Chapter 1 Key concepts – Paul Miskin

Chapter 1 Key concepts


As preliminary tactic concepts underlying ‘Street Theatre’ will be examined. The procedure will be to seek rather than prescribe definition.  This will help indicate the field of enquiry and introduce the analysis of the distinctive properties of Street Theatre.


Performance as an intrinsically flexible term

Marvin Carlson in his introduction to Performance mentions the observation of Mary Shrine, Beverly Long and Mary Hopkins, that performance is an `essentially contested` concept.[1] This is amplified by Carlson with a quotation from the originator of the phrase Gallie, that, [r]ecognition of a term as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly likely, but as of permanent potential critical value to ones own use or interpretation of the concept in question.[2]

Having accepted that `performance` is essentially contested, so of course are many other keywords in the title of this paper. This intrinsic flexibility of key words should be distinguished from other types of ambiguity. Intrinsic flexibility (the feature of being essential contested) is equally a feature of `theatre`, and  `street theatre` and also of the basic concepts associated with the theorising and discussion of Street Theatre like `space`, `place`, `politics` and, `the everyday`. A survey of these intrinsically flexible concepts leads to philosophical speculation. But a look at the simple ambiguities that exist inside the relatively uncontested fields of primary meaning is an essential preliminary.


simpler ambiguities of the terms `street` and `theatre`

These concepts are flexible tools that artists and theorists from a number of disciplines use to mark out their territory and construct their structures of meaning, but they are also ambiguous in more mundane ways. For instance, in a standard dictionary definition of `theatre` there are six main strands of meaning.  It is interesting to discover that the first two strands focus on the open air. They refer firstly to the open air Greek amphitheatre with banked seating and, secondly, metaphorically at one removed, to a natural or landscaped place with similar features. Latter strands of meaning refer to `theatre` as performance and to derivative meanings relating to real life as a performance, and in the case of the `theatre` of war, to `theatre` meaning; a zone or limited sphere of operations.[3] This last definition harmonises with Street Theatre as a TAZ or temporary autonomous zone in the Hakim Bey[4] sense. The site of a piece of Street Theatre is a ‘theatre’ in this sense. Like a ‘theatre’ of war it is an area or zone in which life exists and in which the interposed operations fuse with the lives of the people there. There is conflict and hybridising of regimes, between a pre-existent normality and a superimposed fictional world. Often the Theatre Company will take part in a site visit and will study the terrain, the exits and entrances, the overhead obstructions and irregularities of surface, the audience sight lines, the safe areas for pyrotechnics and other installations. This is done in a spirit not wholly different from Bismarck’s ‘holiday’ visits to Paris prior to his invasion of France. The term ‘invasion’ is often a valid description of the Street Theatre form.


`Street` and the ladder of abstraction

The discussion of theatre and performance is extensive but what is a street? In the case of the term `street`  we have an example of what G. Sartori calls the [un]fortunate situation in which we may have to perform across the whole ladder of abstraction with one and the same term`. This `ladder of abstraction` is a model for visualising the expansion of denotation/ extension and restriction of connotation / intension of meaning that occurs in progressively more abstract formulations of a concept, or concept family.[5]


That is a rather weighty definition but let us see how it works. Firstly, `a street` could refer to a relatively precise physical category. For example consider the following definition. `a thoroughfare, especially in a city, town, or village, that is wider than an alley or lane and that usually has buildings on either side and includes pavements`[6] Secondly, `the street`, when it is not referring to a particular street, or `the street` as contrasted with the pavement, encompasses a much wider notion, which includes most of the urban environment and the people in it, as in `the news on the street`. Finally, `street`is often used at the highest level of the ladder of abstraction, both as a prefix – as in `streetwise` – and on its own, (often as a marketing concept) in the title of a magazine or a perfume. In these latter instances, it invokes a kind of metaphorical essence of street. Clearly the perfume does not claim to make you smell of the street, so perhaps we should say it connotes a quintessence of street, a refined and packaged quality that style marketers have extracted, an odourless quality which is then somehow incorporated into the associations of an odour. The word street in the title of the perfume incorporates a rich blend of resonances. There is a democratic element as in the man on the street’ plus more than a hint of the stylistic transgression of the `the urban counterculture` [7] This is combined with a groundswell of the whole variegated hedonism of contemporary urban street life, leisure orientated sampling of authenticities of place and food, simulations and dissimulations of ambience and architecture, coffee specialities, food fetishisms, glitzy label shopping, leisure sex and sensual gratification. These elements and many more have simmered into a rich broth giving the word ‘Street’ not inconsiderable allures.


