Section 6: To-Performance
As the audience entered the lobby of the Reeve Theatre, they were invited to download the Conduct app on their phone, which contained all the soundtracks required for each of the rooms. While waiting for the play to start, they were able to watch and interact with the lobby display. The display was designed by Gabriele Kuzavabiciute (computation and media designer), Pil Hansen (dramaturg and thesis supervisor), and I (costume and set designer).
Photo by Bianca Manuel, 2018.
The display contained information about each of the rooms: the personalities it contained, its position on a historical overview of Henry Cowell’s life, the performers working the room, and a prop that would be in the room. Audiences were given the option to look for each prop in its specific room, making it a point of reference that might be triggered later when the audience members saw these objects during the play. This reference also invited them to come back and read the display in order to reevaluate their experiences of each room.
Two design options initially explored for the lobby display. Technical Drawing by Bianca Manuel, 2018.
Close to the beginning of the performance, audience members were divided into groups of eight and were asked to choose a room number. The selected room number indicated where they would start their journey through Henry Cowell’s life. After they were divided into their groups, the director, producer, or assistant director read a set of instructions for the audience. These instructions were required by the production team in order to make the audience aware that they would be standing for part of the performance and in enclosed environments. After the rules were read out loud (a praxis that reminded me of the safety instructions that are delivered before the departure of an airplane), the audience members were blindfolded and taken into the selected room by an actor portraying Henry Cowell.
Once every group entered the space, the curtains on the perimeter of the rooms closed. This served as a metaphor of prison gates closing and Cowell’s imprisonment. The audience members were still blindfolded at this point. After a lighting change that gave a visual cue, all the performers asked their groups to take their blindfolds off. The performance started simultaneously in all rooms, after a second light cue.
6.2 Who gets to say if this is immersive theatre?
In the sections “Collaboration”, “Pre Rehearsal Period”, and “Through Rehearsals” I mention that my initial interest was in creating a design that would minimize separation between the audience members and performers, be more responsive to the process, and have greater impact on the audience’s perception of the piece. Bruce Barton (director of the piece) and I defined these characteristics as immersive theatre.
The definition offered by Josephine Machon in the book Immersive Theatre suggests that immersive experiences “combine the act of immersion – being submerged in an alternative medium where all the senses are engaged and manipulated – with a deep involvement in the activity within that medium” (21-22).
Reflecting on the perspective presented by Machon, I started to question whether or not the design in Conduct was immersive scenography. As mentioned by Machon, immersive practices are not necessarily dependent on a space and an environmental frame alone. Repositioning the audience as the center of a space may not in and of itself render the work immersive. An example of such an attempt would be to move an audience from the auditorium to a dining set in a ‘real’ apartment. However, immersive theatre also seems to rely on the audience’s engagement with the performance.
The chapter “Audience Immersion, Mindfulness and the Experience of Scenography” from the book Scenography Expanded, David Shearing discusses his performance of The Weather Machine. This production differed from Conduct in that it “had no human performers except the presence of an audience within the space” (4). Shearing’s reflections do, nevertheless, offer notes of relevance to understanding the immersiveness of Conduct’s design. He argues that present day theatre encounters are often positioned between binary principles of spectatorship: passive and active. The first refers to sitting and watching a show without affecting its plot, whereas the second position can affect a plot and render the spectator a collaborator in a show. The Weather Machine is a show where audiences had to make their own decisions. As they did so they were perhaps “becom(ing) aware of their own individual shifting requirements as a participant in relation to the scenographic space” (2, alterations are my own). Shearing continues by claiming that this kind of “scenographic encounters could enlarge the binary of active and passive spectatorship that is more commonly seen in contemporary theatre” (6).
One small example of this dilemma became explicit from my exchanges with audience members after designing for both Conduct and the work inVISIBLE by the Handsome Alice theatre company. I was surprised by the audience feedback regarding their experience of immersion in the plays. Invisible was presented in the Matthews Theatre at University of Calgary; a small black box theatre which we filled from wall to wall with astro turf (synthetic grass). On this turf we placed beds for audience seating and as set pieces for the performers. Although my approach to scenography was to include the room as a whole in the theatrical space, the stage location was still separated from that of the audience by who was and was not allowed to occupy the central stage space. Therefore, performers had a space that was their own in ways that conventionalized the relationship between audience members and performers. The dramaturgy and script also defined the role of spectator as ‘passive’ to the performers’ storytelling. To my surprise, many of the audience members defined this performance as one of their most immersive experiences.
Photo by Citrus Photography, Tim Nguyen, 2017.
During Conduct, audience’s had a wide range of immersive and presentational experiences depending on the room or movement of the show. On this range were experiences like watching a dialogue between personalities, experiencing a music concert, helping a performer to complete a task, being touched, and drinking tea.
My experience as an observer was that each viewing of the piece could be completely different depending on the composition of people in my group. I watched the show many times as a scenographer-audience member. During performance runs I made sure I was part of different groups with people I did not know. This allowed me to watch their behavior amongst the group members and to develop an informed hypothesis about the group’s influence on the whole experience of the piece. Depending on my fellow audience members in a group, each experience of the piece was completely different.
