Directors and Designers explores the practice of scenography—the creation of perspective in the design and painting of stage scenery—and offers new insight into the working relationships of the people responsible for these theatrical transformations. With contributions from leading practitioners and theorists, editor Christine White describes the way in which the roles of director and designer have developed over time. Featuring chapters on theater and site-specific performance, theatrical communication and aesthetics, and the cognitive reception of design by the audience, this volume provides a valuable resource on current approaches to scenography for professionals and students.
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About the Author
Christine White is head of narrative and interactive arts in the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University.
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Directors and Designers
By Christine A. White
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Back and Forth to Russia: Scenography as an Academic Study from Moscow 1994–St Petersburg 2004
This book is a collection of essays from international contributors who are researchers, scholars, practitioners and teachers, and charts some of the work of the International Federation for Theatre Research working group. In this respect the essays give contexts for the discussion and study of scenography as it has developed from the research beginning in Moscow 1995 under the guidance of Eric Alexander. The chapters focus on the relationships that make scenography, the way that scenography describes designed space and ideas of what scenography is. The quest for dramatic time and space is interrogated in the nature of describing these moments of the visual intersection of the ordinary, with the imaginative. This book is original in its combination of documenting practice, discussing theory and describing processes of making performances through such interactions. The need for imagination in both creation and reception is discussed in a variety of countries, making 'seeing' believing, and the creative relationships of Directors and Designers. Where there is cross-over of subject in respect of some of the essays, they have been included to provide insights from differing perspectives both in relation to personalities and the politics of productions, their contexts and differing ways of working.
In the summer of 1994 I joined another 11 concerned academics and practitioners in a dark and very hot room in Moscow at the World Congress of the International Federation for Theatre Research to discuss what scenography was, why anyone would want to research it, and what should be included in such a study of it. At that time it was clear that Scenography was the word used in Europe to describe the designed space and one of the semantic challenges for the group was to describe what design for the theatre was, and how that then became scenography. For example, we had a long discussion about the nature of sound as a scenographic element.
In addition to grappling with ideas amongst the 12 of those present, we discussed what we were involved with and concerned to address in the theatres and function rooms, which were part of the conference experience. Eric Alexander was instrumental to the development of such a research group and without him the study of scenography in the context of the International Federation for Theatre Research would not have been founded. By 1996, we had 80 members who were practising and researching scenography and through Dr Eva Sormova, a quadrennial meeting on scenography was developed to occur concurrently with the Quadrennial World Competition for Scenography in Prague.
The research group set out to emphasize that scenography research was not simply to be regarded as a sub-group of Theatre History, but that there was a need to develop a separate identity for this research topic. The objectives were to promote an investigation of the history, theory, politics and practice of scenography, as defined as: stage setting, costume, lighting and sound design, and all other visual aspects of stage performance, including masks and puppets. It was important to the initial membership of the research group to develop a new vocabulary, by which we could construct an understood aesthetics and politics of scenography. This was also important as by this means we hoped to recognize the diversity of disciplines deployed by scenographers and 'their' varied understanding of responses from spectators to designed work.
My own concerns were rooted in my dual role as an academic and design practitioner. It was becoming necessary for practice to be taken seriously within an academic context and this was most important as universities struggled in the UK with their identity in the mid– 1990s. As the fin de siècle was taking hold of previously stable places of vocational study and philosophical debate, I, along with my students wanted to both do the work and talk about it and its impact. It is interesting to me, and also disturbing, that there even needed to be a special research group that had to be formed to give status to scenography. However, scenography has now become de rigeur within academic establishments, where everyone is concerned suddenly with art, image and the visual; where performance is described as a visual medium and the nature of the text has been re-investigated to produce an agitated state with many academics producing debates in their work about the visual nature of performance, theatre and/or drama. In fact, it is interesting to note that many forms of study once located in this area have now been re-framed in the United Kingdom and North American parlance to be areas of study, which come under the classification of visual art and design.
My own engagement in Moscow was investigating the designed space and movement in that space but addressed from the choreography of scenography and in particular this choreographic quality in opera. This research was presented again as part of the Ferens Fine Art Lectures at Hull University and, later, when the presentations of the series were curated by Robert Cheesmond and formed an edition of the online journal Scenography International. This journal was set up with the express purpose of publishing work about scenography, which developed from the International Federation and international scenographers. With many publishers refusing in the early nineties to fund publications, which relied on colour photographs as part of their discourse, the use of the Internet and web publication was the perfect answer. The journal continues and has been recognized internationally as a valued journal of academic debate related to Scenography.
