Site-specific theatre is any type of theatrical production designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standardtheatre. This specific site either may be originally built without any intention of serving theatrical purposes (for example, in a hotel, courtyard, or converted building), or may simply be considered an unconventional theatre space (for example, in a forest).
When the location is meant to imitate, or is itself, the setting of the theatrical story (as is common with site-specific theatre), the performance may also then be called environmental theatre. Site-specific theatre is commonly more interactive than conventional theatre and, with the expectation of audience members predominantly to walk or move about (rather than sit), may be called promenade theatre. Site-specific theatre frequently takes place in structures originally built for non-theatrical reasons that have since been renovated or converted for new, performance-based functions.
Definitions of site-specific theatre are complicated by its use in both theatre studies and visual art, where it is also referred to as site-specific performance.
Examples of site-specific theatre include Ferry Play, a podplay for the Staten Island Ferry in New York City, Psycho-So-Matic and Downsize, staged by Chicago's Walkabout Theater in a landromat and a series of public restrooms, respectively;Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$, staged by Women's Project in the lobbies, escalators, and bridges of New York's World Financial Center;Supernatural Chicago, staged in an allegedly haunted nightclub, and Small Metal Objects, staged by Australia's Back To Back Theater at the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. Another example of this form is the Ramlila, dramatic enactment of Hindu epic, Ramayana, started in 1830 by Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh of Varanasi. It is held each year over the period of 31 days, during autumn festive season of Dussehra at Ramnagar, Varanasi in India, and is staged in permanent structures created as sets throughout the three square mile area, where the audience follow the actors. Ramlila has been declared by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
A recent example of site-specific theatre is This Is Not A Theatre Company's Pool Play (2014, New York City), and Pool Play 2.0 (2017, Kerala, India & New York City): a play about America's long and complicated history with pools, set in an actual pool. Pool Play was written by Charles L. Mee and Jessie Bear, and directed by Erin B. Mee. Audiences sat at the edge of the pool with their feet in the water to watch a play that included synchronized swimming, a snarky fish, stories about segregated pools, and a meditation on pollution. Sarah Lucie of Show Business Weekly said: “Pool Play, while undeniably light-hearted, manages to communicate some profound and political themes to those who choose to pay attention.”Theatre is Easy noted that it provided: "a cohesive look at our fascination with the water, entertaining and engaging the audience along the way." Listed as a March 2017 "Voice Choice," Village Voice writer Nicole Serratore praised Pool Play 2.0's ability to find "the outfit embedding a political intensity beneath a layer of outward frivolity." The play received critical acclaim for its theatrical ingenuity, lauded by The New York Times' Laura Collins-Hughes as a "buoyant daydream of a show;" OffOffOnline's Chloe Edmonson as "a treasure trove of off-off-Broadway creativity," and New York Theatre Review's Lisa Huberman as "daffy, thought-provoking, and splashing good fun." Mee discussed the project on the March 23, 2017 "Go See a Show!" podcast.
Since 2011 Laura Hooper has been performing a one woman site-specific play "Crumble" in real life kitchens in real life homes internationally. This is described by the Daily News as "the immersive, curvy little psychodrama". Hooper is quoted in the New York Post as saying "“Art is about moving things forward, and we mix things up by bringing performances directly into people’s homes.”"  "Crumble" was written by Mark O'Neil and produced by MORA Theater.
Another example of site-specific theatre that is also participatory is This Is Not A Theatre Company's Versailles 2015/2016. Set against a backdrop of global crisis, the characters of Versailles 2015/16 questioned the responsibilities and obligations of their privilege at a cocktail party set in an actual New York City apartment. Guests rotated through the space's five rooms, discussing gentrification over hors d'oeuvres in the living room and dietary privilege over cake in the kitchen, witnessing scenes of social alienation and existential conflict in the bedroom and guest bathroom, and viewing dancer Jonathan Matthews' performance in the master bathroom's tub. Versailles 2015 originally took place in an apartment in Manhattan's Peter Cooper Village, with textual references to the neighborhood's history and building complex's evolution. In February 2016, the show was picked up by En Garde Arts, and given an additional run at the home of founder Anne Hamburger in Hastings-on-Hudson. Versailles returned to New York City in October–November 2016, appearing in select apartments throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each successive performance received textual changes referencing its location's history and socioeconomic climate. The New York Times' feature "Starring Me! A Surreal Dive Into Immersive Theater" referenced Versailles 2016 as an example of the genre, and Mee's March 2016 HowlRound.com article used the show to illuminate the challenges of stage managing immersive productions.
