1994: The Birds
I staged this production in 1994, immediately after the twelfth annual
congress of the International Federation for Theatre Research, at which
the Scenography Working Group was inaugurated. By eleven of us. The
burning topic then was reception theory, and the 'activation' of the
Stimulated by the papers I had heard and discussed, I determined to use a
practical production project to investigate some questions that had
begun to interest me.
This was a group project, with the pedagogic imperative that all should
participate equally. I also had the computer lighting console switched off,
so that every part of the production, including the cueing by the Stage
Manager, took place in the presence of the audience. The principal
lighting was by lanterns on mobile stands on the stage floor, moved
around by the performers as required, or by hand-held units.
The group decided to give a gendered reading of what is essentially the
rise of a dictatorship, so, in addition to 'beaks' and wings, the chorus of
birds were given rudimentary breasts.
(those who wish to might see in this a metaphor for the displacement of
early Goddess-worshipping cultures by patriarchal Indo-European
peoples (see the work of Marija Gimbutas, among others.) Not that I'm
suggesting that that's what Aristophanes had in mind.)
The audience were seated on benches (chairs in a later re-staging) set in
a herringbone formation, and surrounded by a blue cloth with stuck-on
clouds. As the play darkened, a correspondingly dark 'nest' was little by
little -again in full view - hauled up to obscure the 'sky'.
There were raised platforms at each corner. Surrounded, the audience
were constrained to turn round to see the action, which swirled around
them. At a halfway point, as Peithetairos assumes control, the audience
were made to stand and move away as the chorus re-arranged the
benches as in a church, with the dictator as the object of worship.
For the final chorus, the paeon to the leader, the audience were made to
stand up and face about and were given a hymn-sheet; the benches were
removed, and the chorus and audience together began the hymn. An
effigy -( the group chose Hitler, but it could equally have been Idi Amin, or,
today, Saddam Hussein) was wheeled into the space.
Gradually, one by one, the performers slipped away, leaving only the
audience, still reciting to the effigy. The Stage Manager switched on the
house lights, and simply told the audience that it was all over. Nervously
they filed out through the gap which appeared in the 'nest'. I was told by
many that this had been the most "weird" - the most commonly used word
- experience that they had had in a theatre.
At a conference the following year, in which I used this production as an
example, I was accused by some of having broken the 'contract' which
should exist between performance and audience.
That, after all, had been the point.
For the full text of that paper, click the link below