Section 7: Conclusion: Design-Guided Creation


7.1 Loss of Control

In his paper presentation, Ungovernability of the Scene, Dieter Mersch elaborated on performativity and representational possibilities for scenography. He stated that, “composition should be the key term for all construction and designing’, therefore, ‘composition has the ‘com’ or ‘cum’, that means ‘together-with’, and ‘position’, the act of setting something” (3). He further suggested that instead of scenography being understood as “a big machine or a fascinating technological device, scenographic practices should focus on the oscillations between governability, unavailability or the loss of control of the scenic elements” (7). In this Artist Statement, I could have reflected on the results of Conduct as a big and fascinating machine. Instead, I decided to offer the reader an opportunity to understand the multiple conflicting forces involved in this creative process.

         To paraphrase what Bruce Barton (the director of the show) said in a  ‘talk-back’ about the creative process of Conduct: one of the most important aspects of devised theatre is not knowing, pushing to keep not knowing, and trying to feel comfortable with it. Rather than controlling the creative process, Barton said that it is important to provide conditions that allow it to happen.  

          Barton’s perceptions align with Tim Ingold’s suggestions in Textility of Making: “as practitioners, the builder, the gardener, the cook, the alchemist and the painter are not so much imposing form on matter as bringing together diverse materials and combining or redirecting their flow in the anticipation of what might emerge” (94).

         My approach to design in Conduct was to combine, redirect, and accompany the flow of the practice and findings of the creative process. The intention behind “composing” with diverse materials was to bring them together. This intention provoked a ‘crisis’ within a conventional production system that anticipates representational design approaches. The process of my approach was more chaotic than what is common at the SCPA (see the section “Through Rehearsals” for more information.) The creative team did not formally anticipate the results of the scenography. The process was the creative driving force. To make room for this process, we adjusted and pushed the expectations, deliverables, and deadlines of the SCPA production model. Throughout the process, we were primarily interested in what relationships between people, affordances, and things had to offer. We were interested in the multiple complex scenographic landscapes and environments that could potentially arise within these relationships (Mersch 5). Consequently, Conduct’s scenography could not have been imagined or designed by a single person at the outset of the process.

          I had vast support from my fellow collaborators, performers, and creative team. They were able to expand, co-create, and co-design my initial ideas. The conflict between the production team’s demands and deadlines and this process increased both the complexity of the scenography and the dramaturgical agency of design.                                               Many of the subsequent process choices were made with reference to foci and frameworks arrived at when working collaboratively towards design deadlines; deadlines that initially felt premature for the process. The hegemonic notions established by the Drama Division were, at various moments, stressful. We (creative and production team) had incompatible expectations for the participation of a designer in the creative process. For example, the production team’s worked with the idea that a good designer executes exactly the same as proposed in the design package, the creative team’s worked with the understanding that if a design is too finalized it will not be responsive to the devising process.

           The many challenges caused by these different expectations allowed me to learn how to, and when to, push the boundaries of established models for designing. I also discovered how to make use of such boundaries to enhance the dramaturgical contribution of design while operating within the given conditions. The differences resulting from divergent interests and expectations also broadened my analyses and perceptions of the creative practice.

              A designer does not necessarily need to have a final objective, a clear vision, or technical mastery. They do not need to have control or know all the answers. In devised, unscripted, alternative, and contemporary theatre making praxis, a scenographer can be more interested in “not giving effect to a preconceived idea… but to join with and follow the forces and flows of material that bring the form of the work into being” (Ingold 216).


7.2 Design Based or Guided Creation?

Conduct’s source material was the emblematic life of the Twentieth century American composer Henry Cowell. The design elements emerged in relationship with and from research based on his life, which was done by performers and an artistic team. Accordingly, the creation was not based on scenography; nor did it start or ignite the creation.                   In the section ‘Through Rehearsals’, I mention Theatre Replacement’s Undressing. That show was devised from clothing given to the group by donors and is a good example of design-based creation, as the whole creation of the show was based on the design element of clothing.

             The scenic design significantly impacted the creative process and methods of Conduct. This impact included the ways scenic design prompted us to rehearse and the decision-making it imposed; we did, for example, have to narrow down the devising process due to design deadlines (see “Material Constraints”, “Pre Rehearsal Period”, “Through Rehearsals” and “To Performance” for more information). The scenography did not drive the whole creation like the costumes did for Theatre Replacement’s show. Rather, I would prefer to say that the designs guided the creative process.

               Devised theatre provided us, as a creative team and cast, with collaborative modes and approaches to designing. Without the dramatic text dictating the creation, there was the urge to modify the function of designs and designers in the creative process. As Kathleen Irwin states in the chapter “Scenographic Agency: A Showing-Doing and a Responsibility for Showing-Doing” in the book Scenography Expanded:


I propose that scenography, its processes and materials, have come to be perceived, at the turn of the millennium as demonstrably agential in engaging and affecting outcomes. This represents an amplification in the role of the scenographer from that of adjunct to a director, primarily concerned with filling and decorating the stage, to being an equal contributor in a collaborative artistic vision, to conceiving and realizing alternative genres of performance that engage with social issues in non-conventional spaces. This shift increasingly foregrounds the scenographic elements. (6)


             The principles Irwin offers of how this shift in the role of scenography and the scenographer is manifested in praxis relate to the process of Conduct as described above. The changes that this shift entails may in part have been affected by a concurrent increase of innovative scholarly research in the field, including the books Performance Design (Hannah and Harsløf 2008) and Expanded Scenography (McKinney and Palmer 2017). New changes can afford confusions in scenographic processes. What can scenography do within and to creative processes? (Irwin 20). The designs in Conduct had greater impact on the making of the show, its aesthetics, and its relational effects than usual. It is this observation that encouraged me to reflect on and further develop discussions of design processes and the role of scenic elements in this Artist Statement.

           The relatively new space expanded scenography occupies in performance creation and theatre requires continually evolving terminology to describe and position the role that scenic design can have in creative practices (McKinney and Palmer, 15). It is important to note and continually teach collaborators (directors, producers, etc.) that scenography can lead, base, influence, guide, determine, and drive creation.

             In the case of Conduct, I prefer to argue that the scenography guided creation. I and we did not initially intend for it to do so, rather it was a result of the material constraints and strategies we (the creative team) invented to respond to the presented conditions. Inspired by post-humanist perspectives, I would like to propose that we consider that “the scenographer, spectators, (and collaborators) are all situated within an interactive network of material things” (McKinney and Palmer 60). (Refer to the section “Collaboration” for more information.) Thus, when the scenography is guiding the creation it does not mean that it directs the piece. Rather, the designs enable the collaborative team, materials, and things to keep moving, evolving, and arriving at unexpected places.