Descent 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.
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 four 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 the experience of 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; and the play was rewritten for those locations.
Set designer John Bell and artist Lilith Piper worked together to create the different spaces for the play - each of which has their own distinct atmosphere. We also gave each space a "story." Here are some of the locations:
THE ABANDONED SHRINE
A tree stands abandoned, alone. It was once a shrine, standing at the entrance to the "underworld." Perhaps it was worshipped as the "Tree of Life." It has a strangely human form - so it may also have been worshipped as an icon of the Goddess.
THE TUNNEL OR LABYRINTH
A winding tunnel, like a labyrinth, leads from the shrine into the "underworld." This is "limbo" for people who enter here: they lose all sense of who they are.
THE INNER SANCTUM
In the depths of the earth, lies the inner sanctum of the Goddess. This was once, perhaps, a place of ritual worship and initiation. We imagine it lies directly beneath the Tree of Life. It is also a place where you may come face to face with your deepest fears. In more recent times, it has been used as a store for the miltiary; and also as an emergency hospital. Some abandoned equipment remains.
The designer John Bell 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.
One important element in the set were the numerous gauze screens. In our "story," these may once have hung here as a "sacred" space, but they now appear tattered, the images on them faded.
The images were designed by Lilith Piper. They were based around the motif of the "tree," in various states of decay and renewal. The tangled branches and roots also suggest different states of consciousness, on this journey through the "underworld."
Art work by Lilith Piper. Set designs by John Bell.
You can follow these links to more pages in this section:
An Interview with the Director
Dante and Ibn Arabi
Journeys of Descent
Goddesses of the Underworld