What is Environmental Theatre?
Environmental Theatre, as envisioned and developed by Richard Schechner, marks a significant and transformative movement in the landscape of modern theatre. This innovative approach to theatre-making, which came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, represents a radical departure from conventional theatre practices.
Schechner, a seminal figure in the American avant-garde theatre scene and a respected academic introduced Environmental Theatre as a groundbreaking form. His vision was to challenge and ultimately dissolve the traditional boundaries that separated performers from spectators and blurred the lines between theatrical space and narrative.
At its core, Environmental Theatre is about reimagining the very essence of what theatre can be. It seeks to redefine the spatial dynamics of performance, moving away from the fixed and often rigid confines of traditional theatre spaces such as the proscenium arch stage. Instead, it embraces a multitude of spaces – whether they be found in urban warehouses, open streets, or amidst natural landscapes – thereby expanding the possibilities of where and how theatre can occur. This spatial redefinition is not merely a physical alteration but a philosophical one, seeking to create a more dynamic and interactive relationship between the space, the performers, and the audience.
Schechner’s conceptualisation of Environmental Theatre also fundamentally reconsiders the role of the audience. No longer are spectators confined to the passive role of observers; in this new theatrical form, they are active participants, often directly engaged in the fabric of the performance. This participatory aspect of Environmental Theatre breaks down the conventional ‘fourth wall’, fostering a sense of immersion and direct involvement in the theatrical experience.
Environmental Theatre is characterised by a high degree of collaboration and improvisation. It typically involves a collective creation process, where the boundaries between actors, directors, designers, and even audience members become fluid. This approach allows for a more organic and spontaneous evolution of the performance, where the unexpected becomes an integral part of the experience.
Another defining characteristic of Environmental Theatre is its integration of various art forms. It is not uncommon for these performances to blend elements of dance, visual art, music, and even new media technologies. This multidisciplinary approach not only enriches the sensory experience of the audience but also allows for more complex and layered storytelling.
Environmental Theatre is often marked by its thematic exploration. Schechner and his contemporaries frequently chose to delve into contemporary issues, particularly those with a political or social dimension. This reflects a broader view of theatre not just as a form of entertainment but as a powerful medium for reflection, critique, and potential change in society.
Environmental Theatre, under Schechner’s guidance, was a bold experiment in expanding the boundaries of theatrical expression. It represented a movement towards a more immersive, participatory, and experientially rich form of theatre, one that sought to engage audiences in profound and often challenging ways. Through its innovative approaches to space, audience interaction, collaborative creation, and thematic exploration, Environmental Theatre has left an indelible mark on the world of theatrical arts.
Environmental Theatre Conventions
6 Axioms of Environmental Theatre / Richard Schechner
50 Performance Locations for Environmental Theatre
Creating a self-devised play in the Environmental Theatre style allows high school students to explore and interact with their environment in innovative and meaningful ways. The choice of location is crucial in Environmental Theatre, as it directly influences the narrative, the audience’s experience, and the overall impact of the performance. Here are some possible environments that high school students could consider for their self-devised play:
- School Courtyard or Garden: Utilising the school’s outdoor spaces can provide a natural, open setting that contrasts with the traditional enclosed theatre space.
- Classroom: An everyday classroom can be transformed into an unconventional performance space, allowing the audience to view a familiar environment in a new light.
- Library: The quiet and academic atmosphere of a library can be a unique backdrop for a performance, with the potential for interactive narratives involving books and learning.
- School Gymnasium: The expansive space of a gymnasium offers a blank canvas for creative staging and movement-based performances.
- Local Park or Playground: These public spaces can add an element of unpredictability and interaction with the general public, enhancing the performance.
- Historical Building or Local Museum: Using a space with historical significance can add depth to the performance, allowing the narrative to interact with the history and ambience of the location.
- Cafeteria or Dining Hall: This everyday social space can be repurposed for performance, exploring themes of community, social interaction, and daily life.
- Auditorium Stage, but Reconfigured: Using the traditional stage but altering its arrangement (e.g., performing in the round, using the aisles) can challenge conventional theatre norms.
- School Hallways or Corridors: These transitional spaces can be ideal for short, immersive experiences, where the audience moves with the performance.
- Nearby Forest or Wooded Area: For schools near natural landscapes, these environments can provide a rich, sensory backdrop for storytelling.
- Local Community Centre: Engaging with a community space can help students explore themes relevant to their local community, fostering a connection between the performance and its audience.
- Unused Spaces in School (e.g., Basement, Attic): These less-frequented areas can create an atmosphere of mystery or discovery, suitable for certain narrative themes.
- Nearby Beach or Riverbank: If accessible, these locations offer a natural, serene backdrop that can be effectively used for storytelling.
- Bus or Train Station: The transient nature of these spaces can offer a dynamic setting, reflecting themes of journey, movement, and change.
- Local Farm or Orchard: This setting can be particularly effective for narratives connected to nature, agriculture, or rural life.
- Abandoned Building or Warehouse: These spaces can lend an air of mystery or historical depth, suitable for more dramatic or thematic plays.
- Shopping Mall or Market: These bustling public spaces can be used to explore themes of consumerism, social interactions, and modern life.
- Car Park or Garage: The utilitarian nature of these spaces can provide a stark, minimalist backdrop for performances.
- Local Church or Religious Building: These spaces can offer a rich historical and cultural context, suitable for plays exploring themes of faith, community, or history.
- Art Gallery or Exhibition Space: Utilising a space dedicated to visual arts can inspire creative staging and thematic exploration.
- Sports Field or Stadium: These open spaces are ideal for large-scale performances and can be used to explore themes of competition, teamwork, and sportsmanship.
