how essential it is to constantly return to that connection between environment and performance in site-specific work. In the original run the performance was outside, at night. Without a huge budget to light everything, we had to come up with another solution. We gave each audience member a flashlight. For most of the performance they were each free to explore with the light as they wished. This gave them an agency over their experience, as they could choose where to put their focus. It also meant that at certain moments I could direct their beams of light to work in concert to create demons flying across the space or spooky shadows on the wall. The audience had a hand in creating the image, and then their imaginations could fill in the rest. In the version in Fort Collins the show was indoors, so we cut the flashlights. Consequently, the audience became more passive and less invested, because they no longer had a personal way to impact one of the elements of the environment—light. The show had lost part of its interaction with the space.
Principle 3: Differentiating between Augmenting and Transforming Found Space
A performer approaches a windowed door. Viewed from the outside, the shadows obscure her face until she is right beside the glass. Suddenly, we become the voyeur. The reflection in the window catching our own gaze looking back at us. Something always extant has been brought to the surface and highlighted.
An important consideration in site-specific work is the distinction between augmenting a space and transforming it. Is the performance a spotlight drawing attention to different elements, or is the performance a sculptor working on a piece of driftwood, reimagining what is in front of her? [End Page E-13]
Augmenting Found Space
Augmenting a space means taking an existing space and emphasizing what is already there—not transforming it into something else (fig. 11).
An example of augmented space is Asylum, an immersive, site-specific devised work in 2013 investigating the history of women, writing, and insanity through images, movement, words, and text that occurred at the Ice House in downtown Phoenix, a three-story industrial space that closely resembled an asylum (fig. 12). The term asylum is historically bound and has fallen into disuse, recalling images of white padded cells, barred windows, “continuous bath time,” electroshock therapy, and other practices that have controversial histories etched into the public imagination. Much of our image research revealed hundreds of abandoned asylums, all haunting reminders of a forgotten past: empty hallways, rows of bathtubs, cracked windows, rusted doors to solitary confinement, gurneys’ with worn leather straps, stained mattresses, and shattered dreams.
Rather than transforming the environment, we augmented the already worn-down interior to enhance the already asylum-like quality of the space by adding wires and cords to make it feel like [End Page E-14] the interior of the mind or nervous system. We had forty-four televisions scattered throughout the building with surveillance cameras to convey a sense of surveillance and panopticon—that the patients were being watched at all times. In the large room we had an aerial rig where one of the patients was suspended above the audience. One of the most interesting experiences working on Asylum was the cathedral room, which had a vaulted ceiling with no roof. On two nights of the performance rain poured in—a rare occurrence in Phoenix. We ended up incorporating the rain into the performance to great effect, the performers and audience moving through the rain. It literally rained inside the experience, thus creating a very eerie atmosphere.
The addition of a freestanding aerial rig was another augmentation of the space for Asylum. This massive, silver-painted airplane-hangar-type room was made to feel even higher than it already was by adding the vertical element. The performers used buckets in that same space to conduct a “bathing” ritual. The buckets (and the sound they produced) were as much a character in that space as any of the performers. The addition of simple props augmented the space and shifted its use.5 [End Page E-15]
Transforming Found Space
Transforming a space means completely changing an existing space into something else.
An example of transforming found space is Conference of the Birds, an original adaptation of Farid ud-Din Attar’s twelfth-century Sufi poem (fig. 13). Conference of the Birds occurred in a 6,000-square-foot raw industrial space, The Unexpected Gallery. Over a process of three weeks we transformed this raw warehouse into a theatrical universe of Attar’s seven valleys through fabric, media projects, soundscapes, and twenty television monitors mounted on the ceiling. The audience moved through several distinct environments: from a Persian tea room, to a standing circular configuration, to a runway configuration, to a proscenium shadow wall, to multiple installation rooms.
Principle 4: Creating Presence and Performance Energy in Site-Specific Work
A person casually walks by the four performers and gives them a thumbs up. His strolling was contrasted by the slow, purposeful movements of these four figures. He is wearing a complete Spider Man costume, including a mask. All eyes remain on the four people clad in white without paying him any attention.
Our final idea comes from the performance of Transfix that the authors all shared in Las Vegas (figs. 14–15). Each section of this essay has begun with a passage describing some memorable moments from this performance. Amid the spectacle of Las Vegas, this trip down the strip reinforced how potent true presence is in shifting a landscape. How can the act of presence compel the passerby, not expecting to see a performance, to stop in their tracks, even if only for a moment? How can stillness and silence transform time and space so that the smallest detail can be observed and magnified within a frantic urban environment?
