Site Specific Performance

Essay Talk/Lecture  
Three astronauts pass time on a platform in the middle of Wednesbury called Earth North Central. One sits of her silver box reading a newspaper. Two others, with their helmets on are dicussing something off in the distance.

This is a somewhat improved version of a talk given by James Yarker to 3rd Year students at Coventry University on 22nd October, 2007. Which has subsequently been updated to include The Steps Series but not The Camp.

Your module is about Site Specific Performance so this presentation will attempt to set out some thoughts about working outside theatres and illustrate them with a scattering of shows from the Stan’s Cafe back-catalogue.

Site Specific interests me more for its emphasis on specificity than on site. Every theatre show we make has to justify its location, whether that is in a studio theatre or a metro line. If we are making a show for a studio theatre we should be as alive to the specific nature of this venue as any other. What is special about this space (the theatre) and how does this speciality add to the quality of what we are doing? Clearly once you get to grips with this for one studio theatre space the challenge remains fairly consistent in similar spaces. By taking theatre out and about you challenge yourselves to learn what is special about each new location and apply this knowledge to each new production. We enjoy working in and out of theatre buildings, the variety keeps us fresh and everything we learn in one arena can inform what we do in another.

The Freedom Of Not Theatre

It would be taken as an outrageous affront to lure people into a theatre and then present them with a show lasting only 270 seconds either that or it would have to be an truly dazzling 270 seconds. It would be an extraordinarily tolerant theatre that would commission a show from youand remain relaxed when you said you wanted them to only allow one person into the auditorium to watch each performance. No matter how ‘flexible’ the theatre space you a working in it will remain a significant request to ask that the proscenium arch be reduced to a rectangle 30cm x 20cm andthen raised 100cm from the floor. The trick, if you want to do any of these things is to not work in a theatre. Our commission from The Bond Gallery to make a new performance in 1998 was only worth £500 but of far greater value was the simple fact that it wasn’t theatrical commission, as such we were liberated, not just from the conventional finances and architecture of a theatrical institution, but liberated from all the baggage that a theatre show made for a theatre has placed upon it.

It’s Your Film (1998) A 270 second long performance in which a solitary audience member looks through a raised proscenium arch 30cm x 20cm was made in a rush of Not Theatre freedom. Of course it was and is a piece of theatre widely acknowledged as both small and beautifully formed what seems crucial is that it was a piece of theatre made outside the conventions and expectations of a theatre. It was made with a series of very specific jobs in mind and the site doesn’t really matter, we just need an empty space of a certain size that could be made very, very dark. The show became hugely popular and has toured widely to wide variety of venues.

The viewing booth from It's Your Film. It looks liek awardrobe without a door and rectangular holes half way up each side wall.

Ironically, once the freedom of ‘not theatre’ thinking had allowed the show to be made, our setting of choice has become conventional theatre stages on which we can build our viewing booth/auditorium and mini proscenium within the large proscenium. The show’s return to the theatre allows it to draw and reflect upon the expectations and conventions of that site.

Touring Your Own Black Box

If It’s Your Film can be seen as a show that tours with its own proscenium arch theatre and one seat auditorium, so maybe The Black Maze (2000) can be regarded as touring with your own black box studio theatre, in which a complicated set is built and the lights are never turned on. The audience walk alone or in pairs around this set, though sound, visual and tactile effects, protagonists and audience in their own private psychodrama. Like It’s Your Film, The Black Maze, was built for a non-theattre setting, Birmingham City Council’s Multi-Media Millennium Celebration event, Revolution. In contrast to It’s Your Film, The Black Maze never gravitated back to a theatrical setting. Instead, after a year or two visiting art galleries it was rebuilt in the back of an old Post Office Lorry and set off to sites around the UK and Europe in town squares, parks, playing fields and shopping centres.

The Maze lorry parked in a city square at dusk bathted in orange light.

