A look at site-specific and promenade theatre by Jonathan Petherbridge, Artistic Director of London Bubble

A high flying and influential Chief Executive of a regional theatre once explained to me that they weren’t interested in producing site specific work in their town, as “we’ve got a perfectly good, well equipped theatre, we don’t see the point in presenting theatre anywhere else.” Adding that their priority was to “fill the black box with young people”.

When, from time to time, one of London Bubble’s promenading audiences gets rained on I ask myself the same question. Then I watch as the audience and actors are drawn closer together in a shared contract to give and receive come what may, and I am reminded of the power of theatre in its purest form.

Two events conspired to change my perception of theatre.

Event 1.  Many years ago some friends and I formed Theatre Camel. Our first production was an adaptation of Gormenghast, the second was a commission to produce Gone With the Wind for the Druidstone Hotel Festival on the Pembrokeshire coast. When we got to the festival we found only one stage, high, well endowed with lighting and amplification equipment, a long way from the audience and framed by the Atlantic. As with so many raised stages it was not conducive to interaction on a human scale twixt player and punter. Necessity forced us to think on our feet and we noticed that the hotel and surrounds vaguely resembled the deep south – the beer tent could make a passable hospital tent, the cliff path might frame the soldiers return, the outbuildings could pass as stables and the fields, yep looked like fields. I’m not sure we moved the audience during the action (physically), or that it was great theatre, but I did notice a difference in the quality of audience attention. As people moved around to gain vantage points, stood on chairs or sat on the floor to let others see, the physical commitment brought with it an emotional investment. The audience was more like a group of supporters, they felt they were involved in the action, they wanted it to work, they weren’t being ignored and they were up for it.

Event 2.   Bill Bryden’s original production of The Mysteries at the Cottesloe. By chance I watched from the balcony and had a bird’s eye view of how the performers’ movements affected the tightly packed audience. From above it looked exciting but uncomfortable, hot and slightly unnatural. The action was mainly on the same level as the audience, surely making it difficult for people to see, and turning one’s neighbour into an obstacle. (A problem that the bird people at De La Guarda cracked, although they should have looked at providing after show neck massages). But the Cottesloe audience crackled with the excitement of being an integral part of the event. And the ebb and flow of audience and actors was in itself a new element – highlighted in the way a simple stare from Brian Glover would cause spectators to stand back and open up a narrow traverse space (well it was Brian Glover).

During the 80’s the form gained a name, “Promenade Theatre” – not a very accessible term for audiences but a useful label for practitioners. But though open- air theatre was becoming more commonplace the nearest thing to outdoor promenade had been Deadwood from Lumiere & Son, but this inspiring show did not attempt to carry a spoken narrative.

As artistic director of the Dukes in Lancaster I was offered the chance to see if this was possible. Not only did Lancaster have a track record of innovative theatre, and an audience that were loyal but not regenerating, it also had a great park, a place that generations of Lancaster children had played in. It has two lakes, wild bits, landscaped bits, a bowl laid out as the turn of the century council chamber in which each councillor had planted a tree representing themselves, and stunning views across Morecambe Bay. At the Duke’s we were looking for a way to develop our audience, to shake up their ideas of theatre, to attract new users and we wondered if an outdoor promenade in Williamson Park might be worth trying.

On one level the experiment was successful. This year, the Dukes will embark on their 19th summer promenade. The season has been as long as 10 weeks. It has attracted huge new audiences of all ages. The capacity of the park well exceeds the capacity of the theatre. But some Lancastrians say the experiment in challenging people’s perceptions of the institution of theatre has itself turned into an institution, partly the result of not occupying other sites and challenging perceptions further. Furthermore it has drawn resources away from the Playhouse – a perfectly good and intimate, black box.

I now work with the London Bubble. During the summer months we tour promenade shows to outer London parks, woods and green spaces. We have recently completed our fourteenth season of walkabout theatre and have developed various techniques to deal with the weird challenges that promenading throws up. These range from flexible design solutions (I particularly liked Titania’s bed on wheels that belched pink smoke a it hurtled through the trees, or down paths and popped up wherever a scene was located), to ways of interacting with dog-walkers.

Soon after London Bubble made the move from tent theatre to promenade we commissioned some audience research, part of which was conducted through discussion groups. This emphatically confirmed that audiences value the promenade experience, not only as a theatrical, but also as a communal, experience. Focus groups talked enthusiastically and in detail about the audience, and the environment as part of the experience. Attending a promenade performance seems to be an event, a whole experience more like attending Elizabethan or early Greek theatre, or Carnival. A typical Bubble promenade audience will be extremely mixed. Containing old and very young, some in buggies, from all classes and backgrounds.

London Bubble also occupies indoor spaces undertaking projects such as the “Lower Depths” at the old Clink Street Vaults – a damp and atmospheric catacomb that drew the audience physically into the world of the dosser and required us to dispense hot soup in the interval to counteract the cold.

I don’t think this form is right for all theatre, and London Bubble regularly makes work for conventional theatre spaces. But for some pieces the action of placing a story in an environment that is neutral – that belongs more to the children who play there in the daytime than it does to the theatre company – is healthy. It ventilates and makes accessible an art form that has become separated from the vast majority of society. There are opportunities and benefits for performers, technicians, marketeers and, undoubtedly, audiences.

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