Important Note:  The first version of this paper contained over 50 footnotes. Probably too many anyway, but my
          web publishing software does not allow the importing  of  fully-formatted documents in Word.
           I have, therefore, drastically reduced the number, and attempted to incorporate references as much as
           possible in the text. The 20 notes which remain are in the form of links, not to individual notes, but
           to  the   'footnotes'  page. leaving the reader to find the appropriate number. Rather as in a book, really.
           Whatever next?

           Also, as web publishing allows a continuing process of revision and addition, there are, here and there,
           notes to myself (in red).
           A separate bibliography  will remain in a state  of ongoing development.

In 1928 it did not seem a statement of the obvious that:

    "In undertaking to review the development of stage decoration during the last quarter of a century, it is
    essential that we have some belief in what constitutes an aesthetic of the art of the theatre..."  (Fuerst &
    Hume 1928). (1)

Given that the authors were attempting a synthesis of the explosion of experiment and controversy initiated by Adolphe Appia
and Edward Gordon Craig, and subsequently to include practically the whole corpus of Constructivism as well as the
exuberant, not to say violent, proclamations of the Italian Futurists, the rather desperate note struck here is perhaps not
surprising. Their conclusion, that:

    " to express, by visual means, the psychological essence or inner mood of the play had (post-war) become the
    principal concern of the stage setting." (2)

and, again,that:

    "the stage decoration must reflect the inner soul of the drama, the atmosphere of the play as a whole"

 axiomatic as it now seems, does not carry the "development of an aesthetic of the art of the theatre" much further than Appia
himself had taken it, in his insistence upon what he termed the "actuality" of the actor.

Since that fundamental conceptual breakthrough ,
(3) with its concomitant recognition of the importance of 'space' (4) ,
discourse on stage setting has on the one hand tended to concentrate on one particular aspect of performance space,( see
below) and on the other has fallen foul of the postwar tendency simply to relegate stage design to a position of subsidiarity in
the production process. As Arnold Aronson has reminded us, quoting Aristotle, this attitude has a long pedigree:

    "The Spectacle has, indeed an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts [of drama] it is the least artistic,
    and connected least with the art of poetry…. Twenty four hundred years later, many people still consider design
    a secondary form "(Aronson 1985, quoting Aristotle, The Poetics)

In accounting for this, Aronson makes the point that discussion of the aesthetics of stage design has been impeded by the fact
that most designers keep poor records of their own work, which is by its nature ephemeral. To this one might add that,
whereas actors and directors are accustomed to deal in words, and are traditionally eloquent about their work, designers, on
the whole do not, and are not, at least in print.

The enthusiasm for `actors' theatre', coupled with the widespread economic pressure under which many theatre groups have
operated has simply reinforced the denial of the importance of `scenery'.

There has of course been much exciting and experimental design, a growing number of interviews and  biographies of
designers, and a steady stream of practical manuals, few of which dip more than a toenail into the theoretical water
The area referred to above in which much discussion has taken place concerns the interrelationship(s)  between  performance
space, theatre space, and theatre architecture. Also, much consideration has been devoted to 'virtual' space as a concept
within the playtext, and to space as a domestic, social  and political concept ( Levebvre
[DATE], Chaudhuri [DATE],
[DATE])  but, with some few exceptions (Simonson [DATES}Svoboda 1992, Aronson{DATE}) there has been
scant systematic public discussion of the principles governing the creation of stage settings, conceived as physical space,
recreated, manipulated and articulated as part of the overall experience of a play in performance

{It should be said here that there has been a proliferation of such studies since this paper was first given, largely under
the aegis of the Scenography Working Group of IFTR, inaugurated on that occasion, and through the establishment of the

'Poor Theatre', in various manifestations (Grotowski, Schechner, The Living Theatre, Barba) placing the emphasis very
firmly upon the performer, and upon the performer/spectator interaction, has limited the consideration of stage space to its
implications for that relationship, frequently with explicit denial of the validity of the stage setting as such.
Grotowski, famously, insisted upon

    "...elimination of plastic elements which have a life of their own (i.e. represent something independent of the
    actor's activities) [which] led to the creation by the actor of the most elementary and obvious objects. By his
    controlled use of gesture the actor transforms the floor into a sea, a table into a confessional, a piece of iron into an
    animate partner, etc." (Grotowski,Jerzy, Towards a Poor Theatre)

