The Why and How of Site-Specific

From Then to Now

In 1985, as a third-year student in the graduate management program at the Yale School of Drama, I proposed to the chairman of the department that instead of writing a thesis, I wanted to start a theatre. “What kind of theatre?” he asked. “A site-specific theatre,” I responded. At the time, no one knew what that was; audiences identified theatre companies with the buildings they occupied. Site-specific meant no building—the streets and neighborhoods would be the stage. When I got the okay, off I went, and En Garde Arts began. 

My inspiration for wanting to start a site-specific theatre came from my unending passion for public art and its ability to reach new audiences by virtue of its accessibility. During my undergraduate art school days as a sculptor and performance art student, I studied notable projects like the Spiral Jetty, a massive spiral walkway carved out of the great salt lake in Utah, and the Cadillac Ranch, brightly painted Cadillacs buried nose first in the ground in Amarillo, Texas. I also created my own public art projects out of a fascination for how art can impact anyone who comes into contact with it.

However, visual art proved to be too much of a lonely craft. Most visual artists are solitary creatures, and I realized I was too much of a people person to create in isolation in a studio. I transitioned to the theatre, where the artists are fundamentally collaborative. While it was a different genre, I held onto my commitment to use the arts to reach the uninitiated. 

an actor onstage

Orestes. Photo by William Rivelli

Shortly after I graduated from art school, I began to work as a performer in Anne Bogart’s company. In her early work, Anne created a series of pieces called The Emissions Project where we performed in disused and abandoned spaces, like an empty detective’s office on 42nd Street and an empty school on the Lower East Side. Anne’s highly choreographic visual aesthetic, in which she used the city as her stage, enabled audiences to see their surroundings with fresh eyes. This theatrical form broadened the tools of storytelling to bring the environment directly in conversation with the performers, creating its own visual poetry. This was what I wanted to do artistically. Forever.

En Garde’s first show in New York City was in 1986 on the façade of a then-empty condo on Chambers and Greenwich streets. Called Naked Chambers, and written by the now-late Dick Beebe, the story was about a mountain climber who became an urban art thief, who climbed in and out of the apartment windows of this twelve-story empty condominium with paintings on his back. Each night we placed thirty folding chairs in the streets that looked up at the building so that the audiences could watch the story unfold. In the windows were videos of actors playing out scenes of alleged tenants. One night, the president of Actors’ Equity, Alan Eisenberg, came strolling down the street, looked up at the building, looked at me, and immediately realized there was nothing legal about this endeavor from a union perspective. Seeing that the show was free and there was no money, he laughed, shook his head, and kept walking. I was immensely relieved that I never heard from the union.

My inspiration for wanting to start a site-specific theatre came from my unending passion for public art and its ability to reach new audiences by virtue of its accessibility.

Together with the playwrights and directors at En Garde Arts, I developed a storytelling aesthetic that was not just about the spoken word but that used “place” as a key element in the narrative. Cobblestone streets and empty meat lockers in New York’s meatpacking district, which harkened back to the nineteenth century, became the perfect backdrop for Reza Abdoh’s Father Was a Peculiar Man (1990). The statue of JP Morgan, at the intersection of Wall and Broad streets, was a perfect symbol for Jonathan Larson’s musical JP Morgan Saves the Nation (1995). Director Tina Landau loved the twisted metal pier that jutted out over the Hudson River beside the Penn Yards, which she envisioned as a symbol for the House of Atreus for Chuck Mee’s adaptation of Orestes (1993)—and every night Jefferson Mays, the then-unknown actor playing Orestes, took his life into his hands as he climbed up to the top of this precarious yet magnificent structure.

The artists working with En Garde Arts all created highly public and highly accessible works that enabled audiences who had never been to the theatre before to come. At the Towers Nursing Home for Another Person is a Foreign Country written by Chuck Mee and directed by Anne Bogart, kids from the nearby projects arrived popcorn in hand, thinking they were coming to see a film, and were joined by local residents from surrounding apartment buildings. When we were on Wall Street, office workers stopped to catch the show on their way home from work. These new audiences were awakened to the magic of theatre, some of them for the very first time. And those who were used to seeing theatre in traditional settings saw their city with new eyes.

actors onstage

JP Morgan Saves the Nation. Photo by William Rivelli.

Behind the scenes, the producing involved forming broad-based constituencies to get the necessary approvals. We grappled with real estate developers, the police department, the fire department, the buildings department, community boards, neighborhood associations, and more. They all, wittingly or unwittingly, became partners in mounting these wildly ambitious productions.