Usage of the term Street Theatre

Another way to unpack the meaning of a term is to examine its usage. If we look at the selection of performances in Bim Mason`s book Street Theatre and other Outdoor Performance we will find, as the title suggests, that much is included which is not performed in ‘a street’.[8]A street is often too small a location for the large-scale performances sometimes referred to as urban landscape art or `Grand Événement` and for a host of other out-door performance work.[9]   I include these performances as Street Theatre because it is common usage, especially in France.  The term ‘Street Theatre’ translates well. The expressions `theatre de rue` and ‘teatro de la calle’ ‘teatre al carrer’ ‘straatentheatre’  etc have the same scope as the English expression, and often in this usage performance is not distinguished from theatre. As G. Sartori says, `the wider the world under investigation the more we need conceptual tools that are able to travel`.[10]Street Theatre travels well both as a phenomenon and as a term.


There is much plastic art or dance work included under the title of `Street Theatre`.[11] The increasing amount of open-air work that is outside of traditional genres extends the denotation  of the term. One might be tempted to prefer the expression ‘Street Performance’, which already has a wide denotation, or ‘Street Arts’ which has a different but also a wide scope. The problem of ‘performance’ is that it includes skateboard demonstrations car racing etc, not to mention the disciplinary overtones dissected by Jon McKenzie[12] and ‘Street Arts’ tends to conjure up images of pavement painting, pick pocketing and prostitution. Though it is not impossible to rescue a phrase and `Street Arts` has become a very popular phrase with the producers associated with the annual Brighton Conference organised by South East Arts. With the proviso that what we are talking about need neither be theatre nor performed in the street I prefer the more international term ‘Street Theatre’.



Theatre ‘of’ the street and theatre ‘in’ the street

The French Street Theatre agent Andre Ginztburger in his introduction to Scenes de rue, made an important point, when he observed that there is on the one hand theatre of the street and on the other theatre in the street.  He quotes Natural Theatre[13] and Pesce Crudo as instances of theatre of the street.  As an instance of theatre in the street he quotes La Veritable Histoire de France by Royal de lux, which is arguably a hybrid of the two categories.[14] André Ginztburger’s distinction is a good one. This study intends to elucidate this distinction in some detail. In brief, the differences of stylistic presentation between theatre ‘in’ and theatre ‘of’ the street appear to be degrees of naturalism, contextualisation, and ontological status; that is to say in the modes of interaction and the types of interface between theatre and reality.  These points will be argued later from a variety of perspectives.



Many of the trapeze acts and other skill performances presently circulating the Street Theatre Festivals on rigs or the back of a lorry are clear examples of performance `in` rather than `of` the street. They are not derived from the street, they do not incorporate it, nor are they incorporated by it; and many are not theatre. Concerts in the park are arts ‘in’ rather than ‘of’ the open air.  There are many fine examples of this kind of work. But of more interest to the ontological argument of this study are the many cross genre hybrids which are fixed in location and expected in time and space but yet do still have some intrinsic connection with the open air street venues in which they are performed.




The Field by Strange Fruit and Chromarama by NWSI are both in the hybrid genre format of La Veritable Histoire de France. On the one hand they create a fixed theatre in the open air. The audience sits on the ground or stands and watches the show.  On the other hand the setting of the cityscape is essential to their effect. The artifice of these performances partly derive their integrity from the fact that they are not thought of as illusions of other worlds in a created by mirrors and hidden strings, and that you can see the sky the birds and the real stone buildings behind. The evening sky emphasises the ecstasy of flight in the performance of The


Field by Strange Fruit from Australia.