Here Grotowski comes very close to the concept  of "Action Design" as first developed in former Czechoslovakia,
particularly  Jaroslav Malina's "transformability of signs"
[INSERT NOTE ref Chrisilles & Unruh].
Schechner has in fact written of Grotowski that :

    "the spatial dynamics of the production metaphorize the drama" (1974)

Nothing in the present paper is intended to contradict these precepts, which have become a vital part of contemporary
scenographic practice. [For further discussion of related points see my chapter
Sermons in Stones  in Levy, S. (ed) Theatre
and Holy Scripture]
The point I wish to argue, however, is that "plastic elements" may, indeed, have a "life of their own" as part of the structure
of meaning informing the theatrical event. Indeed, acceptance of this premise is  fundamental to an understanding of the
concept of 'collage', which, I would argue, had by the mid twentieth century come to be a concept almost as fundamental as
that of 'space' itself in the work of designers such as Svoboda, Minks and Ming Cho Lee.


The major early 20c breakthrough in the development of an aesthetic of stage design was the recognition, by Appia, both of
what he called the
actuality of the actor, i.e. the acceptance of the plastic reality of the human presence on stage, and the
importance of the expressive quality of stage space, related to the desired
emotional quality of the performance experience.  .

Put simply, the progression of the way in which stage space was conceived was thus from, first, as background
to, then
of, and finally platform for, the actor.

As late as 1928, Sheldon Cheney offers his (by then reactionary) opinion that:

    " Stage decoration is, in simplest terms, the craft of creating an adequate and appropriate background for theatric
    (Cheney, S. 1928)
    (my italics)

Note also here the choice of the word 'decoration'. Although Cheney himself later comes to question his use of the term, it is
still -surprisingly -the term chosen
[? years later] by no lesser a semiotician than Erika Fischer-Lichte.

The question of terminology has been a continuing problem. Svoboda argued :

    "The designer's participation in production has had the most varied designations. The Germans, and we Czechs,
    following them, have referred to stage "outfitting" English-speaking countries "stage design" is the usual term;
    in France, "decoration". These terms reduce a designer's collaboration to "framing" the dramatic work, rather than
    sharing in its complete creation. But if we consider the experiences and history of Italian theatre and its designers
    (eg Serlio, Palladio, and Galia de Bibiena),we discover that they were joint authors of the theatrical action....
    To render a more precise, more complete, and more meaningful designation of our artistic role, I prefer the term
    "scenography".(Svoboda 1992) (7)

The other semantic difficulty has been how to express the relation of the stage setting to the play, on the one hand, and the play
production, on the other.

To the instances already cited could be added Cheney's engagement with the notion of Expressionism in design, which,
containing as it does some key phrases, is worth quoting at length:

    " In stage decoration ( "decoration" has become a very unserviceable word here) it may be that the designer throws
    over allegiance to natural aspect in order to gain expressiveness through rearrangements of motifs out of nature, or
    through abstract manipulation of line, mass and color in the surrounding walls of a setting; or it may be that he
    transfers the play out of any mounting in built-up backgrounds to a formal stage, a platform that remains
    permanently and confessedly an acting platform and not a framework for picture scenes; or perhaps he aims at the
    nearest achievable approximation to a toe-hold in absolute space. But detachment from nature is at the bottom of
    these methods...
    ...Sur-realism seems to me a matter of surface Expressionism, however deep down in their beings the artists find
    their inspiration, and it is not likely to affect staging profoundly unless the principles are applied primarily to the
    conception of the play. So too the systems of those painters who design in total abstraction, with pattern-pictures of
    undeniable if  puzzling appeal. Their stage backgrounds, as worked out for instance in the Bauhaus group in
    Dessau, have elemental simplicity and precise formal qualities, but apparently not in particular a dramatic value as
    background to the moving actor"
    (Cheney op. cit)

Here Cheney refers both to 'background to' and 'platform for' the actor. There is a clear sense of the actor's emergence from
the totality of the stage picture, and its ultimate subordination to his/her presence.

What I want to concentrate upon, however, is his coinage of the term 'dramatic value' to embody the idea that the stage set
may in itself function as an expressive element within the play production. It is hardly coincidence that he was at the time
confronted by the outpourings of the Italian futurists, ranging from the comparatively open-minded Bragaglia:

    "An exposition of Scenography can easily include all the various factors of effects, in which the collective art of
    the theatre is naturally interwoven. Modern reform intends to return to theatrical machinery its ancient prestige,
    which procured so many successes, triumphs and glories for the genial and ingenious work of our scenic artists"(8)

to the far extreme represented by  Prampolini's rejection of the human actor altogether:

    "I consider the actor a useless element in theatrical action and moreover one that is dangerous to the future of the
    The actor is that element in interpretation which offers the greatest unknown quantities and the smallest
    The theatre, in its purest expression, is a centre of revelation of mysteries,-tragic,-dramatic-comic,-beyond
    human phenomena.

