IDescent as "Site-Specific Theatre"
Site-specific theatre is any type of theatrical production designed to be performed in a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre.
Site-specific theatre is commonly more interactive than conventional theatre. Audiences can usually expect to walk or move about to different parts of the building, where different parts of the performance take place.
Some people insist that, for a production to be truly “site-specific,” it should use the architecture of the building or site as inspiration, together with its history – real or imagined.
That’s very much how Geraldine Pilgrim works. (She is the director of the Geraldine Pilgrim Performance Company.) One production, called Spa (2003), was set in the recently deserted Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston. There were over 200 participants. The performance was inspired by changing attitudes to healing and health through the ages; and also by the history - imagined and real - of a much-loved building. The audience were dressed in towelling robes, and taken on a tour of a “spa”; they also encountered images and scenes based on the real-life story of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
You can find out more about Geraldine’s work here: https://www.geraldinepilgrim.com/projects.html
There’s another kind of theatre that uses unconventional non-theatre spaces for performances. It is called “found space.” This means that a play is staged in an environment similar to the one in which the play is set. For example, performing Hamlet in a castle. A recent production of Blasted by Sarah Kane was performed in a hotel room – which happens to be where Kane’s play is set.
Théatre de la Basoche staged a play called Le Lavoir (“The Wash House”) in 1986-7. It portrayed life in a French communal laundry on the eve of the First World War. The production came to the Edinburgh Festival and it was performed inside a genuine old laundry room. Working in this way can create a vivid sense of reality. In this case, for example, the audience felt as if they were watching a group of real women, going about their daily chores, rather than watching a “play.”
But some people would say this kind of theatre is not really “site-specific” in the same way – i.e., it is not inspired by and written for a specific building or site.
Descent and the Lampworks venue
In the case of Descent, we began with the idea that we wanted to create a piece of theatre that would use a nonconventional, non-theatre space.
The play is about six characters who go on a journey, a “descent” into a kind of underworld. And we wanted the audience to feel that they are going on the journey, too – rather than simply watching a play. We wanted them to respond to the environment and experience being in different locations; and making this as much part of the event as the story, the script, the actors, and so on.
We began by developing the script; then we searched for a suitable venue. We found one in the Lampworks, Birmingham, a former factory. But this was not simply a “found space” for the play. Once we found the venue, we decided where the different scenes would take place. The writers David Calcutt and Sarah Sayeed then rewrote the scenes specifically for the different locations. We ended up with a very different script than we began with – partly because we were working with a specific site in mind.
The production designer John Bell also created his sets with the venue in mind. He chose things for each location that would look and feel as if they belonged in this place, as if it had been simply “found” there; so the audience would always feel they were in a real environment, rather than taking part in a theatrical performance.
The pictures on this page feature: the Lampworks site; the different locations within it; and the way that the designer, John Bell, tried to work with these locations, and at the same time re-imagine them for our production.
Here are some books which might be useful to you:
Site-Specific Performance by Mike Pearson (Palgrave; 2010)
Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook by Phil Smith (Macmillan Education, 2018)