In 2004, during a performance of Collage Dance Theater’s A Hunger Artist in Perino’s Restaurant in Los Angeles—once a popular hangout for Hollywood movie stars; now landfill—we were served champagne, seated randomly at booths, and fed egg-salad sandwiches as we chatted with tablemates. Then, during the performance, we moved from the opulent lobby into the kitchy bar, to the ballroom, into the mirrored dining room, and finally walked through the kitchen and out the back door.

Half an hour into the piece, one woman had had enough. She ran from the dining room into the lobby and starting pounding the door (it was locked, for security reasons) and screaming to be let out. After a few fretful minutes, she got her wish.

The most engaging site-specific performances I’ve had the privilege of partaking in require their audience to participate, and while that participation can be extremely fun, gratifying and even exhilarating, it can also freak people out.

What makes something truly site-specific?

As a scholar of and frequent participant-observer in site-specific performance, I’ve long maintained that audience engagement—beyond that of simply sitting or standing and watching a performance—is one of the fundamental characteristics (even criteria) of a work’s site specificity. In other words, a work’s depth of engagement with the site in which it’s taking place determines whether it’s site specific, or instead more simply site-based.

By depth of engagement, I mean the extent to which the site has inspired and determined the work: how much research did the choreographer conduct on the site’s history, economics, architecture, and social and cultural relevance, and how has that research been translated into the choreography, text, media, costumes and music that are intertwined in the work? By depth of engagement, I also mean the extent to which the work allows the performers and the audience to interact with the site itself. Are the performers dancing in response to the architecture or spatial configurations of the site? Does the performance move through a space, taking the audience along with it? During the work are audience members expected to not only observe but also to participate by traveling through the site, and interacting with each other and/or the performers?

Compare the response to A Hunger Artist with the reactions of the participant-observers in Marylee Hardenbergh’s annual Solstice River, on the Mississippi River and in its environs around the Stone Arch Bridge. Whole families partake of the piece, playing “Where’s Waldo” as dancers in brightly-colored unitards appear on condo balconies, building roofs, and the endless bridge of the Guthrie; or as the river goddesses in white gowns process down the bridge and to the lock; or Native American dancers perform versions of sacred rites on the river banks below. There’s a scramble to help with the banners that connect the people on the bridge with the dancers on the levees below. As the long blue swath of material (representing the river) unfurls along the bridge, audience members of all ages (from 3 to 93) grab hold and gleefully make waves or cavort underneath.

How do you make it safe for your audience?

So what makes a site-specific performance “safe” for participation? A director or choreographer can help by making clear, and plain, in marketing and online materials the extent to which audiences may be expected to participate. But the rest is really up to the individual.

Here’s a primer you can share with your audiences on how they can prepare for site-specific performance, to ensure a true and authentic engagement in an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their life:

  1. Do some research. If you will be walking through a site, investigate (beforehand) whether it’s dilapidated and dirty, or clean, and wear appropriate footwear and clothing. (It’s never a good idea to attend a site performance in heels and black tie!)
  2. Look for cues and clues. What’s going on in various areas of the site? A musical performance? Is someone pacing along the edge of the pool? Where are the dancers? Where are you allowed to go and what should you stay out of? Don’t be afraid to test the boundaries (within reason): if you’re not supposed to be somewhere, someone will let you know!
  3. Get close. Don’t be afraid to go face-to-face with the performers; they expect it (site performers are a singular breed). Don’t be afraid of running into them; they’ll get out of the way (well, they should). If you feel like nodding at them, smiling at them, or otherwise engaging with them, give it a try.
  4. Watch how the performers interact with the architecture, the furniture, each other. How does what they’re doing relate to the space they’re in?
  5. Follow the performers. They’re taking you somewhere new.
  6. Be bold. Be the first one to venture into a new space or sit on the floor or grab ahold of a prop or accept something from a performer—the others will follow.
  7. Talk with the person next to you. You’re not alone in this.
  8. Laugh. Play. Engage.
  9. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, to bump into people, to explore.
  10. Don’t be afraid: period.

Then congratulate them. They've become a participant-observer, a performer even in a work of site-specific performance.