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Specific Problems of Site-Specific Theatre

October 16, 2013

In the last two weeks, I’ve been getting ready to open my latest show – an adaptation of The Spoon River Anthology, to be set in a cemetery.

Yeah – in a dark, circa 1800’s cemetery on an autumn night. For a show like Spoon River, it is utterly ideal and a once in a lifetime experience. How often do you get to run, scream, dance over someone’s grave?

But outdoors theatre is not always ideal. During our show, we noticed some problems with performing in unusual spaces that wouldn’t have occurred in your basic proscenium theatre:

  1. Noise. The Greeks knew what they were doing when they built the amphitheater and when it came to sound. The cemetery swallowed up a lot of noise so even when we were projecting at the top of our diaphragms, the generators and instruments were still just as loud. And then there were those site-specific noises: while the church bells really added to the ambiance, the motorcycle gang roaring down the highway nearby didn’t help. 
  2. Power. Speaking of those generators and instruments – the cemetery had no electricity. Still, we needed lights and a keyboard. Luckily, we were able to borrow generators.
  3. Bugs. Even with a ton of bug spray, the mosquitoes were still attracted to the cast. It wasn’t too bad once it got dark but our warm-ups consisted of slapping the air and scratching at the bites.
  4. Set-up. Because this is a local space, we had to set-up and take-down everything after every rehearsal and performance, which meant the cast and crew were often there until very late as we lugged all the chairs and equipment down a long road back to the shed we were using as storage. Even more importantly, we could only have exactly two rehearsals in the cemetery before the show which made set-up that much harder seeing how little time we had to figure out what lights were needed and if we needed an adapter for the keyboard. And since this was outside, without wings and curtains to hide the actors, we were hiding behind bushes and graves for half an hour or more while the audience arrived.
  5. Weather. Of course, there was the fear that it might rain during one of our performances – we had to have a rain location prepared and announced just in case (luckily, the sky was clear and dry!). Unfortunately, it is still autumn and while the audience was hopefully wise enough to dress warmly, the cast was in costumes…with lots of layers underneath.
  6. Insurance. Before we could even get into the cemetery though, we had to have insurance to protect the cast, crew and audience.
  7. Respect. Even though the people buried here have been dead for over a hundred years, we still wanted to show our absolute respect. During one of our rehearsals, we endured a lot of dirty looks from passersby who had no idea what these crazy people were doing over the graves of their ancestors. We made sure that no litter was left behind, that we included a moment of silence and that the audience was aware of the graves around them at all times.

For all the problems that came along with performing in a graveyard, I am so glad that we did! As wonderful as a stage is, I don’t think the audience would have gotten the same effect as they did walking down a dark road lit by candles, to reach the cemetery grounds. Spoon River would not have been the same without our ensemble dead.

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