Site-specific Theatre With Giant Puppets

Sarah Brown - Fulbright Scholar, Playwright, Actor and Assistant Professor of Performance at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN U.S.A.

It is easiest to explain what site-specific theatre is by describing the methods of an actual site-specific project. Like any artistic endeavor, it should feel a little like “jumping into an abyss”—a phrase used to describe the daring adventure an artist must be willing to take when beginning the creative process. It means, of course, not controlling ideas but listening to one’s intuitive voice, letting images flow and, most of all, daring to journey into the unknown. It is, in many ways, this improvisational element that makes creating something from nothing so exciting and satisfying.

Imagine taking such a journey with a large group of people you’ve never met before, coming together with them to write a show in a setting that you’re all exploring for the first time, something like taking a group safari without a guide who knows the territory, exciting and exhilarating! It was like this the day we first explored the Havagazi Fabrikasi – site of the 150 year-old Town Coal Gas Factory here in Izmir, Turkey, where we’d been asked to create a site-specific show for this year’s Izmir International Puppet Days.

On December 20, 2013, Adam Yakin and I, founding members of The Dancing Ram Theatre Company in Jerusalem, Israel, met with a team of local volunteers: teachers, students and others from Izmir, to create a site-specific show for this historical space – using giant puppets! Adam Yakin is a veteran site-specific show artist, giant puppet maker, performer and director who is also head of carnival arts at Holon-Tel Aviv’s School of Puppetry. I am an actor, director, solo show performer and playwright who also teaches performance at the University of Memphis in the U.S.A., and so, our similar and divergent theatrical backgrounds have proven to be a fruitful combination. Together, our aim for this particular show, as with most site specific shows, was not to impose a story on the space but to uncover a story: allowing the space to “speak” to us, imagining the factory as it used to be and what the workers were like who inhabited it. Our group of volunteers had never created a site-specific show before – let alone using giant puppets to do it! This offered us a refreshing perspective, as we like to encourage ideas that we’ve not tried before based on the desires of the group. In our first hour together, we began by walking through the space, quietly, as a group and then individually in order to open our imaginations to the dreams that the space would deliver. We also asked questions such as, “What was it like to work in such a factory? How did the workers feel here each day?” and “What was the energy and spirit of it?” After taking our individual walks, we all shared the images that came to us and discussed the scenes we imagined happening in the space. We were also interested in drawing upon the colors and smells that may have enveloped the area when it was a factory, such as the blackness of the coal and, of course, the thickness of the smoke that once rose from the site’s enormous, dominant chimney.  There was no problem finding the drama and the possible emotions we could use to create a story here – added to the fact that almost every day we were in the space there were brides-to-be with their grooms taking photos for their special day. We clearly had a great deal of material to work with that emanated from both the past and present life of the space. We knew this was going to be an exciting process, and we proceeded with gusto.

In our first week of working, we performed improvisations in every corner of the site to help inspire scenes and also to understand where the action might take place. By the end of the first week Adam and I presented a story to the group based on everyone’s shared images and input – and by week 2, our group of creators began to make small dummies of what would become our giant puppet characters! We were most interested in the factory workers and in characterizing the coal and smoke as well. The constant presence of crows and seagulls also found their way into our puppet making. Our play would have to have it all!

Once the building of the puppets began, more ideas started flooding us and we wondered if we would have enough time to realize every brush stroke we wanted to make.

Probably, the most challenging part of this show was that it would be site-specific. Creating giant puppets that would somehow move about the space to tell a story inspired by the space is certainly a huge challenge. The artists of The Dancing Ram Theatre Company have been doing site specific shows with and without puppets for over seven years – and so this is not new territory for us, but each new project has its fair share of trouble-shooting that turns us, at times, into students of the art as well as experts.  

You probably know what giant puppets are, but what exactly is site-specific theatre?

In short, site-specific theatre can take place in any space, anywhere, outdoors or indoors: a hillside, an abandoned train station, an old house, a new house, an historical site or a gas factory; the possibilities are limitless. Site-specific theatre is set apart from traditional theatre not only because it does not have to take place in a traditional theatre space – but because it is created, in a way, by and because of the space itself; it is theatre inspired by the history, character or life of a certain place, giving a voice to it and further revealing its spirit. Sometimes it transforms the space into something it already suggests. For instance, last year The Dancing Ram Theatre produced a site-specific show in Jerusalem, called Citadel of Golems. The show was presented in a concrete courtyard and remarkably we all noticed that one of the buildings surrounding it strongly resembled a ship. We decided, therefore, to create a scene that addressed this mirage, encouraging the public to see this space in a new way as well as participate in the scene by boarding the “ship.” And so, in this sense, site-specific theatre can be highly participatory. The public itself influences the space because they are a part of it. There is no third wall in site-specific theatre – as the setting surrounds the audience. In other words, the public is on the stage throughout the show. A site-specific theatre audience is also sometimes asked to move through the space, seeing scenes played from different angles so that they feel a part of the action and more connected to the leading character—the space itself.  This is theatre that brings the public closer to a space rather than distances them from it, and because the space is real, i.e., used as it is and not fabricated, the public walks away with an added gift, the enhanced ability to re-imagine any space in their lives and the special stories these spaces might contain.

Certainly, site-specific theatre need not necessarily use giant puppets as the chosen performers. In fact, giant puppets, because they are limited in their ability to actually “do” things, are a challenging choice. However, they are magical and allow for dream worlds that can reveal a space in beautiful and unique ways. And so this is how we’ve chosen to reveal the story of Izmir’s Town Coal Gas Factory. Our hope is that when the public enters this space they will feel as though they’re entering a dream, full of the kind of wildness, surprise and meaning of which dreams are made.

by Professor Sarah Brown - Fulbright Scholar, Playwright, Actor and Assistant Professor of Performance at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN  U.S.A.