work in progress
We find ourselves at a time when ‘site-specific theatre’ has rarely had greater currency. The ‘immersive’ theatre experiences of companies like Punchdrunk sell out runs within minutes of being advertised on the internet; Mike Pearson’s Coriolan/us for the National Theatre of Wales, staged across the unwieldy site of a decommissioned RAF base in South Wales this summer, has been garnering huge amounts of press and public attention.
But what do we actually mean when we talk about site, space, and place in the context of community arts? How does experience or memory of site contribute to the (ongoing) process of theatre-making in these instances and how can we measure or evaluate the role and agency of site, space, and place in the outcomes and afterlives of community arts projects?
Academic-practitioner Mike Pearson has suggested that we need to avoid too narrow a definition of what a site might be or constitute. Theatre projects he suggests might be ‘site-determined, site-referenced, site-conscious, site-responsive, site-related’ (2010: 1). As we begin in this project to work think about what gets recorded in the process of making community theatre, does this list form a useful starting point from which to explore with participants and collaborators the kinds of sites and responses to site that a particular project seeks to engage (or, indeed, which might emerge unexpectedly from certain kinds of projects)?
As ever we find ourselves coming back to the question of definitions. What might constitute a site or, indeed, a space or a place in these contexts?
Sometimes we might be working with a particular building, a space and place in which theatre will be made in ways that respond to the physical fabric of that building, its rooms, doors, thresholds, vistas, but also with the memories and associations (many of them conflicting) which it mobilises for the individual or group participants in the project.
Sometimes the ‘site’ is an absent presence. A recent example of this notion of a haunted or ghosted site for members of this project team would be work produced in collaboration with theatre company Hanby and Barrett on Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus, former location of the city’s world-renowned Raleigh bicycle factory. No specific architecture was extant with which to engage in any physically meaningful way but in all kinds of respects the project sought to mobilise and capture memories and associations with the site, as well as the all-important experience of ‘return’ to the site for former workers and their families. What we began to see in action in this single example was ‘the important component’ of audience in the production of a site’s meaning at any given time (Pearson, 2010: 110); what the cultural geographer Doreen Massey has refers to as ‘place […] formed out of the specificity of interacting social relations in a particular location’ (Massey, 1994: 168).
What is ‘a’ location though? Thus far in the examples above (a former bicycle manufactury, a military base, a university campus) we have been thinking about specific buildings or gatherings of buildings, such as factory sites, but ‘location’ in a number of community arts projects might be even less tangible – a region, an area, a neighbourhood. How might the kinds of evaluative processes this project is exploring begin to map or chart the understandings of space and place held by participants (including spectators) for these theatre projects and how, if it all, these are impacted by, altered, changed or enhanced by the very practice of theatre-making and theatre-going?
Other blogs in this series will engage in more detail with the specifics how we document and archive these processes and also how we allow for enable their research and practice afterlives – their reanimation and reactivation.
Cultural ethnographer Kathleen Stewart has shown in her work on West Virginian mining communities how places are ‘storied’ into being and it is this social aspect of site, space and place with which community arts projects seek to engage (1996: 7).
But how do we measure the effect of that narrativizing process?
How do we record the ways in which site and space themselves ‘perform’ in the process?
Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Cambridge: Polity, 1994)
Mike Pearson, Site-Specific Performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)