This is an updated version of the paper I gave in Prague in 1995.
Links to production photographs are in the course of construction.
For the present this link LINK will take you to a captioned sequence of photos, and this one LINK
to a gallery without captions.
Scenography Working Group
International Federation For Theatre Research
PROVISIONAL TITLE: AN EXPERIMENT IN THE POLITICS OF STAGE SPACE AND
Gulbenkian Studio Theatre
University of Hull
The Department of Drama
University of Hull
"Hans Robert Jauss further extends the role of enthymemes in his Toward An Aesthetic of Reception, where he
presents the idea of a 'horizon' of experience. Jauss refers to "the appearance of a new work, whose reception
can result in a 'change of horizons' through the negation of familiar experience or through raising newly
articulated experiences to the level of consciousness".
It is a commonplace of English and European theatre history, at least from the Restoration to the end of the
nineteenth century, that the organization of theatre auditoriums has been intimately related to socioeconomic
(class) divisions. Seating spaces were allocated, and pricing structures determined, not merely with an eye to
market forces, to maximize ticket sales (though this was obviously always a major factor), but also to regulate the
social composition, and even the age/gender profile, of the audience. An example from Hull illustrates this
In ?1865 The Queen's Theatre, considered of lower status than the Theatre Royal, proposed to reduce its
cheapest seats from 6d to 3d. A furious row ensued, based on the belief that this might give access to a younger
section of society to performances considered to be 'unsuitable'
Similar cases are scattered throughout theatre archives over a period of more than a hundred years.
Alternatively, auditorium organisation, particularly in the context of perspectivally -determined viewpoints,
expressed, in spatial terms, political hierarchies and structures.
Iain Mackintosh has argued that the class-determined allocation of auditorium space in 18thc and 19thc theatres
in fact worked both ways. Of contemporary (20thc) reactions to old theatre buildings he writes:
"Politically committed directors of theatre companies and their playwrights saw in the old theatres He quotes opinion suggesting that this factor has had a clear bearing on the kind, and perceived 'quality' of the
evidence of a compartmentalised social structure, each level for each class in a multi-tier auditorium
having its own entrance. They failed to see that there had been few more effective architectural
devices to bring together the social classes in a single space than eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
" ' Mere coincidence will not explain why every Elizabethan play addressed to a sector of the people,It is nevertheless clear, as Sophie Nield has recently argued, that the development of the theatre in English
high or low, learned or unlearned, is inferior in quality; why neither university nor low school, nor guild
hall, nor princely banquet house begat dramatic poetry comparable to what came from the public
theatres; or why Blackfriars [indoors and patronised by a narrower more exclusive audience] failed to
sustain the level achieved by the Globe. The drama reached its peak when the audience formed a
great amalgam, and it began its decline when the amalgam was split in two' "
and European society since at least the seventeenth century has included progressive confinement of the audience
and increased control of its behaviour.
This trend is reflected in (British) society at large by the ever tighter control exerted over the use of 'public' space
-the streets - and the manifest growth of official paranoia over spontaneous assemblies such as the infamous 'rave'
parties, or street celebrations such as the Notting Hill Carnival.
Theatres were always perceived as providing rather dangerous opportunities for the public to assemble in large
numbers, with a reflexive concern on the part of managements to ensure the respectability - one might even say
placidity -of their houses. From Eliza Vestris at the Olympic to the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales's, audiences
were settled down in velvet-padded comfort. Wagner, on the Continent, was but the first to plunge them into a
Mainstream theatre, on the whole, until comparatively recently, demanded of its audience an increasingly passive
response, a pre-condition of the developing, and eventually pervading, conception of the director-as-auteur.
This passivity of audiences greatly concerned Appia;
'Up until now, all we have asked of the audience has been to sit still and pay attention. In order to
encourage it in this direction, we have offered it a comfortable seat and have plunged it into a semi-
darkness that favours the state of complete passivity...If the playwright and those who perform his
work are to bring about a change of direction - a conversion - then the spectator must, in his turn,
submit to it ( the awakening of art in oneself) too. His starting point is himself, his own body. From that
body, living art must radiate and spread out into space, upon which it will confer life.'