‘Proper’ Site Specific

So far this presentation has been a disappointment to the true devotee of Site Specific. Canute The King (1993), a show made for the Edwardian Swimming Baths on Birmingham’s Moseley Road, rectifies this problem. This show was built entirely around the opportunities and demands of this beautiful building, it’s elevated audience balcony, itOs dramatic barrelled ceiling, itOs extraordinary acoustic and the fact there were hundreds of gallons of water where the stage would normally be.

The project’s inception was simple. I’d started thinking of the legend of King Canute as rich material from which to build a show and Graeme had started thinking of the Baths as an exciting venue to stage a show. The match was clear and comfortable, permissions were gained and we even raised some money. Ideas suggested by the material met ideas suggested by the site and practicalities moderated both.

As a company we were barely a couple of years old, there were barely any of us, this was only our third show, we were working on a miniscule budget trying to pull off a big, complicated show, no one had heard of us but still people came. It’s difficult to overestimate the draw of a well-chosen slice of site specific. Audiences seem to love novelty value, the sense of adventure, the chance to discover a new space or to experience a known space in a new way. Site Specific appears to confer the status of Ohigh conceptO on a show. Endowing them with a winning one sentence pitch – A show about [insert subject of choice] performed in [insert unusual venue of choice].

I think, all things considered, Canute The King was an impressive achievement, but probably not an especially good show. A measure of the stress we were under is that there is next to no documentation of the event and my brain shuts down whenever I try to recall it. Despite this, not only did people come but we also got television and press previews. For years afterwards we were known by a ridiculous number of unlikely people as “those guys that did that show in the swimming baths”.

One end of a swimming pool in the dark, silhoetted in multicoloured arches are a male and female singer, in a spotlight, pool side is a man in a suit carryign a wooden throne.

Finding a good site for your Site Specific is a fair challenge. Obviously you will be lured by spaces that have an inherent resonance, theatricality or history, but even if you bag one of these you are not home and hosed. You need to ensure that you can work with the venue. You need to fully inhabit it and make sure that your fiction can play effectively within the truth of the space. Your nightmare is hearing people leave saying “great space shame about the show”. Of course if your Site Specific show is a big hit it may be a success that is difficult to capitalise on. We put a huge amount of effort into three performance of Canute the King, if it had taken off we had no way of extending the run, or affording to bring the show back to the baths, setting up UK tour of similarly configured Edwardian Swimming Baths would be a logistical nightmare. Repetition becomes easier if you are not so much specific to an individual site but to a kind of setting.

From A Farmer’s Barn To The Bongo Club

Traditionally if you are staging a military coup your first destination is the nearest Radio Station. You storm the station and tell the populous that everything has changed and you are now in charge. Your powerbase may only be one room big but what an important room, fiction now has the chance to revolutionise reality. A neat idea, but maybe a radio station is a bit hermetic, it narrows down our options too much. If your challenge is to live up to the title Lurid and Insane you probably need something more visual than the radio. We started thinking about personality cult dictators and despotic band leaders and the more we thought about it the more we liked the parallels and the more we were compelled by the nightmare of having to form a band and make this show some strange kind of ‘rock musical’.

Once the decision was taken that Lurid and Insane (2001) would be a theatre show disguised as a rock gig knew we were looking at performing somewhere other than in a theatre. The Nuffield Studio Theatre, Lancaster commissioned the project and found a farmer’s barn to stage it in. We posted revolutionary slogans at the gate, mounted a check point search of vehicles, burning torches illuminated the road and the barn itself was kitted out with all the trussing, speakers and lights you would expect if a medium size band hit town. The show was trailed by its own revolutionary radio station (PeopleOs Radio Freedom) and remarkably everything came together quite smoothly.

Three photos one of a farmers barn with with bits and pieces in i. The middle image is of teh barn clearned out and the bottom image is of the same barn as a concert venue with a stage set up in it.

