This past spring you couldn’t open the arts section of the [Major New York Daily otherwise known as “the Gray Lady”] without reading about the Broadway production of Spider-Man, a story which as it unfolded began to seem more and more like the plot of a telenovela, complete with deception, betrayal, and heartbreak; but you also couldn’t open the same section without reading a feature or review of a site-specific piece of theater. One cost half the budget of the NEA—still a head-scratching figure for most of us who make the bulk of our work in what is commonly referred to as “downtown” theater—and the others cost nearly nothing at all. In one way, this schism might seem disturbing, like a reflection of the ever-widening income gap in America: Even our entertainment has become polarized (or our way of making theater has). But, I’d like to take a more hopeful view that the explosion, the seeds of site-specific theater that are sprouting up everywhere from Shakespeare in the subway, to Spoon River Anthology in a Brooklyn cemetery (Green-wood) or Much Ado About Nothing in the park (yes, Central Park, and free, but with neither celebrities nor lines) are proof that even in austere times, theatermakers are taking it to the streets to give this art form a fighting chance.
I talked to a few people for this article who are all out there, on the streets, as it were, doing theater by, as Malcolm X said, “any means necessary.” One is Daniel Talbott who is artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep (but is also an uber-Renaissance man, anti-pigeonhole dude) and can count actor, playwright, director, and lit manager to his moniker. He is also a teacher (a terrific one, I might add—I speak from experience, I took his class) mainly at ESPA, Primary Stages’s theater school (for professional theater artists at all stages of their careers) in Manhattan. One of this best (soon to be legendary) classes is site-specific directing, a class that gives would-be directors the chance to think about theater outside the confines of the proscenium thrust or the black box. Assignments like Chekhov at the Russian baths or Sarah Kane performed all over the East Village give theater artists a way to think of what environment does to text or, vice versa, what text does to environment. As he says, “You’re never going to be able to build a more beautiful, alive, and inspiring set or find a more dynamic space than Central Park, or the High Line, or the interior of someone’s apartment in Red Hook, or even a bathroom that Lou Reed has been blown in and/or done blow in, in the East Village. These sets/sites/spaces are deeply alive and collaborative, and they may not obey us, or be perfect acoustically, but as in all great theater I think they force us to collaborate with them, open our imaginations and hearts in very different ways, and get extremely creative.”
“They’re also all truth boxes,” Daniel adds, “and no matter how realistic you’re attempting to have your work be, or how stylized and theatrical, these spaces force us to face the real world as it is juxtaposed with our work in all directions, and see more clearly how far we’re pushing ourselves to do the best work possible.” Right. Why ignore the stunning backdrop of New York City and all its corners of history? Take Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, a piece of theater that has the (worst case) potential to be just a droning rant fetishizing suicide. But put an actor in Tompkins Square Park at dusk—when the scene has just barely settled from the rush of kids in the playground, congregating Trinidadian nannies, jazz musicians busking for change, anarchist skateboarders, hipsters with time to burn—and suddenly that same piece of theater becomes a last cry not for death but for life.
To that end, site-specific theater offers the audience to go back to what designer Deb O calls “the roots of theater.” As she says, “Theater has been happening outside the theater forever—really! Actually theater started around a campfire—the reenactment of the hunt, the killing of the bear! So sitting around listening to people telling us a story is just going back to the roots of theater.” It’s also a chance to get away from a synthetic, too often overproduced and sacchrine (chemical) theater. Think of it as auto-tune versus acoustic. As she says it forces us to “not run away from the environment but to embrace it.” Her most recent design experience on Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead in a raw warehouse space in Brooklyn, involved not just creating the set but also creating a whole environment for the performers and the audience to exist in a shared, collective space as a community—albeit for a short time. It’s the ephemeral nature of theater, that it’s dying before your eyes, that gives site-specific work of this kind its aura of wonder; its the “you just had to be there” factor. Done well, audience and practitioner alike become exquisitely aware that timing really is everything, and if you were there to see the performance when the kid just happened to run by with the kite just as Benedick from Much Ado was talking about his unlikely love for Beatrice, well, then, lucky you, lucky, lucky you.
