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Thinking Outside the Black Box

“Necessity is the mother of invention” has been a phrase that has hovered over my career, particularly when it comes to looking for venues to produce theatre. As the artistic director of theatre at Washington, DC’s Solas Nua, and as a freelance theatremaker, I’ve created a lot of shows in nontraditional spaces. I’ve cheekily coined the term “thinking outside the black box” to describe this work. In addition to renting traditional performing arts spaces, Solas Nua has produced in office buildings, bars, private residences, floating marinas, swimming pools, hotels, book stores, parking garages, the great outdoors, and more. Washington City Paper recognized that Solas Nua is “Washington’s finest purveyor of site-specific theater.” We do not have a building of our own, so this praise has been both a badge of honor for our inventive nimbleness and a reminder of the burden of necessity.

As the list of theatres closing their buildings continues to grow, and as smaller companies without permanent buildings struggle to thrive, I decided to write this how-to guide to share the wisdom I have learned (sometimes the hard way) about producing in nontraditional spaces. I hope this guide can be a resource for the future.  

Working in nontraditional spaces requires a reimagining of the approach to theatremaking.

Approach Venues Differently

Working in nontraditional spaces requires a reimagining of the approach to theatremaking. There’s no need to produce like a regional theatre company. Instead of approaching venues like a company looking to rent the space, think of it like a band booking themselves at a bar. You are providing a venue with awesome programming that the venue can’t provide on their own, activating their space and drawing an audience they wouldn’t normally attract. Ideally, this leads you to getting the space for significantly cheaper than a traditional venue rental of a performing arts center.

The summer after I graduated from college, I independently produced and directed Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in a warehouse space connected to a local bookstore. One end of the warehouse had two entrances and a small kitchen, which were the bare bones scenic requirements for McDonagh’s play. The bookstore often hosted musicians in their space but had never hosted a theatrical production. It helped that I had frequented the bookstore for a couple of years as a patron prior to asking the owner to host my production. I offered him a door split for the use of the space and told him it would be just like the bands that played on weekends. He was happy to try the experiment, so I didn’t have to pay any upfront money for the venue. That was perfect for me because I had zero dollars after graduating with my theatre degree—and I know other theatremakers are often in a similar boat!  

Activate Others in Your Community

When searching for good locations, take the pressure off yourself—you don’t have to be the only person looking for venues. If you work at a company, activate your board, company members, or volunteers. Remind them to think of possible performance locations even when you don’t have an upcoming show planned. If you are producing independently, a little more leg work might be required but all of these principles are the same. Use your community, be curious about your city, get to know a variety of locations and local businesses. Cities are built for people to gather, so if you’re looking for it, you’ll rediscover what and where theatre can happen in dynamic, new places.

Sometimes finding a location inspires the show, like my production of The Smuggler by Ronán Noone, which became my company’s biggest box office hit and landed Solas Nua as a “best of the year” reader’s choice pick in the New York Times. I had seen the premiere of the play on a proscenium stage in a festival and thought it was a great piece but not something I had plans to produce. When a board member suggested that I visit Sheldon Scott, the newly appointed director of culture at DC’s Eaton Hotel, Sheldon showed me Allegory, one of the coolest cocktail bars I’ve ever seen. This board member, who was experienced in brainstorming locations for me, remarked “maybe it's a cool place for a show?” This incredible location inspired me to imagine an immersive staging of The Smuggler with an actor making specialty drinks for the audience throughout the performance. The immersive setting caught DC’s attention, and before the show opened we had already sold out the entire run. And I only found the location because a board member suggested that I go have a drink there. Activating others to be curious about possible venues can open you up to successes you never would have had otherwise.

A bartender in a fedora speaks to a bar patron.

Rex Daugherty in The Smuggler by Ronán Noone at Solas Nua. Directed by Laley Lippard. Lighting Design by Marianne Meadows. Sound Design by Matthew Nielson. Produced by Rex Daugherty. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Reach Out to Experts

Park Rangers

Parks can be a wonderful performance space, and I have found great options by using Google Maps. I’ve looked at my city, zoomed into any green space, then switched to street view to check out the area. Obviously, you’ll need to gain the proper permit to perform in these parks. Here in DC, I’ve found great success by asking the park rangers and the Parks and Recreation Department for advice. They are experts at locations in your city. Tell them what you need and ask them if any park might be a good fit for what you have in mind. 

