TOPICS > Arts > theater

Theater on a canal? Avant-garde productions immerse audiences, cut costs

January 4, 2015 at 5:31 PM EDT
Site-specific theater, a growing art form that immerses audiences into productions, has become a tool for some producers to save money by defraying pricey traditional staging. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green reports on a show playing from a particularly unconventional site in Brooklyn, New York.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

ZACHARY GREEN: Come to Times Square in New York City, and this is a site you’re likely to see: people lined up at the TKTS booth to buy discount tickets to popular Broadway shows. There’s a reason this line is so long. Going to see a play in the theater-mecca of New York is an expensive proposition.

The average cost of a Broadway ticket is now over $100. You can chalk that price up to the high demand to see certain shows, but also to high production costs. And in New York, one of the biggest line-items in a play’s budget can be summed up in one word.

JOHN GOULD RUBIN: Space. I think space is the toughest one.

ZACHARY GREEN: John Gould Rubin is a theater director and producer who has been producing theater in New York for almost 15 years. He says that—even working off-Broadway—the actual performance space often makes up the biggest cost in any production’s budget.

JOHN GOULD RUBIN: Getting a theater is the most expensive expense. That’ll be $4, $3, $4, or $5,000 a week.

ZACHARY GREEN: A week?

JOHN GOULD RUBIN: Yeah. A week. For the– for the theater that you’re performing in.

ZACHARY GREEN: The cost of space isn’t just driving up ticket prices. It’s also driving artists and performers to some unlikely locations in the search to find cheaper or even free spaces to perform in.

The EPA added the Gowanus Canal to its list of Superfund clean-up sites in 2010, and it says the Canal is one of the nation’s most seriously contaminated bodies of water. So it’s not the first place you might think of for recreation, let alone putting on a play. But that’s exactly what a group of local performance artists did in October.

For three weeks this past fall, the Gowanus Canal was transformed by night into the Styx—the river that runs through the underworld in Greek mythology—as part of a new play called “The Dreary Coast”.

JEFF STARK: I tend to work with sites. And I tend to look for sites that will on their own engage an audience.

ZACHARY GREEN: Jeff Stark is a New York-based artist who devised “The Dreary Coast”. The play follows Charon—the boatman in Greek mythology who ferries souls through the afterlife—as he encounters demons, gods, and the dead on his trip down the river.

CHARON: You are not my friend, Hermes.

ZACHARY GREEN: For just $35, audience members could not only watch from the boat, but also take part in the performance itself, dressed as dead souls being shepherded through the underworld. The play is part of a growing art form called “site-specific theater”—audience-immersive productions that are built around the space they’re performed in.

We spoke with Stark during the run of his show, and he said the reason for this is partly about economics.

JEFF STARK: One of the things that’s great about our show is that we actually don’t have to spend any money on a theatre. We are out working in public space.

ZACHARY GREEN: This isn’t the first time Stark has done this kind of work. His first site-specific play—“I.R.T.”—was performed in 2009 on the New York City subway. He followed it up with “The Sweet Cheat”, a play about a post-apocalyptic New York that was performed in an abandoned warehouse north of the city.

And he’s not the only one making site-specific theater. In fact one of New York’s more popular long-running shows is “Sleep No More”—an avant-garde retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, performed in three adjoining warehouses in Manhattan designed to look like an old hotel. John Gould Rubin has also used the site-specific format in his own work.

JOHN GOULD RUBIN: I did it because it was much less expensive and because it would endow the audience, which– with an entirely different experience. You’re in an experience if you go to the theater which is one that you’re accustomed to.

But if you go to– a place, the address of which you’ve been given that morning by a telephone or an email, you’re already primed for an unusual experience. And so, it is economics. But it’s also– it’s also a way of endowing the audience with an unusual experience.

HADES: We are not here for you. We are here for them.

DEMON: Mazel Tov!

SHARE VIA TEXT