Tabitha Benton-Evans weights the advantages of alternative staging locations
Image(s): University of St Andrews
St Andrews has a thriving performing arts scene, but the town’s small size means that it is often a challenge for the various student, amateur, and professional groups to find venues to perform in. For example, from September to December 2019, there were eighteen student theatre productions in St Andrews, along with ten more from other amateur groups or professional theatre companies. Of these twenty-eight productions, fifteen took place in the Byre Theatre (the town’s only professional theatre), ten in the Barron Theatre (the university’s black box theatre), and three in the StAge (the Club 601 space in the Students Association). If a group wishes to perform in St Andrews, these appear to be their choices of performance space, and The Byre is especially contested. Student performances are being pushed increasingly earlier in the semester due to competition from professional companies, which can lead to a compromise in quality (or, in one memorable case, an entire opera being learnt and rehearsed from scratch in three weeks).
Of course, each theatre has both benefits and drawbacks. The auditorium of the Byre has the most stage space, audience capacity, and the best lighting, sound, and set capabilities, as well as an orchestra pit – a vital consideration for those wishing to perform opera or musical theatre. However, it is by far the most expensive to hire, and groups wishing to perform in the Byre often have to book their slot over a year in advance due to crowded schedules. The audience seats are also fixed, so groups are limited to proscenium arch staging. The StAge, The Barron, and The Byre Studio are flexible enough to allow for more unconventional stagings like theatre in the round, but they have a small audience capacity and limited tech capabilities. Overall, there is a sense that students and professional companies seem to have to compete for performance slots in these traditional venues. Furthermore, if a group wants to either earn a profit from ticket sales, use sophisticated tech, or include an orchestra, they are limited to proscenium arch-based staging.
A possible solution to this problem is site-specific performance: performing theatre in spaces other than traditional theatres, in unique locations adapted for theatrical performance. Dr. Gay McAuley, professor emeritus of drama and theatre at Royal Holloway, sums up the purpose of site-specific performance as “to reject the dominated space of traditional theatre buildings in favour of found spaces in which new relations between performer and spectator can be explored”. These can be used to recontextualise a canonical work (e.g. performing Hamlet in a Danish castle), emphasise a political or social message (e.g. Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$, staged by Women's Project in the lobbies, escalators, and bridges of New York's World Financial Center) or exploring and deconstructing traditional actor/audience dynamics through immersive and promenade theatre in alternative spaces.
St Andrews, a town over 700 years old with a rich cultural and religious history, is full of unique, atmospheric spaces that seem primed for theatrical exploration. Indeed, several groups have already taken advantage of these alternative venues: in 2016 students performed George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the darkly ironic setting of Balgove Larder Steak Barn, as well as Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in an immersive experience in the historic Cambo House. Site-specific performance has also been used as a tool for opera in St Andrews: in 2019 Byre Opera, the University Music Centre’s opera company performed Riders to the Sea and Cupboard Love in the Eden Campus Biomass Energy Plant, where the location adds another dimension to the opera’s exploration of our relationship to the sea. We have seen that site-specific performance can be used to great creative effect in St Andrews. Settings that emphasise the social commentary of plays like Animal Farm and An Ideal Husband give audiences a point of entry to classic theatrical works, and performances like Riders to the Sea allow audiences to connect more deeply with their location. However, site-specific performances like these may now serve a purpose that is more than purely artistic.
In the midst of a global pandemic, when traditional theatrical spaces are closed and the conditions under which performance can take place are constantly changing, adaptability is crucial, and open-air, non-traditional performance spaces seem the key to theatre’s survival. In St Andrews, the wide range of striking, historic open-air spaces could become alternative theatres: the cathedral, the beaches, and the multitude of public parks and gardens all have the potential for socially-distanced dance, theatrical and musical performances. The exact practicalities of live theatre may remain unknown at the moment, but site-specific open-air performance appears to be a way for performance to occur while complying with safety measures. Ultimately, transforming the unique locations of St Andrews into creative theatrical spaces may be an excellent way of not only adapting performance to these challenging times but also engaging more fully with the fascinating place in which we live.