THE EMPTY SPACE - NOT!
Paper for Scenography Working Group
Conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research
University of Kent
Important note. I have not, in publishing this paper to the web, entirely edited-out the informal tone which was a consequence
of its having been intended for quite a small group of colleagues who all knew each other. Similarly, I am aware that much has
happened, in both practice and criticism, since 1998.
As web publishing allows a constant process of revision, notes to myself are included, in red. These will change over time.
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space
whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”
Peter Brook The Deadly Theatre :The Empty Space 1968
There would be a strong case for these two sentences to be regarded as the most influential introductory statement in the
development of 20th century theatre theory.
Implicit in them, however, is the paradigm which has relegated stage design to the status of a subsidiary function in the
creation of the theatrical moment, an attitude which, as Arnold Aronson reminds us, has a long pedigree, stretching back to
Aristotle and his opinions on the relation of ‘spectacle’ to poetry’.
Protests from scenographers along these lines have recently been heard on all sides ( most recently at the Theatre in Britain
and Europe: A Visual Dialogue conference held by Wimbledon School of Art at the Haymarket Theatre, in which Pamela
Howard looked forward to the day in which the instigator of a theatrical project might be the designer, rather than the
director). They are beginning to sound forlorn and outdated.
It is not my purpose here to indulge in polemic, but to examine the implications of Brook’s statement in the light of other
theoretical statements, in particular the investigations into theatre semiotics of Eli Rozik and Keir Elam.
The essential dialectic is between the actual , on the one hand, and the intended, or imagined, on the other.
In the first place, of course, Brook’s statement is simply wrong. The action he describes is not all that is needed ‘for an act
of theatre to be engaged’. Brook may call his ‘empty space’ a ‘bare stage’ and so may declare, in the use of the word ‘stage’,
the intention that this be an act of theatre, but it does not become so without a similar declaration of intent on the part of the
To put it crudely, I may sit in an ‘empty’ theatre auditorium and watch a stage hand coiling lighting cables. That is not an ‘act
of theatre’ unless there is a conscious assumption of both performer-ship and spectator-ship.
In the former case we may be considering the concept of the ‘dilated presence’ developed by Barba, ( to which I alluded in
my paper to this group at the Prague Quadrenniale 1995. Some present may remember the Serengeti lions.).
The nature of spectatorship has also, of course, been widely considered, and I do not intend to repeat my own or others’
contributions to the discussion, except to reiterate what we all now accept, that the act of theatre is a matter of consciousness,
in which both spectator and performer are active, and inter-active.
In another sense, Brook’s statement is antinomic.
The title of the book contains the definite article ‘the’. The two sentences I have quoted use the prepositions ‘any’ and ‘this’
to define ‘the’ space under consideration.
This is of course impossible.
In human experience there is not, and cannot be, ‘an’ empty space. We may speak of ’space’, infinite or abstract ‘space’, but
the moment a space is defined, made specific, as here, it ceases to be ‘empty’. To be differentiated from ‘an-other’ space,
space must be interrupted by some defining, corporeal / material entity. It then ceases to be ‘empty’.
It is from this point that the dialectic becomes relevant to scenography. Scenogaphers deal with the material, the corporeal.
Stage Design may be regarded as a binary system, in which something is, or it is not. There is no such thing as ‘no set’ in stage
production, although it is an often-used phrase in description of low-budget, bare-stage performances, and there is no state of
ambiguity; nor is there, in any given moment, the philosophical state of ‘becoming’. The 'movement' which is so much the
essential characteristic of the theatrical/scenographic sign, is in fact a progression from 'moment' to 'moment'.
There is always something there. Or there is nothing. Until there is something.
Of crucial importance too is the immediate reality and effect of the actual something that is there, as well as any signification
intended in the act of performance. We are familiar with Keir Elam’s concept of ‘iconic identity’ in which an object on stage
may stand for itself, ie a chair may signify a chair.