As with many areas of inquiry in academic life, scenography has been investigated from the point of view of the artist and the impact of technological change on the art of designers. Whilst many of the advances of technology and technological change have been advantageous to theatre production, there have over the last twenty years been advances in technology, which have not always been seen as conducive to the success of theatre performances as a whole. It was important, therefore, for scholars and practitioners to debate whether these advances had contributed to the sales of gadgets of spectacle, which in turn could be blamed for the reduction of the quality of writing and theatre presentation. This particular belief was borne out by the popular press, reviews by more distinguished theatre reviewers and modern playwrights themselves, who felt swamped by the technology rather than inspired by the possibilities created by it. The debate has often been badly focused on the 'chicken and egg' principle of production versus intelligent writing. As practitioners and spectators have become more accepting of technological change this has proved to be unhelpful, as it reduces the argument to the pejorative use of technology and the positive use of the 'muse'. What I believe has become clear is the need to discuss these changes and developments, especially in the light of the social and economic pressures of the late twentieth century and the burgeoning embrace of change in the twenty-first century. This view charts a continuing aesthetic of performance, which can be valid for both technological and literary works and what scenography has enabled as expression in visual terms, contributing to the development of holistic theatrical experiences and new terms such as Total Theatre. I was once fortunate to be working with a PhD student, who was interested in the connectivity of scenography and performance, which led to us playing in a pseudo-scientific manner with a formulaic idea of what constituted Total Theatre.
Scenography and Physical Theatre = Total Theatre
S + P = TT (this is for the scientists)
TT = S divided by P (only joking!)
However, what was exemplified by our discussion was the binary vision of semiotics and phenomenology, which seemed to demonstrate the conflict between scenography and physical theatre theories of deconstruction. Although we determined that phenomenology was certainly a more appropriate theory from which to explore a physical theatre language, with the detail of Edmund Husserl's work, it is difficult to make a precise and all encompassing definition of phenomenology. However, in the basic sense, we were endeavouring to describe basic human experience, and phenomena, derived from the Greek for appearance, so it is clearly an appropriate theoretical application for Scenography. Phenomenology is most helpful as an explication of design activities, as it attempts to describe the world stripped of all presuppositions and culturally imposed expectations and naturally requires a 'suspension of disbelief'.
So what is the discussion?
Scenography developed into a recognized theatre art in the latter part of the twentieth century?
Physical theatre developed out of a reaction to spectacle theatre of the late twentieth century?
Is physical theatre 'alternative' to spectacle theatre?
Do both scenography and physical theatre collide in Total Theatre?
What is Total Theatre?
These questions are still under investigation and the rich seams of scenographic research provide us with activity for many years to come. Christopher Baugh's book Theatre Performance and Technology gives a romp through developments related to scenography and some of the particular inheritance of practice, however, there is much more detail to be uncovered and debated.
Painting and the Theatre
The history of a painterly style and the rise of the role of the designer are inextricably linked. For centuries the backgrounds and scenographic presentations, if we may use such a modern term to describe them, were ascribed to one person, quite often the producer, who may also have been the actor-manager. However, these visionaries were not totally alone in the presentation of the theatrical piece. The scenic artists, who were inevitably part of that team, whose own style and ideas became part of the production, made a major contribution to the production. These people are very rarely credited and so we recognize instead, the work of Inigo Jones and Henry Irving as revolutionary in scenographic terms. This mimics the hierarchical structure not that indistinct from the patriarchy of the monarchy for which the Stuart Masques were created. We see the artistic and aesthetic vision of one artist brought to performance at the Stuart Masques, written by Ben Jonson, and designed (and in many senses directed), by Inigo Jones, as their relationship charted the debate in the 1640s of poetry versus spectacle at its most virulent and vitriolic. Jonson frequently commented on how his work was swamped by spectacle. The effects created were technologically fantastic; however, the masques were of their time and were superseded by a written theatre in England of the late seventeenth century. From then on the kinds of scenographic presentations presented were in the form of backdrops to the action. During this period the influence of the Fine Arts was paramount and thus an array of artists was commissioned to provide backdrops to scenes. Indeed, a number of artists were used for a particular play, as unity of space was not a consideration. The artistry of the artist was celebrated; the fine detail and depiction of nature and light were acclaimed.
Martin Meisel in his book Realizations examines the changing relationship between art and theatre in the nineteenth century. He suggests that Irving's Lyceum production in the 1890s was the culmination of this relationship. The work of the Grieves family right through the nineteenth century also illustrated the link between the classical rules of art, which prevailed, rather than rules of theatricality. The subjects to be painted and how they should be organized, on a vertical or horizontal axis, and the way in which the paint was applied with no visible brush strokes and a highly varnished finish, illustrated the symbiotic relationship between the two-dimensional art and the three-dimensional performance. The symbiosis was destroyed when technology and philosophy crashed in on the gentle art and this took the form of revolutions in many different areas. The industrial revolution during the eighteenth century had changed the nature of the landscape in which people lived. It was no longer a tranquil and beautiful environment and people were herded into cities to work in an environment of chimneys and engines; England moved from a rural to an urban society. By the end of the eighteenth century the playhouses had increased in size to accommodate the popular performance genre of spectacle theatre, which was a combination of music, opera and ballet with acting that was not very subtle because the playhouses were enormous: 'Without subtlety in acting, fine characterization, upon which modern tragedy and comedy of manners both depend, is impossible.'
