The Artists' Collaborative: Essays

Scenic Design and Theatrical Weight

This paper was presented at The International Seminar of Established Crtics at The Almada International Theatre Festival, Portugal, in July of 2007. The theme of the seminar was Dramaturgical and Scenographic Fictions: Convergences/Confrontations.

When Inigo Jones introduced perspectivism to English stage design from the Continent in the 17th century, the playwright Ben Jonson complained that spectacle was overwhelming poetry. We need to consider the relationship in our own period between design and the other elements of drama. In considering what qualities we want in design, we have to ask firstly what importance we want design to have in the production. How does the weight of the design relate to the script?

Spectacle Incarnate
Some heavy-weight designs, the dominant element in their respective productions, are well known. John Napier's design for Cats is an example, or Maria Björnson's design for The Phantom of the Opera. In examining other designs of substance, let us start with Franco Zeffirelli's 1987 design for The Metropolitan Opera's (New York) production of Turandot. The New York Times called it "spectacle incarnate" (September 26, 2002).

Extraordinarily imposing, the design is perfectly suited to the material. It's built on a huge scale. Let's consider the dimensions of the Met's stage:
- The proscenium is 54 feet wide and 54 feet high.
- The distance from the curtain line to the back wall of the main stage is 80 feet.
- The height of the stage to the rigging loft is 110 feet.
The production had a cast of 286 (the theater seats 4,000). In spite of its extravagance, the design does not overwhelm the production. Opera was conceived, after all, as an amalgam of the arts. Moreover, of all the Aristotelian elements of drama, music is the most commanding. Design cannot overwhelm it, and it certainly can't overwhelm Puccini's intemperate score.

See The New York Times' review.

Design over Drama
By contrast, we consider Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' (New York) recent production of Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2006, 2007). This production cost $7 million and won a record number of Tony Awards. The designers, Bob Crowley and Scott Pask, offered a series of stunning, evocative images. While the scene is the nobility's estate, about thirty faceless serfs stand - still - behind a transparent scrim. When the scene moves to Moscow, there's a sparkling crystalline kremlin suspended behind the scrim, with its graceful onion towers. There are evocative sunsets, a gorgeous full moon reflected on the floor of the stage, and expansive tidal flats on the Isle of Wight - gray, with that extraordinary smooth texture.

All in all, it was a triumph of design over drama. The audience and the critics were so impressed by the design that they failed to apply dramaturgical standards to the script, which lacked structure and had other elementary flaws. Indeed, if the plays had been presented in a small off-off-Broadway theatre, they would not have gained the critics' attention, much less their approbation.

See The Coast of Utopia's website.

The Structural Integrity to Support Visual Weight

Robert Wilson is one of America's most important designer-directors, whose work is invariably impressive. His set designs for the opera Woyzeck (2000, from The Betty Nansen Theater of Copenhagen), based on Büchner's play, have enormous weight, very influenced by expressionism, with asymmetrical doorways and isolated spots of light. They suit the material perfectly and combined with the production's other elements to create a powerful, indivisible piece of theatre. Of course, the success reflects the nature of opera. In addition, however, we note that the Büchner's script is lean and direct, and possesses a powerful dramatic thrust.

Wilson's designs for Ibsen's Peer Gynt (2005 from The National Theatre of Bergen and The Norwegian Theatre at Oslo) are equally idiosyncratic and forceful. They exhibit Wilson's characteristic focus on selected details, jettisoning most else. A huge chandelier hangs from the flies, not associated with any ceiling or walls. Brightly lit in his white suit, Peer himself commands our attention.

The images worked perfectly in the first half of the script, but in the second half, they overpowered the action. The effectual difference stems from the structure of the play, which begins with the promise of a strong though line but looses dramatic compression in its latter half (as its title character becomes increasingly aimless). Thus, it looses the structural integrity to bear visual weight.

See Robert Wilson's website.

A Living Element of the Design

To speak of another designer-director, Richard Foreman's designs for productions of his owns scripts at The Ontological-Hysteric Theater (New York) have yet another role within the production. They are conceived at the genesis of the creative process, inseparable from Foreman's ineffable dialog, and they create a sort of stage hallucination. The stage is cluttered and eclectic. A transparent plastic wall separates actors from audience, but strings stretched horizontally both across the theatre and in the depth of the theatre connect them.