Whilst the showOs trappings were specific to this farmer’s barn and subject to adaptation as it toured, the show itself could be staged unchanged in any given hall of a particular size and layout much as a bandOs tour can. The show continued on successfully to a music venue in Birmingham and The Bongo Club in Edinburgh, the only glitch was in Leeds, where I made a bad call on the venue. In finding the venues we knew the trick would always be to balance spectacle with intimacy/atmosphere. The conceit was that the show was a triumphal homecoming for a charismatic leader, intellectually you could deal with irony of a couple of hundred ‘party faithful’ rattling around in a huge hall whilst on stage all is bombast and stadium rock posturing, but in reality a gig is a gig and a half empty gig isn’t a great gig. Leeds threw up a host of possible venues, but they were all too big until a friendly Jazz style venue was found. With the show unmade and keen to get another gig I took the gamble that it would work out. In practice it didnOt, the show we ended up making needed the audience to be standing, looking up at the band on stage. The audience said nice things about the show afterwards, but we and I think they knew it wasn’t right. I should have thought it through more carefully, it turned out that the show was more Site Specific than I had imagined.

Street Theatre Or Site Specific?

Perhaps we are more keen on Site Specific than Street Theatre. When we got invited by Jubilee Arts to submit an idea for a piece to take place on the Midland Metro line, it sounded like a Street Theatre commission and we turned it down. With commendable persistence they persuaded us tothink again and think flexibly. So we took a ride to Wolverhampton on the way we discussed all the things that made us uncomfortable with Street Theatre and what we’d have to do to avoid this discomfort. By the time we had returned to Snow Hill a plan was in place.

We had decided that for us framing is at the crux of things and that the negotiation of framing in much Street Theatre is what makes us uncomfortable. We thought we could possibly negotiate this visually, but to have to speak to people would be too much. A solution would be to contrive a situation in which we could construct a clear framing device for our performance. I said we should build a new station for the Metro Line that no train would ever stop at. This station would act as an outdoor stage (and frame) for our performance. Amanda suggested that our station should be populated by aliens and astronauts and so Space Station (2002) was conceived. In the end our budget didnOt stretch to good aliens but three astronauts spent two days on the short platform of Earth North Central waiting to catch the Metro that would take them to the planets as now marked on all the metro maps. In essence we had reinterpreted the commission as a Site Specific performance. The site we chose was a particularly windswept and bleak bit of track within sight, but not shouting distance, of Wednesbury Parkway Station. The performance was designed to be viewed from that neighbouring station, but principally to be seen sliding, fleetingly through the frame of a Metro Passenger’s window.

A member of the public sits in an antique dentists chair in a museum while a film director briefs her on he role while a camera is adjusted.

Framed (2002) was both Site and Occasion Specific. It was also good example of how the restricting limitations of a constrictive brief can prove surprisingly stimulating. The Croydon Clocktower approached us to make a piece to coincide with the Croydon Film Festival.The piece had to contain elements of video, engage visitors to the venue, have an installation element visible around the building for a week and conclude with a ‘spectacular’ performance.

Emboldened by the success of Space Station we were prepared to take on a looser approach to framing and speaking with the public. Our solution to the Croydon conundrum was to act the roles of a film crew shooting a feature around the Clocktower building. Members of the public would participate in the shooting of some scenes. The conceptual frame would hang both within the space (action was ostensibly being performed for the camera) but more loosely around the film crew themselves as they both acted shooting and actually shot a the film.

A spectacular death of a man in a woman's arms while the public act horrified in the background.

After two weeks filming around the Clocktower building and four scenes shot with the public as pieces of theatre, the premiere screening of Framed took place on the festival’s closing night. Close to the end of the film a scene appears which was shot in same hall in which the screening is taking place. Events in the room start to synch with the pre-recorded video, including the film’s ‘stars’ chasing one of their number from the hall. One scene later the screening is interrupted with a fire drill and once outside audience witness the film’s final scene performed live for them and the camera in front of the Clocktower’s grand facade, which seems to be on fire. Framed was elegant in design and fun in execution. It was inspired by and built around its site.

