By Rose Hopkins
Hamilton’s first winter performance festival, Frost Bites, will be kicking off this February 11th to 14th at the Cotton Factory (270 Sherman St.) This is good news. With one ticket you have access to the work of seven different Hamilton companies and over thirty site-specific performances a night. So, what is site-specific theatre? It’s performance that engages a space typically not used for performance. And it’s become a bit of a “thing.”
A quick Google search pulls up companies across North America and Europe who specialize in this work. Consider Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, produced in 2013 by Outside the March, Convergence Theatre & Sheep No Wool. Performed in Toronto’s Withrow Park and Eastminster United Church, it examines a group of actors putting on a passion play in three distinct eras, utilizing outdoor spaces and the Church’s architecture to contextualize the story.
Okay, so right now some of you may be thinking, “That’s great, but why do I want to pull myself out of my warm house to hang out in an old cotton factory in the middle of February to see Frost Bites?” Because site-specific theatre is the new black. Here’s why.
Site-specific theatre offers creative options that other performance doesn’t. As part of Mooncalf Theatre, a company participating in Frost Bites, my imagination ran wild when we chose the parking lot as our performance space. Did we want to use the space literally as a parking lot, or could we transform it to take on a new meaning? Would the whole piece take place in a car? Would we build a completely different set within the lot? How many audience members would watch the piece at once? In a proscenium theatre, these choices aren’t always available.
Flip side: Big dreams require work to become a reality. There were some realities of the parking lot that had to take some creative problem solving to make work. For example, how would we get power to the playing space so we could have some lighting? What would we do if a car drove through during performance? How would we keep the actors warm while performing outdoors in the middle of February? What happens if it snows? These were all things that had to be taken into consideration.
Site-specific performance can take you to some pretty unexpected places. Abandoned churches, backyard sheds, strangers’ cars, and shipping containers have all served as venues for this kind of performance, and they all lend themselves to create a very specific experience for the audience. Mooncalf Theatre’s piece, The Distance Between Us and the Sun, has the audience looking down into the parking lot from a second story window. Only eight people can watch the piece at a time, so there is a sense of intimacy even though the audience is fifty-something feet away from the performers. This contrast of distance and closeness creates a feeling for the audience that perfectly serves the story we are trying to tell.
The flip-side: It’s not for everyone. British company Blast Theory ran a piece in 1998 called Kidnap. In Kidnap, two lottery winners were taken prisoner (literally snatched in broad daylight) and held for 48 hours while their kidnapping experience was broadcasted online for others to watch. Definitely a specific participant experience, but not one that everyone might enjoy.
**they have a pretty cool archival website, you can tour the safe house and stuff: BLAST THEORY
Site-specific theatre can be more affordable. If a piece calls for a specific set, going to an existing living room can be less expensive than building one onstage. And often, found performance spaces can be less expensive to rent than traditional venues. This is great for new artists without a ton of resources, and even better for audience members whose ticket price will be lower because of it.
The flip side: It can also be more expensive. Sleep No More, by U.K. company Punchdrunk, has had a long run in New York. The film-noir re-imagining of Macbeth has masked audience members exploring the fictitious McKittrick Hotel - actually three adjoining warehouses in Chelsea that span over 100,000 square feet. One can assume their rent isn’t pocket change.
SO. WHY HERE, WHY NOW?
We all love Hamilton. From Gore Park to Albion Falls, the vintage shops on Ottawa Street to the waterfront trail by Cootes Paradise, this is the place where we work, play, and create. The architecture of our buildings, the history of our parks all serve as valuable inspiration for performances about the place we call home.
This is exactly the type of work that the growing ‘indie-theatre’ community in Hamilton is producing, at festivals like Frost Bites and the Fringe. Performance that breaks convention, and isn’t contained inside the walls of the Players Guild or Theatre Aquarius, but meets the audience in the communities where they live. Performance that speaks to our identity as Hamiltonians. What more could you want?