Subsequently, a succession of mid-century practitioners worked to de- and re-construct the politics of
performance, and to re-assert the primacy of the spectator in the theatrical event. One may cite Brecht, with his
Verfremdungseffekt, Boal, originator of the 'simultaneous dramaturgy', which developed into the notion of the
'spectactor', and Eugenio Barba, who declared:
"The theatre's raw material is not the actor, nor the space, nor the text, but the attention, the seeing,
the hearing, the mind of the spectator. Theatre is the art of the spectator.
The attempt to 'liberate' , and simultaneously to enliven, the theatre experience has led a number of
practitioners to interrogate their use of space. Stefan Brecht writes, of Peter Schumann:
"He prefers evidently fortuitous locales allowing him to define the space of his theatrical events
himself. He does this not by outline but by focus...defined by the action which makes it the base point
of attention.The enclosed well- and wall- defined action space of modern agoraphobic theatre is like
the framing of pictures: not only a gesture of specious valuing but a way to save the work from the
world - a cowardly act. It ought not to be the norm but a special effect: cubicles, narrow spaces,
triangular recessions, honeycombs. Schumann's practice suggests that the norm should be plastic,
undefined, broken space, not enclosed by sets but fragmentarily defined by mobile decor, so that the
action is not between or within but around. Using the theatre's brick wall with its water pipes as
backdrop or breaking up the wings with sets which break up the stage fails to achieve the essential: to
give absolute primacy to the action."
Audience passivity has shown, however, an extraordinarily and paradoxically assertive tendency to re-establish
itself after every disturbance, rather like the surface of a pool into which a stone is thrown. Audiences, it seems,
can get used to anything. Or, to express the same point rather more theoretically, in Jauss's terms (supra) the "
'change of horizons' through the negation of familiar experience" results very quickly in the learning of new codes.
In 1975 I attended a student production of Pieter Handke's Offending the Audience at which 150 or so members
of an audience were ineffectually harangued by four fresh-faced actors; they were perfectly secure in the
knowledge that they were not going to be genuinely disturbed or embarrassed; that the set of pre-determined
responses they had brought along would be sufficient to the occasion.
In staging Aristophanes's Birds in the Gulbenkian Studio Theatre , July 1994, I set out first to challenge the pre-
conception each member of the audience may have had of the nature of the experience s/he had contracted into,
and, secondly, (self)consciously and formally to attempt to apply something of Bakhtinian 'dialogic' theory in the
production of a classic, 'orthodox' playscript.
( Barba, Boal, Mnouchkine having, on the whole, abandoned the production of 'plays' in the conventional sense of
the term. I acknowledge that the term 'orthodox' is not readily applicable to Aristophanes.).
. The decisions -or perhaps, rather, strategies, - to which this broad intention led may be divided, very roughly,
into three categories : staging, effect, and performance. I make these distinctions solely in the interests of
organization of this paper.
Staging The Birds
The Gulbenkian Studio Theatre (now the Donald Roy Theatre) is an adaptable, 'black box' studio theatre with a
permanent raked auditorium, augmented by moveable bleachers at stage level. The staging for this production
first of all curtained off the main auditorium seating; the audience were accommodated on benches in the centre of
a roughly circular area, all on ground (stage) level. There were three reasons behind the decision to use benches.
In the first place, as Peter Brook has -notoriously - pronounced:
"The least important thing in the theatre is comfort"_ .
Secondly, there is a particular ambience to bench seating. Mackintosh quotes Nicolas Kent's claim that in the
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, "absence of arms leads strangers to talk and in six cases to marry" .
Thirdly, again as Mackintosh has argued, there is an important artistic/political implication in the relative height
of actors and audience.
"When the audience looks down on the actor it is more likely that its attention will have been precisely There is an important distinction here, between the passive receptivity of an audience manipulated by a director,
predetermined by a director who has organized the pattern of production. The audience looking down
will then be contemplating the performer critically as did the director at rehearsal. If the attention of
the audience wavers the actor is in a weak position.....
...If, on the other hand, the audience looks up to the actor, the actor is in control, can elicit responses
and can manage the audience because he or she is, quite simply, in the dominant physical position."
and the situation in which the actor's control is increased. The latter is a genuinely interactive relationship. The
actor "elicits responses". 'Control' here implies action, or at least the potential for action, on the part of the
Viewpoint and Point-of-View
On the one hand, the development of the staging of spectacle, and in particular of perspective scenery, may, as
Christine White has suggested, represent a kind of celebration, a recognition of human capability and endeavour:
"The introduction of perspective changed ways of seeing. Part of the power of the entertainment The obverse of this, of course, is that as a representational mode, perspective is, almost by definition,
became a celebration of what human beings could present to one another"
hierarchical, in that there is one 'ideal' viewpoint, and a progressive deterioration of the effect as the viewpoint
shifts from the centre. The spectator is required to stay put, stay back, and face front.
The benches which formed the auditorium for The Birds were arranged to face forward in a rough herring-bone
shape, with platforms for dramatic action set at four 'corners', before and behind. There was, therefore, no 'ideal
viewpoint'. At the very least , to see what was happening on at least two of the platforms, each spectator would
have to shift position, crane round, and try to see past someone else. In this small way, therefore, the act of seeing
had to be positively motivated, and involved some physical exertion.
The action surrounded the spectator; as the chorus was on stage and active throughout the play, there was always
some part of the action which any individual spectator could not see. Actors were at liberty to wander around and
behind the rows of benches.
An act of will was therefore required of each audience member, in making the choice of what, or whom, to watch
from moment to moment. The spectator was not able simply to see, s/he had to look.
This approach contravenes one of the most basic received precepts of stage design, so fundamentally accepted
that it is hardly ever articulated, yet automatically adhered to in almost every production. Directors and designers
are accustomed to paying exhaustive attention to 'sightlines', and to ensuring that no member of any audience
suffers any obstacle to the clearest possible vision of all the proceedings. The movement of actors -'blocking '- is
organized to avoid 'masking' at all costs.
Any attempt to challenge this meets with automatic opposition. In 1988 I designed the settings for the Hulltruck
Theatre Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which the introduction of a tree in the 'forestage'
area, right in front of the front row of seating, became a matter for heated discussion, although, in truth, it was but
a small obstruction. In the same production, argument and disagreement arose from the introduction of a tangled
web of tree roots which were in reality awkward for the actors to negotiate. The question was whether any such
difficulty should be eradicated, leaving the actor 'free' to simulate it, on a physical stage which in fact presented
no difficulty at all.
Click thumbnails for images
In my -admittedly biased -view, ( though one in which I received considerable corroboration) these 'difficulties'
in fact energized both audience and players, heightening the sense of immediacy and involvement. This dynamic
has certainly been found to operate in the case of dance, or so-called 'physical' theatre (as though any theatre were
not physical); the use of the surface as 'actant' developed by Pina Bausch (Café Muller) and the stone strewn floor
created for Strange Fish by DV8, are two notable examples.
Another way in which the spectator's passivity was challenged, related specifically to the action of the play, was
that the auditorium did not remain in its original shape, nor were the audience allowed to remain seated
At the point of Peithetairos's re-entry, now in control of the Bird kingdom, the audience were ordered to their feet
as the benches were re-aligned into a more formal, church-like pattern. They were then ordered to sit down, and
the action continued.
