Site-specific theatre is considered to be any type of theatrical production that is performed at a unique, specially adapted location other than a standard theatre. This unique site may have been built without any intention of serving theatrical purposes (for example, a hotel, courtyard, or converted building). It may also simply be an unconventional space for theatre (for example, a forest). Site-specific theatre seeks to use the properties of a unique site's landscape, rather than a typical theatre stage, to add depth to a theatrical production. Sites are selected based on their ability to amplify storytelling and form a more vivid backdrop for the actors in a theatrical production. A performance in a traditional theatre venue that has been transformed to resemble a specific space (for example, a junkyard), can also be considered as site-specific, as long as it no longer has the functionality (i.e. seats, stages) that a traditional theatre would have.
Site-specific theatre is commonly more interactive than conventional theatre and may be called Promenade Theatre in cases where the audience is expected or encouraged to walk or move about the venue. Site-specific theatre frequently takes place in structures originally built for non-theatrical reasons that have since been renovated or converted for new, performance-based functions.
Definitions of site-specific theatre are complicated by its use in both theatre studies and visual art, where it is also referred to as site-specific performance.
Examples of site-specific theatre include:
https://www.theatreworks.org.au/archive-feature-storming-mont-albert-by-tram-1982/ the first play to be staged on a moving tram was produced by the Australian company TheatreWorks. Audiences were immersed as fellow passengers with various characters who entered and left the tram at regular stops along the way. The production was staged eight times over a dozen years on trams in Melbourne and Adelaide and helped launch an outbreak of site-specific theatre in Melbourne which lasted throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
Through scenes enacted in various rooms of “Linden”, a large St Kilda mansion, Living Rooms traces the social and cultural progress of the building from family mansion, to boarding house, to contemporary art gallery. Audiences moved through the building in small groups where they witnessed the lives of the imaginary characters who resided in Linden at key moments in its history.
Using a similar site-specific template to Living Rooms (moving audience groups from room to room), Full House/No Vacancies was also staged in various bedrooms of a typical boarding house in St. Kilda in the late 1980s. The building (the “Linga Longa” boarding house) was facing demolition and massive over-development that would have seen all its tenants summarily evicted. However, working collectively, the tenants (a prostitute, a failed stand-up comedian and a retired actress) manage to expose the developer and save their home.
The Ramlila, a dramatic enactment of the Hindu history Ramayana, could be considered a type of site-specific theatre. Started in 1830 by Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh of Varanasi, it is held each year over a period of 31 days during the autumn festive season of Dussehra at Ramnagar, Varanasi in India. The Ramlila is staged in permanent structures created as sets throughout the three square mile area where the audience follow the actors. The Ramlila was declared by the UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
Following on from the remarkable success of TheatreWorks’ Storming Mont Albert By Tram in 1982, an outbreak of site-specific theatre took place across Melbourne throughout the 1980s. This saw the production of further plays on trams (Storming St. Kilda by Tram, Storming Glenelg by Tram) riverboats (Breaking Up In Balwyn), busses (Bus, Son of Tram) houses (Fefu and Her Friends, Living Rooms, Full House/No Vacancies, Looking In, Looking Out) pubs (The Pub Show) a cinema (D J View) a woollen mill (The Wool Game) a nursing home (Vital Signs ) a football club dressing room (Not Waving) a scout hall (In Cahoots) a prison (Hard Labour, Mate) as well as shopping centres, camping grounds, parks and gardens (The Go Anywhere Show, Wind in the Willows). Much of this work is documented in Really Moving Drama – Taking Theatre for a Ride (2016) ISBN 9781534866751; Staging the World – Theatre In the Space Age (Adventures in Site-Specific Performance) ISBN 9780648599890; and A Short History of TheatreWorks (1979 to 1994) ISBN 9780648900207
Site-specific theatre can also include environmental theatre, a production that attempts to immerse the audience in the performance by bringing the action off the stage area. For example, some acting may happen in aisles. In the case of black box theatre, acting platforms may even be built between audience sections. Sometimes a performer will talk to or otherwise involve an audience member in a scene. This can be a real audience member, as in interactive theatre, or a confederate actor planted to appear as an audience member.
There are variations on site-specific theatre, including but not limited to: