The 4 Cardinal Rules of Site-Specific Performance
When Rashaun Mitchell danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he yearned for an alternative to the isolation he felt onstage. “Many times, the experience as a performer in a theater was lonely,” says Mitchell. “The lights are blinding. You look out into the blackness and don’t see anyone’s face. The show ends, and you go back to your hotel.” The works Mitchell now creates and performs in collaboration with Silas Riener are frequently site-specific, offering an entirely different experience. Audiences are often integrated into the performance, and dancers rely on their instincts to navigate constantly changing environments.
Although site-specific works can be invigorating in their intimacy, dancers need to be prepared for the unique challenges they present. From performing in the elements to interacting with audiences who don’t behave the way you’d expect, site-specific work requires a fresh mind-set and a different kind of flexibility than performing onstage.
#1. Don’t Get Too Attached
Biba Bell thinks of a site-specific performance as an improvisation. Photo by Corrie Baldauf, courtesy of Biba Bell.
You might be used to spending weeks or months in rehearsal, fine-tuning one ideal version of the choreography. But it almost always helps to view your role in a site-specific work more like an improvisation, says Biba Bell, assistant professor at Wayne State University. “Once you take things out of a controlled environment, the elements can fall into flux and become unstable,” she explains. “The ground itself can be uneven, and there are often distractions.”
Mitchell says these “complicated, unpredictable conditions” are among the benefits of performing in unusual spaces. “When it’s set choreography and really well rehearsed, you can do it a million times with your eyes closed. Having some things remain outside your control keeps it fresh and new,” he observes. Each variation generates a different result and, over time, performing the same work for different audiences in different locations contributes to a broader understanding of the part that you play.
#2. Keep Your Distance (in Mind)
How close you are to audiences will influence how much you should project outward. Photo by Adam Jason Photography, courtesy Third Rail Projects.
When performing in a theater, you’re responsible for projecting from the front row all the way to the back of the house. Depending on the venue for a site-specific show, your front row might be 2 inches from your nose—or 200 feet away. Be prepared to engage with a show’s environment during an audition, says Jennine Willett, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, which presents Then She Fell at the Kingsland Ward, a century-old building at St. John’s Church in Brooklyn. “Over time, we’ve gotten better at understanding what we want to ask people to do that might reveal their potential for being successful in this kind of work,” says Willett. In anticipation of having audiences of various sizes in different rooms, Willett might ask performers to practice presenting a phrase once as they would for a single viewer, then again as if for 100 people, and then again for 1,000 people. “It helps to think of having a ‘dial’ you can turn,” she suggests, “to draw the audience closer to you, or, to project outward more, whether physically or in how you’re using your voice.”
Mitchell and Riener agree. “When someone’s standing right next to you, you have a lot of power as a performer, and you have to recognize that,” says Riener, “although I’m drawn to playing with that volume as well. We might moderate ourselves to set a kind of decorum, but we also might want to be ‘the wrong thing’ for the space we’re in. Once I understand what people’s assumptions about a space will be, I often find myself wanting to turn those things on their heads.”
#3. Go Outside—and Back in Again
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener say performing outside is like going camping. Photo by Truth Cole via Madison Square Park Conservancy
Some artists bring their site-specific projects out of doors. From 2005 to 2011, Bell and her collaborators ran MGM Grand (Modern Garage Movement), through which “we’d take something on the road and perform it one to three times a day, for three to six weeks,” she recalls. “And we’d always have our costumes on—in essence, we were ready to perform anywhere, at any time.”
Mitchell and Riener liken performing outdoors to going camping, and advise their collaborators on outdoor projects to come prepared for any contingency. Pack your bag or a small suitcase with all the footwear, outerwear and warm-ups you might need, and be sure to ask in advance what kind of dressing area or green room—if any—you’ll have access to. With a laugh, Riener adds, “It’s always definitely going to rain.”
He still enjoys performing onstage—as do many other dancers who’ve gone the site-specific route. Willett even says that, to some degree, being absent from stages makes the heart grow fonder: “Once you’re in the woods trying to hang clip lights and present a performance in a place that has absolutely no infrastructure, stepping back into a nice, clean theater with a light plot is so amazing.”
#4. Your Audience Will Be Unpredictable—Embrace It
Audiences are going to misbehave—don’t take it personally. Photo by Dariel Sneed, Courtesy Third Rail Projects
New York City–based artist Lia Bonfilio, cast in immersive shows with Third Rail Projects such as Then She Fell and Sweet & Lucky, is quick to confirm that “audiences never do what you planned for them to do.” Especially when you’re performing in intimate spaces, Bonfilio’s main advice is to “love your audience, no matter what. If someone’s being a troublemaker, you have to find an acceptance of that, and soften into it; if you meet it with resistance, things will go awry.” Flat-out ignoring them defeats the purpose of an intimate setting, so remain engaged without taking any audience members’ (mis)behavior personally.