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“Site Specific Theatre"

28 x Southern Theatre x Winter 2014
by David Wohl
Producers Take Plays Into Real-World Settings
and Invite Audiences to Join Them for the Ride
“Where should a play happen? The theatrical event always happens within a space, but only
sometimes is space itself an event.”
- Arthur Sainer, The Radical Theatre Notebook (1975)
Arthur Sainer wrote theatre criticism for the The Village Voice during the 1960s and 1970s and, because he reviewed
so many avant-garde and unconventional theatre productions (in New York City lofts, churches, laundromats,
bus stations and other settings) he became one of the first American critics to discuss and analyze site-specific
theatre. Sainer realized that theatre that took place in nontheatrical spaces often required more involvement and
interaction from audience members and, in such environments, life was “less capable than usual of protecting
[them] from art.” In Sainer’s definition of site-specific theatre, space becomes an event.
Today, more and more theatres are finding that this type of production can attract new audiences not often
found in traditional spaces.
Actors Theatre of Louisville was one of the early presenters of site-specific works, including this play produced inside a Lincoln Town Car
during the 23rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. The audience watched from the back seat as Trip Hope and Ginna Hoben
performed in What Are You Afraid Of?.
Richard C. Trigg
Winter 2014 x Southern Theatre x 29
First, A Definition: What is ‘Site-Specific’?
As theatre organizations in the U.S. and abroad
explore the possibilities of producing site-based plays,
the term “site-specific” has been tossed about rather
loosely to describe any performance that doesn’t
take place in a conventional theatre space. Over the
past decade or so, the range of site-specific work has
grown even more diverse and varied – and often
difficult to categorize or pin down. Scholars and
critics have different views about what “site-specific”
really means.
Several years ago, the Scottish Arts Council, rec-
ognizing that site-specific theatre required some sort
of operational description for their grant programs,
defined a site-specific production as a theatrical
performance that “fully exploits the properties, quali-
ties and meanings of a given site.” The Arts Council
further noted that, “Even if it is feasible to stage a
play in the traditional theatre setting, site-specific
performance may be preferred as it reveals the com-
plex two-way relationship between the person and
the physical environment.”
The recent resurgence in the use of nontheatri-
cal space for performances may be attributed to a
multitude of reasons – but it has certainly provided
some very interesting opportunities for playwrights,
directors, actors, producers and theatre organiza-
tions. Producers and directors have realized that
site-specific theatre has the potential of attracting a
“non-theatre” audience – an audience that might not
ordinarily attend or enjoy traditional theatre.
Theatre in a Car and a Warehouse
Some of the most interesting site-specific work pro-
duced in the past two decades has been done in Louis-
ville, KY, the site of SETC’s 2013 convention. Between
1999 and 2004, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana
Festival of New American Plays produced several
site-specific pieces including Richard Dresser’s car
play, What Are You Afraid of? in 1999 and, five years
later, Naomi Iizuka’s From the Vanishing Point. What
Are You Afraid of?, a 10-minute, two-character play,
was performed in an old Lincoln Town Car parked in
front of the theatre. Audience members sat in the back
seat and watched the action unfold in the front. From
the Vanishing Point was performed in a warehouse in
Louisville’s historic Butchertown neighborhood and
was conceived during Iizuka’s residency in Louisville.
Former Actors Theatre Producing Director Jon Jory
explained that “theatre does not have to exist within
the frame of buying a ticket to a two-hour event. We
Specific Gravity
Ensemble produced a
series of elevator plays
at the Starks Building
in Louisville, KY, from
2007 to 2009. At left,
William Wells and
Gina Theresa Cisto
perform in Finishing
the Beginning, by Todd
Zeigler, part of “Elevator
Plays: Ascent/Descent -
have to seek other venues, forms and time limits to
remain part of the contemporary lifestyle.”
Elevator Plays: Going Up or Down?
