Off-Site Performance: Challenging Traditional Notions of Theater
The world of experimental theater has been staging performances outside traditional black-box theaters for decades, using specific locations to create a sense of realism or an immersive experience. In 1934, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was performed on a real Venice street. Several performance pieces have used real hotel rooms. In The Artist Is Present, Martina Abramovic sat, seven hours daily for weeks, at the Museum of Modern Art, while visitors sat across from her. Abramovic herself was the work of art they’d come to see.
But there’s another type of contemporary performance that’s not just about place. In the book Off Sites: Contemporary Performance Beyond Site-Specific, Professor Bertie Ferdman (Borough of Manhattan Community College) examines the way in which “off-site” productions further challenge traditional notions of theater. These productions blur lines between reality and fiction, time and space, theater and visual art, and even between actors and audience. Locations might even be virtual.
“The work is complete with the spectator. It’s not just an object on its own,” Ferdman said in an interview. “Contemporary theater has gone from site specificity, from a kind of set design, to a more experiential engagement.”
A piece called Private Moments reenacted movie scenes in a public park so artfully that many passersby didn’t realize they were staged. Ferdman, watching two women kiss in one scene, found that she herself was playing a role, “trying desperately to blend in, acting as if I was not doing what I was doing.”
Some off-site works end up igniting public debates or impacting events in the real world, sometimes involving people who’ve never seen the show. In Argentina, actors in Mi Vida Despues used personal narrative, drama, and journalism to reconstruct the lives of their parents, some of whom had disappeared under the country’s military dictatorship, others of whom had collaborated with the military. The audience served as witness. One actress gave testimony onstage about her father’s abduction of a baby whom he raised as her brother. She couldn’t tell the story in court because of a law that barred children from testifying against their parents. But as a result of her performance, her father went to prison.