Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Performance Spaces, in honor of Rebecca Pearl Chang

In film, the commercial often overwhelms the artistic.  Directors who earn the title of artist are in the minority, and of those, the remembered are even rarer.  Jacques Tourneur, a director in the silent film era, was one of the former—or so say his colleagues.  In an interview in The Parade’s Gone By, Clarence Brown, an editor who worked with Tourneur, describes their method of composing a shot:  Tourneur, Brown remembers, “had been a painter, and although he did little painting while he was making pictures, he painted on the screen… Whenever we saw a painting with an interesting lighting effect, we’d copy it.  We had a library of pictures.”

Most great artists know that that the investigation of a secondary craft can deepen their understanding of their own.  But let’s consider the two media that Brown compares: film and painting.  Both are two-dimensional, necessarily bound by some kind of coplanar frame that draws its viewer’s gaze away from the surrounding space.

Theatre is different.  Theatre need not confine itself to two dimensions.  Yet, because proscenium spaces dominate the industry, artist and audience alike too often focus on theatre as painting and forget theatre as museum (resemblance to "ad naseum" = intentional).  Unlike other arts—painting, film, poetry, music—the word, the very notion of “theatre” refers to both the work itself and the space in which it occurs (for my purposes, the physical space will be a “theater”).  An audience’s experience of a work of theatre varies dramatically according to the space in which it is performed, comparable to the way a museum can alter one’s experience of visual art.  Because neither plays nor paintings can exist in a spatial vacuum, effective theaters and museums use their physical space to aid in and comment on the art they house. 

Although the two institutions do not overlap substantially in their coverage of the arts, the theatre world could learn a lot from the way visual art is presented.  I liken a museum visit to a journey through a labyrinthine set.  A compelling exhibit tells a story in the way that (most) plays do, only with different media: the selection and arrangement of pieces, curatorial narration and analysis.  But beyond the actual collection, a museum is designed to construct an aesthetic and educational experience from the moment visitors enter the space—or even beforehand.  (In some cases, an exterior view of a museum’s architecture can provide crucial and informative context to an individual exhibit).  Once inside, a museum’s layout naturally creates a physical journey; the visitor’s body moves through space as the mind moves across genres, geographical regions, time.  Performance venues, on the other hand, provide areas for viewing and areas for waiting.  Lobbies corral the hordes until the house is ready to open, seldom integrated into the director’s concept for the play.  Intermissions in that same space relieve the audience from sitting still in a dark room for unnatural lengths of time.  All in all, it is believed that for the audience to immerse themselves in the world of the play, to suspend their disbelief, a theatrical space must isolate them from the outside world, imprison them within its confines—a physical sensation appropriate for No Exit and Endgame, and maybe even some Ibsen, but certainly not for every play. 

Thus, I call for a new kind of performance art, one in which the audience is not necessarily stationary, in which a space’s potential is more widely explored and more adaptable to the needs of a specific work.  A space should evoke the world of the play, not just a photograph of it.

I do not know what this idea would entail; the actual visual is a frontier for a gifted artist to pioneer, not me.  (My best image is something like a haunted house).  But as theatres seek to broaden their subscriber base, to lower their average audience age, to become relevant and necessary to cross-sections of the population it has not historically reached, I suggest that they not only move away from proscenium spaces (wherever they are but a default choice), but also that they completely reimagine the way their facilities are oriented.  A designer should begin with the following questions: how should the audience experience each scene, exchange, moment?  And how could we encourage that in the way they are physically oriented?  Grotowski and Artaud had good ideas, but I see no reason why “more established” works of theatre could not be experienced in a similar manner.  (Theatre of Cruelty will only get you so far in life).  Particularly for work with a political agenda, in which the playwright seeks a nontraditional theatre, why use your theatre space in a traditional way? 

This, I hope, is where the next generation of artists will come in. 

1 comment:

  1. The first play I acted in at Yale ("Murder", by the great Israeli, Hanoch Levin) achieved a dis- and re-orientation along these lines by re-seating the audience after each act. We stood a small flat in the center of the stage, working our way around it clockwise as the action progressed--culminating in framing the emotional chasm of the epilogue with a blank brick wall, evoking the confusion and fervor of a firing-squad execution. The play was, as you might expect, heavily political--or, more accurately, passionately apolitical--and having the audience move in and around the space where the action occurred emphasized their role as participants, discouraging complacency while implying something akin to the deep confusion rooted in the themes of the work.