In the vast majority of works addressing theatre semiotics, this is the direction in which the construction moves, ie from
signifier to signified. It ought to be self-evident that a chair, signifying a chair, is still a chair. Whatever else it may be made to
signify, it is still a chair. (This has been theorised, as " irony" as one of the basic precepts of the 'Action Design' developed in
former Czechoslovakia. See Cristilles and Unruh, The Semiotics of Action Design [ADD REF] )
The work of Tatlin and Kandinsky drew attention in the early twentieth century to the identity of the raw materials of
sculpture, and of paint, respectively.
Scenographers such as Neher, Svoboda, Ming Cho Lee, Jaroslav Malina , John Bury and Ralph Koltai have been similarly
concerned with the materiality of their designs - the wood, steel, perspex, fabric, or even mud, from which their designs are
fashioned. This element of their work similarly draws attention to the identity of the 'signifier' as itself. Or rather, not as
itself, but in itself.
Underlying the many works dissecting the process of signification in theatre, there is invariably the assumption that the
‘meaning’ of any element of theatre is something other than' itself '; by definition, almost , the ‘act of theatre’ means
something other than itself.
So, for example, Eli Rozik takes as fundamental to theatre the “ basic distinction between description and world”, and applies
this to both fictional and real worlds:
“As we assume the existence of a real world independent of description in any possible code, we may also ‘Acting’ , therefore, for Rozik, is
conceive the existence of fictional worlds also independent of the descriptions that evoke them”.
“redefine[d] as an intentional performance of iconic sentences which refer to fictional entities, ie of iconic he-(Last year in Puebla in a paper on Pantomime, not given to this working group, I argued that several forms of theatre
sentences which reflect the basic duality of actor-character”. P45.
challenge this duality, in particular many forms of popular theatre and the theatre of Brecht. It is a point to which I will return
In speaking of the non-human practical details of theatrical presentation, ie scenography, Rozik places these within the
category ‘Symbol and Metaphor’.
The progressive understanding of the function of space as metaphor has been throughout this century the spine ( considered
as nerve centre as well as backbone) of the development of scenographic theory. Nevertheless, we may derive some insights
from the way Rozik discusses, say, light, to which he gives some attention :
“Light is a usual metaphor of human understanding. In Macbeth the lack of light, which is one of the central motifs of This is incontrovertible, and in non-theatrical dramatic production, ie a radio production, this ‘conceptual’ scenography does
the play, is loaded with additional lugubrious connotations that revolve around the invocation of night by Lady
Macbeth. Night becomes the cradle of crime, and light an obstacle to the powers of evil. When the first murderer
puts out the light, an act that makes possible Fleance’s escape, the literal act is loaded with an associative periphery
of foolishness. In the same vein, the taper carried by Lady Macbeth in her last scene (Vi) represents the dwindling
light of her soul in its vain attempt to recover sanity. Lady Macbeth is doomed to the very same darkness she had so
fervently invoked. In other words, the light is a metaphor which is used in this context symbolically”.
ADD ALSO p100
indeed function solely as metaphor .In the theatre, it is common that further layers of meaning (using Chris Baugh’s phase) may
be added by manipulation of light not specifically arising from textual prescriptions..
What is distinctive about the theatre, however, is that the quality of light is experienced by the audience, as well as
interpreted. The absence of light, darkness, is a fundamental experience, charged with a multiplicity of ‘meanings’, but also
evoking atavistic emotional responses. A spotlight shone directly at the audience may well ‘represent’ the enlightenment of
Paul on the road to Damascus, say, but it is also actually blinding. The spectator experiences this directly. It is, therefore,
simultaneously , descriptive and actual. In Rozik’s terms, it is both ‘world’ and ‘description’.
To return for a moment to acting, and to the points I made earlier, I offer another example of one of the most powerful
moments I experienced in theatre:
I was asked some years ago to adjudicate the regional heats of a Drama competition for Amateur companies giving short
plays, leading to a National prize. I was to judge the heats from North-East England.
I was surprised in many ways by this experience, which involved a week during which I saw some fifteen short plays. One
performance was presented by a group formed from the Orchard Park housing estate, one of the poorest residential areas of
the city of Hull It concerned drug abuse on a housing estate, and featured characters such as James Dean, Elvis Presley, and
Judged by many of the conventional criteria applied in the criticism of performance, it was dreadful.