When we produced Deirdre Kinahan’s In the Middle of the Fields in 2021, we were looking for an outdoor space where audiences could be seated with ample social distancing. Director Laley Lippard and I wanted Malcom X Park as our first choice because it’s a DC favorite gathering place, with lots of foot traffic every day. After submitting the permit application, a park ranger called and told me that this park often became a mud pit in the spring and early summer due to the rain. We didn’t know that because we were location scouting in the winter when the ground was hard and dry. The ranger also told me that because it’s a popular site, he wouldn’t be able to give us all the performance dates we were looking to secure. But if we wanted to consider P St Beach, a seldom used park, he could approve the permit that day and give us all of our top picks for performance and rehearsal dates. P St Beach ended up being a perfect location for the show with green, rich fields of grass that evoked the play’s themes. I never would have thought about that site without talking to the rangers, who know the city parks way better than I ever could.

A series of lights illuminate three mirrors at the treeline of a forest.

In the Middle of the Fields by Deirdre Kinahan at Solas Nua. Directed by Laley Lippard. Choreography by Tony Thomas. Costume Design by Heather Lockard. Lighting Design by Marianne Meadows. Sound Design by Tosin Olufolabi and Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Produced by Rex Daugherty. Photo by Solas Nua.

Business Improvement Districts

Get to know the various Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in your city. They actively want interesting things to happen in their neighborhoods and can open doors for you with venues, city developers, sites, newsletters, and even financial backing. 

When we commissioned and produced The Frederick Douglass Project (co-written by Psalmayene 24 and Deirdre Kinahan) at Solas Nua in 2018, we knew we wanted to create a unique audience experience for this often untold story of how Frederick Douglass went to Ireland as a young man. My original idea was to do this show on a boat, and I began working with board member Dennis Houlihan to brainstorm how we could make such a big idea come to life. Dennis got in touch with the Navy Yard BID, which was along the Anacostia River, and ended up finding a fantastic option for a performance space—a ninety-foot floating pier jetting out on the river and overlooking Douglass’s historic home in Anacostia. The BID had helped developers recently renovate a boardwalk area along the water and wanted to draw more foot traffic to the neighborhood. They introduced us to the management companies, who gave us the performance space free of charge, knowing that we’d be bringing crowds to discover the new boardwalk. The pier gave the audience a 270 degree view of water, and the show performed on a floating deck. So the artistic intention of being on the water, symbolic of Douglass’s transatlantic journey, was still accomplished.

A performer stands on a block surrounded by dancers in a large tent.

Gary Perkins III and the ensemble in The Frederick Douglass Project, by Psalmayene 24 and Deirdre Kinahan, commissioned and produced by Solas Nua. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Choreographed by Tiffany Quinn. Scenic Design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Costume Design by Danielle Preston. Lighting Design by Marianne Meadows. Sound Design by Michael Winch. Produced by Rex Daugherty. Assistant Production by Rebecca Wahls. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Fringe Festivals

If your city has a fringe festival, past participants as well as the staff and organizers will have a wealth of experience finding storefronts or nontraditional spaces.

When DC’s Capital Fringe Festival was moving out of their New York Avenue building in 2014, my colleague Vaughn Irving and I approached them with an idea for an immersive zombie apocalypse show we devised called DC Dead. The building was perfect for a dystopian horror setting: winding passageways, water damaged ceilings, peeling wall paper, and long abandoned rooms filled with dust were just a few of the natural features of the venue. Capital Fringe executive director Julianne Briennza gave us the run of the building to take audiences on a zombie survival adventure armed with a Nerf gun and a pair of safety goggles. The show became so popular that we’ve now produced it in five cities. Julianne continues to be a pioneer for finding performance spaces throughout the District as she produces the festival every year. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Anyone looking to find creative places to stage a show should check with people or companies who are already working in this model.

A photo facing down a flight of stairs with a large ladder blocking the way.

A hallway the audience walked through in DC Dead. Created, directed, designed, and produced by Rex Daugherty and Vaughn Irving.