The Louisville experimental theatre company
Specific Gravity Ensemble produced a series of eleva-
tor plays between 2007 and 2009 which consisted of
several two-minute mini-plays that were set in four
elevators in downtown Louisville’s historic Starks
Building on 4th Street. The elevator plays were per-
formed simultaneously, with one production on the
21st Century Theatre
Lou Sumrall appears
in At the Vanishing
Point by Naomi
Iizuka, performed in a
warehouse in Louisville
and directed by Les
Waters as part of the
28th Humana Festival
of New American
Patrick Pfister
Harlan Taylor
30 x Southern Theatre x Winter 2014
way up and another on the way down. The initial
run in 2007 included four performances over two
weekends, which sold out almost immediately. The
company extended the dates and, two weeks later,
performed a second four-performance run which sold
out prior to opening. The company’s director and
cofounded Rand Harmon explained how it worked:
“In each, the elevator car was stopped on the ground
floor and loaded with up to five audience members,
and up to three actors. When the car was activated
and the doors closed, a play commenced as it climbed
to the top floor. The play concluded just before, or as
the doors opened on the top floor. Audiences were
instructed to remain in the car as the actors exited
and a new cast of actors boarded. The doors closed,
and another play commenced as the car returned all
the riders to the ground floor lobby.”
The company produced more elevator plays in
2008 and 2009, and all of the performances proved
to be extremely popular with Louisville audiences.
Harmon says the company “intended to provide an
experience that changed our audience once they’d
completed a performance. We didn’t feel that was
always the case when they were sitting comfortably in
a cushy seat in dark anonymity.” Harmon, who is now
in the process completing his doctoral dissertation on
site-specific theatre at the University of Colorado, is
looking at a possible return to production in 2014 with
elevator performances in Chicago and/or Denver.
My Own Entry into Site-Specific Theatre
During my 19-year tenure as artistic director of
the Charleston Stage Company (CSC) in Charleston,
WV, we regularly produced staged readings and
workshop productions of original scripts. With the
assistance of small grants from the West Virginia
Commission on the Arts, we tried to encourage and
promote West Virginia playwrights and new plays.
In 2006, board member and local playwright Arla
Ralston suggested that we change our approach and
begin to produce new site-specific plays in different
Our intent was to push the boundaries of tradi-
tional theatre and offer audiences something differ-
ent. We also wanted to explore new spaces so that, as
Sainer suggested, the space itself might become part
of the performance text. We found the experience to
be both limiting and de-limiting. It was de-limiting
because the performance was not restricted to the ar-
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The elevators
plays were
‘intended to
provide an
that changed
our audience.
We didn’t feel
that was always
the case when
they were sitting
comfortably in a
cushy seat in dark
Winter 2014 x Southern Theatre x 31
tificial boundaries of a traditional proscenium, thrust
or arena theatre. In some spaces (not all), we had the
opportunity of reducing or eliminating the separation
of performers from audience members. This signifi-
cantly increased the interaction and involvement and
certainly the sense of immediacy.
It was also limiting because we replaced imaginary
theatrical boundaries (such as the transparent “fourth
wall”) with real ones -- the real physical barriers and
constraints that inherently existed in the sites we were
working with. It took us a few years to begin consider-
ing these barriers earlier in the production process.
How much noise does a trolley make in navigating
downtown traffic -- how many people can you fit in
a bank lobby or in an elevated walkway? Site-specific
theatre also gives you less control over the audience
– they no longer are fixed immovably in a seat in a
darkened theatre building.
CSC produced eight site-specific productions
between 2006 and summer 2013 in various locations.
The first was in a downtown former bank lobby on
the corner of Virginia and Capitol Streets. There is a
mural in the lobby that depicts the lobby itself (see
photo at left). The painting includes four characters – a
man in a camel’s hair coat and bowler
hat at the teller’s window, the teller
serving him, a man sitting in a chair
by the wall with his feet outstretched,
and a young woman in the middle
of the lobby bending over to adjust
her stockings. For years, Charleston
residents engaged in an informal but
often heated debate about what is
actually going on in this scene. What
is the sitting man waiting for? Who
is the man in the camel haired coat?
And why is the woman in the center
of the mural lifting her skirt to adjust
her stockings? Playwrights were
asked to submit 10-minute plays
utilizing all four of these characters. Three plays were
chosen to be performed during Festiv-ALL Charles-
ton, a weeklong downtown summer arts festival that
also premiered in 2006.
Audience response was amazing. All perfor-
mances sold out within minutes and we had to add
more performances because of word-of-mouth and
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Audiences flocked to
see plays based on
the characters in this
bank mural during
Charleston Stage
Company’s Location
Plays in 2006.
