Context is Everything

West Side Story is one of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s most famous creations. Set in New York during the 1950s when racial tension was at a high between the incoming Puerto Rican immigrants and New York residents, this show’s themes of race and co-habitation are still playing out today. But is it really relevant to watch this story in a traditional theatre? As part of Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary celebrations, they are trying out something different . . .

WSS Carnegie Hall

This new, short-run production of West Side Story falls under a bigger project to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York institution, Carnegie Hall. The Somewhere Project aims to unite people of all the city’s boroughs through a series of performances based around the iconic West Side Story song ‘Somewhere’ with the highlight piece being a full performance of the whole show with a starry cast led by Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect). But this production isn’t taking place in a theatre on Broadway. Nor is it taking place on the Carnegie Hall stage. It has been moved into a warehouse in Queens.

Inspired by the original inspiration for the musical, the Knockdown Centre was chosen as this location was much more connected to where the story might have come from in the first place. It’s not the traditional theatre. It’s not a traditional symphonic concert hall. It’s a grungy, run down space where audience members could actually see the battles between the Sharks and the Jets taking place.

But why uproot a production which has been performed in theatres all over the world for an old warehouse?

It comes back to audience experience. Our entertainment options today lend towards the experiential. We don’t like to have a barrier between us and our entertainment, we like to be able to influence what happens, create our own distinct experience and be surrounded by action. The warehouse setting lends itself to these expectations.

The stage runs down the centre of the old factory with audience seating running around the length of the performance space (with a sizeable space for a sizeable orchestra) giving every audience member a different perspective of the action. With only four rows available at any point around the stage, all audience members are sitting right in the middle of the action. And then there is the context . . .

If you are seeing Oliver!, Sweeney Todd or West Side Story in a theatre, you are going to leave at the end of the experience walking out into a bright, modern and sleek city environment. This will be one of your last impressions before you hop in your car or onto a train to return home. And it comes as quite a disjoint to what you have just experienced. What if you left the theatre and stepped into a world that reinforces the show’s setting? Not only would the theatrical experience continue, but it would leave a lasting impression that isn’t removed by the bright lights of Times Square.

Context is important in any marketing activity and the more surrounding context you can give your audience, the more powerful the experience will be. Seeing a small add on the side of a web browser is quite a different experience to stepping inside a 360 degrees branded pop up experience. Why not do the same with theatre?