This essay will demonstrate the requirement of a stage set, no matter how small, for a theatrical performance. This will be referencing my media product, which is a short film, created via time lapse photography, detailing the creation of a set for Sitting Pretty from an empty stage to that of a completed set and a fully lit stage. Though not directly related to the media product, I will be discussing set design and no matter how limited the space, it is there to enhance the situation, and in some cases with just subtle details.
The rule of thirds can almost fall apart, indeed it can be implemented to create a centre line view. However, a theatre set is not viewed from one location, though for an audience, they will interact with the ensemble from a certain static angle, perhaps seeing slightly more than someone two or three feet to the left or right of them, never the less the rule of thirds, if implemented, they will have to be carefully constructed to be aesthetically pleasing from all auditorium angles.
Set design is usually, if not mainly, created with one specific point of view in mind, usually in the middle of the auditorium. The more accomplished and creative set designers, incorporate the whole audience and adapt the stage and all sight lines to create a spectacle for the whole seating arrangement.
The manipulation of the script from page to stage is not of one singular step, it is in fact that of a transfer of digested text, thus from the stage of the mind to that of the stage of the theatre into the space available. However, this has its own pit falls as addressed by Bassnett-McGuire (1985, p.87):
“The two texts – written and performed – are coexistent and inseparable, and it is in this relationship that the paradox for the translator lies. The translator is effectively being asked to accomplish the impossible – to treat a written text that is part of a larger complex of sign systems, involving paralinguistic and kinesic features, as if it were a literary text, created solely for the page, to be read off the page.”
Indeed the golden ration and the Phi Spiral have no place within a theatre set because it is a semi-static environment, each audience member interacting with the signs displayed to them, albeit from a single point of view. Each member engages from a different perspective, be it bringing in their own private background or social standing; however, the audience needs to keep up with the information presented and piece together as the dialogue unfolds, for when an audience engage they are filling in the pauses with their own reactions but also of past experiences, therefore one can say that one play was not seen, the same number of plays have been seen as audience members. A one thousand seat auditorium when filled will actually host one thousand different plays in that one performance.
A theatre stage set is a signifier, hosting a whole collection of signifieds. These suggestions are representing not only the time and place but also the text and when performed, the spoken word. All these elements are analogical, ostensive. Besbes (2007) quotes Roland Barthes description of the theatre as that of a ‘cybernetic machine’, Besbes goes on to describe Barthes statement to be view in two different ways, firstly the polyfunctionality of the theatre and secondly the audience interacting with these ‘cybenetic’ messages. I will be discussing the involvement of the audience later.
The theatre set is in itself a reciprocal sign and self-referring signifier because the audience knows that this is a temporary space, yet it self-perpetuates by defining and strengthening its existence as the movements and dialogue unfold, though not reality, it does indeed take on a distorted quasi-reality, as stated by Elam (1980):
“…the fictional world of the theatre is also, in fact, mediated by discourse and there is merely the “illusion of direct presentation of the constructed world”.”
Also the visual aspect is that of a network of meanings:
“… as Brecht, Handke and many others have been anxious to underline – permitting the audience to ‘bracket off’ what is presented to them from normal social praxis and so perceive the performance as a network of meanings, i.e. as a text.” (ibid.)
Following on from this statement, I believe that Elam could also have referred to the set being read as a text, though contradictorily viewing it in a non-linear ensemble.
Within the set there are varying types and styles of semiotics, obviously depending on the subject matter, be it a Henry V, many will be iconic, however should the play for instance be Noises Off, most will be arbitrary and metaphoric. However, not to be led away by the visual only, sounds, some natural others artificial, are heavily index based, these indices indicate, for example, that the weather has changed, e.g. rain, or a car has passed by and with these indices we can create a deeper picture without the necessary visual aids. Can a set be created all from sound with an actor in front of a black back drop, I do not believe that this is the case; this is a too immersive medium to be created and delivered to only one of our senses though this does open up a whole new discussion about the visually impaired or indeed other senses, though I feel that these issues should be discussed separately.
Paradoxically the play by Alan Bennett farce Habeas Corpus is set in a black curtained set, making use of only 3 chairs, though this does work, the playwright actually wrote with the idea of, is it possible to write and perform a play without a set, or as minimal as possible; this has been tackled here and to my knowledge, not by many. I feel that this is due to the standard, in this case, of an extremely high writing skill and also a carefully chosen cast.
One issue I’d like to tackle here and discuss is the setup of the acting and viewing space, why is it that we the audience are always looking though the forth wall as a seated unit, I do not have an issue with this fourth wall, what I do wish to contest is why this viewing space cannot be fluid, dynamic, from the point of view of the viewer and hand some level of control and personal interaction with the unfurling events creating before them. This you could say is the point of theatre in the round; however, my argument is that this is still static for the viewer. I can only assume that this is intrinsically led from the Greeks and then to the Romans and their staging, handed down and we are locked in a mentality of ‘this is how we have always done it’, for me this attitude does not cut it anymore in the modern age, we can visit contemporary galleries where we are encouraged to look from different angles, sometimes encouraged to touch, interact or manipulate it in some way. I put it to the reader, why cannot this paradigm be extended to this art form.
One other but relating issue following on from the argument above is the performance in the public space, where the stage is the world, to change a famous phrase. Mime and various street performers require the energy and conviction in their art to hold the eye of the watcher and also to be chameleonic within their immediate surroundings, they are wholly dependent on the gestural sign, as Peick (2005) says that:
“Research suggests that approximately 60-65% of social meaning is derived from nonverbal behaviours (DeVito, Guerrero & Hecht, 1999)”
My conclusion from my findings and research is that, although technically whatever a performance is delivered in front of, it is still a set and the mind will enhance this situation depending on the content of the performance, therefore it will always remain that there will be the requirement of a theatre set, even just a smattering of props for the space of a simple set, for the performance to create and the audience to accept the space as ‘real’, fully utilising the suspension of disbelief and the power of illusion.
Bassnett-McGuire, S. (1985) ‘WAYS THROUGH THE LABYRINTH: Strategies and Methods for Translating Theatre Texts’ in Hermans, H (eds), The Manipulation of literature: studies in literature translation, London: Billing & Sons Ltd, pp. 87-102.
Besbes, K. (2007) The Semiotics of Beckett’s Theatre: A Semiotic Study of the Complete Dramatic Works Of Samuel Beckett. USA: Universal Publishers.
Elam, K. (1980) The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.
Peick, M. (2005) Dance as Communication: Messages Sent and Received Through Dance. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research VIII (2005), 8, pp.1-11.
Aston, E. & Savona, G. (1991) Theatre as a sign-system: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London: Routledge.
Ubersfeld, A. et al (1999) Reading theatre. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated
Zuber-Skerritt, O et al. eds. (1984) Page To Stage: Theatre in Translation, 48 vol., Amsterdam: Rodopi