Site-specific theatre can also include environmental theatre: a production that attempts to immerse the audience in the performance by bringing the action off the stage area.For example, some acting may happen in aisles. In the case of a black box theater, acting platforms may even be built between audience section. Sometimes a performer will talk to, or otherwise involve an audience member in a scene. This can be a real audience member, as in interactive theater, or an actor planted to appear as an audience member.
There are a couple variations on site-specific work worth noting, including:
- Environmental theatre, in which a pre-existing production is placed in an environment similar to the one in which the play is set (for example, performing Hamlet in a Danish Castle).
- Promenade theatre, in which audience members generally stand and walk about rather than sit, watching the action happening among them and even following the performers around the performance space. An example of promenade theater is the performances put on by Punchdrunk, a UK-based theatre company, such as Sleep No More.
Levels of Site Specificity
- Studio-/stage-based: not site-specific at all; the traditional stage or theatre
- Studio as site: using the theatre space (or site) in an unusual way, for example, performing in the aisles; also not site-specific.
- Site-specific: using a one-of-a-kind site as a contextual container (e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a forest).
- Site-generic: using a generic kind of site (one that is not perfectly unique), so that it can be replicated or modeled elsewhere (e.g. performance for football pitch or Stephan Koplowitz's "Grand Step Project" staircase performances)
- Site-responsive: using the site as resource for the performance material (e.g. #3 HOLD by Scrap and Salvage of San Francisco, created and performed in the bottom deck of a cargo ship: the USS Golden Bear)
Companies performing site-specific work
- Antic Disposition (London, England) http://www.anticdisposition.co.uk
- Doppelgangster (Aberystwyth, Wales/Melbourne Australia) http://www.doppelgangster.com
- Grid Iron Theatre (Edinburgh, Scotland) http://www.gridiron.org.uk
- Kneehigh (Cornwall, England) http://www.kneehigh.co.uk
- The National Theatre of Scotland (Glasgow, Scotland) nationaltheatrescotland.com
- National Theatre Wales (Cardiff, Wales) http://www.nationaltheatrewales.org
- Burn the Curtain (Devon, England) http://www.burnthecurtain.co.uk
- Teatro Vivo (London, England) http://www.teatrovivo.co.uk
- Dante or Die Theatre (London, England) http://www.danteordie.com
- Punchdrunk (London, England) http://www.punchdrunk.com
- in situ: (Cambridge, England) http://www.insitutheatre.co.uk
- Feelgood Theatre (Manchester
- bluemouth inc. (Toronto, ON, Canada) www.bluemouthinc.com
- Catch the Keys Productions (Edmonton, AB, Canada) http://catchthekeys.ca/
- Cellar Door Project (Kingston & Ottawa, ON, Canada) http://www.cellardoorproject.com/
- Common Ground Arts Society (Edmonton, AB, Canada) http://commongroundarts.ca
- Dummies Theatre (Montreal, QC, Canada)
- Flush Ink Productions (Kitchener, ON, Canada)
- Found Festival by Common Ground Arts Society (Edmonton, AB, Canada) http://commongroundarts.ca/found/
- Litmus Theatre (Toronto, ON, Canada) http://www.litmustheatre.com
- Small Matters Productions (Edmonton, AB, Canada) http://smallmatters.ca/
- Sundown Theatre (Kincardine, ON, Canada)
- Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre (Calgary, AB, Canada) http://www.swallowabicycle.com/
- The Only Animal (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
- Single Thread Theatre Company (Ontario, Canada)
- Third Rail Projects (Brooklyn, NY) http://www.thirdrailprojects.com
- Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders (Seattle, WA, United States) http://www.lucianeare.org
- Skewed Visions (Minneapolis, MN, United States)
- This Is Not A Theatre Company (New York, New York) http://www.thisisnotatheatrecompany.com/#!about-the-company/sbw8c
- Quantum Theater (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) http://www.quantumtheatre.com
- Bricolage (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) http://www.bricolagepgh.org/events/strata-cover-american-theatre-magazine
- Dog and Pony Theater at Steppenwolf Garage (Chicago, Illinois) http://www.steppenwolf.org/Plays-Events/productions/index.aspx?id=500
- Sojourn Theatre Company (Chicago, Illinois) http://www.sojourntheatre.org/company
- La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls (La Jolla, California) http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/the-season/wow-series
- MORA Theater's Crumble (New York, United States) http://www.crumbletheplay.com
- Ghostbird Theatre Company (Fort Myers, Florida)
- Peculiar Works Project, (New York, NY)
- Wayward Theatre Company (Minneapolis, MN)
- Gorilla Repertory Theatre Company, New York
Austria / Switzerland
- Pearson, Mike (2010). Site-Specific Performance. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978023057611.