Gabriele Wohl
(Continued on Page 33)
32 x Southern Theatre x Winter 2014
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From his research on site-specific productions, David Wohl developed some continuum
models that may help those who are interested in creating site-specific work.
The Audience Continuum
Ranges from Invited/Exclusive to Accidental/Bystander. Invited/exclusive events are
controlled. The site is undisclosed to the general public (similar to the model of the
underground supper club), and the production is by invitation only. Conversely, there
is no deliberate attempt to control the accidental/bystander model. Spectators may
just be passing through a location during the performance. Flash mobs are the best
example of this model.
The Environment Continuum
Ranges from Fixed To Mobile/Nomadic. Fixed sites are located in one, unchanging
space. Mobile/nomadic sites can move by themselves (car plays, trolley plays) or the
audience can move from site to site.
The Site Continuum
Ranges from Unaltered To Transformed. Transformed sites are usually altered in some
way to mimic theatres (identifiable spaces for actors and spectators) while unaltered
sites make no attempt to create a theatre space: there are no seats and no separated
and distinct spaces for performers or audience members.
The Text Continuum
Ranges from Previously Published To Site-Specific. It’s possible to perform a conven-
tional, published play in an unconventional, non-theatrical space. (Hamlet has been
performed in castles, graveyards and, in 2010, on Alcatraz Island.) At the other end
of the spectrum, many, if not most, site-specific texts cannot be separated from the
site itself and would not make sense if performed elsewhere.
Models for Site-Specific Theatre
Winter 2014 x Southern Theatre x 33
the buzz that was being generated around
town. As soon as people couldn’t get in, it
became more popular. Why the reaction?
The plays were new, interesting, engaging,
short, and it was difficult to get a ticket. By
day two, we had lines outside the bank 45
minutes before each performance.
We did a post-mortem afterwards and it
soon became apparent that the productions
were one of the solid hits of the festival. The
city not only wanted repeat performances a
year later, but also was interested in spon-
soring a new one as well.
Challenges on the Road
For 2007’s Festiv-ALL Charleston, we
decided to go mobile. Utilizing one of
two Charleston’s trolley buses, we invited
playwrights to submit plays that would be
performed during the complete festival bus
route beginning at the Charleston Town
Center Mall, heading east toward the Capi-
tol, through downtown, and back to the
mall. We could only seat about 22 people on
the trolley (including actors and the driver)
and we had to time out the route in order to
give guidelines to prospective playwrights.
We estimated the journey to be about 20
minutes. The play that was chosen was a
film noir parody and, again, was extremely
William Reardon and Jim
Stacy appear in A Streetcar
Named Despair by Gabriele
Wohl, produced by Charleston
Stage Company and performed
on Kanawha Valley Regional
Transport Authority’s trolley car
in Charleston, WV, in 2007.
Producing site-specific theatre means giving up a certain amount of control over the theatrical environment. The site selected for the
performance may not have an actual stage (or if it does, the space may be extremely limited). In addition, it may not have lighting and
sound capabilities, masking, electrical outlets, bathrooms, a box office area or any kind of “backstage.
Are You Ready to Create a Site-Specific Production?
Things to consider in your planning:
The Text: Can the play be separated from the site? Are you producing a conventional play in an unconventional site or creating a text
will be written/scripted specifically for a specifically identified, non-theatrical space?
The Audience: Is this an exclusive event (invited audience, ticketed, publicized in advance) or inclusive (flash mob events are “planned”
spontaneity to a certain degree)? Will the audience be accidental bystanders or have they come specifically to see a performance?
The Actors: Performing in a site-specific production can be very different than acting in a traditional play in a conventional theatre. The
actors need to be flexible and cognizant of the specific characteristics of the site and the audience/performer spatial relationship.
The Site: Is it a fixed site or movable (car plays, walking tours, etc.?) Do you need to transform the site in some way to accommodate
the performance or is it unaltered and fixed? Do you need seating or do the spectators stand?
The Elements of Production: How much control do you have (or need) over acoustics? Lighting? Scenic elements? Does the site
accommodate (or need to accommodate) dressing room space? Sound effects or music? Do you need volunteer ushers or helpers? Do
you need a box office?
popular. All advance tickets were sold out
within hours and we had lines of people
hoping for no-shows.
