Aug 11, 2007

Site Specific

"As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene." Some French guy once said, and he was right.

700 years before anyone had ever been overcharged for their interval drinks at the Lyceum Theatre, groups of guildsmen paraded through the muddied streets of York, Wakefield and Chester. From the back of their wooden carts they performed plays that collapsed epic Christian folklore and mundane social reality beautifully into one another.

400 years before anyone had left Lord of the Rings feeling faintly disappointed, dozens of companies of actors travelled endlessly across the country, the purpose-built auditoriums of London being reserved for only a few exclusive companies.

Then 20 years ago some bright spark came up with the term site-specific theatre. And it caught on.

Site-specific theatre is a horrible Frankenstein term. An entirely made-up theatrical 'movement' stitched together from any number of diverse styles, forms, concepts and performances. Languishing in this verbal dungeon are Shakespeare plays performed in underground vaults, tours around the city of Sheffield in a bus and a series of sculptures in an abandoned hotel; in the last six months alone a warehouse remodelled to look like a town in the Deep South, a Jean Genet play in a hotel in Brighton and two men walking round the Barbican in a big spiral have been rounded up and dumped in this crowded chamber.

The problem is of course that in a 300 word review (or for that matter a 3 sentance press release) there isn't necessarily the space to effectively explain exactly where and exactly how a performance outside of a theatre occurred. Journalistic short-hand exists for a reason. Because it's shorter. Site-specific is an easy and quick way of explaining that a piece of theatre didn't involve an audience sitting down in a purpose-built auditorium and to move on to the far more pressing concern of whether it was any good or not.

The problem is that, like most short-hand, the term is at best so vague as to render it utterly useless. At worst it is a sinister way of pigeon holing
anything not shackled to an auditorium as some kind of gimmicky minority pastime - a small, exciting and eminently controllable pocket of a larger theatre universe. An eccentric second-cousin whose tricks grow tired very quickly. Indeed, already at least one major critic has suggested that site-specific theatre has just become a treasure hunt for the most atmospheric location; a high-brow guided tour of the country's hidden secrets.

There is of course a lot invested in sustaining the attitude that auditoriums of all stripes are the home of true theatre. That they aren't (like playwriting in fact) merely one amongst many potential forms that has gained somewhat of a foothold in the public consciousness over the last 400 years. The people within an investment in this attitude are fundamentally the producing houses and drama schools and broadsheet reviewers that constitute what is unironically known as the theatre industry - the bastard love child of art and commerce.

The prefix site-specific allows people to maintain the notion that the resurgence of a myriad of theatrical forms that break with the conventions of the (predominantly Victorian) auditorium is merely another new-fangled and eminently bracketable subdivision of straight theatre. A gimmick that will no doubt pass, allowing them to get on with the important task of complaining about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the titanic.

I think I am suggesting that perhaps there is a little more going on. That perhaps we are seeing people beginning to rediscover theatre outside of the theatre industry. After all, the mystery plays were not, I believe, ever referred to in their day as site-specific community based promenade performances.

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