A New Design

Having written last week about immersive theatre, I am going to continue today with a connected theme. Immersive theatre, as well as the experience, is largely what it is because the visual elements it contains, be they the building or place itself or what is placed there. In other words, it’s design. Now it strikes me that the term theatre design is a little redundant when describing the immersive space and indeed this seems to be bringing about a change in how we perceive either the role of a theatre designer or theatre design itself.

9783899861365Increasingly, theatre design is becoming scenography; the theatre designer,  the scenographer. I had been aware of term, although never entirely sure of its exact meaning, but as is often the case, it seems to have been popping up with more frequency in things I have been reading and conversations I have had. A colleague used it this week to describe one of his areas of specialism. So with my interest piqued, I got digging and have been quite fascinated by what I have found.

To begin with, scenography is defined thus:

Scenography is the art of creating performance environments; it can be composed of sound, light, clothing, performance, structure and space

Nothing particularly new there, one might think on first reading. However, it is the bringing together of all of these elements together that is different. Traditionally in theatre we separate out the design roles – stage, costume, light, sound and so on. Throw into this mix the varying role a director can play in the design process and maybe even the dramaturg, and we get quite a complicated web of people and roles making contributions to what we eventually end up looking at and experiencing on stage.

Scenography is becoming quite common in Europe and indeed, theatre designers are designating themselves as scenographers. However, it would seem that in the US the term has not been adopted with the same passion. On her website Stephanie A. Schoelzel, herself a scenographer, describes heated debates over the use of the term and the unique differences between US and European theatre in this regard. It is an interesting read on a number of fronts. Another description of Sceneography and its origins is from Imagined Spaces, the Canadian National Arts Centre in Ottawa is also informative.

Josef Svoboda

Josef Svoboda

Imagined Spaces is a superb resource site for anyone interested in scenic design, with hundreds of beautifully rendered stage designs. In his article on Imagined Spaces, What Is Scenography, Michael Eagan states that scenography emerged from the Prague Quadrennial and talks about Josef Svoboda, himself Czech, as the godfather of modern scenography.

It was at this point in my research that I began to feel a little ignorant. Svoboda is clearly a giant amongst designers and scenographers, but I had never heard of him. When he died  2002, it was estimated that he had designed and/or directed over 700 theatrical and operatic performances.

When I sit alone in a theatre and gaze into the dark space of its empty stage, I’m frequently seized by fear that this time I won’t manage to penetrate it, and I always hope that this fear will never desert me. Without an unending search for the key to the secret of creativity, there is no creation. It’s necessary always to begin again. And that is beautiful.

Josef Svoboda.

You can get an idea of the scale of Svoboda’s work in the following two videos. If you speak Czech or French there are more in-depth videos on Youtube about the  man and his work.

It then struck me to whom I had heard the term scenographer ascribed before. Robert Lepage is one of the greatest living magicians of the performance space and I have had the delight, pleasure and awe of seeing a number of his works. An utter genius and worthy of a post all of his own, so I shall save further discussion of him until then. However equating Lepage and his work with the role of scenographer, I understood the difference between design and scenography.  It also allayed my feelings of ignorance somewhat. For many years scenography has been the preserve of the academics – a theory of, roughly speaking, the meeting of art, design, architecture and space, and how they interact with the spectator and the spectator with them.  Starting to feeI immersive here? I can now also see how two of the most influential theatre designers of the 20th Century, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, influenced the development of scenography. 

9789299006313_FotorThere are lots of resources out there for understanding scenography and putting it into practice, but one of the best I have come across is TAJ, Theatre Arts Journal. TAJ is an online journal devoted to the study of  scenography in performing arts. Also, the Prague Quadrennial site is a veritable treasure trove of scenographic wonders. There is even a board on Pinterest devoted to scenography, curated by architect Marios Angelopoulos.

To close, I should point out that scenography is not simply an act of theatre making. It is much wider than that, stretching to cover exhibition design, museum planning and interactive public spaces amongst other things – all things that need to engage an audience.

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