Sets were poorly designed and built , with badly functioning sound effects. There was little evidence of what is accepted as
‘acting’ ability, and a script which could not have been taken seriously as dramatic literature.
The group had been formed, and the production directed, by one of the performers, a woman who took the part of a mother of
children experiencing problems with drugs. In the middle of the piece she had a speech to deliver to another character,
describing some of her problems.
What happened was that she strayed from what had been written as her speech, and launched into a passionate declamation,
describing problems with housing, claiming social benefits, the difficulty of improving her position, and so on. In centre stage,
she had clearly forgotten the character she was playing, and the diatribe became wilder and wilder.
Eventually she came to a standstill, exhausted. Somehow the group returned to the script, and the production limped to its
In that moment, as she abandoned her ‘character’, she demolished the barrier between ‘description’ and ‘world’; as her
"iconic he-sentences", became "I-sentences", she produced a devastating theatrical moment. The audience were both shocked
and exhilarated. The performer had found a platform to express herself - to make a statement - which no other medium would
or could ever have provided her.
The implications of this example for the politics and continuing relevance of stage performance, I think are considerable, and
far-fetched as this may seem, I derive from it an insight of relevance to the ongoing debate concerning the creative
relationships in theatre. Relevant to actors and directors as to scenographers, but particularly important to the latter as new
types of artforms open up new possibilities.
[Also Rozik p.102
Also Rozik p113 on sets.]
The presentation by Michael Morris of ArtAngel at the conference to which I referred earlier showed the work of creative
artists, who at one time might have been called performance artists, whose work, sometimes classified as ‘installation’ art,
indicated the potential for original, and originating, statements to be made by designers , as what Rozik terms ‘dynamic’, as
opposed to ‘static’ ‘formulations’, and for there to be other models for the theatrical process than that in which a ‘play’ is
received, then mediated to an audience ,with a prescribed linear, if not hierarchical, sequence of contributions intended to
build up an ‘image’ of a fictional reality differentiated from the ‘world’.
Nicholas Till has pointed out another problem with Brook’s statement – the presumption that any space is ‘empty’ until
‘filled’ with the creative energy of the artist – presumably Brook.
However, just as there is no space which is ‘empty’, so any space has identity. No space is neutral.
AGAIN NOTE ROZIK 120
In the construction of an ‘act of theatre’, Scenography will have reached a new level when it is possible, rather than
conceiving of a fictional reality for which one then seeks an image, to begin with an image, and proceed to explore its
potential for meaningful expression
I am not calling here for the resurrection of the extreme opposition to actor and written text represented by, say, Prampolini
with his Magnetic Theatre. In any case, that tradition has survived and flourished as installations and performances all over
The point I am seeking to make is that the theatre does not seem to me successfully to have learned from these traditions, and
assimilated them into itself. In fact, the work of performance artists, and installation artists, is in my own experience often
greeted with a studied raise of the eyebrow. I recently conducted a debate with a colleague (probably well-known to this
audience) who was acting as External Examiner for the University of Hull M.A. in Stage Production, with a specialism in
Stage Design. The subject was a dissertation written on Kurt Schwitters. We both acknowledged the fact that it was worth a
The question he posed, however, was "How relevant is this to Drama?"
I'm glad to be able to say that the distinction was awarded.
Direct sensory experience, formed into metaphor, is that which makes the theatre unique and necessary.Two weeks ago in the
Guardian newspaper a leading critic posed again the question IS THEATRE NECESSARY? It may be that mainstream theatre
practitioners should be more enthusiastic in experimenting with alternative frameworks of imagery, iconography and
experience, in order to ensure that theatre is perceived to be relevant .
Whether it actually is so is a question we might perhaps put to the woman from Orchard Park.
GET THE GUARDIAN QUOTE
Add acknowledgement of LePage, Foreman, Wilson. All not quite what may be called 'mainstream', but far more so now than
when this paper was written.
Add also reference to Zarilli,2006.