The designs - and the productions - are hugely successful, leaving us with an inexplicable refreshed feeling. But Foreman's vision alters the traditional function of actors. Here, they become a living element of the design.

See The Ontological-Hysteric Theater's website.

Outdoor Theatre
It is helpful to consider outdoor theatre vis-à-vis design. The New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Seagull (2001) used scenic design by Bob Crowley that exploited the foliage and topography of Central Park. The birches on stage extend back to the trees in the park. A representation of this background within a proscenium would likely overpower Chekhov's delicate dialogue. It is a profound reflection of our sense of nature that the real world never does so, and the mis en scene was superb.

The Actor as Puppet
Lee Breuer's designs for Mabou Mines' (New York) production of The Red Beads (2005) show a concern with theatre as a two-dimensional space. They are gorgeous and suited for the material, a fable. On a bare stage, fabric of all sizes serves to represent things, moods, thoughts - animated by electric fans. The director's notes call it "wind puppetry", and it is designed by puppet master Basil Twist. The actors, incorporated into the design, often floated across the stage. They were themselves reduced to puppets. There is a difference between responding to a painterly set that includes an actress and responding to her acting.

See The New York Times' review.

No Claim to Mere Beauty
The Keen Company's (New York) designs for In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006), designed by Nathan Heverin, reflect the loveless, intellectual script. The setting is a courtroom. Actors faced front sitting at desks on a four-tiered stage, with Oppenheimer (the subject of these hearings) sitting alone on the stage floor. Those three layers of officials hovering over the individual express the weighty oppression of government; the gray suits on the flat gray background reflect the bland repression of the period. There was next to no movement on the stage. This stringent, self-conscious set of limitations drew our attention to the actors, perhaps because the design makes no claim to mere beauty.

See The Gothamist's review.

The Chocolate-Smeared Woman
Karen Finley, one of America's prominent performance artists, performs on a bare or nearly bare stage, often naked. In some performances, she has smeared her naked body with chocolate. Because of that sort of performance, her government funding was denied in 1990. She challenged the decision, and the case (which involved other artists as well) became an enormous cause celebre. One way to know great theater is to see it banned.

Would Ms. Finley have have created such a sensation if she had stood naked on the set for The Met's Turandot? I doubt it. If the entire chorus stood naked on that set, they wouldn't pierce our conciousness so sharply.

Poverty of Means
In 1972 Julian Beck wrote:
If the set cannot tell the spectator something that a bare stage can do better, don't make it: superfluous ornamentation diverts attention from the center, much of the manners and morals of middle class life are ornamentation designed to divert concentration from the center of things. … We have to work with poverty of means, because it is with poverty of means that we must confront the established forces.
(The Life of the Theatre, Julian Beck, City Lights Book, 1972)

Beck, who founded The Living Theatre in New York with Judith Malina, designed the set for The Brig in 1967. This year, it was adapted for a new space by Gary Brackett. It is compulsive in its symmetry and its straight lines. The scene is a military prison. The audience looks through a barbed wire fence, across a mote stones, then through a chain link fence. The result is an oppressive design that does not compromise the central importance of the actor. The actor is the object of the oppression, and we recognize the humanity.

See The Living Theatre's website.

Physical Engagement
It's the unique mission of modern theatre to address social issues. Ibsen and Brecht taught us that. The reason is that it is the definitive strength of the theatre is to show how we live together. When the performing environment became artificial, a devised setting, it separated the actor from the audience, the play from society. One of the most important developments of 20th century theatre has been to return to physical engagement with society.

I submit that if the audience is intended to relate the play to their lives, perhaps we should use no set at all - or no building at all. The Living Theatre presented The Brig this year in the street in New York, other Living Theatre productions. The company performed in front of a military recruitment center in Times Square. It was impossible to miss the point. Indeed, the performers were occasionally harassed by the New York City police. Another sure way to know great theater is police attention.

We see then that the weight itself of scenic design has a fundamental importance to the production. Its degree of centrality is elemental to the theatre piece, and the relationship between design and text is delicate. We must be aware of design's power to dominate, and what this power implies. We must be certain that the artistic statement it makes is the statement we intend.

- Steve Capra
July 2007

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