    We are tired of seeing this grotesque rag of humanity agitating itself futilely under the vast dome of the stage in an
    effort to  stimulate its own emotions. The appearance of the human element on the stage, destroys the mystery of the
    beyond, which  must rule in the theatre, a temple of spiritual abstraction." (9)
             (original orthography)

Cheney's perplexity in the face of this is understandable:

    " However interested we may be in plastic values per se, and in scenic imagination, we seem to have got beyond
    stage decoration in the sense in which I chose the term for the title of this book. I am frankly writing about changes
    in the platform for acting. (Cheney, op cit)
    ( my italics)

I have already cited Fuerst and Hume. (supra, note 4)

Some forty years later, to take an example from many 'manuals' of set design published in the meantime, Arnold S. Gillette
confronts the same semantic problem:

    "Expressive Setting"
    The Mood And Spirit of the Play

    No set of rules can be formulated to apply with equal success to the designs for all settings. What may prove correct
    and suitable for one play may be misleading and injurious to another. However, there is one requirement for a
    successful design that is not likely to meet with an exception: the setting should be expressive of the play for
    which it was designed.
    The style of the design makes little difference. It may be realistic, suggestive, or stylized, but it must always reflect
    the mood and spirit of the play. . (Gillette, 1967)(10)
    ( my italics)

Still, there is no effective conceptual framework - these terms are vague: 'dramatic value'  and design 'expressive of the play'.
And, it will be noted, the reference is continually to design as an engine of emotional impact, of atmosphere, mood, and so on.

Part of the aesthetic problem has consisted in the attempt to define terms in speaking of space. For the purposes of this paper,
and following a number of contemporary theorists, I propose three distinct 'categories' of space relevant to the theatrical
experience. All three frequently co-exist within the same physical/spatial structure:

1)  The physical reality of the space within which a performance takes place. The theatre building.
Called by Scolnicov   THEATRE SPACE.

Theory in this area has primarily concentrated on the effect of spatial disposition upon the actor-audience relationship, and is
essentially Theatre Architecture. This conception of space has come to dominate the development of stage design theory,
focusing the debate on the nature of the space within which a performance takes place, with the weight of preference either
firmly in favour of versatility and adaptability of theatre spaces, or firmly in rejection of dedicated theatre spaces per se.  

2)  What Scolnicov calls THEATRICAL SPACE - the conception of space within the play. This is best explained by one of
her own examples, the room in which Macbeth murders Duncan. This may alternatively be termed 'conceptual space'; it is
clearly a matter of great importance to the actor, and so to the audience, but is not -necessarily -physically realised. (I offer
below an account of an experiment(
The Power of Darkness, 1990)  in which such a space was - at least partially - realised)

3)  The point at which these come together. The stage setting. Closely related as it is to the general space within which it is
arranged, this is nevertheless clearly distinct. In making these  distinctions I have the (considerable) support of Svoboda

    "Dramatic space has the same characteristics as a poetic image. Its inseparable property is the fictional space of an
    imaginary stage that reaches beyond the physical stage in all directions. Dramatic space is Protean in its mutability
    of size and identity. Opposing this dynamic space, then, is the actual, static theatre space, functional space, whose
    specific type is determined by the relation of stage and audience: proscenium space, central space, thrust space,
    variable space."
    "Theatre space is a familiar schema, to which a production is supposed to subordinate itself even at the cost of
    becoming  deformed. And if we continue to be preoccupied merely with theatre space, we'll be solving something
    that in its very foundation is not concrete. We'll be trying to modernize an old architectonic type with new external
    elements, without ever touching the real heart of the problem. Production space, on the other hand, gets its
    dimensions from the dramatic work and its inner forces - time, rhythm, movement, suggestion, intangible energy.
    Though intangible they are nevertheless real, in the way sound waves determine the curved contour of a concert
    hall." (Svoboda 1992)
    (my italics)

So, to denote the constructed, manipulated space, physically real; not '
created'- how can space be 'created'? - but organised
and divided, articulated and inflected as a creative tool, Svoboda gives us a new term:
Production space.