After the second summer of our location
plays, it became clear that they had become
a popular fixture of Festiv-ALL. From 2008
until this past summer, CSC and Festiv-ALL
Charleston produced six additional site-
specific plays – on a pedestrian walkway, in
a coffee shop, in a hair salon, on a riverboat,
in the county library, and in a former garage
now used as an art gallery. Although each
play was different stylistically, all were
performed in nontheatrical spaces and
drew large audiences.
A Growth Area or a Gimmick?
The popularity and frequency of site-
specific theatre seems to be growing
rapidly. Some of the work continues to be
fairly experimental and edgy while other
productions are unabashedly commercial.
In December 2011, Soho Repertory
Theatre in New York City produced the
off-off Broadway premiere of David
Adjmi’s play Elective Affinities, starring the
veteran stage actress and four-time Tony
(Continued from Page 31)
(Continued on Page 34)
David Wohl
34 x Southern Theatre x Winter 2014
Award winner Zoe Caldwell. Only 30
“invitations” were sent to prospective ticket
buyers for each performance – all held in an
undisclosed Upper East Side apartment in
Manhattan – and the show was reviewed
by Ben Brantley, the first-string drama critic
of The New York Times.
Still, some critics have cried, “Enough,
give me a nice comfortable seat in a dark-
ened, air-conditioned theatre!” One would
hope that experiencing theatre in a non-
theatre space would be special or at least
more exciting than “conventional” theatre.
However, this is not always the case.
Are site-specific theatre artists breaking
down barriers and boundaries? Or is
the increase in this type of work just one
more gimmick to draw audiences? And,
is there anything wrong with a gimmick if
it can attract new audiences and provide
interesting opportunities for theatre artists?
Certainly, the more this type of work is
produced, the more it will be written about,
reviewed, critiqued and analyzed.
Challenges and Opportunities
Our experience with the genre at
Charleston Stage Company was extremely
positive. We found that the flexibility
afforded by the relatively unstructured
nature of the form encouraged a great deal
of collaboration. Because of the nature of
the setting, audience members tend to
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be very involved with the performance.
Rand Harmon, producer of the Louisville
elevator plays, noted that, “when the
audience is asked to engage with a dramatic
presentation while also engaging in a
conventional activity like riding in a
functioning elevator, the aesthetic distance
from the dramatic presentation slides to
extremely intimate. It becomes difficult to
differentiate between watching and being
involved and as such the psychological
and aesthetic distance they experience gets
compressed and distorted, and possibly
even gets erased.”
All of the selected playwrights we
worked with were impressed with the
production process and the final product.
The challenges for actors and directors were
multifaceted and often difficult and almost
always inspired creative solutions.
Before theatre groups do consider site-
specific productions, they should probably
ask some basic questions: “Why do you
want to do it?” And: “What’s the point?”
There is really no need to perform in a
nontheatrical setting if the site is not inte-
gral to the production. We’ve all had the
experience of performing in bad theatrical
spaces – why perform in an inferior non-
theatrical space?
Harmon says his biggest advice for
theatre companies considering site-based
Andrea Perkins, Russell Hicks, and Terry
Terpening appear in The Gallery Play by
Jan Hoke at the Good News Mountaineer
Garage Art Gallery in Charleston, WV, in
a 2013 presentation by Charleston Stage
This pedestrian walkway at the corner of Lee
and Dickinson Streets in Charleston, WV
was the site of Charleston Stage Company’s
2009 site-specific play, The Crossing.
(Continued from Page 33)
Gabriele Wohl
Greg and Verena Sava
Winter 2014 x Southern Theatre x 35
David Wohl is dean of the Col-
lege of Visual and Performing
Arts at Winthrop University
and a past President of SETC.
He served as artistic director
of the Charleston (WV) State
Company for 19 years.
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work is to “resist doing so just for the
novelty value.” He maintains that, “Without
a compelling experiential component,
one where the audience interfaces in
unexpected and visceral ways with the
contextual and empirical resonances of
the site, they will lose interest…. The really
successful site-based theatre productions
are the ones that develop an immersive
experience for the audience.” n
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