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Unusual Performance Spaces

Site-Specific Events Turn Up in the Most Unlikely Places

Street Theatre Makes Political Point - Ben Schumin
English theatre director Peter Brook said in 1968 he could take any empty space and call it a bare stage. Nowadays, many performances turn any old spaces into stages.

Whether seeing a play in a traditional theatre, a band in a huge auditorium or a sporting event in a magnificent arena, the setting is a major part of the total experience in terms of ambience and atmosphere. Increasingly in the arts, smaller, more intimate, non-specialist designed venues are the settings for performances of all sorts.

Using a proscenium-arched stage, a thrust stage, a circus arena or, like at the Globe Theatre in London, a replica of Shakespearean style thrust-almost circular staging, makes a huge difference to the perception of the plays by the audiences. But a theatre company who bring a performance to a front room, a garden, a room upstairs in a pub or into the street invites participation in a unique and unusual experience. Indeed, street theatre is as often pure mad entertainment as heavy political message.

New, Modern Settings

London’s Tate Modern gallery is planning a new performing space to complement the existing flamboyant Starr Auditorium, possibly underground in a massive chamber that used to store oil when it was a power station. The design challenge is balancing state of the art equipment with the rough, authentically old and ‘found’ feel of the original use. The building will drive the performances, to an extent.

In the UK The Young Vic in Waterloo has had a makeover adding bold textures within; the Unicorn Theatre for children uses startling colours, while the Contact Theatre, Manchester is proud of a soaring architectural ceiling. So the modern trend is for performance spaces to shout ‘experiment and edginess’ to support the dramas presented within.

Manchester based Pigeon Theatre specialise in experimental and interactive work, that owes something to the Happenings or Events of the 1950s and 60s, which were often performance art, designed to make people think in old warehouses, on open air carparks or in disused shops and factories. Most recently they wrote to 148 people and asked what they’d like in a show, and devised a performance response, truly enacting other people’s nightmares, fantasies and humour.

New Uses for Old Buildings

Also in Britain, in Bristol, The Tobacco Factory Theatre occupies the first floor of what was once the Wills’ Tobacco factory. Now it is part of a mixed-use, multicultural arts venue, housing restaurants, creative industry workspaces, some apartments as well as animation and performing arts schools.

The Menier in Southwark, London, is an award-winning 180 seat fringe studio theatre, restaurant and gallery, established from what was the Menier Chocolate Company factory. It has attracted quality drama, musicals (including the world premiere of Take Flight) and stand-up comedy.

But not all site specific performances are done in buildings converted into theatres. In 2005, an old abattoir in Clerkenwell, London, hosted Underground, a piece inspired by Tolstoy’s Crime and Punishment. Actors mingled with audience, drawing them through the dark, dank setting, flickering light adding to the edginess.

Site-Specific Performances

Cafe Direct, the fair trade coffee company, hired the London Eye and packed each of the 32 glass capsules with various performances of theatre, comedy and music. Two thousand tickets were sold, and the place in the queue randomly determined which piece of entertainment passengers shared on the circuit of the big wheel.

Wilson & Wilson are UK site-specific theatre experts, who have combined performance, art installations and dramatic imagination jolters, to evoke the spirit and history of actual settings. They have showed in workers cottages in Huddersfield, the hidden corners of Sheffield and a department store in Watford.

Their conducted tour of the woods of Mulgrave, North Yorkshire, England, became what is known as promenade-theatre, with the audience moving through scenes and interpreted illustrations of true history. It mixed that historical view with fairy-tale and created a sense of unease and mystery in an old wood. It was a profound theatrical experience for all who saw it, startling and delighting, raising emotions, just the same as a good performance in a building should do.

Punchdrunk Theatre company took over five floors of an abandoned bleak building in Wapping, London. The audience were asked to wear sinister carnival masks, and left to wander alone or in groups. The story was Faust, the man who made a pact with the Devil, but set in 1950s American mid-west, where historical detail mingled with imaginative terror as people stumbled through the dark to new locations, new characters, imagined worlds. People, in effect, made their own Hells.

Signal to Noise presented a 12 minute, semi-improvised comedy based on the Godfather trilogy in UK Pizza Express restaurants, while people ate. All part of the night out, of course. Yet this, like all such unusual performance, is the entertainment. Everyone is part of it; and a part of it is everyone.

First published at Suite 101, 1st April 2010, deleted by them in a Google algorithm purge, January 2012.

Photo: Street Theatre Makes Political Point – Ben Schumin

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