At a time when so many options exist for access to theatrical entertainments, it is no surprise that theatre practitioners and scholars are often preoccupied with the role of the audience. While space undoubtedly impacts the rehearsal and production processes, its greater significance seems to rest in the impact a specific location has on the audience. This volume delves into issues of theatre and space, traversing traditional theatre spaces such as the African Grove Theater discussed by Gregory Carr, Tony Gunn’s examination of Edward Gorey's theatrical designs, and George Pate’s reflections on Beckett's stage directors. Also highlighted are some decidedly innovative spaces, like those described by J. K. Curry in her examination of “Theatre for One” and modern uses of medieval sacred spaces as detailed by Carla Lahey.
Whether positive or negative in scope, meanings generated within theatre spaces are impacted by the cultural context from which they emerge—the ways in which space is conceived, scrutinized, and experiences. As a result, the relationship between space, theatre, and audience is diverse, complex, and ever changing in practice.
About the Author
Becky K. Becker is a professor of theatre at Columbus State University in Columbus, Gerogia, and the coordinator for the international studies certificate. Her published work has been featured in Feminist Teacher, Theatre Symposium, and Shakespeare Beyond English.
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Theatre and Space Volume 24
By Becky K. Becker
Southeastern Theatre Conference The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Whose Space Is It, Anyway?
The normal image of a theatrical performance is one that takes place inside a space particularly created for such activity. Almost all theatrical cultures have developed some sort of performance space set apart from the normal world of human activity, a space that serves as a site of imagination subject to certain rules, a fundamental one being that the audience agrees to serve as spectators and accept the fictive world the actors present to them. The performance space itself thus serves as a kind of "frame" emphasizing this dynamic (indeed, an alternative name for the proscenium arch theatre is the "picture-frame stage," and some late nineteenth-century British theatres in fact surrounded the stage on all four sides with an ornate frame). In most cases this performance space, the stage and auditorium, is not even entered directly from the outside world, but is separated from that world by a liminal area, as a kind of mimetic airlock, the theatre lobby, which allows audiences to move by stages into the illusory realm of the theatre.
Theatrical performances that were not "protected" by this house of illusion have been much more susceptible to incursions from the physical world. Even the classic Greek stage, forming a partial enclosure, could and apparently did take advantage of the "real world" accessible to its audiences, the open sky above them. Thus, many of the extant plays, among them Oedipus and Antigone, begin at or near dawn, and it is difficult to imagine that the plays which were presented at that time of day did not take advantage of this contribution from the real world.
In the very earliest liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages we find already a complex mixture of theatrical elements and real spaces. Early liturgical drama was staged in parts of medieval cathedrals, but although these were real locations, they were accepted as suitable symbolically, reinforcing the effect of the performance on an emblematic if not on a realistic level. When religious dramas began to be performed outside the cathedrals, the utilization of the physical surroundings became much more complex. Often these plays remained in the vicinity of the cathedral, particularly on its wide front platform and steps, and the cathedral performed not merely as a rich decorative background, like the classic Roman scenic façade, but also in its "true" role as the abode of God and the angelic choirs.
In some cases this "theatricalization" of real places could involve a large part of the city, most notably in the Passion processionals that are still echoed in the widespread Via Dolorosa process of modern times. As early as the fifteenth century, the city of Vienna staged the public humiliation of Christ in the city marketplace, and then the actor bore his cross through the winding streets of the city to the distant cemetery where the crucifixion and resurrection were to be enacted. The market, the streets, the cemetery, and even the watching public were thus elements of the real world imaginatively refigured as parts of the universal city, Jerusalem. There is still of course a certain slippage between the Vienna cemetery and what it represents, because although it is a real cemetery, it is not the site it imaginatively represents. This distinction is of particular importance in reference to sacred sites, which inevitably take on some aura of the actions that reportedly occurred there.
In fact the most ancient records that we have of theatrical activity are ritual observances carried out in specific sacred locations, which are essential to the event. The ancient Egyptian text from Abydos, whose "passion play" of Osiris is often cited as the earliest known theatrical text, was performed annually for some two thousand years, beginning in the second millennia BCE. These were presented at the most sacred site in Egypt, the island where Osiris was reportedly buried. Jerusalem also witnessed theatrical activities at its major sites from very early times, as may be seen in the first detailed reports that we have from a pilgrim to that city, Egeria, in 381–84 CE. She reports a number of commemorative activities at various sacred sites, including a reenactment of the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday with "the bishop led in the same manner as the Lord once was led," accompanied by children singing hosannas and waving palm and olive branches.
With the Renaissance and the movement of theatre indoors, the concept of the actor performing in any sort of "real" surrounding was almost completely lost. Even when the great baroque festivals moved outdoors, as in Louis XIV's famous Pleasures of the Enchanted Island, performances either occurred within a courtyard whose classic architectural background was as neutral as a Roman stage façade or in the royal park, where natural elements like trees and water had been subjected to such ruthless control that every possible trace of the natural had been removed.
