As a flutist, I sometimes play in unusual spaces that are not your ordinary concert hall: abandoned factories, hangars and mountains are spaces I’ve performed in (or on). Even though they are exciting and inspirational spaces and performances, they have one common denominator: they are planned and are expected by the performer. There are, however, situations where the performer is asked to play in a space he or she has never been in or where unexpected situations arise in the space. This could be a part of the performance or just coincidences. There are also occasions when performance spaces are ad hoc creations which arise from a need to play and interact.
Composer and erhu-player, Cheong Li, recalls one such impromptu space.
‘There’s a market street in Hong Kong called Ap Liu Street, which is well known for selling second hand stuff, electronic products and other goods. One of the stalls sells second hand Chinese instruments. The shop keeper is an erhu player himself. Sometimes people who visit the shop may play some old folk tunes together with him. They just gather and have fun themselves and don’t intend to perform to the public, but sometimes people gather and watch and clap when they hear tunes they like. I’ve even seen a foreign tourist who play guitar join and jam with them. It is such a lovely moment!’
Even though the performers in these moments must consider the space in some capacity the space is not a well thought out part of the performance, the space just happens to be there.
On the other hand, when York based theatre-maker/composer James Whittle starts a devising process he considers how to make use of space, such as deciding where the audience should be, how far away performers are from each other, when and how far they move, and so on. However, even when you do know the space, according to Whittle, ‘there may sometimes be some change to it, some extra obstruction, or even interference during performance, which the performer must negotiate without preparation’.
Whittle continues giving an example of a performance experience. ‘You get on stage and suddenly there’s a drum kit further downstage than you expected, extra wires and mics dotted around. You’re performing and simultaneously working out how not to collide with anything during the next sequence. To get round this, I try to think of spaces less as passive vessels for work, rather as active participants in an experience that’s being shared. This can be helpful as a spectator too, as a way to enjoy and allow all sounds and images, intended and unintended, to coexist’
Whittle also has experience from devising outdoor performances in which external factors, such as weather, could make last-minute changes inevitable. He recalls that ‘thanks to some sudden rain, we made a last-minute change of my work CARNIVORE to lead the audience straight to a small sheltered copse to watch the rest of the performance – interactions, movement in between each, and a final showdown – there. In the end it turned out well as the performers all had to work together and communicate in order to adjust as a unit and keep the performance on track. The sense of spontaneity must have added to their character!’
Whittle argues that ‘this spontaneity and vitality of not knowing what to expect in a space makes the performance come alive’. He explains that ‘we cannot deny what a space offers and adds to what we present in it. A space can sometimes seem entirely unsuitable for a particular piece. I once performed in a rather serious piece in a rather cheery gallery full of colourful children’s artwork. The juxtaposition seemed absurd, but perhaps it added something else unknown’.
This ‘unknown’ could be both advantageous and disadvantageous. Li says, in reference to unexpected spaces, that ‘unlike a proper stage, the audience could be less focused on details and they are very probably chatting and doing other things’. On the other hand, Li continues, ‘the atmosphere is usually much more festive, and friendly, relaxed. Audience are standing closer to the performer, or there isn’t a clear distinction between who are the performer or audience or bystander. As a performer, I would feel that I can just enjoy, and not care too much about making mistakes’.
I conclude with a performance experience of my own in which the excitement of not knowing quite what to expect of a space worked to my advantage.
For this particular performance, in which two performers are required to move about on stage, me and my collaborator had not had the chance of rehearsing in the space prior to the performance. As we stepped into the space we noticed how small it was and full of stuff. We had just enough time to try out a few positions/movements in the space. It worked surprisingly well… without the audience. One fear was that we could end up almost hurting the audience with our movements. This didn’t happen in the performance, instead we used the space a bit more controlled than usual. Due to the small space I, as the oppressed one, could also play more on the vulnerable part of the piece, which is one of the core feelings of the piece.
One other bonus of the cluttered room was that I could use an old piano as a percussion device against which I tapped my flute. In this case the resistance the space offered worked as a springboard against which I bounced musical ideas.
If used this way an unexpected space could be an inspiration and a performer’s best friend.

James Whittle is a theatre-maker/composer, performer and conductor based in York who makes interdisciplinary work combining music and theatre.

Composer, erhu (Chinese two-string fiddle) player and pianist Cheong Li was born in Macau and grew up in Hong Kong. In his recent pieces, Li explores music that blurs the boundary between composition and improvisation.