Of late, I have of become a little weary if not wary of site-specific performance. Or rather, what I find myself critically resistant to is the increasingly prevalent idea that performance taking place outside of conventional theatres is necessarily more ‘political’ than anything that might take place within a traditional theatre set-up. Moving theatre into public spaces affords no guarantee of a political thrust or impulse, just as performance in a theatre venue does not, I would argue, preclude politicising possibilities. And on a more practical (comfort) note, I confess that I am more tempted by the lure of a plush, red-velvet seat, however shabby, than I am by the idea of a walking ‘performance’ (currently very much in vogue up in Cumbria it would appear).
However, if there was one site-specific performance this summer that totally won me over it was Teatro Da Vertigem’s Bom Retiro 958 Metros that I was fortunate enough to see in São Paulo, Brazil. (To see images of this performance click here.) 958 meters is the distance spectators cover in the show which is sited in the Bom Retiro garment-making district of the city. I understand the district has histories of different immigrant and ethnic communities labouring side-by-side (not always harmoniously) in the textile industry. While language was a barrier for me in terms of fully comprehending the social make-up and complexity of the district that had informed the creative process and practice of the theatre company, I was enthralled by the arresting images that the group made in this city space – images that needed no translation as they captured and critiqued the instantly recognizable narrative of global-capitalist consumerism. So, for example, in a shopping mall, shuttered up after a day’s trading, the audience follow a woman consumed with desire for an elusive, glamorous, red dress; a black maid dusts shop windows with their chorus-styled line-ups of fashion-adorned mannequins; street vagrants rattle the mall’s protective railings and a deformed, robotically performed mannequin desires to be perfectly formed and employed in a shop window.
From the shopping mall the audience moves back out into the streets, moving on and through a dizzying array of images (the skill of the performers in rapidly setting up one image, moving to create another, shifting between theatrical lighting, street lights and shadow, was truly astonishing). If the performance paused for a bit of story-telling that I couldn’t follow in Portuguese, I fell back on feeling the ‘character’ of the streets. There were moments when I couldn’t be sure if interactions on the street were staged or for real, but then let this kind of speculation go, feeling the experiential tug of site blurred with ‘performance’. Other times, real-life did play a part, most memorably when passing taxi cabs, whose drivers were so distracted by the sight of two women performers wrestling the clothes of each other’s backs in the middle of a street-crossing, looked as though they might crash.
There are strong gender lines in the show: women become visible as the fashion-victims of consumerism; broken mannequins haunt the streets and pile up in huge garbage container; a fragile bridal/angel figure, flitting in and out of sequences, sometimes precariously balanced on a street wall or lit-up in a high-level, shop-floor window, eventually appears to be rocketed away to another planet. Most arresting of all was the recurrent, female figure of a Bolivian garment worker at her sewing machine. This figure haunted the performance, showed up in shop windows and backrooms, and, in the closing sequences, which took the audience into an abandoned theatre and up on to the stage to look back into the auditorium, she appeared out of the darkness, multiplying into an ensemble of machinists, stitching away at the invisible fabric of capitalism.
That the closing sequences of the performance involve going down into the bowels of a rundown theatre, arguably speaks volumes about Teatro Da Vertigem’s creative-political commitment to performing the city, a commitment that underpins the company’s twenty-year history under the directorship of Antônio Araújo. Such a group would almost certainly contest my opening gambit about the politicising possibilities of theatre contained within theatre spaces, but including an abandoned theatre in this site-specific performance also invites the much larger, age-old questioning of theatre’s socio-cultural ‘place’, wherever and however it is staged.
Of course that’s right, in a sense. Performance in the street isn’t necessarily ‘more political’ than performance in a theatre. This is particularly evident if something is ‘site-specific’ just because it’s fashionable (surely in those terms it’s even a bit old hat by now?). However, your lovely review here demonstrates the way that placing performance in the street brings that street into the frame and in that way, potentially more is at stake in terms of the theatre responding to the fierce, uncompromising and less regulated spaces of the everyday. But work can respond to that, or attempt to get around it, or take possession of a space and effectively turn it into a different kind of theatre.
Does the theatre have certain values sewn into it? It probably does and this could compromise the politics of the work – but it depends on the work.
Wrights & Sites (my company with Hodge, Persighetti and Smith) has become interested in architecture because it began to feel too easy to pass through places ‘critiquing’ or ‘revealing’ them as performance ghosts, and leaving them unchanged and unchallenged eventually – of course it is true that performance does change space, but in a temporary way that might be easier to be evaded or negotiated around. I must say that the idea of the walker/performer/architect has proved much more challenging for us, which probably proves our point…