Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Guerilla theatre for dummies.....some do's and don

Melissa Dunne looks at the problems of performing in unorthodox spaces

There’s something irresistibly romantic about embarking upon a site-specific performance. It has glorious connotations to some theatrical yesteryear in which a company of players rolled into town, created a spectacle out of very little, tantalised the locals, before leaving nothing but memories in its place, but what about nowadays? Surely it should be as simple? In order to avoid others following this path of ruinous folly, I’ve decided to put down a few of the problems that can be encountered by an amateur company embarking on this kind of project, for posterity. For those wishing to attempt such a performance, but desiring to avoid the pitfalls, a short guide follows, to eventually be accompanied by a short series of books upon the subject, as well as a BBC series.

Be serious
Short of showing up at a random destination and bellowing away like Kenneth Branagh at Agincourt, it’s not going to be that simple. If any member of your production team holds the romanticised notion that working with a site rather than a conventional venue will be in any way, shape, or form simpler, there is only one response; Run, keep running, and don’t look back. Aside from the inevitable extra expense incurred, trying to advertise can prove to be a PR nightmare if the public’s imagination isn’t in line with the director’s ‘Vision’. Or, in other words, people that can’t be dragged kicking and screaming to a play at the best of times aren’t likely to be swayed by something even farther askew of the theatrical norm. For people with notions that you can bring a community together for the sake of art, please see above.

Performance licence
It’s amazing how quickly people forget that outside the domain of a theatre, you still need to obtain permission to take over a piece of public or private property. The absence of a theatre does not negate the need for a performance rights, (hence why so many people shrug their shoulders and decide that open-air Shakespeare really is the way forward), and necessitates the need for a performance licence. Such things can be acquired from the county council, but only after a health and safety inspection in which the men from the council point and laugh at the pitiful state of your chosen venue, until they realise they’re the only ones laughing, and hand you a list the size of a dole queue of adjustments that need to be made before the public can enter.

After a few hearty handshakes and slaps on the back, who wants to sully the business of theatre with those cynical pieces of paper? After all, are we not all men of honour who stand by our word? Well, as it happens, no. In fact, without a contract, not only will you not have a leg to stand on, but most likely you won’t have a venue a week before opening night. A curious factor when you consider that the people your dealing with, the council, local businessmen and the like, are well-versed in the grinding mill of bureaucracy, and should really know better than to think that one week before a show you can simply, ‘come up’, with an alternate venue. More to the point, they can also have difficulty grasping why you (and the cast, and the crew, perhaps the sponsors …) might get a bit, well, vexed, at the prospect of abandoning a project you’ve dedicated months of hard work to, usually without pay, recompense or thanks. Probably just think your being melodramatic.

It’s all very good creating a three-hour long sumptuous epic, with breathtaking dance sequences and a cool, contemporary score, but what about the audience? It’s easy to forget when creating a theatrical space that at one point an audience is (hopefully) going to have to occupy it, and that they might not appreciate paying to sit on the ground, or put up with a temperamental British summer all in the name of an ‘atmospheric’ performance. Many an audience member has scuttled off for a cup of tea at the interval and simply not come back, which does wonders for cast morale, if having to recite the bards finest in a gale force wind hadn’t finished them off already.

Chain of command
The director’s directing, the stage manager’s stage managing, but the production manager’s chasing totty like his life depended on it, meanwhile the production team ask each other if anyone’s bothered to get a performance licence, and the resounding shrugs and blank faces result in the rest of the shows budget being spent on toilet paper. Now I’m all in favour of guerrilla theatre, but as a matter of principal, guerrillas tend not to advertise in advance that they’re using council property to mount a production, or spend thousands on technical equipment which needs to be redeemed, which will prove to be a bit tricky if the council shuts down the production halfway through the run. In short, make sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to do.

And finally …
The deed is done, enough people have been hauled back from the brink of sanity to have a quiet drink in the pub, without twitching too badly that is. In a few months time, you may even be able to mention the name of the play, without them experiencing an apoplectic fit. Perhaps you’re even able to laugh about it, and in due course, the whole experience takes on a sort of, rose-tinged glow, after all, heh heh, it was an experience after all, and you did make some good friends and have a few laughs, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to … Stop right there. If experience has taught you nothing, (and clearly, if your following this train of thought, it hasn’t), then it should have shown you that such things are a once in a lifetime experience – and ought never to be repeated.

author:Melissa Dunne

original source:
07 February 2006


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