At the end, the point of Pethetairos's triumphal entry, the audience were again ordered to their feet, marshalled
into a choir, and given hymn sheets so that they could join in the final chorus. In fact, once this was under way, the
bird chorus withdrew, leaving the audience reciting the final passage to an effigy of Peithetairos, with no actors
They were then left to make their own way out. No curtain call re-established the demarcation between actors and
audience.(for further discussion of this, see note 7, supra)
This proved the most provocative feature of the production. The cast themselves were never quite sure that this
was the best possible ending; Some student members of the audience in later discussion surprised me by
describing this as their most 'shocking' experience in a theatre, more genuinely disturbing than any stage event they
had witnessed, however violent. The almost universally-felt sensation was one of uneasiness. The audience were
left unsure of what their role had been in the event. The word most frequently used was 'weird'.
Stage Effect and Theatre Magic
One of the questions which had emerged most prominently at the 1994 inaugural meeting of the IFTR
Scenography group in Moscow was a polarity of view regarding setting and stage space, conceived as an active
signifier, on the one hand, or, on the other, as what Christine White called, disparagingly, "monolithic pre-
interpreted structure" .
My own paper on that occasion argued for the possibility that stage space may function effectively as just
such a signification system. That is still my view.
Nevertheless, Chris's analysis of the 'magic' of stage effect and how it functions, related as it is to the work of
such groups as Theatre de Complicite, and some of the work being performed in Moscow, in particular at the
Hermitage Theatre, suggested an alternative approach, in which some important theoretical questions might be
examined in practice. The production of The Birds, to which I was already committed, provided an ideal context
for the experiment.
Chris described two opera productions and some specific stage effects:
"To create the sea voyage, the train unhitched one wagon and with an actor either side was tilted up The key word here, of course, is 'connive' - an active verb. The stage effect demands of the audience that they do
and down and pulled across the stage behind a length of blue silk which was making waves. The sky
grew darker until a full moon set in the inky blue sky. They had arrived in England. A pea green fog
created by an actor wielding a smoke machine, blowing a whistle and waving flags, revealed a station
with people standing waiting." and so on
"It is the very fact that the audience is acknowledged and they are given a role in the changes of scene
and environment that makes the moments of magic and wonder. The "sleight of hand" is more of a
wink at the audience to connive in the changes than a conceit and deception."
This in turn demands of the staging that there be something left for the audience to contribute. A frequently-heard
comment on the design work exhibited at the Prague exhibition was that much of it was too complete, too finished.
One could often barely conceive of the intended contribution of the actors, let alone of the spectator.
For the spectator to enter into the theatrical dialogue, there must be a space for his/her voice. In this sense, any
design, any stage effect, must be part of an enthymematic structure._
As Ian Watson has expressed this in relation to the semiotic analysis of performance, the design, too, must consist
of a system of 'open coding'.
The major scenic transformation in The Birds is the building of the walls of Cloud Cuckoo Land, and the gradual
realization that what had seemed a comforting, welcoming environment has become transformed to a prison camp.
In the light of the speculations prompted by Chris's paper, it seemed to me essential that there should be no
'hidden' scene change. Like the onset of menace in The Fire Raisers, indeed like the growth of Nazism itself,
everything should be done openly and simply, the implications becoming apparent only when the action of the play
has made them inescapable. The audience would therefore not-passively- be shown the transformation, they
would -actively - realize it, possibly each of them at a different moment in time.
The physical reality of the stage action was transparently self -evident; its significance -'meaning' - was actively
constructed by each individual spectator.
The nest consisted of ragged strips of cloth which were hauled up on pulleys, at near-random points in the action,
quite openly, until performers and spectators alike were completely surrounded, and the overall colour tone had
shifted from an airy blue to a sombre brown.
Having embarked in this direction, it then became something of an obsession similarly to 'democratize' every
stage effect, including sound and lighting.
One disquieting aspect of the development of theatre lighting technology has been, to my mind, the diminution of
the creative input of the lighting board operator. However complex the effects, the pushing of a single button to
bring each one about is, in a real sense, a soulless task, and the operator is no longer a true participant in the
For the Birds, the Strand Lightpalette 90 recently installed in the Gulbenkian Studio Theatre , at a cost of £37000,
was simply switched off.