The Steps Series (2008-) is a do-it-yourself performance in which audience members are invited to plot their own way around a set of vinyl footprints, hand prints and script fragments stuck on the floors and walls of a venue. The ideais that they first decode the sometimes oblique, but hopefully mostly intuative, instructions and once they are familiar with the showthen attempt to perform the piece themselves. The original piece, Dance Steps, was commissioned by MAC, its content wasinspired by the venue and its relationship to its local community. It would have made no sense to attempt to transplant the content of this show ontoa subsequent presentation at Warwick Arts Centre, instead an entierly new scenario was invented inspired by this new venue using the samepremise, rules and codes. Thus Spy Steps was born and a situation is set up in which a piece is able to both tour and be site specificat the same time, an idea perhaps subliminally inspire by Station House Opera’s very clever and highly committed piece Roadmetal Sweetbread.Two Shows From 2003

Broadway Hertz and Of All The People In All The World premiered within days of each other in May 2003. The former was a sound installation, the latter a performance installation both built rich artworks from simple ideas. Both are appear replicable in a range of non-theatre venues and to be adaptable to those venues. One has toured the world, the other hasnOt.

For Broadway Hertz microphones were placed around the Broadway Cinema building in Nottingham: the two main screens, the box office, gents toilets, kitchen, bar, lift, stairs, corridor and main front door. The cables from these microphones ran ostentatiously back to a small room under the stairs off the foyer. Here, at a mixing desk, a succession of operators remixed the buildingOs sounds as an extended ambient score or the soundtrack for an unmade film. The results were compelling and in principle we felt any building could be subjected to the Broadway Hertz treatment, but on sober reflection the range of sound worlds presented by the Broadway Cinema, including the sound riches from the two main screens made this piece more site specific than we initially imagined. It has never been heard again.

Tiny room under the stairs a man sits at a mixing desk, wires are all over the place and slips of paper are fixed to the walls around him.

Where Broadway Hertz drew on its setting, Of All The People In All The World is self-contained, it uses the grains of rice to bring previously abstract population statistics to life. Originally conceived of as a gallery piece we were persuaded by the Director of Warwick Arts Centre, Alan Rivett, that it would be better suited to their foyer space where hundreds of people each day would pass it. He was proved correct and since then the show has been presented in a huge variety of spaces, the most successful of which always have the public swarming close by. In a kind of cheat of the usual site specific procedure, this show arrives in kit form ready to go and then adapts itself to the architectural, historical and social setting it finds itself in.

An Oddity

Home Of The Wriggler is an oddity, it was made for touring to studio theatres but after its first couple of outings we have started to think it may work better outside the theatre buildings. Set in a post-industrial future where the oil has run out and cars exist only as legends, the show is notable for having all its power generated by the cast live on stage using dynamos. We rehearsed the show in horrific post-industrial conditions in January without heating or running water. As a result everyone wore big coats and gloves throughout rehearsals and their breath came out as vapour. Performing a show made in these conditions in the comfort of a plush theatre with stacks of lighting and sound equipment around which we were choosing not to use felt odd, in fact, as a result some people were not entirely convinced we were generating all our own power.

In front of a backdrop of a mechanical drawing of a transmission system a  metal cabiate stands two plasti chairs, a bicycle and exercise bike required as dynamos, a hand cranked fly whee and lights on metal stands.

This show is due to re-tour in Spring 2009 and for then we are interested in visiting cellars, roof tops, multi story car parks, disused factories and warehouses, maybe even a clearing in the woods. A theatre show fleeing the Theatre.

The One True Test?

As I’ve stated above, we enjoy the challenge of learning how to make shows for new spaces, we enjoy having ideas that then need to have sites found for them. A number of these projects are amongst our most successful and enduring, but what we can’t escape from is that the true pure challenge above all others is make a show to sit in the theatre space to stand comparison with all the great works of the cannon that have gone before.

James Yarker, October 2007