My site-specific, interactive performance Transfix is what I call “atmospheric” performance. It began in 1996 as an exploration into the art of presence. What happens when performers are in a constant state of discovery as they explore space and architecture with their bodies—creating what Artaud called “spatial poetry”? Transfix is an ongoing, interactive, silent performance that transforms urban architecture into a poetic theatrical landscape. Performers break out of the traditional theatre arena into a public space where the audience becomes part of the performance, coming and going as they please. Weaving in and around urban architectural spaces and spectators, we transform the street into a stage, revealing the poetry and beauty of the mundane. Transfix is a collaborative, interactive urban intervention in which passersby, not expecting to see a performance, stop in their tracks, transfixed. While this work is not rooted in Japanese butoh, it shares a similar aesthetic and melancholy. Like the white powder worn by butoh dancers that represents the annihilation of life after Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the white captures this loss and absence, as well as evoking a sense of discovery and rebirth. For me, Transfix is as much about absence as is it is about presence.6
We were only thirty feet from the elevators that marked the end of our performance, the end of our time in the public eye. A stranger approached me as I tried to get some last pictures in the good lighting: “What is this? Is this a performance? What does it mean?” [End Page E-16]
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These ideas for site-specific work will continue to evolve as we continue to create performances, see work by other artists, and learn from the work of those who preceded us. For now, however, they represent some of our guiding principles for approaching this invigorating style of theatre. In reality, these principles are meant more as provocations than as statements, questions that can guide a creative process in its search for meaning. As such, we end here with Marc’s description of his time working with Opera del Espacio.
Opera del Espacio would select a space and ask ourselves, what does the architecture evoke and say to us? What are the geometrical lines in the space doing? Is it a vertical space? A horizontal space? Does the space have a lot of diagonals, circles, or spiral movements? Is it long or deep? We began from what was already there, and with this information we created a performance vocabulary. We might begin by simply moving as investigative questioners, allowing the feeling of “long” to affect the duration of our movements, or we might let that feeling affect the shape of our bodies, forming more literal or abstract shapes and gestures. We would examine the texture of the space. Was it rough? Was it smooth? How could we move in rough or smooth ways? And what did that do to us? Did the space have a certain energy or feeling to it? Were there historical implications? And if so, how did that make us react? We were always in dialogue with the space as a creative partner. What could it inspire us to do? [End Page E-18]
Rachel Bowditch (MA/PhD) is a theatre director, an associate professor, and the head of the MFA in performance in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Her creative research weaves devising, immersive theatre, physical theatre, experimental performance, the integration of innovative digital technology in performance, movement pedagogy, invented ritual practices, and festivals as sites for utopic social transformation. Her books On the Edge of Utopia: Performance and Ritual at Burning Man (2010) and Performing Utopia (2017) were published by University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books. She is currently working with Paula Murray Cole and Michele Minnick on two books about Richard Schechner’s Performance Workshop and Rasaboxes, and an edited anthology, Physical Dramaturgy: Perspectives from the Field, with Jeff Casazza and Annette Thornton.
Daniel Bird Tobin is a post-MFA fellow in theatre performance at Virginia Tech, where he is an instructor of acting and collaborative-techniques courses. His work as a performer, director, and dramaturg focuses on solo performance, devised and community-engaged theatre, and creative movement. He calls his work “theatre archaeology,” because it excavates the stories embedded in the objects of the world around us and in our past. He received his MFA in performance from Arizona State University, and holds a BA in anthropology and drama from Washington University in St. Louis.
Chelsea Pace is an assistant professor of movement at North Dakota State University, vice president of the Association of Theatre Movement Educators, and a founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education. She earned her MFA from Arizona State University, where she focused her research on staging intimacy, nudity, and sexual violence. She specializes in devised work and creating immersive theatre experiences. Her book, Staging Sex, is forthcoming (2019).
Marc Devine is an assistant professor of voice for the actor and acting at Ball State University, where he teaches courses in vocal production, acting, movement, and dialects. He is the recipient of the National Award for Distinguished Choreography/Movement Direction from the 2015 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. His work as a performer and researcher centers on vulnerability, devised theatre, ethnography, and combining somatic voice and movement techniques to create both traditional and experimental works. He earned his MFA from Naropa University in contemporary performance, and holds a BFA in acting from the College of Santa Fe.
2. For more on Many Heads are on My Shoulders, see http://www.danielbirdtobin.com/many-heads-are-on-my-shoulders.html.