This was not as Luddite a decision as it may seem, though I do own up to Luddite leanings in this area. What was
used were not hand-held torches, or old-fashioned Junior 8's, but an extremely advanced piece of kit, the system-
wide controller , which was placed in the hands of the stage manager, who sat at her desk at floor level, in full
view, costumed, and who occasionally participated in the action.
Initially, the production was conceived with no pre-rigged lanterns, but with all the lighting mounted on four
mobile stands, re-focused by the cast in full view of the audience, as part of the action. In the event this aim was
defeated by sheer practicality, and four pattern 223 lanterns were rigged to provide a permanent general cover.
These were, not, however, used for lighting 'effects' , all of which which were set-up and operated in full view,
but simply to raise the ambient level sufficiently for everyone to be able to see the action. These can be clearly
seen in several of the production photographs.
With more time for rehearsal and experiment I would have liked to find ways of putting all of the lighting 'on
Recorded sound was used, but only on ghetto blasters carried , and switched on and off, by performers. .
How all this worked can probably best be shown by two video clips, one showing the first entrance of , the
second the entrance of the 'gods'.
INSERT VIDEO CLIPS
The second clip illustrates another experiment in the definition of stage space. I have for a number of years, in
various productions, experimented with the on-stage/offstage opposition., and the question of 'liminality'.
In staging the entrance of the three gods I drew upon two sources of reference. The first, not as whimsical as it
may seem, was the memory of a wildlife television documentary about the Serengeti plains. Lions were
wandering about around a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest, who appeared quite unconcerned. The
commentary explained that the herd somehow 'knew' when the lions were hungry, and therefore a threat.
In the theatre of the street, actors seldom 'enter' in the way that they do from behind scenery. They are simply
there, and then, when appropriate, they are THERE, i.e., on stage. The actor's presence in the drama is therefore a
matter of attitude , which is communicated to a responsive audience.
The second source of reference here was Barba, whose investigations into the nature of theatrical 'energy', and the
'dilated' presence, have precisely theorized the process. 
Claude Levi-Strauss has suggested that the introduction of metal tools to a carving culture is the inevitable
beginning of a phase of decadence. In The Way of the Masks he speaks of:
"..the flamboyant decadence that befalls an art suddenly in possession of steel tools, which in their turn
The suggestion is that the technical difficulty of carving with stone tools sets up a tension between artist, tool and
material which results, for Levi Strauss at least, in the most artistically powerful artifacts.
For 'metal tools', are we to read 'computerized lighting, hydraulic lifts, revolves'?
The principle may be seen in the work of such groups as the Bread and Puppet Theatre , in that the sheer poverty
of economic and technical resources, the fact that the materials used in making the masks and puppets are old
sacks, paper, other people's rubbish, clearly catalyses creative energy at the highest level of intensity.
In staging, and costuming, The Birds -all of which was a collective undertaking - I deliberately starved each
designer, whether of mask, costume, prop or puppet, of expensive or sophisticated resources. Although undertaken
in real earnest, there developed a kind of game, to see how 'rough' each item could be, and yet achieve the desired
impact. It became a production joke, that anything needed could be made from cane and cheap calico.
In the event, it proved an almost an infallible rule that 'effectiveness' turned out to be in direct proportion to
'poverty', or 'roughness' of material or process.
I believe there to have been a double reason for this. In the first place, poverty of resource led to greater
concentration of creative energy; in the second place, this approach demands the same complicity on the part of
the audience, the same deliberate act of imaginative looking, as the stage effects described by Chris White. Faced
with a reduction of material resource, the designer, propmaker, costume maker, must seek and demonstrate the
essential, which the audience must be enabled to recognize as such. This recognition is an act of
participation/empowerment . It is, above all, an act, something which is done.
Casting and Performance
Hand in Hand with a consideration of the politics of staging there must be, of course, a similar consideration of
the politics of performance.
