After COVID: attract new audiences with site-specific performance

After COVID: attract new audiences with site-specific performance

Traditional Thai Dancers performing outdoors in site-specic theatre

Eventually, patrons will begin inching back to theatres when the concerns around COVID-19 have diminished. Hopefully, you've been live-streaming events or meet-and-greets with the cast to keep audience members engaged. Continue those efforts to keep your theatre front-of-mind with patrons. At the same time, it's never too early to start planning for those first in-person performances when the theatre doors finally reopen. For this article, we'll discuss the types and benefits of site-specific theatre and how this format helps close the "social distance" that welcomes back cherished theatre patrons. Let's talk about how you can attract new audiences with site-specific performance.

First let's define site-specific theatre. The term is derived from "site-specific art" coined in the 1970s, and like its root phrase, site-specific theatre generally translates to performances held in non-standard spaces. The Scottish Arts Council defined site-specific performance as one that “fully exploits the properties, qualities and meanings of a given site.” Thus, the show and the space itself are aligned with one another with both the performers and the audience sharing the same space.

The "stage" might include the wide-open space of a public park, the stillness of a forest, or even the courtyard or lobby of your own theatre. However, spaces can be even more intimate! Audiences of site-specific theatre have viewed performances from the back seat of a car, from within moving elevators, or eavesdropping from the living room of a private home. At this time, your focus should be on wide-open -- and naturally "socially distant" -- performance spaces.

There are a couple of benefits to site-specific theater. First and foremost, in the swirling currents around the coronavirus, site-specific performance takes people away from the close proximity of enclosed theatre seating and into open areas. The additional breathing space between patrons may create more confidence in their return to live events. This is especially important to a more mature patron base, but virtually every age group will be slow to frequent crowded areas immediately after guidelines are relaxed.

Second, the sheer fact that a performance is held away from traditional theatre carries an element of surprise for frequent theatre-goers, and the current thirst for entertainment may add to the excitement. Finally, you'll almost certainly attract new audiences with site-specific performance that would not normally attend traditional theatre.

There are various types of site-specific theatre. Promenade theatre allows your audience to freely move from scene to scene in an almost voyeuristic sense as the audience weaves pieces of the production together. Sometimes, the performers' movement carries them and their audience through a given space. Environmental theatre uses the very setting as part of the performance itself. Think Hansel and Gretel performed within the wooded areas of your own community. With imagination and ingenuity, you can safely invite your patrons back for some exciting performances.

Site-specific theatre provides endless opportunities for creative freedom. How can you combine elements of outdoor spaces in your proximity to create enthralling performances? Are there parking garages, thickly wooded areas that naturally shield you from rain, or even beachfront vistas that add to the stories you can tell?

About 20 years ago, I was invited to see a passion play on Easter Sunday in Corpus Christi -- an aptly named city for such a production! With virtually no religious background, I had no idea what a passion play was or the content around it. The play was held on the banks of the bayfront in a beautiful outdoor space normally reserved for patrons enjoying Sunday orchestra in the park. I'll never forget the emotion I felt seeing the actor playing Jesus come up over the hill bearing the cross. His robes streamed behind him in the wind and the snap of those robes with the snap of whips in the air would not have had the same effect if not for the environmental space.

As another example, during my last visit to Boston, I visited one of our clients, The Freedom Trail, for a guided walk along various historic places. The tour was led by a guide dressed in full 1770s regalia and delivered in part as a performance with booming voice and affected English. Walking tours themselves are a type of site-specific theatre. How can you combine elements of a walking tour with traditional theatre and an outdoor setting to excite patrons? Dust off those costumes and props from postponed shows, and bring a new and a much needed level of excitement to your theatre!

If you are new to site-specific theatre, please use the references at the conclusion of this article. Especially, read through Anne Hamburger's, "The Why and How of Site Specific" for her own experience of bringing site-specific theatre to NYC decades ago. As Ms. Hamburger recently wrote about her experience in site-specific:

We are living in a country that is more divisive than anything I’ve seen since the sixties, and it is more important than ever to continue to persist. And while creating live experiences has become harder as we struggle for attention in a media-obsessed world, there is no replacement for a group of people gathering together to experience live storytelling. It is exciting to see how so many theatre groups are experimenting with the relationship between actors and audiences, investigating what happens when we abandon the fourth wall. And it is clear the hunger for this kind of discovery and experimentation is still alive and well.

Remember, this crisis will end, and it is important to stay engaged with audiences. You can attract new audiences with site-specific performance while maintaining connections with valued, traditional patrons.

Since the performing arts have traditionally reached the more mature audiences that have been most affected -- and anxious -- about the coronavirus, it is especially important to foster safe environments for them to continue to enjoy your performances. Those very patrons will be the least inclined to jump back into the traditional format. What could feel safer than an out-of-doors environment for an audience hungry for theatre? With invitations stating "bring-your-own chair" and BYOB, you'll be making it clear that safety and health are first with the performance coming close on those heels.

"The Why and How of Site Specific": fantastic essay by Anne Hamburger about her history in site-specific
Howl Around blog listing around site-specific theatre
Out of Space: The Negotiation of Space in Site-Specific Performance
Site-specific work is not just about location, location, location
Site-Specific Theatre by BoxedIn Theater
Site-Specific Performance: Analysis of Initial Piece/Ideas
Writing for Site-Specific Theatre