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Notes on Site-Specific, Environmental, Interactive Theatre

The following was published as director's notes in the program for Women's Work, an original, immersive theater experience at the Museum of Modern Art Jacksonville. The full program is available here. It will also be published on the Phase Eight Theatre Company blog.

There are many ways to experience story.

When you read a book, your sight is the most engaged. Your mind may make you feel totally immersed in the story, but in reality, there you are in your chair, not in the English countryside. You cannot see the phosphorescent hounds glowing in the dark.

When you watch a film, your sight is engaged with recorded image, your ears with recorded sound. The mix may make you feel totally immersed in the story, but in reality--no matter how much depth the Greg Toland shots might have--you are looking at a flattened image of light and color, framed by four corners. There you are in your seat. You cannot feel the cold as Rosebud races by the boarding house.

When you attend a traditional, proscenium-style play at the theater, more of your senses are engaged; the action may unfold in real time; there is real, observable, space that you could access if protocol and etiquette did not demand you keep your seat. Still, the fourth wall is up, and though it is sometimes permeable and the space made malleable with convention and imagination, there you are in the audience. You cannot rush the field upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

But there are ways of staging Henry V and other works that subvert the frame and the fourth wall while they engage the space and the senses.

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I saw a promenade and immersive performances that shook my thinking on theatrical space right around the time I was studying Jerzy Grotowski, whose work was all about playing with the space(s) occupied by and the interplay between performers and audience. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (dir. Sean Graney) was staged in a bare black box space, but the actors and audience were on the same plane, on their feet. Strangely, I don’t remember standing or moving at all, but I do remember how close the actors were and the thrilling sense that they and the story might go in any direction at any moment. (Imagine when a character portraying Death entered wearing a Venetian death mask and swinging a thurible behind me!) The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (dir. Wils Wilson) was staged in the same space dressed up as a pub. The audience sat at cafe tables dressed for whiskey flights and bar food; at one point in the action of the show, we were encouraged to tear our napkins and throw the shreds when the story required snow. Engaging and enchanting.

Director Peter Brook (The Empty Space) says theater is happening when one person walks through a space and another observes. In this way, we might see promenade, site-specific, immersive, and/or interactive theater not only as breaking theatrical convention but also as restoring theatrical essence. Direct observation in a shared space where the spontaneous may happen--what some, in sum, call liveness--differentiates theater from other storytelling mediums.

That’s what we’re playing with in Women’s Work. Add to this the fact that our play is inspired by and indeed can only take place in this specific space and time: MOCA Jacksonville, “A Dark Place of “Dreams”, July 2018? One can only conclude that this show’s liveness is alive and well!

Thank you for being an essential part of it.

- Kelby Siddons, playwright & director

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