A remarkable example of an almost opposite aesthetic — and one much closer to modern experimentation — was undertaken by Goethe in 1782, early in his Weimar years. Goethe invited members of the Weimar court to an evening entertainment he had devised himself, a small comic opera called The Fishermen. They assembled at a small pavilion in the court park appropriately called "the Cottage of the Muses." Entering the small building, they found seats arranged facing the back wall of the cottage, which had been removed to provide a frame for the actual landscape outside, a wooded glade and the bend of a stream. The audience was reportedly entranced by the sight of a real boat coming down the real stream with a singing oarsman and by the mysterious effect of lanterns carried by actors bobbing amidst the trees.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this modest court entertainment represented the most fully realized theatrical representation to date of what would come to be recognized as the Romantic aesthetic — the emphasis upon nature and the natural, upon rustic simplicity, upon the sort of atmosphere created by lanterns and moonlight. A similar impulse lay behind the interest in atmospheric scene design begun the following year in London by Garrick's designer Philip James de Loutherbourg. Both projects shared the same desire to make contact with the "real," and both sought this in the somewhat mysterious realm of nature so beloved by the Romantic imagination. The following century's theatre designers would almost without exception follow de Loutherbourg in trying to bring this reality into the theatre, but in the twentieth century Goethe's example would also become more and more followed, as the theatre began to colonize extra-theatrical space.
No one articulated more clearly than Victor Hugo the bond between nature and the real and the centrality of the real to Romantic art in general and the theatre in particular. In his best-known statement on this subject, the 1827 Preface to Cromwell, he asserts that "the poetry of our time" is the drama, and "the characteristic of the drama is the real." He continues: "In the drama, as it may be conceived at least, if not executed, all the parts cohere and everything happens as in real life." Even though one may protest, with justification, that this hardly applies to the larger-than-life heroes and melodramatic turns of a Hugo drama, it marks out a direction that the future Realistic drama, in many ways an outgrowth of Romanticism, would follow. In the present context, Hugo's remarks on reality and scenic design are particularly important: "We are beginning to realize in our day," he observes, "that exactness in the matter of locality is one of the most essential elements of reality. The speaking or acting characters are not the only ones who leave a faithful impression upon the mind of the spectator. The place where this or that catastrophe occurred becomes an incorruptible and convincing witness to it; and the absence of this sort of silent character makes the grandest scenes of history incomplete upon the stage. What poet would dare murder Rizzio elsewhere than in Mary Stuart's chamber? To stab Henri IV elsewhere than in the Rue de la Ferronerie, blocked up with drays and carriages? To burn Jeanne d'Arc elsewhere than in the Old Marketplace?" For a modern reader, this may well seem a call for the development of what would later come to be called site-specific theatre, and indeed it may be considered as helping to prepare the way intellectually for such work, but for Hugo and his contemporaries the implications of this passage were not that radical, though radical enough. He was calling for theatre settings to reflect iconically their presumed locations, differing from play to play and even, perhaps, from scene to scene, rather than relying upon the single neutral antechambers used for Racine and the tradition he represented.
For most of the following century the Romantics and the Realists who followed them worked in this direction, creating scenic designs that reflected with greater and greater realistic accuracy the locations indicated in the dramatic text. The major English director Charles Kean was honored for both the splendor of his Shakespearean productions and for the historical accuracy of their scenery. The culmination of this monumental approach to visual realism in Shakespeare came in the productions of English directors Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, who, in a famous 1911 revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream, offered his audience live rabbits and a mossy stage floor sprouting live flowers that could be plucked by the actors. In the Realistic theatre the modern box set appeared, re-creating onstage what seemed to be a real domestic space, with real doors and doorknobs, real molding, and dimensional furniture. Like monumental realistic Shakespeare, such domestic illusions of everyday life reached their apotheosis at the turn of the next century, in this case in the work of David Belasco, perhaps the most famous champion of Realism in scenic environments. For The Governor's Lady in 1912, he re-created the interior of a popular chain of New York restaurants, Child's, in which the audience could even smell the coffee and pancakes being prepared. According to Theatre Magazine, "It is as if he had taken the audience between the intermission, walked them around the corner of Seventh Avenue and seated them to one side of the Child's restaurant at that location and let the last act be played there." Of course, an important part of subsequent experimental theatre, such as promenade productions and immersive theatre, would do precisely that, converting real space into theatrical space.