What I here propose is that the capacity of the 'production space', so conceived, to be "expressive of the play", may be
extended to include a more direct narrative, or even exegetical function, in addition to, or amplification of, the orchestration
of mood. In the semiotic armoury of theatre production, space may become, in its own right, a signifier, as it has always been
in the architecture and appointments of churches, temples and other 'sacred' spaces (and see below).
Therefore, to add a term of my own to what is becoming a bewildering list, I propose 'Significant Space', to denote this
function of the stage set.'
CONSIDER HERE FRY & BELL -Significant Form]



Perhaps the single most celebrated passage in the development of stage design theory is Appia's account of his staging for  
Tristan and Isolde, most widely known to speakers of English  in the translation by  Lee Simonson(1950) (13). This text is
justly credited with having encouraged a fundamental revision of the conception of stage space as an expressive tool. It seems
appropriate at this point, therefore,  to interrogate Appia's description in order to determine the extent to which the notion of
'significant space' is implicit.

Appia  summarises the function of his setting in familiar terms:

    "It is essential for the spiritual conflict involved that some form of representation be found which allows it to be
    successfully dramatized. Therefore the problem of the scene designer is not to reconcile the inner and outer drama
    of the opera itself, but to establish their relation in a way which will make their import clear. Moreover the
    audience can be made directly aware of the inner or spiritual action involved only by some form of scenic
    investiture which is based upon the dramatic line of the play".
    (Appia, q.& tr. Simonson 1950)

So the necessity for the setting to relate to the 'action' of the play, in the Aristotelian sense (praxis), is clearly stated. The
means by which this may be achieved are also outlined, in general terms:

    "Let us sum up the role that the stage setting plays in Tristan and Isolde. In the first act it dramatizes in the most
    tangible way the conflict which eventually becomes an inner and a spiritual one in the lives of the two
    protagonists....In the second  act the greatest simplification of the stage setting is essential.  However, in order to
    preserve its connection with the dramatic action it becomes, as indicated by the roles of the actors, a highly
    expressive arrangement of stage levels unified by the lighting which has the further purpose of dramatizing the
    action involved" (ibid)

There is here both the suggestion that simplification of the setting will increase its expressive potential, and that the
disposition of the spaces may itself be 'expressive',
We must press more closely to guess at what is precisely meant here.

Elsewhere in the text Appia seems further to subordinate the setting to what is happening on it:

    "The role which lighting has to play in this act is therefore clearly indicated. As long as light is only a source of
    suffering for  Tristan he must not be directly touched by it. As soon as he is able to accept its reality and use it as a
    medium for his visions it illuminates his face.
    This is the entire scenic problem of the act and determines the way both the setting and its arrangement are to be
    In order to achieve this effect the area of light must be greatly limited and a great deal of space left for shadows.
    Under these circumstances it would appear as though the scenery were totally unimportant. However,  in order to
    provide the right background for the light, the setting must be carefully planned and because the setting has only this
    function there cannot be much choice as to how the site of the action is to be realized." (ibid)

The physical setting, then, is important as a platform for action, and a vehicle for lighting. As a signifier in its own right its
function would seem here to be explicitly denied. Elsewhere, it is unequivocally so:

    "What method of stage setting should be adhered to in a drama where the physical setting, the outer world it
    embodies , is so essentially unimportant? - Unquestionably, the utmost simplification of all of its decorative and
    pictorial elements.
    ... insofar as we make the spectator aware of how unimportant the physical stage setting is in comparison to the
    inner spiritual action, we induce him vicariously to become a part of this inner spiritual drama". (ibid)

Nonetheless, Appia is extremely specific in his description of the actual physical features of his set. In long passages  he
describes the precise relationship of platforms, ramps and stairways to each other.
In his descriptions of the action of the acts as he conceives them, however, we find the detail repeatedly qualified. He  speaks
of a "
barely noticeable ramp"; they come towards us "imperceptibly from the upper terrace".;.. "the forms which demarcate
the stage setting are seen
only hazily".... During the entire first scene Isolde and Brangaene stay on this terrace and between
them and the foreground one senses a declivity, the forms of which
one cannot identify " (my italics throughout)

At one crucial point, in describing the action,

    "The various platforms must be painted so as to seem as far as possible a unit, and they are only noticeable as the
    actors  move on or across them (ibid)

So, on the face of it, the setting here is conceived entirely as an enabling device, the blank screen upon which the action will
be articulated by actors, and by the all-important manipulation of light.