- Pearson, Mike; Shanks, Michael (2001). Theatre/archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues. Routeledge. ISBN 0-415-19458-X. ISBN 978-0-415-19458-7
- Kaye, Nick (2000). Site Specific Art: Place and Documentation. Routeledge. ISBN 0-415-18558-0.
- Schechner, Richard; Shanks (1973). Environmental Theater. Hawthorne Books. ISBN 1557831785.
- ^Field, Andy (2008-02-06). "'Site-specific theatre'? Please be more specific". The Guardian. London.
- ^Pearson, Mike (2010). Site-Specific Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 7. ISBN 9780230576711.
- ^Sondak, Justin (2007-07-27). "Overnight Lows, Low Down". Chicagoist. Archived from the original on 2008-04-01. Retrieved 2008-12-29.
- ^Hoffmann, Babara (2007-05-15). "Interest compounded at world financial center stages". New York Post.
- ^Armour, Terry (2005-10-27). "Supernatural Chicago". Chicago Tribune.
- ^Soloski, Alexis (2008-01-01). "Under the Radar Tries its Hand at Site-Specific Work". The Village Voice.
- ^Ramlila - the Traditional Performance of the RamayanaUNESCO.
- ^A Maharajah´s Festival for Body and SoulNew York Times, Monday, March 30, 2009.
- ^Lucie, Sarah. Show Business Weekly. January, 2014.Archived 2015-01-25 at Archive.is
- ^Risinger, Zak. Pool Play. Theatre is Easy.[permanent dead link]
- ^Collins-hughes, Laura (2017-03-20). "Review: In 'Pool Play 2.0,' the Audience Is Welcome to Make a Splash". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ^"Pool Play 2.0". Off Off Online. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ^""Making Water Ballet Great Again" Lisa Huberman on Erin B. Mee's Pool Play 2.0". Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ^"Erin B. Mee of "Pool Play 2.0" | Go See a Show!". goseeashowpodcast.com. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ^"Stage Managing Immersive, Site-Specific, and Participatory Theatre". HowlRound. Retrieved 2017-05-22.
- ^"Promenade" (Press release). Scottish Arts Council. Retrieved 2008-12-19.
Sources of information about theatre and performance
Examples of periodicals held by the Theatre collections
Theatre has only become a respectable and respected profession in the last 100 years. Before then the motivation for documenting performance was either legal, such as theatre and play licences, or personal, for example fans and enthusiasts who built up private collections.
In general with most aspects of the performing arts, there tends to be more documentation about London than the regions.
The V&A holds many special collections and archives of theatre and the performing arts, from individual performers and collectors, theatres, theatre companies and other organisations. They contain diaries, letters, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, business papers, newspaper cuttings, designs and sketches.
The main legal records for performing arts are related to the Lord Chamberlain's office, which read, and approved, all the plays which appeared in licensed theatres.
Playbill for Sadler's Wells Theatre, J.W. Last, December 1861
The British Library holds the Lord Chamberlain's papers, plays and daybooks which contain play-texts, readers' reports and correspondence from 1843-1968. They also hold the Modern Playscripts Collection (from 1968 to present day), the legal repository for all plays performed in a licensed space since the abolition of censorship in 1968.
Popular forms of entertainment not subject to this process such as dance, music-hall, comedy and circus can be more difficult to find. Don't be put off, there are lots of other people researching in this area who run websites and magazines that can help you. Memorabilia sites, for example, will often feature programmes and photographs.
Since the end of censorship in 1968, there has been an explosion of fringe theatre groups who perform outside conventional theatre spaces, or exist for short period of time. This adds to the challenge of researching certain productions and performers as many were not comprehensively documented. In cases like these where the 'official records' (i.e. programmes, flyers, licences etc) are absent, finding more information might mean looking through contemporary newspapers and journals, memoirs, diaries and other published works for clues.
The Theatre and Performance archives page contains more information about the archives, how to access them in person, and for direct access to selected online archive catalogues.
Other useful general sources of information available on the web can be found on the theatre and performance web links page.
How to research specific theatre and performance topics
Most people's research tends to fall into four broad areas: people, companies, productions and buildings. When researching theatre and performance you may need to be imaginative about where you look for material. There are a variety of sources that can help you to do this. Before visiting a specialist collection, gathering key information about your subject will help you to access available information more easily, such as the title, date and venue of a performance.
Researching people in the performing arts
Rail Pass, Music Hall Artistes' Railway Association, 1933
Stage careers could be very short. For women especially, the theatrical life was not compatible with the duties expected of a wife and mother, and unless an actress was very successful, or married to a fellow performer, she was usually obliged to retire on marriage. By contrast, certain branches of the performing arts, especially circus, saw large family groups travelling with a particular troupe, and many generations appearing together.
