Theater Around The Bay: Adventures in Site-Specific Theater

We continue our series of guest bloggers with another story by Tracy Held Potter, who has written for us in the past. This week she takes us beyond the black box and into the great wide world of site-specific theater.

Artists and audiences are always clamoring for something “new,” something just a little bit outside of what they expect, so when I decided to start self-producing and I had a budget of zero dollars, the idea of creating site-specific shows seemed like an obvious and brilliant strategy.

Going into my company All Terrain Theater’s (http://www.allterraintheater.org) fifth season of producing work, I started reflecting on some of the adventures that I’ve had producing site-specific theater.

The first play I wrote outside of school was a 10-minute motherhood nightmare called “Reality Checkout,” and it took place inside of a baby store. As an entrepreneurial person, I thought that I could create a fun and low-budget production inside an actual baby store, take advantage of a captive audience, create an audience for my work and for the young actors I was working with, and also introduce more customers and sales for the boutique baby store that I was collaborating with. Everything would be so perfect and everyone would walk away with more of everything that they wanted!

This introductory collaboration was actually very lovely. I did a little grant writing project in exchange for free rehearsal and performance space at a boutique baby store in the East Bay, I worked with actors who were willing to accept a share of donations as payment, I already owned all of the props, and all the scenery was built into the real-life store.

We did a three-show run one Saturday morning during the store’s regular business hours. We had maybe eight audience members total during the entire production. What happened to “if you build it, they will come?” Apparently, people don’t flock to inconvenient locations for a free performance of someone’s 10-minute play unless they’re really, really motivated to go. Lesson #1.

Our next production, which was happening about a week later, was a traveling 10-minute show called “The Spin Cycle” and it took place in a laundromat, so we decided to perform this show guerilla-style in laundromats all over the East Bay—in Berkeley, Oakland, and Alameda. The only laundromat where we asked for permission to perform was the one that I used to clean my own laundry, and that’s because I knew the people there and I really didn’t want them to get mad at me. It turns out that when you perform in a laundromat, the sound of washing machines and dryers makes it really hard to hear actors. Lesson #2.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Laundromat – Colin Potter, Pablo Vadillo, and Dee Dee Hilgeson sneak into an Oakland laundromat in an early All Terrain Theater performance.

Also, if your scene is spread across two locations—the dryers are on one side and the folding tables are on the other side—then people can not follow your play at all. The play then becomes performance art and not theater. Which is fine … if that’s what you wanted. Lesson #3.

Our next set of shows took place inside of apartments, which was fantastic because we had a lot more control over our space, and the audiences who came to those performances really intended to see theater. The drawback of doing theater inside a private residence is that sometimes potential audience members are skeptical that a show being performed in a residence is worth seeing. At least a laundromat is in a public space—it’s already legitimate because it’s a real business. However, anyone could just randomly put on a “show” in their livingroom and that’s supposed to be theater? Venues determine credibility. Lesson #4

Fortunately, by the time we got to the apartments, we had finally learned to reach out to the people who would be most receptive to our residential productions: close friends and family members. Lesson #5.

Our biggest site-specific production was Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix,” a play about three DJs that we performed inside of a record store in Oakland. Although the venue wasn’t that close to BART, it had the perfect feel for our show. The front of the building was a record shop and the interior of the building where we performed was a warehouse type space that felt like someone’s basement or garage. In other words, the type of place that a DJ might practice spinning.

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

Record Store – Johnny Manibusan, Kristoffer Barerra, Brady Brophy-Hilton, and Champagne Hughes figure out how to use a record store for Barbara Jwanouskos’ “It’s All in the Mix.”

In this production, I learned that doing large-scale site-specific work meant that I had to start fretting about things that producers take for granted in a traditional theater space, like seats and lights and sound equipment. Most traditional theaters happen to come with actual seats. We had to borrow ours from one of our sponsors. What about lighting and sound equipment? We had to import our equipment and figure out DIY ways to make it work. Small-scale site-specific work is super easy, but the bigger the production becomes, the more I consider taking the show to a space designed for theater. Lesson #6.

Producing work in non-theater locations helps make theater accessible to people who feel like “theater” is too stuffy for them (artists can’t be pretentious about their work when it’s performed next to a basket of someone’s dirty underwear), and it makes theater physically accessible to people who don’t live near theaters or who don’t live near theaters doing work that is relevant to them.

But mostly, creating theater in an alternative space is SUPER FUN. Site-specific work is for adventurers looking to mine treasure and overcome seemingly insurmountable—and extremely ridiculous—obstacles at every turn. Every performance becomes a triumph as a space that wasn’t originally meant for theater becomes a vehicle for creating collaborative art. And what’s more fun than saying that my baby store play was performed in an actual baby store?

Tracy Held Potter is a writer currently working as an MFA candidate in the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University with Rob Handel. She is the Artistic Director of All Terrain Theater (www.allterraintheater.org), Executive Director of Play Cafe (www.playcafe.org), and Co-Founder of the 31 Plays in 31 Days Challenge (http://31plays31days.com). She’s looking forward to spending winter in San Francisco where she can start saying things like, “You think this is cold? Well, you clearly haven’t had to deal with a Polar Vortex.”

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