There are, however, indications that, although Appia did not articulate, and indeed seems to deny, the function of the set as
signifier, this was incorporated into the practical decisions he made.

    "The lines which indicate the top of the stage setting must not be anything like a symmetrical arch of branches
    and leaves, but rather lean towards the left side somewhat in the fashion of an  arbour.  At the right side they
    must extend upwards with as much definition as possible so that this half of the stage keeps its essential
    characteristic: the left half, a refuge and resting place completely confined, the right side an opening leading
    out into the unknown" (ibid)

and again:

    "In the setting, now cold in colour and hard as bone, only one spot is veiled from the dawning day and remains
    soft and shadowy: the bench at the foot of the terrace" (ibid)

My conclusion is , therefore, that Appia included a notion of 'significant space' in his practice, even while seeming to deny it
in theory.

Cheney reaches a similar conclusion:

    "Appia did not quickly grasp at abstraction as Craig did. He did not make use of line, proportion, architectural
    mass, so freely, for he was not thinking in terms of an entirely different stage in those early years. He contented
    himself with giving atmosphere and depth to the stage, minimizing the physical setting as far as then seemed
    practical, and softening, veiling, dramatizing it with light. He succeeded in making his stage primarily sculptural
    rather than pictorial - grasping the principle of "the plastic" almost a generation before it came to common
    acceptance - and thus brought to an end the conflict between the actor and the scene" (Cheney, op. cit.)(15)

Nor, with due observance to both futurism and constructivism   have theoretical speculations since Appia included systematic
discussion  of this potential , despite abundant evidence of its power in practice.

I found an inspiration for practical investigation along these lines outside the canon of theatrical writing.


Although most branches of Western art, painting, sculpture, music and dance, have been greatly influenced by the art of`
'traditional' societies in what Richard Schechner , twenty years ago, called  the "hot interest in anthropology":

    "The hot interest in anthropology over the past generation or so has not been all good. Artists and critics alike have
    turned to 'primitive' man with embarrassing yearning" (Schechner 1974),

there is rather less , and less immediate, evidence of the impact of the art of non-European traditions  in the work of
designers  of stage settings, apart from the straightforward appropriation of motifs.

Schechner specifically recommends to theatre practitioners five qualities of what he calls 'actuals', number five of which is
that "Space is used concretely and organically". He continues:

    "Surely the need for scene design in our theatres is an attempt to overcome the limitations of ready-made space as
    well as an outlet for mimetic impulses. A strong current of the new theatre is to allow the event to flow freely
    through space and to design whole spaces entirely for specific performances. Grotowski is a master of this, using
    very simple elements and combining these with meaningful deployment of the audience and precise movement of
    the performers so that the spatial  dynamics of the production metaphorize the drama".(Schechner, op cit)

Although the choice of terminology here, in particular the suggestion of metaphor, indicates a notion of what I have called
'significant space', the reference is still to an overall environment for performance, rather than the inflection of detail.  In
terms of semiotics, the metaphoric -or 'significant' - use of space is 'paradigmatic' rather than 'syntagmatic'.
So-called 'primitive 'ritual does, however, provide examples of a more 'syntagmatic' use of space, consideration of which
may be of practical assistance to the set-designer. One such I have had the opportunity to test in practice.

An example of anthropological research as illumination of performance theory. A case study.

In The Ritual Process Victor Turner provides, inter alia, an account of the articulation of symbols in the ritual activity of the
Ndembu, a Zambian people. In Turner's own words:

    " In an Ndembu ritual context, almost every article used, every gesture employed, every song or prayer, every
    unit of space and time, by convention stands for something other than itself. It is more than it seems, and often
    a good deal more".(17)
       One of many rituals described by Turner is that called by the Ndembu  'ISOMA', a term used for both the ritual and the
condition it is intended to cure, namely, difficulty experienced by a woman in giving birth to healthy children:

    "A woman who is 'caught in ISOMA' is very frequently a woman who has had a series of miscarriages
    or abortions".

