Upstaged: Site specific

Upstaged: Site specific

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 19/07/11

From train station theatre to industrial estate opera, the world of site specific performance has come a long way since the miracles of the 1300s. And with this summer’s epic housing estate spectacle, National Youth Theatre’s Slick is leading the march off-stage…

Until the age of 14 the only “site specific” thing about my life was a little amateur bricklaying.

Then, suddenly, theatre went full Rambo; turning up rain-soaked, barely dressed and crazy-eyed in scout huts, forests and fields. Not to mention semi-abandoned Sheffield housing projects.

Of course, the whole notion of “site specific” drama is far from new. The York Mystery plays have been schlepping the creation story across the city since the 14th century (which gives you a hint of just how fun York life must have been until the thrills and spills of the National Rail Museum blasted into town). But the modern site-specific movement is remarkable in its sheer ambition.

Slick, the epic summer production by NYT, will turn the entire Park Hill Housing estate into an immersive, mysterious and possibly mobile site for drama, dance, music and potentially back-breaking aerial acrobatics.

Entire corridors of the Sheffield estate will be transformed into walkway stages, whole blocks will be wrapped in plastic stage dressing and what were once flats will become self-enclosed theatre sets. It’s one thing to stage a play in an unlikely setting; it’s quite another to re-imagine an entire neighbourhood into some enormous postmodern performance journey.

For those of us living below the M6, there are several site-specific masters including Kneehigh, Duckie, Shunt and, of course, Punchdrunk, who have brought their particular brand of immersive theatrics to everything from Deptford distilleries to New York nightclubs and The Old Vic Tunnels.

Forget the fourth wall – when you’re watching the English National Opera in a decommissioned pharmaceutical headquarters in London's Albert Dock, you’ve pretty much slid in to the open-plan world of site-specific anarchy.

Of course, theatre isn’t the only performing art to make like a weak-bladdered school child and wander off-stage. At this year’s Latitude I was rather surprised to find a Hockney-esque white 1970s San Francisco apartment building, squatting in the middle of a field in Suffolk. Not as surprised as I imagine the local barn owl was to find his flight path interrupted by this rather fabulous pre-fab, but intrigued nonetheless.

Latitude’s Electric Hotel wasn’t, as I first assumed, merely a pay-per-minute place for festival-goers to have sex without blow up mattresses and tent poles. It was, in fact, a custom-built set for a Sadler’s Wells dance piece, where audiences could watch through lit windows the do-not-disturb dancing of the Sadler’s Wells company. And while the original performance took place in the gas cylinders of Victoria station, the illicit thrill of window watching worked perfectly in the back-stage-obsessed world of a festival.

The Seven Sisters Group dance company have also beguiled my lazy hours with site-specific pieces in Selfridges, train stations, the National Theatre foyer, the St Pancras Chambers and the outdoor staircase at the former Wapping Hydraulic Power Station.

Which leads me to ask, aren’t we finally due a ballet performance of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, among the stripped-pine cupboards of Ikea?


Illustration by Narcsville.

Are you a performer with a love of movement, dance or gymnastics? Would like the opportunity to train with renowned aerial theatre company Scarabeus and perform in one of NYT’s most visually and physically ambitious projects this year: SLICK? Then enter the brief today.

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