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Citing Site-Specific Theatre

Last year, I attended the first production from Onsite Theatre, BOWLING EPIPHANY. I almost had to attend; it was taking place at the old bowling lanes at Epiphany of Our Lord parish in Southwest St. Louis, where I went to grade school, and where I learned to bowl.

The production was very impressive. Audience members could grab bowling shoes as they went in, and could bowl for a while until the plays started. Audience bowling was also available at intermission and after the show. But bowling was the icing; the cake was a number of very smart, short plays (with bowling as the theme) presented by the group. It was a fun, cool and unique evening, and this group was tackling site-specific theatre in a good way.

I got in touch with the group, expressed my appreciation and my hope to work with them in some capacity some day. They got back to me, had me read a few pieces for them, and then cast me in their second production. (I did find out it was at Bruton-Stroube Studios, renovated from the former headquarters for Otis Elevator Company to a gleaming, big-league commercial photography suite of studios. But there would be few details of the production coming my way til we started rehearsals.)

In the meantime, other site-specific productions caught my eye. A fascinating one was SMALL METAL OBJECTS from the Back to Back Theater company, which was performed as part of the Under the Radar Festival in New York City. Here's excerpts from the Times review: “The drama begins right before a ferry leaves (the show takes place in the Whitehall Ferry Terminal at the bottom of Manhattan), when the spacious modern station is crawling with commuters. You are guided by ushers to risers set up near the back wall, then you sit down and watch the world go by. At first it's impossible to know where the actors are in the mass of people…then the vast room empties (as people board the Ferry) leaving, quite startingly, two odd-shaped figures in the distance: an amazingly elegant effect, one of the most majestic set changes in the city. The narrative is simple (small-drug dealers), but then the terminal slowly fills with perplexed New Yorkers starting at the audience just as the audience is staring at the actors…this small story in the middle of the New York chaos has a poetic stillness that is quite moving and often even magical.”

And then in March came LADIES AND GENTS from Ireland. Again, from the NY Times: “A nasty little tale about prostitutes, politicians and other morally questionable types in 1950s Dublin. It consists of two acts, one that takes place in the ladies' room, and the other in, well, the other room. (Public bathrooms near the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.) The audience splits upon arrival, each half seeing a different act first, and a after a brief intermission the halves of the audience switch bathrooms. In the play's chronology, the acts are taking place simultaneously, and each act answers questions raised in its counterpart.”

Both of these productions seemed thrilling concepts. I suppose The Midnight Company has verged on site-specific: performing JESSE JAMES on the porch of the James Farm in Kearney, MO; Dave Wassilak adapting Richard Foreman for a stroll through the art in an opening segment of THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS evening at the Contemporary Art Museum; DRACULA in an abandoned warehouse at the haunted Lemp complex; even delivering two Conor McPherson solos, ST. NICHOLAS and THE GOOD THIEF, at pubs, where these stories would naturally be told.

But I'd never been involved in a true, site-specific show, and was eager to experience it.

The OnSite production proved to be a great experience, with a hard-working director (Justin Rincker) and cast (Shewan Howard, Kate Puglisi and AnnMarie Mohr (one of the founders of the Company), and two interesting scripts from Lauren Dusek and Dan Rubin. The group didn't play it safe, either, transporting the audience from one studio to another for the first play, then shuttling them upstairs to a lounge for the second show. And in each, they rigorously held to an aesthetic of the audience as eavesdroppers, in a real space watching real people deal with real things. Most audiences seemed delighted with the evening, as did critic Judy Newmark from the Post-Dispatch. Following is her review:

Plays set in photo studio make audience the star
By Judith Newmark

OnSite Theatre's cool new production, "Overexposed," continues the style that the troupe first explored last year, when it mounted a show about bowling in a bowling alley. Members of the audience not only saw a show, but got to bowl.

Because the new production is staged in a photo studio, it's only fitting that the usher hands out disposable cameras along with programs. Theatergoers are encouraged to get into the spirit and take pictures throughout the play.

Make that the plays. For "Overexposed," OnSite commissioned two writers, Lauren Dusek and Dan Rubin, to create new, related scripts. The writers had to set their plays in the sleek photo studio (housed in a handsome old building).

They also were required to use the same actors: OnSite co-founder (with Kristen Edler) Ann Marie Mohr, Katie Puglisi, Shewan Howard and Joe Hanrahan. Hanrahan makes an especially apt casting choice. A veteran St. Louis theater artist, he's explored a lot of offbeat locations, from art galleries to abandoned breweries, with his own troupe, the Midnight Company.

"The Shoot," by Dusek, and "Dodging and Burning," by Rubin, met those requirements and more. As the Dada writer and performance artist Tristran Tzara said, the limitations are the interesting part. Here, specifics of time, place and person coolly combine for two keenly observed comedies.

Both are straight-ahead "relationship" plays, a plus — the setting is weird enough. And in a way, they suit the setting. "Overexposed" suggests that in life, as in photography, what we know about other people and events is probably less than we think we know. Something's always left out of the frame.

"The Shoot" takes place at a catastrophic advertising shoot for a natural foods company; "Dodging and Burning" takes place in a studio where a successful young photographer is entertaining old friends.

In both plays, the conversation is clever, roiling with emotional undercurrents and stuffed with secrets. The four actors — who play different characters in the two plays — are practically on top of the audience, which moves with the action.

"The Shoot" starts in the studio's foyer, then heads into a test kitchen. Then it's up the stairs to a big lobby for "Dodging and Burning." Members of the audience sit on chairs and on the floor, on stairs and on appliances. (Casual dress is a really good idea.)

Through it all, theatergoers shoot the actors and each other whenever they want.

The plays are connected with story thread that involves the studio's manager. They're also connected by director Justin Rincker's expansive style, which lets the action flow into and around the audience. He keeps changing your perspective; he never tells you how to think.

Both plays also are very specific in terms of their here-and-now. They both make reference to work on Highway 40. Rubin's play is so grounded in time that it already verges on past tense, with a heated discussion of the Democratic primary race.

Site-specific theater, such as "Overexposed," brings those issues time-and-place to center stage. It's about the way an audience experiences the theater as much as it is about the theater itself. In other words, it makes the audience the real star of the evening. That's a different way to appreciate theater, as fun as it is thought-provoking.




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Revised: October, 2007
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