How A New Local Play Uses Boise As Its Stage

May 29, 2015

Boise Contemporary Theater's latest play is a secret. No, really – it's called "SuperSecretSiteSpecificSomething" for a good reason. (It's also called "S5" for short.) But what's less of a secret is the life it’s breathed into the Boise arts community, and the way audiences have embraced the show. The piece has sold out the rest of its four-week run, which ends June 6.

The positive reception has energized director and playwright Tracy Sunderland. Sunderland is a well-established BCT artist, but this is the first site-specific play she has created, along with two other playwrights.  

“That seemed really exciting to me as a storyteller," Sunderland says. "To think about, ‘Oh my gosh, I can move our relationship constantly if I simply walk the audience through a story,' as opposed to sitting them down and presenting it to them.”

Without giving too much away, the performance takes audience members away from their comfortable theater chairs and out into Boise's downtown. Everyone is given a set of headphones equipped with a volume button, and an audio track starts playing in their ears. Sunderland narrates the story, which looks at five love stories in various stages. Audience members meet the actors along the way, getting to hear the characters' thoughts without taking off their headphones. Strategically placed actors make motions in coordination with the audio tracks.

Audience members receive these envelopes at the beginning of the play, which capitalizes on being "super secret."
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

In some ways, the play is a love story about Boise. The city becomes a character in the experiential piece, rather than staying fixed and in the background as in traditional theater. Boise State University theater history professor Leslie Durham says this is a unique attribute of site-specific works, which have their roots in minimalist sculpture from the 1960s.

“Place isn’t just neutral," Durham says, "but it’s really an important meaning-maker in an audience’s experience of a theatrical piece.”

Durham says by taking the performance out of the theater and turning convention on its head, this BCT crew is taking a bold and experimental step.

“They’re embracing some freedom, they’re asking more of their audience, but from the looks of that sold-out run it seems that people are quite willing to go with them,” Durham says.

Sunderland says creating such a work is a lot like filming a movie from different angles, with the audience having some control of the shots as the story unfolds in front of them. There are several recurring themes in the piece.

“[The play is about] remembering, looking back, whether it’s about love or thinking about when they were kids or simply being alive and appreciating this great place that we live in,” she says. 

One of the refrains includes a simple exclamation of “I love this city.” After one evening performance, audience member Jackie Lucero reflected on that idea.

“I feel like there were three things going on in my head," Lucero says, "of just experiencing Boise and experiencing the now but also the opportunity to take back and reflect and be in my own head and where I was at a time. But also experiencing the director’s story, or the writer’s story.”

Dan Brockman attends BCT plays regularly, but this is the first site-specific play he's ever seen. He left impressed with how the performance wove in real-life occurrences.

“The way that they played with chance happenings, the couple waving goodbye to whoever was on that bus," Brockman says. "It was like, ‘Wow, that’s not staged – that’s just happening in the middle of everything else that’s happening.’ It works. It’s fantastic.”

The play uses several refrains of ideas throughout the piece; "repetition is meaning" is one.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

Sunderland says she’s been overwhelmed with the reaction from her audience, and the appreciation they have for hearing an honest love story in an era in which artists rely heavily on irony.

“We like to parody stuff always," she says. "I think it’s very challenging to do something earnest and I had to sort of walk the walk. You know, to say if I’m really interested in doing something really earnest then I got to get it really bone-deep connected.”

She says there have been some people who have expressed anxiety before seeing the show, not knowing exactly what they’re in for. But Sunderland and her fellow playwrights took that concern and incorporated it into the play. What resulted is a soothing refrain of "I'll take care of you."

For fans who haven’t had a chance to catch a performance of S5, Sunderland says someday she would like to create another site-specific play.

Boise State Public Radio is a sponsor of the performance.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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