Turner's exegesis is thorough, covering all aspects of the ritual, and providing analysis of the semantic significance of each of
its elements, as listed above. In order to concentrate on only one aspect, the use of space, it has been necessary drastically to
reduce his account of what actually takes place. What follows is all Turner, but by no means all of Turner:

    "  As with all  Ndembu rites, the pattern of procedure in each specific case is set by the diviner originally consulted
    about the patient's affliction....It is he who decrees that the rites must begin at the hole or burrow, either of a giant
    rat (chituba) or of an ant-bear (mfufi). Why does he make this rather odd prescription? Ndembu explain it as
    follows: Both these animals stop up their burrows after excavating them. Each is a symbol (chijikiliju) for the
    ISOMA shade-manifestation which has hidden  away the woman's fertility. The doctor adepts must open the
    blocked entrance of the burrow, and thus symbolically give her back her fertility....
          The burrow must be near the source of the stream where the curse was uttered. The utterance of the curse is
    usually  accompanied by the burial of 'medicines'....from my knowledge of other Ndembu rites,  I strongly suspect
    that these are hidden near the river source. The animal's burrow provides the reference point for the spatial
    structure of the sacred site....
         ...the patient's husband, if she has one currently, constructs for her use during the subsequent seclusion period a
    small round grass hut, just outside the ring of a dozen or so huts that constitutes an Ndembu village. Such a hut
    also made for girls undergoing seclusion after their puberty rites, and the ISOMA hut is explicitly compared with
    this. The patient is like a novice. Just as a puberty novice is "grown" into a woman, according to Ndembu thinking.
    so the ISOMA candidate is to be   regrown into a fertile woman....
       A red cock, supplied by the husband, and a white pullet, supplied by the patient's matrikin, are then collected by
    the  adepts, who proceed to the particular stream source where the divination previously indicated that the curse
    was laid.
    They then examine the ground carefully for signs of a giant rat's or ant-bear's burrow....
      The next task is to tie hanks of grass into two knots, one above the filled-in entrance to the burrow, the other about
    four feet away above the tunnel made by the animal. The clods beneath these are removed by hoe, and the senior
    adept and his major male assistant begin to dig deep holes there, known as 'makela' (singular, IKELA), a term
    reserved for holes serving a magico-religious purpose. Next, two fires are kindled at a distance of about ten feet
    from the holes and nearer the second than the first. One fire is said to be "on the right hand side"...and is reserved
    for the use of the male adepts: the other "on the left hand side" is for the women.....

      After the senior adept and his principal male assistant have inaugurated the digging, they hand over their hoes to
    the  other male adepts, who continue to excavate the holes until they are about four to six feet deep. The burrow
    entrance is known as "the hole of the giant rat"(or "ant-bear"), the other as the "new hole". The animal is known as
    the "witch",...and   the burrow entrance is said to be "hot". The other hole is called KU-FOMWISHA or
    KU_FOMONA, verbal nouns that signify  respectively "cooling down" and "domesticating". When they have
    reached the appropriate depth, the adepts commence to dig toward one another until they meet about halfway,
    having completed a tunnel...This has to be wide enough for one person to pass through. Other adepts break or bend
    the branches of trees in a wide ring around the whole scene of ritual activity, to create a sacred space that rapidly
    achieves structure. To ring something round is a persistent theme of  Ndembu ritual; it is usually accompanied by
    the process of making a clearing by hoe. In this way a small realm of order is created in the formless milieu of the
    What follows in Turner's account is a catalogue of articles pressed into service for the purposes of this ritual, each
because of some relevant symbolic attribute. Pieces of bark, leaves, and so on, as well as a red cock and white pullet, are
used in various ways, as the woman being cured, and her husband, move in a predetermined sequence between the two holes,
the 'hot' and the 'cool', and perform certain prescribed actions. Of  the symbolism involved, Turner gives the explanation
offered by a Ndembu informant:

    " The IKELA(hole) of heat is the IKELA of death. The cool IKELA is life. The IKELA of the giant rat is the IKELA
    of misfortune  or grudge...The new IKELA is the idea of making well..or curing. An IKELA is located at or near the
    source of a stream; this represents LUSEMU, the ability to produce offspring.......The woman...must go into the hole
    of life, and pass through the tunnel  to the hole of death".

