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Why 'site-specific' theatre isn't always the answer.

Last week, Arts Council England announced details of its three year investment plans for its National Portfolio – that is, the group of artists and crafts workers who will continue to receive major public investment in support of their work. The news has been generally well received, with industry paper The Stage referring to the announcement as “brutal but not radical,” and acknowledging the finesse with which ACE, under the chairmanship of Sir Peter Bazalgette, has redistributed the increasingly scarce funding which survived the latest round of austerity cuts. Even non-London based organisations (unceremoniously lumped together in the statistics sheet as belonging to “the regions” – as if that were a mythic, foreign land) have received a proportionately larger piece of pie this time around.

One repeated subject of debate in the press and online has been ACE’s dependence on building-based organisations as the most frequent and best-satisfied recipients of its bounty. Some commentators have suggested – as they do each time a funding round is announced – that the future of theatre should lie elsewhere, beyond the four walls (or five if you count Irving’s famous convention) of the theatre building. Such voices belong to the disciples of ‘site-specific’ theatre; an idea which is not new, but has been gaining ground in recent decades, although funding streams have yet to catch up.

The idea is simple: Theatreland cannot compete with Hollywood, since they offer profoundly different experiences. The attraction of live theatre lies in the simple fact that it is live. Those who witnessed Gielgud give his Hamlet will never witness it again (a bad example, perhaps, since the actor gave the same role many times throughout his dazzling career) – or, at least, will never see it played the same way. The magic lies in having been there, in that moment, on that night; in having experienced the production – not simply watched it. One of the best notes I ever received during training was from Alex Clifton, Artistic Director of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre: “Be prepared, because something will go wrong tonight. It could be large – it could be small – you can’t possibly anticipate it. And whatever it is, it could make the show, if you play it right.” Whoever said that acting was about reacting surely had live theatre in mind.

Rather than play it in the confine of a black box, therefore, why not extract it from that sterile space and put it on in the location where the action is set? For a play set in a forest (Reverend’s In the Kingdom of the Blind makes for a fine example) perform in a forest! If set in a flat (like Dracula) perform in a flat – perhaps one enlarged to hold a thronging crowd. Site-specific performance is certainly an attractive option in many ways. The outrageous overheads which go into powering playhouses – many of them antiquated buildings – are eliminated at a stroke. Companies like Slung Low in Leeds have drunk the kool aid to such an extent that they never now perform in non-site-specific contexts.

This is well and good for plays which take place in a single setting, without the need for special effects such as a well-equipped theatre can produce, and with the consent of audiences who are prepared to make do with such seating or standing conditions as the specific site allows. Site-specific theatre can be wonderful – enhancing the experience of the right play a thousand times over – but it can also be woeful, disenchanting and, for many outdoor plays, cold and wet. Some material resists site-specificity, and should not be forced into this mould. There is also something to be said for preserving the distinction between the real world and the world of the play. In a great article for The Guardian, Tim Crouch argues against “clocks, running water, fire and kisses” since the reality they bring to a moment on stage contrasts awkwardly with the carefully managed narrative ‘reality’ which persists for the rest of the play. Audiences want to be alienated, as Brecht has it, and bringing them to a ‘real’ location may not always satisfy this craving.

The moral, then, as usual, is ‘horses for courses.’ Some plays are designed to be site-specific, and work wonderfully in this context. Many others, however, lose out by moving out of the theatre, and for all that buildings may suck up much of the funding that is out there, they most definitely have their part to play in perpetuating the great theatre of today. As a final thought, I gave a paper this week at the IMC in Leeds in which I argued that acting is often “not a putting on, but rather a setting aside of self.” I’m tempted to make the same argument for the value of theatre which is resolutely not site-specific: the stage is a designedly anonymous space. The invitation is there for each new play staged on it to give it a new face and identity.

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