- Local Historic Site or Monument: Integrating a play with a site of historical significance can add depth and context to the performance.
- Boardwalk or Pier: For schools near the coast, these locations can provide scenic backdrops and a connection to maritime themes.
- Botanical Garden or Conservatory: These locations’ diverse flora and natural beauty can be a serene and visually stunning setting.
- Factory or Industrial Site: If accessible, these environments can offer a unique backdrop for exploring themes related to industry, labour, and technology.
- Local Café or Restaurant: These everyday social spaces can be transformed into intimate performance areas, exploring themes of food, culture, and community life.
- Under a Bridge or Tunnel: These often overlooked urban spaces can provide an interesting acoustic and visual environment for a performance.
- Local Zoo or Animal Park: This setting can be intriguing for exploring themes related to nature, conservation, and human-animal relationships.
- Historic Cemetery: A cemetery can provide a sombre, reflective atmosphere suitable for narratives dealing with themes of history, memory, and the passage of time.
- Riverbank or Lakeside: Natural water bodies can offer a serene and contemplative setting, ideal for plays with themes of nature, reflection, or journey.
- Amphitheatre or Outdoor Stage: Traditional performance spaces can blend natural and theatrical settings when used inventively.
- Municipal Building or Town Hall: Using a civic space can add a dimension of community engagement, exploring themes of governance, public service, and civic duty.
- Skate Park or BMX Track: These youth-centric spaces can be effective for exploring contemporary youth culture, movement, and athleticism.
- Historical Train or Ship: If accessible, these modes of transportation can provide a dynamic and historically rich setting.
- Mountain or Hilltop: A play set on a mountain or hilltop can offer breathtaking views and a sense of scale, ideal for epic narratives or themes of adventure and exploration.
- Local Fire Station: This community-focused setting can help explore themes of safety, bravery, and community service.
- Parking Lot Rooftop: This elevated urban space can provide a unique cityscape backdrop, suitable for contemporary urban narratives.
- Greenhouse or Nursery: These locations, filled with plants and life, can be used to explore themes of growth, nurturing, and the natural world.
- Local Bakery or Kitchen: A kitchen or bakery can be an intimate setting for stories about family, tradition, and the sensory experience of cooking.
- Quarry or Mine (if safe and accessible): These dramatic landscapes can provide a stark, powerful backdrop for narratives exploring themes of industry, nature, and human impact on the environment.
- Local Courtroom: A courtroom setting can be used for plays dealing with themes of justice, law, morality, and societal order.
- Public Swimming Pool: This communal space can be a playful and visually engaging setting, suitable for stories about community, leisure, and personal challenges.
- Abandoned Theme Park or Fairground: These spaces can offer a sense of nostalgia and surrealism, ideal for exploring themes of joy, memory, and the passage of time.
- School Sports Field at Night: Utilising the field after hours can create a unique and expansive setting under the stars, suitable for a variety of themes.
- School Science Labs: These can be used for immersive experiences, especially for themes related to science, discovery, or mystery.
- School Cafeteria After Hours: Transformed into a performance space, it can be a setting for a variety of themes, from high school dramas to more fantastical narratives.
- School Rooftop Garden or Green Space: If available, this can provide an urban oasis setting, suitable for intimate performances.
- Local Bookstore or Library After Hours: These spaces can offer a quiet, contemplative atmosphere for immersive and narrative-driven performances.
- Unused Classroom Transformed into a Themed Space: A regular classroom can be dramatically transformed with props and decorations to fit the theme of the play.
- School Computer Lab: For plays with themes of technology, digital culture, or futurism, this could be an intriguing setting.
Environmental Theatre Productions Involving Richard Schechner
Each of these productions under Schechner’s direction exemplified the principles of Environmental Theatre and contributed significantly to the evolution of modern theatre. They challenged conventional notions of narrative, performance, and audience interaction, leaving a lasting impact on the landscape of avant-garde theatre.
- Dionysus in 69 (1968):
- Adaptation and Innovation: This production radically transformed Euripides’ “The Bacchae”, not just in staging but also in narrative structure. The text was adapted to resonate with contemporary themes, particularly those related to authority, rebellion, and freedom.
- Immersive Staging: The staging was designed to immerse the audience fully, eliminating traditional boundaries between the actors and the audience. The performance space was fluid, allowing actors and spectators to interact freely.
- Themes of Sexuality and Power: The play delved deeply into the exploration of sexuality, power dynamics, and human psychology, topics that were particularly resonant during the late 1960s.
- Legacy: “Dionysus in 69” became a landmark in American avant-garde theatre, widely discussed for its bold approach and its impact on the perception of theatre’s role in society.
- Makbeth (1972):
- Reinterpretation of Shakespeare: Schechner’s “Makbeth” was a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, “Macbeth”. The production was notable for its non-linear narrative, which deconstructed the original text and presented it in a fragmented, yet cohesive manner.
- Audience Interaction: In keeping with Environmental Theatre’s ethos, the audience was not just a spectator but a participant, often directly involved in the unfolding of the narrative.
- Ritual and Physicality: The production emphasised ritualistic elements and physical theatre, using the body as a primary tool for storytelling and conveying the play’s dark, mystical themes.
- Commune (1971):
- Response to Contemporary Events: “Commune” was a direct response to the socio-political climate of the early 1970s, especially the Vietnam War and its associated civil unrest.
- Collective Creation: True to the spirit of Environmental Theatre, the production was developed collaboratively, with a strong emphasis on improvisation and collective decision-making.
- Political and Social Commentary: The play served as a commentary on communal living, political ideologies, and the concept of individual versus collective identity, reflecting the tumultuous era’s broader social and political conversations.