Site-Specific Theatre in the Digital Age
by Khaleel Ghandi
Andy Houston, a professor in the arts faculty at the University of Waterloo, poses an important question in a video feature on site-specific theatre (which is available here): “Why is theatre important in the digital age?”
Talking about the unique experience of site-specific theatre (in relation to a more traditional theatre-going experience), Houston encourages his students to ask questions about why they’re creating theatre in a more digital-based culture, emphasizing inter-disciplinary approaches when creating site-specific pieces that lie outside of the traditional theatre space.
Houston poses a more abstract question, sure, but it is worth further examination when we consider the trends of digital culture in our society. Digital culture has no doubt changed the way we think about theatre performance, but site-specific performances are integral to the artistic experience, providing the viewer with immersive and interactive experiences that can never be replicated on a screen.
Site-specific theatre has always been one of those “quirky” types of performing arts – you never really know what you’re going to get. You step out of the traditional theatre setting, no longer seeing a red velvet curtain or proscenium arch. Instead, you’ll likely see something both familiar and unfamiliar. For example, I’ve seen some performances take place in garages, an 1890s schoolhouse, a brewery (and soon, two historic churches along Main Street in Hamilton during Frost Bites 2019) – all of these are familiar spaces. We interact with them all the time under normal, everyday circumstances. But when lights are rigged at the back of the garage, or a sound system is perched in the corner of the schoolhouse, or the open area of the brewery is transformed into a stage, that’s when those spaces change. They become unfamiliar: you walk into the space wondering how in the world the space is going to accommodate a play. You experience the site in a whole new light.
But you might ask: why bother experiencing this phenomenon at all? Movies and TV shows, more readily available than ever before, all provide stories that take place in different “sites”. When watching a movie, we see the character interact with the space they occupy in different ways, depending on the type of story. Horror movies might see the characters dealing with a “haunted” house. Detective shows might see the characters interacting with a crime scene and a police bureau of some kind. Plus, movies and TVs are so much more accessible: many of us can either stream shows on-demand or record movies on PVRs and watch them at their convenience. By extension, then, they can experience characters interacting with their environments under much more controllable circumstances and tailored to their experiences.
But it should be noted that watching movies, at one point in time, was a site-specific endeavour. Before the rise of streaming services and the ability to watch on-demand, you had to physically go to the movie theatre, sit in the auditorium, and watch the movie. You had to choose a seat, position yourself in a comfortable way, and watch the action unfold in front of you. And many people still do so today, lining up to see their favourite movie in theatres when they are first released. So, it is important for us to recognize that while digital cultures are prominent in our world today, they still do involve a site-specific element, making the idea of site-specific experiences more normal in our world.
Furthermore, site-specific theatre provides you with more immersive theatre experiences than you would normally get from watching a movie. In a movie, we are engrossed in the action that occurs, but there is still a barrier present: the screen. It separates the viewer and the performance, placing the viewer on the “outside looking in” to the action. Although this does not make the action any less enjoyable, it removes a sense of immersion with the world – a sense of immersion that is easily experienced when watching site-specific theatre.
With no barrier in place to separate the viewer and the action, the viewer is right there with the performance. They see every detail, every bit of action, every character and every costume first-hand, without experiencing any sort of technological barrier. It is inherently more immersive, in a feeling that’s hard to quantify into words. You’re hyperaware of your surroundings and location within the context of the performance, and the world that the performance creates feels all the more real. Especially considering that you’re in an unfamiliarized space, where you’re experiencing an everyday location in a new way.
Finally, site-specific theatre presents a much more interactive experience, one that cannot be replicated through watching movies or TV shows. Edinburgh’s site-specific festivals are a great example of how site-specific theatre presents a much more interactive and intimate experience. There’s one performance in the video that takes place in a little travelling caravan. There’s only room for one person per show, which makes each performance uniquely tailored to each audience member that attends. It also means that the audience member gets to interact with the performance space all on their own: they get to take in every detail of the caravan, every word that the actor says, and every bit of story action all to themselves.
Frost Bites this year boasts a uniquely interactive experience, too. Audience members get to travel together between New Vision and St. Paul’s churches along Main Street, and experience thought-provoking performances within historic spaces. You’ll get to see performances take place in hallways, bathrooms, cathedral halls – and you’ll interact with the performers, too, getting a chance to be up-close-and-personal with the different actors in the shows. And that experience simply cannot be replicated when watching a movie.
Site-specific theatre is more than just a quirky art form: it provides audiences to experience unfamiliar forms of performance in familiar spaces, spaces which interact with the viewer in personal and unique ways. Which is why, in a world increasingly shifting towards consuming digital forms of media, we should never stop celebrating the experience that site-specific theatre can provide us.
Khaleel Gandhi is video, film and theatre artist in his second-year student at McMaster University and a video, film and theatre artist. He has helped start a site-specific, contemporary theatre company in his hometown of Collingwood, Ontario, and assisted in bringing two different arts-based television and YouTube shows to the South Georgian Bay area. Since coming to Hamilton, Khaleel has produced musical theatre at McMaster, devised a short web series pilot, and continued his practice in filmmaking. He also sat on the jury for the Fringe’s New Play Contest last year and is thrilled to have participated in the ALERT program this year!