The Haps: Space

by August Schulenburg

in The Haps

Post image for The Haps: Space

Stardate 2010.294. Space may not yet be our final frontier, but questions of space – location, architecture, access – are increasingly central to the destiny of theatre. In this episode of The Haps, we’ll be looking at some of the trends emerging from these questions.

Site-specific theatre is nothing new, but it appears to be undergoing a renaissance,  with enough unusual locations to inspire a Dr. Seuss poem: theatre on a bus, operas on office blocks,  art in carts called Mobile Cultural Repair Units; shows in the back of a van, on two feet,  in cathedrals, in subway tunnels, in traffic, in Alcatraz, in motels;  even plays in hidden locations where finding the show is part of the play. No wonder The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins asked “what is the point of a theatre anyway?”

Part of the site-specific craze may go beyond bringing theatre to the people; it may come from the rising costs of bringing people to the theatre. With theatre spaces closing and the cost of rentals rising, street theatre becomes a necessary aesthetic for smaller companies.

At the TCG 2010 National Conference, Chicago Mayor Daley spoke movingly of the role those small companies play in the cultural ecosystem of a city, explaining his longtime support for their vibrant storefront theatres. Kansas City malls are following suit, offering free  space to non-profits to avoid empty storefronts; and Detroit’s Make It Here program is envisioning an artist and small arts-org driven Arts Village. NYC Producer Ken Davenport’s has even decided to open source his spare office space towards play development.

To get a clearer picture of this perennial challenge, Fractured Atlas launched the Creative Economy Workspace Initiative, which not only analyzes the data surrounding New York City’s available rehearsal and performance spaces, but increases their accessibility.

For larger companies, however, the question isn’t how to find space, but how best to use it. In our recent Meet the Members, Bedlam Theatre‘s John Bueche spoke about his efforts to democratize their space by changing the architecture of the audience/artist engagement. At the Bedlam Social Club, theatre space mingled openly with a restaurant, bar, and community spaces; a stage was placed in the parking lot to extend the theatre’s reach outside; and programming was curated by nearly 300 affiliated artists and community members. Bueche imagines literal artists-in-residence in the space, and ponders  tearing down the wall between the theatre and the lobby.

Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theater goes further, encasing itself in glass to remove the barrier between the building and the city it serves. Arena’s David Dower heralds “the way it mingles the audience, staff, artists, and visitors. Equalizes everyone in a public square.” The Center’s floor even slopes slightly as if to keep you moving and mingling.

This architecture of transparency can extend to the creative act itself. Suzan-Lori Parks is taking her position as Master Writer Chair at the Public seriously: she’s writing in the main lobby of the theatre for anyone to watch and ask her questions.  These efforts resonate with Chris Goode’s recent post on “what it might mean to be a public building, how public buildings and their users can learn from and be shaped by each other.”

Of course, no matter how much you open a building, it still needs walls to stand. After Jonah Lehrer’s TCG 2010 National Conference keynote address told the parable of the mop and the Swiffer, Halcyon Theatre’s Tony Adams wondered if our beautiful buildings were a 50 million dollar mop, asking if “”many of the problems that are frequently cited are as simple as a disconnect between architecture and performance?”

If location is theatre’s fate, architecture is our free will, and together they are the sum of our physical place in our communities. But whether you want to tear the buildings down or open them up, theatre’s relationship to space has become increasingly important. As politics evolves from the local to the viral, theatre remains the champion of the social local; the literal place where a community comes together. How are you exploring this current frontier?