In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Four Principles about Site-Specific Theatre: A Conversation on Architecture, Bodies, and Presence
  • Rachel Bowditch (bio), Daniel Bird Tobin (bio), Chelsea Pace (bio), and Marc Devine (bio)


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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Fig. 1.

Transfix, by Vessel Project, Las Vegas (2017), Rachel Bowditch, Chelsea Pace, Liz Stanton, and Marc Devine (l-r). (Photo: Daniel Bird Tobin.)

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Fig. 2.

Transfix, by Vessel Project, Las Vegas (2017), Chelsea Pace. (Photo: Daniel Bird Tobin.)

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Fig. 3.

Transfix, by Vessel Project, Las Vegas (2017), Chelsea Pace and Rachel Bowditch. (Photo: Daniel Bird Tobin.)

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.

Chelsea Pace (CP):

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...