Lessons from Site-Specific Theater for a Post-Covid World

Jan 08, 2021

I graduated from Bard College in 1974 and moved to New York City which, in those days, was still affordable.  More than anything in the world I wanted to be a theater director. That was my plan, my desire and my passion. For the first few years, I held down a menagerie of jobs, including in the collections department of a water-cooler company where I made scripted phone calls, in a Wall Street brokerage firm where I was an expense analyst, in a half-way house where I offered improvisation classes to people with mental disabilities and at an after-school program for the United Nations School where I played theater games with children. These jobs allowed me to make a living and to create theater at the same time.

Meanwhile, I took my slender directing resume to a number of small downtown theaters hoping to be invited to direct on their stages. But no one seemed ready to take on a young woman whose only credits were college productions. Nevertheless, I did manage to produce and direct a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a loft space in the garment district and a one-woman show entitled Two Portraits with the actress Dierdre O’Connell.  Later I put together a three-person production based upon Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves and toured it in a truck to small alternative theater venues around the United States. But I still longed to work in a legitimate theater in New York City.

Once I came very close to booking a space in a real downtown theater but at the last moment the artistic directors changed their minds. I was forced to return, tail between my legs, to the actors I had been working with to break the news that we would not, in fact, be performing in a genuine New York theater. The actor David Schechter, my roommate at the time, suggested that we perform the play in our home. At the time he and I were splitting the 325 dollars-per-month rent for three floors of a large brownstone in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, long before the area was gentrified. At first, I resisted. “No one is going to travel to Brooklyn to see a play in a house,” I protested.  But there seemed to be no other way. A friend who owned a truck offered to drive the audience from Manhattan to Brooklyn every evening, which meant that we could accommodate about 35 people per performance. I decided to call the play Inhabitat and we began to rehearse the play in the house, using an amalgam of snippets from plays by Harold Pinter, Maria Irene Fornes, Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov.

Happily, Inhabitat was well received and so I continued to produce what later became known as “site-specific” or “immersive” theater. At least, in this way, I could continue to direct. I staged a radical updating of Chekhov’s The Seagull, entitled Out of Sync, that began in an old Romanian meeting hall in the East Village and then moved to different nearby indoor and outdoor locations for each act.  For another venture, The Emissions Project, which was based upon the structure of soap opera, the characters remained the same, but the story and the location changed each week. The audience made reservations on my home phone answering machine for one of the two Sunday performances. Each week the audience would find us in a different environment in Manhattan, from a storefront on East 9th Street, to detective offices in Midtown, to an abandoned schoolhouse off Tompkins Square Park, to a rooftop in the Financial District featuring a view of the gigantic World Trade Towers.

I continued to produce site-specific plays and projects for several years afterwards, even though my desire to be in a real theater never diminished. But over time I realized that working in non-theatrical spaces had taught me a great deal about directing. Many of the sites featured baroque architecture or magnificent views that I could never have afforded to fabricate inside of a theater. In this way, I learned a tremendous amount about scenic design. Also, many of the environments were uncontrollable and I had to learn how to adjust and to use what was present rather than what was in my head. I realized that it was possible to incorporate the specific history of a site and to capitalize on its inherent atmosphere and architecture. For each new environment, I had to take the time to allow the particular features of a site to reveal themselves to me. I experienced how site-specific work always demands a great deal from actors, who must adjust their vocality and their physicality to meet the proclivities of the given space. I also learned a great deal about audiences and how essential it is to think of any play as a journey through space and time. In site-specific work as well as in a traditional theater, the director has two ensembles: the actors and the audience. In leading the audiences through these adventures, I came to understanding that directing is about being the very first audience and that the sensations in my own journey through space and time, not only through narrative and dramaturgy, matter a great deal. Ultimately, site-specific work taught me a great deal about the multifaceted nature of theater.

When we emerge from the current COVID theater shutdown, I have a feeling that it will be useful to look towards the lessons that site-specific theater provides. Will we be staging plays out-of-doors and in non-theatrical environments?  Everything is up for discussion now. But meanwhile, there exists a palpable and energetic creative impulse. Audiences’ appetite for theatrical adventures has not diminished at all. And artists are no less creative, and they are ready to make and share theatrical journeys with audiences, perhaps more readily than before Covid.  What is at issue now is “the delivery system,” which is the term that theater director Seema Sueko uses for our theaters and their administrative and producing structures.  The function of the delivery system is to connect artists with audiences and audiences with artists.  Perhaps now is the moment to face that fact that theater had already become an impenetrable fortress for many. The barriers that kept audiences from connecting with artists, whether financial, geographical or psychological, had already been radically compromised pre-Covid. But in this moment of cultural and political change, these barriers can be uprooted.

Because so many theater buildings will not have earned money since March 2020, with social distancing upon re-entry they will be facing severe restrictions on audience size. Putting on plays may become unaffordable. This financial picture will inevitably lead to the decision to only stage small cast plays at high admission prices. But money cannot fix all of the problems that we face. We need to think about finances differently. Perhaps the way to return is not by making small affordable shows in closed spaces with lots of empty seats and new ventilation systems. Perhaps encouraging audiences to be in close physical proximity is simply too dangerous for a while and so we may need to bring people together in less intimate spaces. Rather than becoming risk-averse, we need summon the courage to take the reins firmly in hand and become more innovative and entrepreneurial than ever before.

Shortly after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Annie Hamburger, the Artistic Director of En Garde Arts, an organization dedicated to site-specific theater, arranged a trip to Prague in what was then still Czechoslovakia. I was part of a group of American theater directors and designers who made the trip together in order to explore the idea of site-specific theater with artists in that country. Prague was just then emerging from the dark and dismal days when communist ideology permeated citizens’ lives and dominated all aspects of society. After many years of government-imposed restrictions and limitations, the theater artists we met were delighted to speak with us and participate in our workshops. But we quickly learned that they were not at all enthusiastic about nor interested in site-specific theater. Eventually they explained to us that during the communist era, the theater for them was a means of resistance and the theater that had interested them was an outlet for dissent, containing coded references condemning communism. For this reason, at those times they were only able to work in non-theatrical environments.  Anything risky, political or innovative had to be realized underground and in secret. Now, in this new post-communist era, they were rediscovering and enjoying the pleasures of working freely under the auspices of Prague’s legitimate theaters.

Perhaps in the coming years we too will pass through a period of making theater in diverse environments while exploring new actor-audience relationships. We may learn to relate to space in an entirely new ways and rediscover the journey aspect of theater. But before we return into the dark confined rooms that we call theaters, we should use this opportunity to investigate the fundamental elements that make theater unique. What is theater? Who is it for and who is it about?  Only then will we be able to go back into closed rooms with strangers and bring the outside back inside with us.