On a recent balmy evening in the Scottish Highlands, 260 theatergoers were led up a well-lit, pine-tree-lined concrete path. Their destination? A vacant hydraulics plant. With bagpipe music pumping through the sound system and projections of the blue-and-white Scottish flag superimposed on the wall, the large concrete space had the impersonal and transient feel of an army barracks—exactly the atmosphere the producers of "Black Watch" hoped to replicate. The play—which debuted last year at the Edinburgh Festival and is now touring Scotland before it comes to London in May—is based on the true story of a Highlands regiment sent to Iraq in 2004. It is a shattering tale of how the soldiers cope not only with the intense pressures of serving in postwar Iraq but also with the fact that their regiment—which traces its roots back to the early-18th-century Jacobite rebellion—is being merged with another regiment as part of the British Army's downsizing scheme. The production features dazzling staging—in one scene a character tells the history of the Black Watch regiment while his fellow squaddies repeatedly dress him in the different uniforms of each period and barbed soliloquies. "It takes 300 years to build an army that's admired and respected around the world, [but] it only takes three years pissing about in the desert [to] f--- it up completely," says the commanding officer. It is a stunning piece of theater, made all the more powerful by the authentic space in which it is performed.
That is the goal of site-specific theater, a genre whose popularity is on the rise. Essentially it refers to plays produced in places directly relevant to their action. Audiences have seen productions performed in abandoned rail yards and hospital cancer wards; last summer theatergoers were bused out to Edinburgh airport for the Scottish theater troupe Grid Iron's production of "Roam." As ticketholders passed through check-in and security screening, actors performed various vignettes about travel. In March, at the Museum Hotel in Wellington, New Zealand, audiences filed into room 217 to watch a tale about the various personalities who had occupied the room over time; the piece won several awards at the Wellington Fringe Festival, including best theater and Pick of the Fringe. "I think people are tired of the same old plays in the same confines of space," says Paul McLaughlin, who produced "Hotel." "Drama happens all around us—at the bus stop, in an art gallery—so we attempted to show how people can interact with the space that surrounds them."
Aspects of site-specific theater have been around for decades; the genre grew out of visual and performance art in the 1960s and 1970s. But the numbers and scope of such pieces are multiplying. Theater troupes like McLaughlin's site-specific.co.nz and the Yorkshire-based group Wilson+Wilson work solely on site-specific projects. Judith Doherty, the producer of Grid Iron, says that since the group's founding a decade ago, the buzz around site-specific theater has grown significantly. "More and more companies are approaching site-specific work [because] artistically it offers a different challenge to producing onstage or in a studio," she says. "Also, it is proven to attract new audiences that may be slightly put off by [more traditional] theatrical productions."
Grid Iron's "Decky Does a Bronco"—about five young schoolboys who talk about their dreams and fears—played in school playgrounds and parks around Britain and Ireland, allowing the troupe to perform in small communities with no theater space, which are typically left off the circuit. "It's all about trying your craft, and we love the extra constraints—like 15 tractors randomly driving past while we were in the middle of a show—that come with working at a site," says Doherty.
To be sure, on-scene productions present their own set of challenges. Producers of "Black Watch" had to scout around London for a location with just the right dimensions for when the show comes to the British capital (they are set to announce the location soon). And for groups like Grid Iron that produce some shows outside, unscheduled interruptions have proved problematic; on a press night for one of its shows, a dog walked in among the actors and defecated. But for many audience members, leaving the comfort of their velvet theater seats makes for a much more meaningful experience. "A lot of site-specific work intervenes into your relationship with a place and challenges the way you look and think, either esthetically or politically," says Nick Kaye, a drama professor at the University of Exeter.
Site-specific shows can also cater to the growing desire for individualized entertainment fueled by on-demand television and the Internet. In "Faust," which the London-based theater group Punchdrunk just wrapped up, audience members got to pick what they wanted to see. Housed in an old five-story warehouse in east London, the play featured different settings, including a wooded forest and a Midwestern American street in the 1940s, representing Faust's journey to hell as well as the decadence of the industrialized heartland. Audience members wandered through the scenes at their discretion, wearing plain white Venetian-style masks (to differentiate them from the actors). They could choose to watch a scene and follow certain actors from location to location or roam freely through the build-ing on their own, which made it possible for two people to see two completely different plays. Felix Barrett, the artistic director of Punchdrunk, says today's theatergoers expect more than just the traditional audience-actor relationship. "There is so much mediocrity in theater where you know exactly what it is going to be like and you know the rituals before you even go in," he says. "What I wanted to do was create a piece where the impact is totally sensory and the audience can carve out the night they want to have, and it stays with them." Creating a strong sense of place goes a long way toward achieving that.