The ‘field’ is a zone of operations. And the performance appears to be about such a zone. It is an intensely stylised ‘dance’. The performers attached to their bending fibre glass rods move in a way which expresses simultaneously great freedom and great restriction. The Field symbolises any such field of human operations. The men in their office suits and the women in their dresses tilting towards and away from each other in various combinations hint at the relations within a group over a period of time condensed into ballet. The costumes allude to the formal restrictions of gender stereotyping, and social form afloat and dislocated from their context like Rene Magritte’s bowler hat. There is a story of movement. The opposite genders approach each other, and climactically link, which temporarily halts flight. There is a sense of chemistry at work, a working out of all possible permutations and valences before achieving ‘final’ combination followed by a sense that the final combination leads back into individuality, or free flight. This does not represent a pure or simple story narrative of human interaction. The ‘narrative’ is an archetype of life seen at a great distance and some how still touching in its individual encounters. The field is an oneiric field of human interaction. The whole effect is that of the waking dream. There is great precision of visual impression in the full three dimensional cinematic presentation that is Street Theatre. This special density demands a neologism and I shall refer to it as `hallucinomatic`. The swaying of the performers takes the heads of the viewers with it and the audiences heads swing. This shamanistic audience participation enhances the mesmeric effect of the music and ‘choreography’. This minimal performance by Strange Fruit, which is a hybrid of dance and theatre, and of extrinsic and intrinsic Street Theatre, is essentially something very simple. Almost you might say an archetypal performance and it touches something in the universal heart. The lack of artist technicians in boilers suits and safety helmets indicates that it is not classic ‘performance art’ though it could be. A good name for the genre has yet to be found but in simple practical terms it is a Fixed Site Street Theatre performance, so let us provisionally adopt that title for this popular new genre.


Another example of this genre is Chromarama by my own group Neighbourhood Watch Stilts International. In this performance, in Stockton International Riverside Festival the cityscape emphasises the notion of the performers as semi abstract statuary in the genre of public sculpture. The abstract concept of a field of operations or zone or ‘theatre’ (in the military sense) is as relevant to Chromarama as to The Field by Strange Fruit. I find it invidious to try and describe our own piece. But what we intended to offer was

  • Revelation by concealment
  • Abstract essences of narrative that allow space for dreaming and multiple interpretation
  • Abstract art
  • Austere dance (or movement of shape and form) and music combined in a timeline or sequence, which aims to create a formal or aesthetic satisfaction of a type analogous to that derived from the cadences and rhythms ebbs and flows of music.
  • The feeling of being in a world stripped of many of its assumptions, like one’s first day at a new school, to be achieved by fusions of the strange and familiar[15].
  • An experience of raw colour relieved of its depictive duties.
  • To touch the heart.


This fixed site Street Theatre performance Chromarama has been well received in many countries. But to judge whether it achieved these above aims you must see it for yourself


Street theatre and New Circus

Whilst the boundaries between Street Theatre and Circus may, in some instances, become blurred, it remains a workable distinction. The French organisation Hors les murs (meaning Open Air) publish Le Goliath guide -annuaire des arts de la rue, and l’ Annuaire guide -annuaire des arts de la piste. These two directories, one for Street Theatre and one for Circus, are about the same size and quite clearly and equally partition the Hors les murs’ open air arts database.


There are theatre groups, like my own group NWSI, which utilises circus equipment like stilts but which have little to do with Circus because prowess is concealed in the service of a representation or illusion or plastic happening. On the other hand in an aesthetic and surreal circus troupe like, Cirque Baroque the aesthetics and ‘surrealism’ are subservient to presentation of the prowess of the performers. A theatre group could represent a circus with elephants, performing dogs, and acrobats, but it would still be theatre because they would not be real dogs, elephants, and acrobats.



