Framing Devices – who, what, why, how etc. to tell this story

I’ve recently seen a lot of theatre which utilises the framing device. I thought this warranted a blog on the subject, for having seen it used, on mass, I was suddenly drawn to how effective – and also troublesome – such a tool can be.

Firstly, for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to the term “framing device”…

A brilliant visiting director when I was training explained framing devices to me as such, quite literally and simply:

Imagine the story you want to tell is a great piece of art – a painting, photo etc. In order for us to see this piece of art, we stick it in a frame and hang it on the wall of the gallery. In this instance of performance, the frame is another story, situation or structure that allows the original story to be told.

For some reason, I find the framing device is deployed heavily in children’s theatre, or theatre for younger audiences. In particular, when the original tale is a well known one – for instance a popular children’s novel.

Framing devices can be great to highlight themes or messages in the original story brilliantly, giving you another situation or set of characters to mirror these things in or to allow the original tale to be in some way didactic. They also, on reflection, present a number of troubles.

Firstly, from an overall perspective, it always begs to question why is this framing device telling this story. It surely has to present some kind of purpose – it simply can’t be a nice route to tell the original story. Why bother otherwise? Why not just do the original tale as is? No need to frame it. I always wonder whether companies who adapt novels and books (from page to stage as it were) utilise the framing device to put some distance between the audience’s perception and the production they see. The danger in doing such an adaptation, particularly one of a well known children’s story, is that the audience arrive at the theatre with a clear idea of what they are expecting. A framing device can allow for different artistic interpretation.

From my perspective as a specialist director/designer, the framing device always throws up a few questions in terms of staging and look for a show. Thinking as a designer (and obviously one whose concern is for puppets and performing objects), when our storytellers begin telling their story, how are they telling it? Are they using items from their surroundings to do so? If this is the case, will this carry on throughout? Our audience continually suspending their belief further and always being aware that they are being told a story via illustrative or recreated means, as opposed to, in cinematic terms, being sucked into the storybook and everything is experienced as real. While both equally valid, they come with their own set of considerations.

If we stay rooted in the world of the storyteller, it’s unlikely they will have a beautifully crafted puppet fully representing whatever they need to. In this instance the puppet belongs in the world of the object and of the surroundings of the storyteller, engineered and encouraged by our storyteller to perform. It is a representational substitute for the real thing; the object/thing will be playing the role of ______.  That is not to say that at some point the object/puppet cannot metamorphosise into a more realised being, however this an element of magic or imagination that we must earn in our storytelling. It’s peculiar to watch a show and find characters of one world suddenly producing perfectly crafted stage worthy items of purpose to tell the story of another. It begs the question whether the characters of the framing device who claim to be of one profession moonlight as a professional theatre company.

If we go to the other end of the spectrum, and the story comes to life as it were, at what point is there the magic or the culmination of such imaginative power to warrant our fully representational puppet? In this instance the puppet here is the character, it is not an object being asked to play that role. That puppet IS the thing. There aren’t as many theatrical layers of perspective in place. This too changes the performance style of how the role of the puppeteer is utilised, more often than not, in this instance, the puppeteer has no character or role. They become a presence, a shadow linked to the puppet or the most commonly seen in this context, invisible. There isn’t necessarily an awareness of puppetry being used as a technique by the storytellers.

Ultimately, framing devices if used correctly are wonderfully effective. In deploying them you add in another possible level of commentary and some interesting limitations and opportunities in how the original story can be told. However, they shouldn’t be used as a scape goat or as an easy way out/in. Using them adds in another set of questions that need answering. They, like puppetry, have a deconstructed quality to them. You can see the layers in place – which, when tackled correctly and appropriately, are easily ignored, accepted or forgotten. Used as an excuse or shoe horned into the piece, (again, like some puppetry I’ve seen) and they stick out like a sore thumb and leave the audience more doubting than delighted.