An early example of such activity was undertaken by an amateur society in England, the Pastoral Players, which caused a stir in artistic circles in the mid-1880s with their outdoor productions of pastoral plays by Shakespeare and Fletcher in the Coombe Wood in South London. One review of that production observed that both actors and audience were no longer looking at canvas and "carpentry, but at realities, real rounded trees, living grass, glades and prospect. There is no sham. The sun is really shining, the birds are singing, the leaves and blades of grass and flowers really waving in the breeze." In the opening years of the twentieth century, some of the greatest directors moved out of conventional theatres to utilize such non-theatrical space. Two productions, both staged in 1920, were particularly outstanding examples of this. First was one of the most famous stagings by the great Max Reinhardt, his Everyman, which inaugurated the Salzburg Festival that year. Here, taking inspiration from the open-air productions of the medieval period, Reinhardt placed the action on a large platform set before the doors of the Salzburg Cathedral, and the entire area was incorporated into the performance, with characters entering from side streets and bells rung or cries shouted at appropriate moments from towers elsewhere in the city. Even nature was theatricalized, as Hofmannsthal reports: "One of these criers had been placed in the highest tower of a medieval castle, built far above the city, and his voice sounded, weird and ghostly, about five seconds after the others, just as the first rays of the rising moon fell cold and strange from the high heavens on the hearts of the audience." The Salzburg Festival inspired some of Reinhardt's most ambitious open-air productions. In 1933 Reinhardt's designer Clemens Holzmeister built an entire small medieval village with trees, bushes, and flowers that grew from summer to summer as the production was revived. Once again, nature was pressed into theatrical service: "Moon and stars joined in the play, and gusts of the night wind led from a sultry evening to the pallid dawn of the dungeon scene." The following year, Reinhardt produced one of his most striking and influential outdoor productions, a production of The Merchant of Venice actually staged in a small square in Venice in front of a palazzo that Reinhardt claimed had been the resident of a Jewish merchant in Shakespearean times and with a bridge at the rear over a small canal, along which gondolas passed to and fro and upon which the elegant Spanish barque of the Prince of Aragon arrived with its noble suitor.
Reinhardt's productions in found locations of this type inspired a number of directors elsewhere in Europe. In Italy several Goldoni plays were presented in appropriate town squares, and in 1937 the Danish Tourist Board invited the British Old Vic company to present a festival production of Hamlet at Elsinore Castle, its presumed actual location (although the current castle was built in the sixteenth century, contemporary with Shakespeare, but centuries after the historical Hamlet, if he indeed really existed). Thus in June 1937, the Old Vic Company, headed by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and directed by Tyrone Guthrie, went to perform Hamlet "in his own home" or "in its rightful setting," as the British press announced it. In such productions as the Elsinore Hamlet or the Venetian Merchant of Venice we seem, at least at first glance, to have literal fulfillments of Victor Hugo's vision of a performance in its correct historical location, where the walls themselves "bore silent witness" to the events. Indeed, almost this thought exactly was expressed by the Special Correspondent of the London Times of June 4, 1937: "The ghost not only of Hamlet's father but of all the vast and shadowy legend of the Danish Prince haunts the green roofs, the fantastic pinnacles, the dungeons, the great embattled strength of Elsinore." The problem with this vision, of course, is not only that Hamlet (if he ever existed) never saw any of this architecture, or vice versa, but more importantly that the "real world" evoked here is not, as in Hugo, drawn from historical events, but from a dramatic fiction, as was the Reinhardt Merchant, however authentic its Renaissance palazzos and gondolas.
Just a few months after Reinhardt's Everyman, Nikolai Evreinov in Russia created an even more ambitious outdoor spectacle, a re-creation of the historical storming of the winter palace in St. Petersburg upon the actual location of that event, involving over 8,000 participants, tanks, armored vehicles, and even the battleship Aurora. Evreinov essentially echoed Hugo by stressing the fact that this work was "performed in the actual place where the historic event occurred." Many such reenactments were presented as part of the Russian Revolutionary theatre, but the major modern vogue for battle reenactments, staged on their actual locations, enjoyed a major revival in the United States in the 1960s for the centennial of the Civil War and again in the 1970s for the bicentennial of the American Revolution. Countless battles and other historical events were re-created in their original locations with participants in authentic costume attempting to follow with varying exactness the events of a century or two before. This activity, part hobby, part recreation, has spread over the United States, then to Britain, and today is found around the world.
Excerpted from Theatre and Space Volume 24 by Becky K. Becker. Copyright © 2016 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of Southeastern Theatre Conference The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
Keynote Address: Whose Space Is It, Anyway? Marvin Carlson 9
The Odeon of Pericles: A Tale of the First Athenian Music Hall, the Second Persian Invasion of Greece, Theatre Space in Fifth Century BCE Athens, and the Artifacts of an Empire Sebastian Trainor 21
The Eye line of Orestes: Exploring the Dramaturgy of Civic Space in the Greek Theatre Samuel T. Shanks 41
"It Told Us What To Do": The Anthropomorphizing of Theatre Buildings in Contemporary Practice Lisa Marie Bowler 53
Wartime Collaboration: Theatrical Space and Power in Conquered Los Angeles Andrew Gibb 64
Setting Their Sites on Satire: The Algonquin Round Table's Non-Theatrical Spaces of Creative Genesis Christine Woodworth 76
Struggling to Stage: The Contentious Issue of Theatre Space in Kolkata Arnab Banerji 88
"For the Children": Doyle and Debbie at The Station Inn; or, the Politics of Space in "The Gulch" Chase Bringardner 99
(Un)limited: Virtual Performance Spaces and Digital Identity Alicia Corts 113
Theatre Symposium 24 Closing Remarks: Sunday, April 12, 2015 Marvin Carlson 129