All of the theater artists I talked to about site-specific work—and why it is, seemingly, happening more and more—all pointed to the dreaded topic of money and funding. In running his theater company, Daniel spoke about a defining moment in which he and the co-artistic directors all decided to take the focus off of spending endless amounts of energy worrying and working on getting funding and on to just doing the work. It helps us to make work, to just f@#$ing “do it” (goddamn you, Nike!), if we redefine our notions of what an acceptable or even respectable venue for performing in is. Jean Ann Douglass, one of the creators and makers of “The Truck Project,” which she and Eric John Meyer run together, talked about embracing the reality that funding in theater is scarce, and they didn’t want to wait for an institution to legitimize or allow them to make work. As she says, “I think we’ve all realized that the establishments are all being safe, and are only picking up artists once they have a proven track record. I can’t blame them. But I do think I have a better chance of discovering new and interesting works off the beaten path.” So, in true punk-rock fashion, they got a truck and started presenting work. In some ways, it’s the perfect rugged individualist’s response to an almost non existent funding base for artists: DIY, just do it yourself.
Any of us, who are in the theater in these United States in the 21st century, have, at some point, had the woeful conversation ringing the death knell for the art form: talking despairingly of its end, of its decay, of the halcyon days of when it used to be alive. (Days which we were never a part of but still have a rosy hue in our memories.) We forecast for the theater and its lovers a dim, mirthless future. Granted, not all of this is pure unwarranted over-the-top doom-saying—one only has to look at recent closures of regional theaters to get a picture of a problematic future—but the truth is, as long as we are humans and not cyborgs, there is going to be theater. The site-specific theater (and that there is an entire class devoted to honing skills for making it, no less!) emerging and being created—it seems like everywhere—should give us great hope. As Daniel says, “For me the only thing in the end that matters is the work, and you can always be working in the theater. Don’t let anything stop you, and certainly not money.” Despite what feels at times like an impossible system, theater artists are digging in their heels: They are creating in parks, underneath bridges, on rooftops, in Russian baths, in the backs of trucks, on subway platforms, in parking lots, on the street. In creating everywhere they are making manifest that the drive to make work, no matter what the circumstance, is alive and well and, if you’re lucky, coming to a neighborhood near you.
Some Site-Specific Productions to Check Out this Summer:
The Boomerang Theater Company production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Daniel Talbott runs every Saturday and Sunday, now until July 17th, at 2 p.m. in Central Park. Enter at 69th Street and Central Park West. Admission is free. For exact site and futher details, visit www.boomerangtheatre.org/boom/shakespeare.php.
The Woodshed Collective’s The Tenant (written by Steven Levenson, Tommy Smith, Dylan Dawson, Sarah Burgess, Paul Cohen and Bekah Brunstetter; inspired by the novel by Roland Topor; directed by Teddy Bergman and Stephen Brackett) will be performed at West Park Parish House (86th and Amsterdam, Manhattan). Performances start August 10; admission is free. For more details, visit www.woodshedcollective.com/productions/the-tenant/
The Drilling Company’s 20th season of Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot will feature The Comedy of Errors from July 7-23 at the Municipal Parking Lot at the corner of Ludlow and Broome Streets, Manhattan. Show times: Thursday – Saturdays at 8 p.m.; admission free. For more info: www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com or call 212-873-9050
For more about The Truck Project, and upcoming productions, check out www.thetruckproject.com/
New York Classical Theater’s production of Henry V will take place on Governors Island July 6 - 24. Journey with King Henry and his army from England (Castle Clinton/ Battery Park), crossing the English Channel (New York Harbor) by boat to France (Governors Island), where the bloody Battle of Agincourt will be staged across the huge rolling vistas of the parade ground surrounding historic Fort Jay with a cast of 40! Free performance includes ferry transport. For more details, visit www.newyorkclassical.org/current.php.
The Spoon River Project (adaptation of Edgar Lee Master’s classic voices from the grave masterwork Spoon River Anthology) took place in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery in late June. For futher details: www.green-wood.com/2011/the-spoon-river-project.
Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, co-directed by Brian Mertes, Alex Harvey, and Beau Willimon, took place June 5 at South Brooklyn’s Industry City warehouse complex. Lighting designed by Nicholas Houfek, Ben Stanton, Austin R. Smith, Ben Krall, and Carl Faber. Set and environmental design by Deb O.
For more info on Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA), where Daniel Talbott offers his Site-Specific Directing course (among other wonderful acting, writing and directing courses led by working NYC professionals), visit www.primarystages.org/ESPA.
JEN TAHER is an actress based in New York. She has performed all over the city as well as regionally and internationally. She is also a-sometime-writer.