The TDF Sweepstakes is open. Enter now!

An online theatre magazine

Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists

Translate Page

What Makes Site-Specific Revivals So Powerful?

Date: Nov 22, 2019

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things


This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Juan Michael Porter II, a dancer, teacher and playwright who's contributed articles to Time Out New York, Broadway World, HuffPost and TDF Stages.

Today's topic: The coolest site-specific revivals we've seen, wish we'd seen or would like to see!

Raven Snook: When I heard about the one-night reading of Fun Home that's going to be done at an Upper West Side funeral home on December 19 (starring an insane cast, including Tony nominees Jenn Colella, Caitlin Kinnunen, Kate Baldwin and Will Swenson!), it got me thinking about how mind-blowing site-specific performances can be. Some companies, like Third Rail Projects (a troupe I've written about many times), specialize in creating new site-specific work, which is awesome. But I'm even more fascinated by seeing how preexisting shows are transformed when they're done in specific spaces, like the concert of Ragtime on Ellis Island, or Violet on a bus, or Bare staged in a church. Did you see any of those?

Juan Michael Porter II: I've seen Bare in a tradition theatre as well as that production in St. John's Lutheran, and I think that revival added something special. On the one hand, my Jewish-Catholic upbringing was screaming, "Teenage sex dramas have no place here!" On the other, it felt so right and definitely tapped into sweaty thoughts I used to have as an altar boy.

If we're talking about a dream site-specific setting for a Broadway musical, I'd say that the obvious place for The Lion King would be in a petting zoo.

Raven: Ha! So many shows could work in a petting zoo -- A Year with Frog and Toad, Seussical, Cats, although that last one would probably be better in a cat café.

In addition to the Fun Home reading next month, I just heard about an upcoming site-specific revival of the musical Baby that will be done in a loft, which is appropriately '80s. And On Site Opera is doing an encore presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors in a soup kitchen featuring pros alongside a chorus made up of people who have experienced homelessness. Now that's site- and cast-specific!

I think in devising work for a specific space, artists are able to see the challenges and come up with solutions as they create the piece. But when you take a preexisting show and set it in a nontraditional space, that's got to be tough. You think, oh cool, I'll stage Starlight Express at a roller rink... actually wait, that might work (as much as that show works anywhere).

Juan Michael: I thought you were going to suggest the Chita Rivera/Liza Minnelli flop The Rink at a roller rink!

Raven: That sounds like a much better idea. Okay, let me try again. Say, staging The Little Mermaid at a pool. That brings up acoustic issues, the impossibility of set and costume changes, etc. For the record, This Is Not a Theatre Company did stage a show in a pool. But again, they devised the piece for the pool so they tailored it for the environment.

I read about Georgia's Serenbe Playhouse staging the musical Titanic on a lake -- they actually sank the boat! And the Sweeney Todd that played at the former Barrow Street Theatre a few years back originated in a London pie shop.

Juan Michael: When adapting a show for a particular space, I think a creative approach is key. Take Titanic: What if one staged it at a swimming pool with props such as blow-up rafts, toy boats and floaties? Isn't that part of what makes a site-specific revival sing, committing to the reality of the location? Maybe Chess would finally work if it were staged at the chess tables in Washington Square Park. Can you imagine "One Night in Bangkok" on those park benches? And for the soaring duet "You and I," the whole production could skip over to the crazy piano man and sing across from each other.

Raven: I do think restaging a show in a space that recontextualizes its message can be so powerful. Howard Sherman recently wrote about seeing a production of 1776 at Sing-Sing and how watching inmates perform the show gave it new meaning. While I've seen productions that are set in prisons -- Phyllida Lloyd's all-women The Tempest comes to mind -- there's a difference between pretending to be in a specific space and actually being there.

Years before To Kill a Mockingbird came to Broadway, a different adaptation was staged on the porches of Victorian homes in Brooklyn. The same company just did A View From the Bridge onboard the Waterfront Museum Barge in Red Hook.

Juan Michael: I once saw a revival of La Cage aux Folles at the gay karaoke bar Uncle Charlie's. Okay, so it wasn't a revival; it was like the entire bar decided to sing the entire score. It was magical and felt entirely right.

For me, site-specific revivals need to enhance a show. Mounting Rags in an abandoned fabric store, with its ghostly echoes of immigrants trying their hand at the American Dream, is different from doing Frozen at Dairy Queen. The most amazing site-specific works I've seen were able to overcome the limitations of their nontraditional settings by making the case that their surroundings were essential to the production. If it's just a gimmick -- as much as I love gimmicks -- I'm not sure that I want to sit through it.

That said, Cats at a cat café sounds brilliant. Had the revival done that, I'm sure it would still be running.

What are the coolest site-specific revivals you've seen? Tell us in the comments.


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Ragtime on Ellis Island. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

TDF MEMBERS: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre and concerts.