James Hillier on directing site-specific theatre

James Hillier on directing site-specific theatre

By Becky Brewis 06/02/14

James Hillier is the Artistic Director of theatre company Defibrillator whose theatrical event, The Hotel Plays, stages three one-act Tennessee Williams plays in London’s Langham Hotel. He shares advice on getting to grips with traditional texts and unconventional spaces…

Tell us about the project. Why a hotel?

After reading Green Eyes [one of the three plays] I thought I would love to see it performed but didn’t know how I could make that happen in a conventional theatre because it’s only 25 minutes long. How are you going to get an audience along to see that? Reading more, I found out that Tennessee Williams wrote a lot of plays set in hotels because he lived in hotels. It struck me that we could find a group of these plays that worked collectively.

Although they are set in different places and time periods, we got this idea of a magical glue that holds them all together – of rolling every character that enters the different hotels into one, creating a through-line.

What excites you about directing site-specific theatre?

You get to be an agent of change within the space you’re working in, and it brings a whole other level to the artistic endeavor. You need to find a partner who’s open and receptive to ideas, but at the same time you need to respect the space you’re in, and its present function. That creates lots of opportunities and stumbling blocks, which bring out skills beyond just directing a play, like project management skills.

I love the audiences you get at these sorts of shows. I call them cultural nomads. These are people who back in the 80s and 90s might have been on the rave scene – people who go to festivals and gigs, and who want adventure and discovery. 

We’re in a really interesting place right now regarding immersive and site-specific theatre. We are probably at a tipping point where it’s no longer unconventional or unorthodox. What we’re trying to do at Defibrillator is to marry the traditional theatrical experience – the play as a convention that we’ve had for 2,000 plus years, that the Greeks came up with, driven by narrative and character – with this other very contemporary idea of site-specific or immersive theatre.

Describe the events management element

Practicalities are how move people around the space. And how to integrate the performance you’re putting on into the space that’s already there. Sometimes you’re not able to fulfill every choice that you’d like to make, but that’s a creative relationship.

One of the most important things to have – a difference between immersive and traditional theatre – is the language. Because we’re dealing with a hotel and they have the language of hotel and I have the language of theatre (tech rehearsal, dress rehearsal etc.), sometimes when we speak we don’t necessarily understand each other. They asked me the other day, “What will be the F and B upside?” That’s the “food and beverage upside”, apparently.

What makes a good immersive experience, in your view?

An experience where you enter into spaces and witness things you wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s why the Langham Hotel is such an exciting place to put a play on – because the majority of us haven’t stayed at the Langham hotel, so this is a chance to have a physical experience of a space that we wouldn’t ordinarily. 

Is it possible to produce site-specific theatre on a shoestring? 

I don’t think we’ve done it cheaply. Obviously budget is a premium when you’re starting out, but I would say it’s about finding a collective of people all passionate about the project to make it happen: to carry the cost of it together and pool resources.

What advice would you give young theatre-makers looking to stage an immersive play for the first time?

Find an exciting piece of work and an exciting partner that wants to work with you. But find an idea that’s totally integrated. Don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole. Putting on plays that are set in a hotel in a hotel is a cohesive idea.

There’s something interesting in this idea that we are trying to put forward: traditional playwriting in unconventional spaces. Take a really good play – a really good text and then explode it. Put it somewhere unexpected. 


The Hotel Plays are on at the Langham Hotel from 11 February to 8 March.

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