The theatrical culture in Britain, certainly, in North America and Europe most probably, is essentially competitive
rather than co-operative. Actors and directors compete for work in a hostile market, and vie with each other for
recognition of 'their' production or performance. This throws an undue emphasis upon technical virtuosity, and has
served to drive audiences from the live theatre to the point that there has been much serious speculation as to
whether the theatre will survive as a living tradition. This does not mean that people do not desire the experience
of theatre; they do, passionately. It is a telling irony that, while the audiences for professional theatre dwindle,
active involvement in amateur -community - theatre continues unabated.
[REFERENCE TO EMPTY SPACE-NOT]
I have argued elsewhere  that the notion of 'acting' prevalent in the English-speaking theatre is a major
obstacle to the opening out -democratization -of the theatre experience. As in most other parts of the world, those
theatrical presentations which have any claim to universal appeal -true 'popularity' - and therefore to reaching the
'amalgam' audience described (supra) by Harbage, are not naturalistically-acted passages from the lives of
imaginary people, let alone phallocentric climactically-constructed tragic dramas.
They are even not 'acted' in the accepted sense, (i.e. performed by what Stefan Brecht calls
"sparsely made-up, plainly-dressed, prosaic naked-faced pseudo-impersonators of persons" .
In spite of the impact of Artaud on twentieth-century theatre practice, the fact that, in truly popular, democratic
theatre, spectacle IN ITS OWN RIGHT holds pride of place, and masks and puppets , music and dance are the
norm, sets it apart from mainstream theatre practice. What is more, a significant majority of such 'popular' -
perhaps 'communal' is a less controversial term - events take place, not in theatres, but at specially selected sites,
converted buildings (Sophie Nield called them the 'discarded spaces of capital') or historic monuments. My
favourite example took place in successive years near my holiday home in Brittany where local village
communities combined resources to present tales from Arthurian Romance (eg Tristan and Isolde) in the ruins,
complete with moat, of the medieval fortress of Elven. The event was always attended to capacity.
[ UPDATE WITH REFS TO TAMARA, ANGEL, ST. PANCRAS etc.]
Theatre of this kind annihilates the proprietorial attitude to acting roles, and to drama itself, as particular
(vernacular) stories give way to myth. In performance terms, the key is of course the mask, material or
metaphorical. The mask effaces,or at least subordinates, the person. Once the step has been taken into the
convention of masked representation, the mask itself, as material object, may even be removed, as the focus of the
spectator will be effectively transferred from the performer to the performance. As in the case of stage 'presence'
referred to above, the mask, in this broader sense, is an attitude, a frame of mind, a function of performance.
The acting company for the Birds consisted predominantly of women, and of students with a range and variety of
presentational skills. Not all of them could 'act' well, ie naturalistically or 'convincingly' in the orthodox sense. In
one sense, this was a reduction of 'resource' wholly compatible with the approach to staging outlined above.
The project therefore required us to find each individual's way to tell a story, to enact a drama, without recourse
to conventions of performance value as understood in the professional theatre. In this way, not only was the
spectator liberated to engage with the action, but each performer was also able to make direct, personal
communication, whether masked or not, or whether manipulating a puppet or manouevering an effigy.
In the event, what emerged as successful (as subsequent discussions with audience members made clear) was the
performance of a group, rather than performances by individual members of the group.
In one other sense this proved a liberation, in much the same way as that in which drag performances, by either
sex, highlight specific and significant aspects of the signified persona. Two women performing the opening
conversation between Euelpides and Peithetairos had licence to 'demonstrate' vulgarity and sexism which would
have been denied to males in the same role.
Like the famous sketches of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, these passages apostrophised offensive material,
focusing critical attention at the same time as liberating laughter.
INSERT VIDEO CLIP]
This is in no sense an attempt to excuse 'bad' or 'amateur' acting. In most cases this is bad precisely because it is a
poor imitation of the received notion of 'good' acting, rather than a true mobilisation of the communicative power
of an individual or - crucially, in the present case - of a group.
Nor do I deny the place of the 'holy' actor, making a life's work out of developing a philosophy of performance
and the heightened skills necessary to realize it.
This is, however, minority theatre, just as much as is expensive mainstream playhouse theatre.