The categorical problem occurs when Street Theatre extends the notion of the mimetic. For instance a hybrid form In Concerto by Semola. This had a very dominant aesthetic presentation and actually included several classic feats of prowess: a person diving into a bucket of fire; an elegant aerial trapeze routine under a shower of fire and water; and, a spinner of plates. When they were embedded in non-circus imagery with a powerful soundtrack the circus becomes a symbolist metaphor, and the performance was generally accepted as theatre. Subsequent Semola productions Hybrid and Esperanto have progressively left Circus influences and enigmatic plasticity behind and moved towards surreal mimesis.  In Esperanto the form became fully dominated by the content, or the subtext, though of course without losing the very powerful and flamboyant scenic quality that typifies all Semola productions.[16]


In this chapter preliminary observations have been made on the meaning of the essential terms, underlying the following argument, and by looking at some hybrid genres we have begun to home in on a specific type of open-air performance, not Circus but Performance of, rather than merely in, the street. The next chapter will comprise a whistle-stop tour of the history of open-air performance and the social and economic factors involved in its evolution. This will be followed by an analysis of the genealogy of modern forms and current genres of street performance, in which Antonin Artaud plays a crucial role.  Broadly speaking the next two chapters aim to give an external and then an internal view of the origins of Street Theatre.






[1] Carlson, M. (1996) Performance. p. 1. and Strine, M, S. et al. (1990) Research in Interpretation and Performance studies, Trends, Issues, Priorities. in Phillips, G. & Wood, G. (eds.) Speech Communication: Essays to Commemorate the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Speech Communication Association.

[2] Gallie, W, B. (1964) Philosophy and the Historical Understanding. and cited in Ibid. p. 1.


[4] Hakim Bey 1985 T.A.Z The Temporary Autonomous Zone Autonomedia Po Box568 Williamsburgh Station Brooklyn,NY 112311-0586

[5] Sartori, G. (1970) `Faulty Concepts` reproduced in Lewis, P. et al. (eds.) (1978) The Practice of Comparative Politics: A Reader. pp. 240-250.


[7] COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY. updated edition (1994) p. 1527

[8] Mason, B. (1992) Street Theatre and Other Outdoor Performance.

[9] Laurent, M. (1995) Le répertoire des créations et des événements. p. 172.

[10] Sartori, G. (1970) `Faulty Concepts’ reproduced in Lewis, P. et al. (eds.) (1978) The Practice of Comparative Politics: A Reader. pp.230.

[11] The original text in French is as follows: `Il y a le theatre DE rue et il ya le theatre DANS LA Rue`. cited in Estournet, J. P. (1992) Scenes de Rue.  p. 1. (Original emphasis)

[12] McKenzie, Jon Perform or Else From Discipline to Performance New York Routledge 2001

[13] See Natural Theatre in the chapter on every day Life

[14] This celebrated spectacle La Veritable Histoire de France featured a metal pop-up book which weighed tons and arrived on the back of a lorry. The book acts as a portable theatre, with the metal pages turning as the action changes. This is Street Theatre ‘ in’ the street because it is clear that theatre is going to take place, and that the audience has to be there at a particular time, but it is also theatre ‘of’ the street, because so much about the performance is incorporated into and incorporates the context, and that is the important point. Also in a derivative sense the peripherals of the performance are ‘ theatre’. The arrival of the Oldenbergian book, the unloading with a crane.

[15] See ‘dissociatory force’ in the chapter on Artaud (see contents)

[16] A popular new theatrical form is the semi-enclosed show. This is normally in an open-air arena with seats in banks. Celebrated examples include Semola’s In Concerto and Hybrid; Theatre Group Titanic’s Titanic; and Visa Vis Company’s Central Park. These are theatre `in` rather than `of`the street. Fixed-site arena performances like these exemplify the movement of theatre from out of conventional venues. These brilliant and highly technical spectacles are unable to tour conventional venues, mainly because most conventional venues cannot deal with their technical requirements. In this study we may examine some semi enclosed arena spectacles when they are un ticketed or when they are a part of the repertoire of celebrated companies which predominantly perform theatre `of` the street.

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