I was in a disused World War II bunker under Dalston Junction, trying to convince Christine – writer, Artistic Director, and (most importantly) my new boss – that this bunker could, like, you know, really be Iraq.
Or, for that matter, Gaza. This could be where Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho was held hostage after implicating powerful politicians and businessmen in a child pornography ring. This could be any bombed-out, deserted, haunted, flooded, squatted, house of horrors from any war zone, natural disaster or interplanetary attack from the dawn of the industrial age to the imagined post-apocalyptic future. This could be the scene of the crime, the site of an unspeakable atrocity, or the secret safe house where plans and ideas and revolutions are born.
“It’s a blank canvas” I say, “with such potential”
A gust of wind slams the heavy steel doors shut. I put my foot in something slimy, let out and involuntary scream, and drop my torch.
“Can you see it?” I say.
At this point, we can’t really see anything.
Christine Bacon and Noah Birksted-Breen have been developing our next major production On the Record for the last six months. The play tells the stories of five journalists from around the world who have risked their lives to challenge the official versions of the truth – real people, speaking their own words. Months of meticulous research, thousands of miles travelled, weeks of workshops at the National Theatre Studio, and now a humid morning in a damp basement in Hackney. Christine and Noah are not impressed.
Site-specific theatre has, of course, been around for donkey’s years. Plays created for a specific venue or location, or written in response to a site or location, have a noble heritage. At the end of The Oresteia, Aeschylus transports us to Athens, in the shadow of the Acropolis, exactly where his first audiences would have been sitting. In medieval England, the trade guilds of a city would subsidise Mystery Cycles – plays that took in 10 or 12 sites or “stations” around town and that would make incongruous references to the significance of drapers or saddlers in the life of Christ. The history of the playhouses and theatres is often indistinguishable from the plays created for them. The prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V makes apologies for the “wooden O” of the Globe Theatre, and we can see the reciprocal relationship between the changing fashions and innovations in theatre-building, stagecraft and the plays themselves. With the proliferation of the black box theatre space from the 1960s, we see an increasing trend towards the “site-generic”, where the play can be set just about anywhere.
I approach site-specific theatre with a degree of scepticism. In the last year of theatre-going I have been blindfolded, masked, cloaked and otherwise disoriented in all manner of abandoned warehouses. I have stayed up all night, played ping-pong, been splashed, disinfected, hugged, made drunk, sung to, sung with, chased, and (not infrequently) disappointed. And yet I strongly believe in the power the immersive, the pervasive, the subversive; the genius of the place. I have created site-specific performances myself, from large-scale aerial dance pieces on the facades of public buildings, to circus acts in urban precincts, to edgy fables under railway arches. I know that sometimes as an artist one has to respond to a locale – I for one can barely walk by a clock-tower without being overcome with the desire to strap a troupe of Frenchmen to it – and also that as a producer/pragmatist, one sometimes has to put the show on in the proverbial barn. Or, as might be the case, a disused bunker in Dalston.
So would a site-specific or immersive production be right for iceandfire? We tell powerful stories – heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching stuff – and so we let the stories speak for themselves. Frills and fireworks might seem in bad taste, and so we shy away from tawdry theatricals and the bag of conjurers’ tricks that all we theatre-makers have up our sleeves. But as I walked around this bunker – uncomfortable, afraid, my nerves jangling – I couldn’t help but wonder if we could take the audience on a journey, if there were things we could make them live through and feel, things we could show the audience, rather than just tell them? And this was a truly exceptional site. Apart from the bunker there’s a beatnik cafe, a modern art gallery, a secluded stretch of street that looks very un-British, a roof garden with incredible views out of the city, an endless tangle of staircases and fire escapes and corridors. A whole world, potentially. You could lose yourself in it.
Emerging blinking from the bunker I gesticulate enthusiastically.
“And this outside space, couldn’t you just, you, know be in a car park, in Ramallah or Ashdod or… somewhere?”
“We are in a car park” replies Noah.
They’re still not convinced.
Sara Doctors, Creative Producer