The profit motive and commercialism of the theatre as a leisure industry became more prevalent. Audiences of the eighteenth century enjoyed all manner of special effects created by instantaneous changes of elaborate scenery in plain view: 'One cannot argue that the emphasis on scenes and machines came solely as a response to commercial drive. Rather the impulse was, at least in the beginning, theatrical'. If this heritage of the mechanistic is linked to commercialization, then it may go some way to explaining the early questioning of technologies of spectacle used in the late twentieth century and their gradual acceptance in the twenty-first century. These early flirtations with technology suggest that the antithesis of literary performance to spectacle theatre may well be rooted in the prejudices from both Jones and Jonson, and the nineteenth century. As the quote above suggests there are excesses to everything, and the flooding of the Lyceum for battles of ships in the nineteenth century, is perhaps one of the larger excesses.
However, there was a direct relationship to practice in the Fine Arts, and with the addition of mechanisms during the nineteenth century. As products from the industrial revolution penetrated the theatre walls to be used as a greater means of creating theatrical effect, the work of painterly artists still filled the large expanses of space for scenic decoration and it was the verisimilitude of the effect which was celebrated: 'The splendour of the scenes the ingenuity of the machinist, and the rich display of dresses aided by the captivating charms of music, now in a great degree supersede the labours of the poet.' So, we return to the concern, which first reared its ugly head with Jonson and Jones, of conflict between text and image. The image, the effect, becomes synonymous with the technology and, as such, is to be damned because in our time, a time of the electronic and digital image, it is seemingly so easy to produce a visual experience, the image does not have the weight of the word, and yet, as we shall see from further research, the image is often even more powerful.
The Economics of the Image for Theatrical Production
Inherent in the power of the image and the visual presence of scenography was also the investment in the image over the word. Over the latter part of twentieth century theatre production, companies have invested in technology, hardware, software and mechanisms, to provide instant emblems of production. What has occurred is the visual image as the unique selling point of productions rather than an investment in the written word. This sort of investment is not unusual in the economic climate of global capitalism, which has enabled the development of spectacular productions for a world market, either on tour or in a production of the famed original, in the capital cities of the world. This is not to say that the image makers, in this instance the scenographic team, have seen the investment in their art but the larger producers (as with their eighteenth century counterparts), have seen fit to fund theatrical tricks that will bring an audience to the theatre.
It is here where the discussion of contemporary performance reaches a new polarity. Are we talking of a conflict between writing and design? Or, is it that the notion of the written performance is now a form which looks less and less like a screenplay with fewer scenes of dialogue and more scenes of action or illusion, metonymy and emotional hook?
Excerpted from Directors and Designers by Christine A. White. Copyright © 2009 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Setting the Scene
Chapter 1: Back and Forth to Russia: Scenography as an Academic Study from Moscow 1994-St Petersburg 2004
Part II: Performing Partners
Chapter 2: Hand in Glove: The Designer as Director as Designer
Chapter 3: Political Performing Partners: Director Lee Strasberg, Scene Designer Mordecai Gorelik, Playwright John Howard Lawson and the Group Theatre
Chapter 4: The Director, the Designer and the Ghost/Creative Team in Site-Specific Performance Practice
Chapter 5: Director Petr Lébl and Designer William Nowák: To a Man
Chapter 6: The Organics of the Rehearsal Room: Contemporary Directing Practice and the Director-Designer Relationship
Chapter 7: Collaborative Models: Mielziner, Williams and Kazan
Chapter 8: Problematics of Theatrical Negotiations: Directing, Scenography and State Ideology
Chapter 9: Methodological Practices for Directing and Designing
Chapter 10: The Digital Platform as a Communication Tool
Part III: Metaphors, Metatheatre & Methodologies
Chapter 11: The Seductive Scene or Reclaiming Spectacle
Chapter 12: Metatheatre: A Discourse on Contemporary Staging
Chapter 13: A Metaphorical Mise-en-Scène: Elia Kazan and Max Gorelik at The Group Theatre
Chapter 14: Ideational Conflict and Resolution in the Design Process: Positive Outcomes from Negative Relationships
Chapter 15: Design a Action: Jean Cocteau and the Ballets Russes
Part IV: Postscript to the Director
Chapter 16: From Hamlet with Love: A Letter to the Other
Notes on Contributors