A stray crack of thunder aside, the uncertain weather had held through a recent Saturday production of Boise Contemporary Theater’s SuperSecretSiteSpecificSomething—that is, until the production reached its final outdoor location, when heavy rain began to pour through a fiery sunset.
Variable conditions are a fact—even the point—of site-specific drama. Liberating the stage from the confines of the theater exposes audience and actor alike to all kinds of vagaries, generating interesting tension or promoting a sense of realism. Unfortunately, the weather was the most tense, realistic part of S5.
Here’s how S5 works: Attendees gather at The Owyhee in downtown Boise, where docents divide them into groups of 10-15 audience members. The groups are given sets of wireless headphones and the docents lead them on foot to various locations around downtown. While moving from place to place the prerecorded voice of creator, director, writer and narrator Tracy Sunderland calls the action through the headphones, drawing attention to an old penny on the sidewalk or alerting the audience to two lovers sitting on a nearby park bench.
Audio techs follow each group, manning an iPod containing all the play’s sound—switching between Sunderland’s injunctions to look, think and feel, and the actors’ own prerecorded dialogue, which plays as they pantomime their scenes. The actors typically come in pairs and represent the different phases and forms of love.
Watching the action while hearing it narrated through headphones is disorienting, but the docents are there to remind you not to remove them. Site-specific theater is about making theater more organic, but in the case of S5 that experience is muted by the technology—rather than coming across as spontaneous and real, the action came canned and digitized.
Characterization and plot are low on S5’s list of priorities. The dialogue illuminates little about the characters themselves, who are stand-ins for various sentiments. It isn’t until nearly the end of the play that a narrative begins to form. That’s when the audience is led to a small living room that has been assembled in a downtown building, and two lovers are having an argument.
That plot resolves itself nearby, outside, where the quarreling lovers have reconvened and gaze wistfully at the Boise foothills. The audience is finally given permission to remove the headphones and encouraged to sit at a long table, at the end of which stands a real-life Sunderland, who further explains the action the audience has just seen.
In the case of that recent, stormy production, the closing action took place in a driving rainstorm. Each raindrop caught the setting sun’s light like a golden bullet and the foothills were painted in vivid green, purple, brown and shadow. The world has texture, nuance and variability, but rather than capitalizing on those attributes, S5 put headphones over audience members’ ears and treated its characters as shorthand for feelings.