For example, the land we wanted to use for Orestes was owned by Donald Trump, and his executive vice president, Andy Weiss, was afraid our audiences would walk down to the banks of the Hudson River and, in a drunken fury, jump in and drown. Alas, Andy didn’t know the difference between audiences coming to an experimental version of a classical Greek play and those attending a rock concert. But he finally said yes on behalf of the Trump Organization under one condition: we had to build a fence from the entrance to the property on 60th Street all the way up to 65th Street, where we were performing. After wondering how I could possibly afford to execute something like that, I had an idea. I walked over to the nearby housing project and yelled, “Anybody want a job?” Out of the woodwork swarmed eager teenagers who followed me down to the waterfront, and we set about building the wall. (On opening night, the only person who walked inside the fencing was Andy.)

In the eighties and nineties, when we produced these large outdoor site-specific pieces, New York was riddled with crime and filled with unoccupied warehouses and vacant landmark buildings. Empty theatres lined 42nd Street. En Garde Arts’s projects made a positive statement about the city by bringing these structures to life and to light. Our audiences responded to the adventure of it all and went where no one expected they would go. Together, we were all involved in uncovering the deeper meanings and mystery of the spaces in New York City.

Our audiences responded to the adventure of it all and went where no one expected they would go. Together, we were all involved in uncovering the deeper meanings and mystery of the spaces in New York City.

After thirteen years of producing these large-scale, mostly outdoor productions throughout Manhattan, I became a mother of twins. Three babies—En Garde Arts being one of them—were too much for me to manage, and I folded the company in 1999 and moved away from New York to run a global division for Disney, which enabled me to support my family. When I returned to New York City—where I had come of age, which was a spiritual and theatrical home for me—after almost a decade, I decided to re-launch En Garde Arts. But the city had fundamentally changed. The World Trade Center had fallen and the threat of terrorism affected our lives. Rapid real estate development cannibalized many of the magical spaces that were standing empty. Climate change has made it foolhardy to think about running an outdoor show for four weeks.

actors and musicians onstage under a screen

Basetrack Live. Photo by Ed Lefkowicz

While En Garde Arts productions are rarely site-specific now, other companies have entered the space; these days, site-specific theatre, as well as site-responsive, site-adaptive, and immersive, are part of the theatrical lexicon. But as production after production after production pops up in empty storefronts or warehouses, I can’t help but think that the impulse to do this kind of work has shifted from introducing new audiences to the theatre to adapting the existing audience’s relationship to the performers for a more participatory experience.

The purpose of all of En Garde Arts’s work is to spark conversation, build community, and combat isolation. And while our methodology has changed, our goals have not: I am still committed to finding ways to bring in new audiences through deep-seated community engagement. Basetrack Live (2014), a multimedia production about the impact of war on veterans and their families, went to Fort Hood military base and performed for 2,500 soldiers; Wilderness (2016), a documentary theatre piece about teens struggling with mental health issues, is now crossing the country and is being performed by and for high school and college students. Next winter, Undocumented, an immersive community celebration of music and dance, will tour New York’s five boroughs, bringing together theatre audiences with immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in a variety of spaces from black box theatres to community halls.

We are living in a country that is more divisive than anything I’ve seen since the sixties, and it is more important than ever to continue to persist. And while creating live experiences has become harder as we struggle for attention in a media-obsessed world, there is no replacement for a group of people gathering together to experience live storytelling. It is exciting to see how so many theatre groups are experimenting with the relationship between actors and audiences, investigating what happens when we abandon the fourth wall. And it is clear the hunger for this kind of discovery and experimentation is still alive and well.

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I am in the process of writing a book.  It's not only about En Garde Arts but also about my journey to the West Coast to run a global division for Disney and my return to New York to relaunch the company.  We live in very different times now but there is and will always be a great deal to accomplish producing risk taking theatrical work.  

Really enjoyed this post. In addition to great memories of those shows, it also brought to mind Isadora Duncan, Allan Kaprow, and Richard Schechner, and why we don't have more books about site-based work in the US. It seems UK folks have been writing about site-work way more. Makes me grateful for Bertie Ferdman and her recent book, "Off Sites". There is hope. ha! Now, who's gonna write that En Garde Arts book?

So glad to read  this article, Annie, and to relive some powerful EnGarde moments...and look forward to your future in our beloved city.

I was on a bleacher in the parking lot of an abandoned, dark, lugubrious building, watching actors flinging themselves up and creeping down fire escapes, peering out of windows, shouting down to diners at an elegant picnic table caught in intricate conflicts.. Thanks Anne Hamburger for mentioning that amazing theater adventure at "the Towers Nursing Home for Another Person is a Foreign Country written by Chuck Mee and directed by Anne Bogart." Twenty years later, that odd evening still resonates. The article makes me wonder why. I think what stays with me is a visceral connecting of people creating life on, in and around the physical city building... conscious flesh and blood creatures crawling over and playing in their city... the shock of experiencing dramatic action burst alive, engaging, dining on the decaying bricks and broken windows of abandoned urban left overs.