It is clear that the ISOMA ritual is classifiable as theatre; it is as expressive as it is functional, and its symbolism is rich and
complex. It is not, however, sufficiently close to the drama of literature to permit the application of Hanna Scolnicov's
concept of 'theatrical space within' and 'theatrical space without', except insofar as " a small realm of order is created in the
formless milieu of the bush". One might also consider the conceptual location of the ancestor 'shades' and spirits to which
reference is made.
The performance area is clearly, however, a 'theatre space'; it is also a 'theatrical space', or, in Svoboda's term, 'Production
Space' in that its very creation has been part of the 'performance'
(18) ,and every feature has been chosen for its semiotic, as
well as its expressive, capability . It does not merely provide an environment within which the ritual may be performed, it
provides a context for the action, and yet more, it is itself a complex significant statement forming part of the whole.
This is achieved without compromising the function of the setting as engine for the generation of 'mood' or 'atmosphere'. The
ISOMA ritual is manifestly a highly emotional experience, involving emotional transitions as well as an overall mood: a
'syntagmatic' progression, as well as an atmospheric 'paradigm'.

As a practical point, it is also worth adding that this setting is not 'expensive.' In material, as well as philosophical terms,
theatre does not come any 'poorer' than this.
Furthermore, although the expressive function of the Isoma ritual is clear, each of the many decisions catalogued above
concerning the organization of space and the spatial disposition of participants is made in accordance with a system of
signification, of meaning. There is no example of a placement of any component for a generalised 'effect', without reference to
its place in the overall symbolic structure.

In suggesting a ritual such as Isoma as an example for designers in the theatre I by no means seek to deny the  importance of
choices based on aesthetics (taste?) alone. There may, for instance, be no particular symbolic significance in  the choice of  
one colour rather than another for a particular feature. The space is, however, significantly altered by any physical feature,
even only a chair; this inevitably affects relationships within that space, and will be interrogated, even only subliminally, for
'meaning' by the spectator.

Paradoxically, interest in this aspect of a ritual such as Isoma tends to oppose the thrust of the 'hot interest in Anthropology'.
The object of the twentieth century's 'embarrassing yearning', broadly speaking, was, for Artaud in particular, a search for
true affective force, a liberation from the tyranny of the word. Frequently contained in the many formal and informal
manifestos delivered since the 1960s is some form of denial of the validity of  the  interrogation of a performance in search of
'meaning', the editing process of the conscious mind. 'Visceral'  responses are  widely  privileged over 'cognitive'

I suggest that the subordination of meaning to emotional effect, at first, from Artaud, a desperate plea for the liberation of
affect, became obsessive in a climate of fashionable anti-intellectualism, and has more recently harmonised with the
postmodern rejection of "closed systems of meaning"
(19) and that (to return to the point here) the physical environment of a
set design has more of a part to play than merely establishing a suitable environment within which, or platform upon which, a
play may be performed.

I am not proposing here a formula which I would expect to be appropriate to the same degree to every production project, and
certainly not one which could ever substitute for a designer's instinct. What I suggest is that conscious application of the
process implied here is likely to prove valuable in the conception and realisation of a stage setting, even if only as a
mechanism for evaluation after the design has been conceived.

A CASE STUDY : The Power of Darkness  [link to........  production images and notes ]

In February 1990 I designed and directed a production of Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness  in the Gulbenkian Studio
Theatre, University of Hull.
An account of this production written to examine a related, though tangential, theoretical question , was published in
STUDIES IN THEATRE PRODUCTION, volume 2, 1990. Selected passages from that article, presented here in colour,  
serve equally as an illustration of the way in which the concept of 'significant space' was invoked as an expressive tool.
[these passages are not here  separately referenced as footnotes]

In many ways, the play was an ideal subject for any investigation into stage space in action. There is throughout a dialectic
between "inside" and "outside", centred upon the cottage in and around which the action takes place.

    "The social setting is a patriarchal peasant society  in which poverty is a fact of life, and women are demonstrably
    without any form of economic self-sufficiency. The point is made in the text by the old woman, Matriona:
    "My dear, if someone else gets that money, you'll weep the rest of your life. They'll throw you out of this house with a widow you'll walk with a beggar's pouch"

[This of course raises the whole question of the gendering of space as a facet of its 'significance'. Too large a question to
broach within the present paper, but germane]

    "Although this is the only occasion upon which she makes specific use of it, the spatial metaphor springs
    immediately to the mind, fundamental as it is to our sense of home, hearth, community and general well-being. A
    rejected son, daughter, wife, husband or lover is, in the popular idiom, invariably "thrown out". In Act three, Nikita
    literally throws Anisya out into the cold.

    There is clearly an invitation to the designer to make use of the same metaphor in a physical sense. Of six scenes,
    three take place inside Piotr's, later Nikita's, cottage. The others take place in various other spaces outside -the
    street, the  porch, the barn....."[INSERT LINKS TO IMAGES]

For the purposes of this production, the three outside scenes were played in a single "exterior". This simplified the
inside/outside dialectic which was so central a theme; this was further emphasised by the choice of a 'thrust' seating
arrangement, which effectively allowed the audience to experience the sense of both inside and outside.

