A year ago, presenting a play over Zoom was uncommon, if not unheard of; today, Zoom has perhaps become the most popular platform for experiencing theatre. But as the world remains in the throes of a pandemic that has taken over 2.4 million lives, theatre-makers are utilizing nontraditional spaces to perform safely for live, in-person audiences, creating site-specific art that inspires us, challenges us, and lifts us up.
One of these playwrights is Katie Lindsay, whose A Walk in My Neighborhood took its audience on just that. The piece, which Lindsay describes as “an improvisation out of necessity” sought to guide audiences “toward finding belonging and connection to the land, while simultaneously interrogating what it means to belong to land that was stolen from Indigenous people.”
Adam Szymkowicz also found himself adapting out of necessity. He wrote The Parking Lot in an attempt to “still make theatre safely,” but admits, “I try to justify it and make it seem organic in the text, but a parking lot is so unglamorous.” Nonetheless, successfully creating live theatre within the past year is a remarkable achievement.
“I believe necessity and creativity go hand in hand,” Taylor Sklenar says. She collaborated on Alice in Quarantine: A Drive-Thru Adventure with Tiffany Antone, Allie Costa, Sharon Goldner, Jen Huszcza, Mildred Inez Lewis, Charissa Menefee, Amanda Petefish-Schrag, Micki Shelton, Cynthia Wands, and Jennie Webb. “Living in a small town in Iowa, there aren’t too many theatres around to work with. Rather than seeing that as a deficit, I think it’s more productive to consider it an asset, a fuel for creativity and an opportunity to find partnerships in the community.” She adds, “sometimes it’s better to find a ‘stage’ within the world because you get to engage with people who are outside of your normal theatre circles.”
Antone, who sought to create a “pandemic-proof” play with Alice in Quarantine, notes that “traditional spaces limit who can [and] will be in the audience” and praised “site-specific work… that which takes place outside and which allows people to maintain social distancing.” Other works include The Front Porch Plays by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, who admits that “the pandemic opened us all up to a whole new world of possibilities.”
Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez, whose play Quince was performed last August at the People’s Garden in Brooklyn, point out that outdoor, site-specific theatre is not so much an ‘innovation’ as it is a return to tradition. “Both of our cultures have been creating art outdoors for thousands of years,” they said. “We were both raised in immigrant communities: Mexican, Greek, and Cypriot. Growing up, our cultural events were so specific to their locations: parks, churches, backyards, ethnic event halls, and ancestral towns and villages. The idea that art has to be done in a designated ‘art space’ pretty much ignores all of human history and builds barriers and hierarchies within the arts.”
Petefish-Schrag, who grew up working with her family’s puppet troupe, was raised with a similar perspective: “It was just a given that any production we wrote and built was going to have to function in a library one day, a church parking lot the next, and maybe a barn the day after that. The work didn’t just need to function in those spaces, it needed to resonate. And I learned those spaces we entered already had significance and connotation to the audience we would meet there.”
Her collaborator, Sharon Goldner, points out that “theatre has been around for some 2,500 years” and is “ever evolving, inspiring, giving forth insight and awareness and vision.” And in present, many playwrights are examining “what it means to create inclusive spaces,” Webb says. “It’s only natural that [we’re]… asking ourselves to expand what a performance space might look and feel like.”
Many playwrights hope to see a continuation of site-specific work after the pandemic. “Traditional theatre spaces have the potential to produce great work,” Tsivicos and Vazquez said, “but their physical structure, their walls, literally block out the outside world.” The creative partners note that “creating dialogues in every way is a huge part of how we work. Dialogues with communities, spaces, organizations, artists and the collective state of society. It’s about deeply listening, and not centering yourself.” Looking at the incredible work these playwrights have created in the midst of a time of great stress, anxiety, and loss, the future of theatre, one that is diverse and accessible, certainly seems hopeful.