Why I Do Site Specific Work

When I was 23 I directed a new play, Hare and Burke, which told of the doings of the infamous Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare. The first act was staged in the Bedlam Theatre and took the form of courtroom cross-examinations. At the close of the first act, the 27-strong cast stormed the auditorium, ushering the audience out through the fire door, over the road, led by a dancing fiddler, into Greyfriars’ Kirkyard, where the rest of the piece was played out, in promenade, in and amongst the grave stones and in front of the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. At one performance, during the speech of the prostitute Mary Patterson, as she declaims her revenge against her murderers, the castle behind her turned red, drenched in floodlights. The audience gasped. In fact, the organisers of the Edinburgh Tattoo were simply testing the lights, but what stage set could have conveyed the epic nature of this coincidence, as the character seemed to conjure the entire city of Edinburgh to act in her defence?

After this production, the various stage plays I saw and directed seemed to often to miss this extraordinary dimension, of real life colliding with artifice. I became obsessed with site-specific work, which I take to mean the perfect matching of material, be it a fully authored, scripted play, or a devised work, to a space. From Hanging Stars (Arches Theatre 1997) which looked at a diva who performed from the back of a transit van, who was then pushed off out into the world by the audience at the show’s close, to The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s take on the Bluebeard myth which I staged in the plague vaults beneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, to Those Eyes, That Mouth, which staged the disintegration of the sole character’s mind within a derelict house, I have explored the notion of site-specific work, most often in promenade. Promenade breaks down barriers between fellow audience members and between actor and audience so that the theatre truly becomes an act of mutual imagination. Also, most importantly, because it is an imaginative act created between strangers, it has a dangerous, flirtatious and erotic charge. With Gargantua, a celebration of food and sex which we devised for performance in the chambers of an old Edinburgh bank, which I christened the Underbelly, we built up a playful relationship with the audience where they became more and more implicated in the action. At the conclusion of a performance of The Bloody Chamber at the London Dungeon, an audience member turned to her colleague and said “I thought I was in it, never mind watching it!” For me this is what all my work is about. The casting of the audience, whether bar regulars in Barflies (2009) or air passengers as in Roam (2006) has become ever more important over the years.

I continued my interest in the erotic intimacy of site-specific work with Horses, Horses, Coming In In All Directions, a piece for the Arches in Glasgow, which combined musicians and actors in a series of interrelated vignettes about love and lust. One of the most successful scenes was when the entire audience got into bed with the cast, under a gigantic, studio-sized counterpane, or when the two protagonists ended the piece within a circle of the promenading audience, drenched by a high-powered jet of water; a ritual that then opened out to include the audience at the end.

With Decky Does A Bronco, staged in children’s playgrounds across the UK and Ireland, the work took a different direction. Previously, I had been concerned to find hidden, secret spaces, spaces the audience would thrill to out of a sense of discovery: dungeons and weirs, for example. Now we were in public space. We deliberately didn’t seal the park, since the space rightly belongs to those children who play in it. The reality effect of real, animated children, in counterpoint to the adult actors who so brilliantly capture the lost energy of childhood but then take it into tragedy and adult knowledge, is something impossible to reach inside the confines of a theatre building. We must also consider the political nature of conventional theatre space, with its forbidding exterior, class-bound attitude, and the justified prejudice towards it of socially excluded members of our society. The main discovery I have made over the years is that site-specific promenade theatre opens up the possibility of a genuinely popular, class-less theatre; not least because there are no cheap seats and everybody can see, touch and smell each other clearly. The sense of journeying through a space, or to a space transformed by great acting seen in close proximity, is for me, second to no other experience in the arts.

But always at the heart of the work is what I call ‘popular innovation’: I firmly believe that it is possible to be theatrically inventive at one and the same time as engaging an audience from a broad range of economic and social backgrounds. Indeed it could be argued that as theatre has become less participatory, arguably a more and more passive experience for the audience ever since the Renaissance, it has lost a vital ground to other art forms, particularly now digital interactive media, or even, more prosaically, the remote-control television where the viewer has control over what is viewed at the flick of a switch. The dynamic encounter of actor and audience, of two people in the same room, looking at each other, is something no virtual media can ever match: an intimate spectacle.