Larger Theatre Companies With Buildings

Requesting a larger company’s actual stage is a huge ask, and often not financially practical for small companies or independent productions. But there are other ways to utilize existing theatre buildings, thinking beyond the actual stage. The bar, the lobby, the rehearsal rooms, even the bathrooms—they already exist as a place where theatre-going audiences like to attend, so why not fill the entire building with innovative programming? Producing a smaller scale show as an auxillary offering to what is happening in the main theatre can lead to great results.

I recently produced a headphone audio installment from Murmuration, a Dublin-based theatre collective, in the lobby of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. We ran the show in the hours leading up to Woolly’s 8:00 performance, which was beneficial for my company because we got exposure to new audiences, and likewise our host at Woolly was happy to offer audiences a broader way to meaningfully engage with their building. Additionally, I produced the previously mentioned show, The Smuggler, in the newly renovated lobby bar at Round House Theatre. I pitched the play there as a way for Round House to show off their newly minted bar/cafe, keep audiences in their building longer, and provide a performance venue for my company. We ran the show between productions at Round House, so when tech was happening inside the theatre for Round House’s next show, audiences were in the lobby engaging with our Solas Nua production. The doors to the public would have otherwise been shut for both our companies, but programming our show during this time offered Round House audiences more engagement in the building as well as a venue for Solas Nua. Both of these experiences showcased how large and small companies can mutually benefit from collaboration and broaden their communities.

Shifting Landscapes

The need for site-specific work is becoming one of financial necessity, not just creative ingenuity. In the past ten years, the DC Area has lost the Logan Fringe Arts Space, Fort Fringe, Warehouse Theater, Flashpoint (which had a theatre, visual arts gallery, and dance studio), and H St Playhouse. There are more theatres set to close in the immediate future, and no current plan from the city for new arts venues to be constructed. While I’ve found success making my theatrical bed out-of-doors, DC city leaders need to believe and invest in affordable permanent homes for the arts.

I’m also torn between two realities. On the one hand, I’m romantic about bringing surprising, memorable experiences to places audiences don’t expect. On the other hand, I’m exhausted from the slog of reinventing new performance spaces. Last season at Solas Nua, all of our shows were hosted by fully staffed venues with box offices, front of house staffs, a cafe, and sweet, sweet air conditioning. The summer before, I lost fifteen pounds in a month setting up an outdoor show every night in the DC summer heat. How can I not do that again? And yet, I’m currently location scouting for multiple shows next year that I’m producing in nontraditional spaces. Not being tied to a building leads me to not only ask the fundamental artistic director questions of “why this play and why now?” but also “where this play?” That seemingly small shift of interrogation opens up worlds of possibilities.

Small companies are where risk and innovation are fostered, and they have a meaningful role to play for an industry currently searching to reinvent itself.

I think small companies have the most to gain from embracing nontraditional spaces. Nearly without fail, these site-specific productions have not only been the most financially successful for my organization, but they are also the shows that are still talked about amongst our audiences. Years after the final performances, the plays I’m asked if I will ever bring back are: “that one in the house,” “that one on the pier,” “that one in the cocktail lounge.” The full production budget for these shows was only what many large companies in DC might spend on the scenic design alone, but the productions have shown that artistry is priceless. The ability to bring productions out into the community is a unique strength that traditional brick-and-mortar theatres don’t have because they are locked into a geographical location. Furthermore, as large companies face the financial burden of keeping substantial overhead bills paid, itinerant companies can provide a new, flexible producing model. I deeply value our large institutions; they provide anchors for our artistic ecosystems. But small companies are where risk and innovation are fostered, and they have a meaningful role to play for an industry currently searching to reinvent itself.

This article isn’t an exhaustive resource. There are so many other amazing people and companies working in this model: Rorscharch Theatre, a fellow small DC company, has found great success by making “magic in rough spaces.” Anu Productions, an Irish company that exclusively makes unconventional work, blends location, theatre, dance, and visual art to create innovative exchanges with their audiences. There are certainly others. I’ve also written a longer guide that has more nitty gritty details like renting equipment, getting permits for locations, and many of the other aspects of producing that you’ll need to consider when in a nontraditional space. Hopefully these recommendations are helpful for reimagining and rethinking where theatre can happen in our cities. While renting out a fully staffed performing arts venue certainly has its benefits, thinking outside the black box can offer artists and audiences unforgettable experiences and can redefine our collective imagination of what, and where, theatre can be.

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Great points and tips to add to my list!

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