Tagged theatre

“WHAT IS SCENOGRAPHY?” BY Pamela Howard

I’ve just finished re-reading “What is Scenograhy?” by Pamela Howard. I read it a few years ago whilst training as part of the reading list and it’s sat on my shelves gathering dust since. I thought now was an excellent time to revisit it.

Similar to my critique of Katie Mitchell’s “The Director’s Craft” this too feels a bit like a beginner’s guide to theatre design, more cunningly disguised as an elaborate series of essays, the key point to mention though (and Howard states as such) is that she is not a theatre designer. Howard is a scenographer.

What’s wonderful about this book is the subtle drawing of lines in the sand that Howard uses to show differences between theatre design and scenography. I’ve heard it being argued as the same thing amongst colleagues and peers, or rather that scenography is what theatre designers do. Having re read, I’d now like to side with Howard.

The craft and practice of scenography is an evolution of theatre design, theatre design 2.0, a more holistic approach . Her arguments take scenography into a new realm of design, to that of visual storytelling and interpretation. A designer, it could be said, merely will solve the problems of and create solutions to the list of prerequisites presented by the piece.

A scenographer, as presented from this read, is effectively a visual translator and close collaborator to the director – it is design in a much more applied and comprehensive manner from a greater stand point and concept. They have a deep understanding of the text, usually heavily analysed and prepared (to the extent that they could step in as director if needed, and Howard mentions having trained in direction as part of her training). They also seem to have influential say in the shape of the piece via their creations.

It has made me consider the idea of scenography in relation to puppetry. There is a difference here therefore to being a puppet designer, one who designs the things to be animated and then a puppetry designer/scenographer, one who would look at the overall concept of puppetry as a storytelling element. (This warrants a separate article before I vere off tangent wildly)

Howard’s book is a relatively easy read and highly accessible, punctuated with some rather exquisite drawings and diagrams from her own work. The 7 working chapters focus tightly on the elements that make up her practice and could be read as stand alone pieces with very little difficulty.

There is much to be gleaned from this book if, like me, you are in search of some inspiration and aspiring to develop your own practice. Read with a pad and paper by your side though, her ideas and tools are peppered randomly through the chapters and although explained well and thoroughly, if you were looking for them specifically in a focused turn-to-the-page-via-the-index-style-search you’d struggle.

Controversially, I can’t necessarily say I would recommend this to theatre designers, unless those designers are open minded and willing to accept a differing opinion and view point (there may be a lot of cross over with what they already do but haven’t considered it “scenographic” by Howard’s terms). It’s definitely a good read though to other theatre practitioners, particularly those who span several disciplines and class themselves as theatre makers. Similarly, Howard’s opus would offer great insight into anyone looking to investigate visual storytelling or understanding the semiotics of putting together a visual narrative.

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.