    "Having established this overall arrangement, it then proved remarkable how often, at various key points in the
    action, Tolstoy was found to make specific use of the spatial metaphor.The first statement of the play is a "noise
    off", the noise of runaway  horses, with subsequent lines of dialogue directed outside...There follows a sequence of
    scenes in which encounters between characters inside the cottage...are interwoven with other -imagined and
    reported - encounters in the yard outside. While  Nikita's parents discuss his wedding with his employer, Piotr -
    outside- Piotr's wife Anisya, with whom Nikita is having an affair, reacts to the news, inside. The girl Anyutka
    comes in and goes out twice, each time reporting on events outside, which are then brought to a climax onstage. The
    door becomes an important pivotal point of action; three "illicit" conversations take  place between different pairs,
    in which there is the constant awareness that the wrong person might "come in". The act of entering itself is given
    particular importance. The pious Akim crosses himself in front of the icon as he enters...In act three, also set inside
    the cottage, the door becomes even more a focus of action...Characters enter, referring to the cold outside.

    Akim enters with a blessing...
    At the high point of tension Nikita arrives, drunk. At this point he is married to Anisya, and therefore owner of the
    cottage. Nevertheless his arrival is disruptive, an intrusion. This is emphasised by an extended encounter structured
    around his entrance, his crossing of the threshold."
    Later, at the emotional climax, he throws Anisya out into the yard, where she is heard crying. Finally, his pious
    father Akim tears himself free in an attempt to get outside, to leave what has become a poisoned space.. The
    dramatic force of this exit is, of course, intensified by the contrast with his invocation of blessing when entering."

    "Clearly,  this door is an important symbolic item. For this reason, even though the technical difficulty of the scene
    changes was thereby increased, I decided to emphasise the importance of the threshold, and create a kind of
    vestibule, aided by research into the architecture of the period and the social context...This allowed a kind of
    "double" entrance; a character could enter the space in two stages. The placing of the icon next to the door further
    ritualised the act of entering".[INSERT VIDEO CLIP]

    As well as the interior/exterior dialectic, with the continual use of the door and threshold as centres of
    'action'(praxis), the production space, like the ISOMA ritual arena, made use of the vertical dimension. The cellar
    in which Nikita murders the baby, although strictly a conceptual, rather than a physically real space, in terms of the
    action, was here physically created in the stage basement, with spectacular results:

    " Because of the nature of the construction, the cellar and adjacent structures were the first to be built, giving the
    opportunity  from time to time to rehearse "in the space". The atmosphere of the darkened basement immediately
    began to work upon the  actor playing Nikita...The space itself came to have a "sacred" quality; he, and the two
    women, avoided the space and the opening (it did not for a while have a door) as much as possible. Even the rest
    of the cast regarded it as "spooky". At one stage, I asked Nikita to act out, when in the cellar, the actions described
    in the text:

    NIKITA: I smothered the baby. I dug a hole in the cellar. In the corner where the ground is soft. I placed that little
    body in the earth. I put a board across; and sat on that board. I sat there - crushed...crushed it! That baby's frail
    bones cracked under me. Then I covered the flat shape in the soft damp earth. I did it. Me. On my own.

    No-one, myself included, ever watched him do this, but the effect, upon the women as well as Nikita, proved
    devastating,  particularly on the first occasion. On his emergence, both he and Matriona broke down, and took some
    time to regain their equilibrium. The objective had been achieved, in that both had succeeded in tapping the
    emotional energy required; subsequent rehearsals were dominated by the need to harness and control it. When, in
    act 5, pleading with his mother,  Nikita cried: "But what's in the cellar?" and she replied: "Cabbages, mushrooms
    and potatoes, nothing else." the cost to them both was apparent, and, for the audience, the reference was to a space
    offstage which they had never seen, but which had been made horrific."

Subsequent production projects have provided further opportunities to test the efficacy of the notion of 'significant space' as a
conceptual tool, and have demonstrated that, whereas it will apply more or less directly according to the nature and
objectives of the occasion - and sometimes only very indirectly - there is always a benefit to be derived from its application
as an interrogative tool.
Department of Drama
University of Hull

Jan1995 (Revised for Web 2009)

Anthropology in the Service of Stage Design