Absolute Beginners: Sites

Feature in Issue 20-4 | Winter 2008

The Canny Granny gets specific about site.

Where you put things matters. The oil painting that my mother-in-law gave us looked dreadful in our living room but goes beautifully in a box in the attic. So it was with The Caravan. This well-crafted show could have resembled other verbatim plays had the audience of eight not been invited into the caravan’s seating area. In the 60sstyle snug, we knocked knees with actors playing the victims of last year’s floods in Gloucestershire – so close I struggled to conceal tears during a moving part. We were offered a small dish of biscuits and a cup of tea. Is it total theatre? It’s certainly total refreshments.

Proponents of site-responsive theatre have been refreshing our artistic palettes for some time. You see how I slipped it in? Site-responsive. You see it’s not just site-specific (i.e. a play set in a launderette, staged in that launderette). It doesn’t have to be so literal. Otherwise Badac’s The Factory would have had to be actually set in Auschwitz (rather than a whitewashed series of tunnels under The Pleasance), which would have terrorised a lot of American tourists. Oh, it did anyway? Yes, it sounded ferocious, I wasn’t sure my ticker could take it.

Why is it ‘site’? Why not space? Because it’s like pitching a tent, colonising a plot with development potential? So it could be a performance out of context, like humans in shop windows (a favourite trick of French company Cacahuete); or the group of women in a cage in Edinburgh’s city zoo this year (Exhibit 44 ‘a sub-species of humans: dancers’); or the burlesque performance Feasting on Flesh at the Assembly rooms this summer that had its photoshoot tantalisingly set in a butcher’s cold store. What a shame the show itself didn’t take place there: a woman in a corset hanging from the ceiling looks a bit different framed by two half pig carcasses. Or a pork chop looks different beside an obese transvestite in a fuchsia catsuit. No offence to my local butcher.

Could it be ‘site’ because the locations are often derelict? A can of Haze in the handbag is advisable. But fusty smells aside, what wonderful buildings! Dreamthinkspeak’s Underground was presented in an abattoir in Clerkenwell and their recent show in the tower of Liverpool Cathedral (One Step Forward, One Step Back) invited the audience to (almost) trespass. Likewise, Punchdrunk’s Faust, sited in a factory in Wapping, was a triumph of Stealth and Danger over Health and Safety. Site-responsive artists use the natural features of the architecture to create unique images, like an animated art installation. It’s special because it can’t just be packed into a van and taken on tour, though dreamthinkspeak managed the feat of transferring to new sites in far-flung places such as Russia. They probably had to make a detailed map of where everything was, like our kids did when we went on holiday and they moved the ornaments so they could have a party, the devils. Don’t think I didn’t notice that the china leopard’s head had been superglued, Christian. Not forgiven.

The audience is a treasure-hunter, letting their own curiosity dictate the parts of the story that they gather. Whereas Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak leave clues of sound and light to tempt you to explore, in 30 Bird’s Plastic, permission is more firmly controlled: We are divided into groups according to gender, or barred from entry but encouraged to peer at dancers in another space, or led like a chorus, everyone walking in unison. Striding with eight other women into a urinal has never been so exhilarating. Don’t try this at home. Everyone should make work for disused and public spaces because these are renegade actions that stick up two fingers to the theatre industry. It’s like megabusking!

The audience have a unique experience. Office Party, set in an office block in Edinburgh, makes a believable postmodern fiction from concrete-clad corporate spaces in a kind of controlled booze-fuelled riot. Except it’s not fiction, it is actually a booze-fuelled riot. Memories of the middle-aged lady who fell over whilst dancing and the woman hiding behind a pillar from her husband. To treasure, Paula, wherever you are.

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-4
p. 11