Whatever the profession of the person you are researching was, registration documents, parish records, wills and census returns are the best source of crucial information about an individual's whereabouts at a specific time. Gather as many facts as possible. If you are tracing an ancestor, talk to relatives to see what they can remember.
The playbill or programme is the most important form of theatrical record for tracing people. The V&A Theatre and Performance collections contain over half a million, dating from the early 19th onwards, and arranged according to theatre. There is a title index but no comprehensive index by individual performer. However, there are some published indexes of performers for the London stage. Unfortunately, comparable indexes to regional theatre are virtually nonexistent.
Floorshow routine for Talk of the Town, Houston Rogers, 1962
It is worth considering if the person used a stage name rather than their birth name. There is no system of registration for stage names and there is no limit to the number of different names a performer can use.
Changing names was common in music hall and variety, where a comical or catchy name could be an advantage. The music hall attracted growing numbers of speciality acts and music hall performers are the most difficult to trace.
Apart from programmes, there are very few formal records associated with the stage. For example, there is no recognised qualification and no compulsory training for actors.
The first training school opened in 1904 but there have been, and still are, many routes to a career on the stage. Since 1930 the actors' trade union British Actors Equity has registered professional actors and can confirm whether or not a person has been a member.
If you have any dates or other references to specific appearances, it can be very useful to have the name of a show they appeared in and the town where it was staged. Without some facts, the search can be difficult, especially for shows outside London. A few yellowing press cuttings or a clutch of old theatre programmes can provide valuable leads.
If you can establish that a person appeared in a specific show, you may be fortunate in finding a newspaper review which mentions them. As well as the local and national newspapers, some specialist magazines, such as The Play Pictorial (1902 - 1910) published illustrated features on current West End plays, complete with photographs, sketches or caricatures.
Whether you are interested in performers in general or are trying to trace relatives for your family history, there are many thousands of sources of information on the web relating to specific performers, which include fan or memorial sites alongside online articles and reviews.
Researching performance companies
Many theatre companies have their own website and administer their own archives making it simpler for researchers to access information about company history and artistic policy.
Poster for What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton, Lindsay Anderson, 1975
The V&A's Theatre and Performance Archives hold the British Performing Arts Yearbook from 1986 onwards. This annual publication lists all registered companies, including ballet, circus and puppetry.
It also holds the British Theatre Directory from 1971 onwards. Formerly the British Alternative Theatre Directory, this details all theatre and concert venues in the UK giving technical and administrative and contact numbers. It also lists all contacts for production companies, agents, producers and concert promoters, media and public relations, publishing, societies and organisations, and the suppliers and services that support the theatre and entertainment industry.
Researching specific productions of plays and performance
There are many sources of information about productions, particularly post 1968 when theatrical activity mushroomed, but sources vary in comprehensiveness and reliability. Several websites give information about productions after 1990. Reviews of well-known productions are also usually available via online newspapers.
As a general rule of thumb, if a production took place in an established space, or was produced by an established company, there is a good chance of finding documentation in the archives or websites of the company or theatre.
Some useful publications for researching theatrical productions held in the Theatre And Performance Archives include:
- Back issues of Time Out Magazine.
- The London Stage, 1660-1800: a calendar of plays… Five parts published in 11 volumes plus index. A detailed index of plays and performers on the London stage during this period.
- J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 1890-1959: a Calendar of Plays and Players. Seven sets of volumes covering the period 1890 to 1959: one set per decade and fully indexed by all the names appearing on the playbills and programmes of the period, down to members of the chorus.
- Clarence's The Stage Cyclopaedia: An Alphabetical List of Plays and other Stage Pieces of which any record can be found since the commencement of the English Stage, together with Descriptions, Authors' Names, Dates and Places of Productions, and other Useful Information, comprising in all nearly 50, 000 Plays and Extending Over a Period of Upwards of 500 Year, a useful reference source covering the gap in The London Stage between 1800-1890.
- Who's Who in the Theatre, 1912-1976 published annually and containing information on London and New York playbills, and the seasons at Stratford-upon-Avon, Chichester and Stratford Ontario as well as long running shows in London and New York.
- Theatre Record formerly called the London Theatre Record, 1981 onwards: a monthly journal collating reviews from broadsheets, red-tops, journals and magazines. It lists new shows opening in London and the regions, and is the most comprehensive and reliable guide to productions performed in the UK since 1981. Each year contains an index of shows reviewed, the venues, opening and closing dates and number of performances. Covers London only from 1981-1990, includes the regions from1991 to the present.
The Royal Circus at Blackfriars, 1752
Researching theatre buildings
As with theatre companies, if you are researching a specific theatre building and it has a website this is a good place to start as this may contain detailed information about the building's history.
The theatre buildings reading list page provides some recommended sources of general information on theatre buildings.