Site Specific Performance Essays

Method of assessment

Group Presentation (20%)
Practical Project (30%)
Written Submission (2,500 words) (30%)
Workshop Participation/ Process (20%).

Preliminary reading

Coult, T. & Kershaw, B. (1983) Engineers of the Imagination: Welfare State Handbook, London: Methuen.
De Certeau, M. (2002) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fox, J. (2002) Eyes on Stalks, London: Methuen.
Govan, Nicholson, & Normington, (2006) Making a Performance: Devising histories and Contemporary Practices, London: Routledge.
Harvie, J. (2005) Staging the UK, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kaprow, A. (1996) Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kwon, Miwon (2002) One Place After Another, Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kaye, N.(2000) Site Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation, London.
Pearson M. & Shanks M. (2001) Theatre/archaeology:Disciplinary Dialogues, London: Routledge.
Pearson, M. (2010) Site Specific Performance, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

- Demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the emergence and development of 'site' related performance, key practitioners in the field and their respective creative approaches, theoretical contexts in which the form might be considered.
- Demonstrate techniques and skills in carrying out research and engaging in critical analysis of the 'performance text', interrogating the limits and possibilities of site related work (experientially, and research based).
- Demonstrate a range of practical and creative skills underpinning their own creative approach to site related work.

Dido Queen of Carthage at Kensington Palace. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

As long as there has been theatre (nay, as long as people have been standing up), there have been performances in locations other than a purpose-built theatre. From grizzled medieval tradesman re-enacting the death of Jesus on a muddied cart trundling through the streets of York to bespectacled 60s avant-garde artists huddled in the back of sweaty bookshops, there has never been a time when theatre has only happened in theatres. It would be fair to say that the idea of sitting down in a purpose-built auditorium of plush red velvet seats arrayed in a number of tiers is a relatively new one.

Nevertheless, in the early 80s a term began to be used by certain theatre groups, such as the incredible Brith Gof, as an attempt to describe their own particular performance practices and their relationship to the local environment. That term was site-specific theatre. Initially it referred to a particular mode of working that Wrights & Sights have described as "performance specifically generated from or for one site", with the inference being that layers of the site would be carefully peeled back through a performance that was not an imposition upon the location but sprung forth from it. However, by the time that the newspapers (led, as the academic Fiona Wilkie suggests, by this particular newspaper) got hold of the term in the late 90s, it was already slipping inevitably towards something an awful lot more vague.

These days "site-specific" can be just about anything that doesn't happen in a theatre. It can refer to bus tours through the streets of Sheffield, Shakespeare plays in abandoned vaults, dance shows based on Japanese horror films, two performance artists tracing a spiral across the grounds of the Barbican or an alternative reality game played across the streets of Soho.

All of these fascinatingly diverse and brilliant shows are subsumed under the suffocating umbrella of "site-specific". A piece of shorthand that crudely shackles together artists whose work couldn't be more different, the name "site-specific theatre" helps contain the resurgence of a myriad of theatrical forms that break with the conventions of the auditorium. By labelling them thus, they become merely another new-fangled and eminently bracketable novelty act, cast in opposition (or as a diverting supplement) to "straight" theatre.

And as this understanding of site-specific grows ever more bloated, its original meaning becomes fainter and more diluted. At present, for example, there is a site-specific production of Sarah Kane's Blasted in a hotel in Leeds, a site-specific production of Dido Queen of Carthage at Kensington Palace and soon a site-specific production of the Brazilian company Grupo XIX de Teatro's Hysteria in the great hall of St Bart's hospital.

None of these productions could be said to be site-specific in the term's original sense. Two of them are re-stagings of a production that has happened elsewhere (what perhaps should be termed site-generic) and the other, Blasted, is a complete inversion of the original instinct of site-specific theatre; a site appropriated in a relentlessly literal movie-location manner because that's where Kane's beautiful, haunting play is nominally set. (Having chosen to set the play in the most naturalistic setting possible, what will the company do in the second act when the hotel room is supposed to start falling apart around the actors?)

At best, these productions - regardless of their merits - borrow the atmosphere and aesthetic of their new homes in a relatively superficial and inorganic manner, all take and no give. At worst they provide fodder for those who have suggested that site-specific theatre is merely a gimmicky staging of "real" theatre for the cheap thrill of sensory titillation.

When this theatre is held up as being site-specific, when Kane or Marlowe are used to tick that box, what room is left for those theatre practitioners who are attempting to forge a more sensitive relationship with their site? I worry that straight theatre is merely reproducing itself, dressing itself in radical trappings and passing itself off as its other; meanwhile those authentically experimenting with site are left struggling in relative silence.

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