In one example, I was part of a group composed mainly of family members who allowed themselves to whisper to each other and share their thoughts of each room. Their intimate relationships allowed them to not only have large reactions, but also to laugh when they knew one of their relatives was feeling uncomfortable with something, such as being touched by a performer. Other groups I was part of were comprised of shy students who watched all the rooms passively, others by audience members that would interact unexpectedly depending on which room, I hypothesize, attracted more of their interest and attention.
After the experience of designing these works, which seemed immersive because of the holistic design of space, I realized that the characteristics of immersive works also are affected by social contexts (Irwin 49). (See the section “Material Constraints” for additional information.) Depending on their access and exposure to theatre, audiences will be trained to perceive immersion differently.
Returning to Shearing, he states: “any understanding of immersion needs to take into account the relationship between body and its environment, body is not just an object to be placed on a background or structure” (18). The term ‘immersion’ involves a risk of presenting the idea of a homogenous medium, in which a body is saturated or engrossed (19). Shearing proposes that immersion is a heterogenous concept that refers to a subjective experience, which is a result of a set of conditions (19). The definition of what is immersive or not depends on how the piece affects the perceiver beyond its spatial conditions; it relies on the subjective perceptions of an audience member. Therefore, the line between immersion and the physical space experienced of an audience member is blurred and expanded to a set of complex relationships between narratives, sensory stimulations, interaction, illusion, perception, reception, and the cultural and economic conditions that determine audience members’ expose to theatre.
There is not consensus among scholars and researchers about the boundaries of expanded approaches to scenography as a concept. Arguments for different ranges of application provide rich sources for the critical thinking of the makers, and for the development of the field. But in the case of immersion, I would argue that the final say needs to be less conceptual and theoretical than the knowledge presented in the literature, it needs to be manifested in the piece’s effect on the embodied subjectivity of an audience member.
6.3 Scenography, dramaturgy, and montage.
While developing the scenography for Conduct, we reflected constantly on interdependent connections[P1] between performers, audience members, and scenic design elements. From my initial meeting with Barton, both dramaturgical and scenographic decisions were made with reference to how they might affect the audience (see the sections “Collaboration”, “Pre Rehearsal Period”, “Through Rehearsals” for additional information).
As an example, I will discuss the creation of the ground plan. It changed many times to accommodate logistic needs and conceptual interests. Although the production team wanted us to determine the content of each room prior to the ‘Final’ Designs deadlines, we pushed the unknown as long as it required (see “Pre Rehearsal Period” for more information). We knew that this was one of the things we could not give away in response to the pressures of the production system. We had to make sure that, prior to worrying about the contents of each room, we had analyzed the order of the events from Cowell’s life with attention to how such an order would affect the dramaturgy and the experience of the nine groups that would see the performance from different starting points. Many possibilities for establishing the order of the rooms were debated between the creative team and the dramaturg. Finally, we decided that the piece needed a chronological approach to the montage of the events that might allow the audience members to grasp a narrative and a timeline from Cowell’s childhood to after his death. This expansion of dramaturgy to the area of the scenographic ground plan successfully enhanced the impact and agency of the scenic elements in the piece’s structure.
Sergei Eisenstein was a pioneer in his Film Studies film when he theorized how the composition of what we see affects our production of meaning. In his book Film Form (1977), he developed the concept of montage and offered the reader different methods of composing events (i.e., montaging frame lengths based on different criteria). Eisenstein paid particular attention to the possible effects on the viewer’s perception (72). Whereas cinema and film practices have screenwriters and editors to propose different montage possibilities, thereby twisting a story-line completely during the post-production phase, theatre does not have the same possibility because it is ephemeral and still relies on the live presence of an audience to be completed (Biao 16). Therefore, all aspects of montage and composition need to be considered during the rehearsal process and in collaboration with the dramaturg. Conduct comprised at least nine different plays within a whole. Each group had experienced a different montage of the piece. For example, group 9 began the show when Cowell was dead and ended on his childhood. Group 6 began with Cowell in prison and ended before he was arrested. Many variables could influence the production of meaning of an audience member: one’s fellow audience members in the group, the room in which the group started, the audience member’s contact and experience with immersive theatre or theatre in general.
The scenography offered a dramaturgical structure for the order of the events, and the audience members became the editors and screenwriters of the show. They chose a group, directed their perceptual attention towards small gestures and details, and chose the duration (length of frame) of attention, interaction, participation and observation.
6.4 When Scenography and Dramaturgy Meet
The role of the dramaturg in the creative process often involves allowing the playwright or creators multiple choices and paths for creation, as well as considering the spectators’ arrival at interpretation in the performance (Hansen 107). In her article “Perceptual Dramaturgy: Swimmer (68)” Hansen breaks down the task of the dramaturg as follows:
(1) understanding the collaborators’ habits of perception at the stage of project initiation; (2) proposing principles and sources of inspiration that can either challenge or establish connections between artistic approaches in the workshop phase; and (3) preparing for the final production phase by analyzing compositional possibilities with a focus on how they can be realized through the spectators’ potential perception. (108)
Inspired by Hansen’s research, I applied this orientation to many of my proposals as scenographer at diverse phases of the creative process of Conduct (see the section “Through Rehearsals” for more information). In the section, “Collaboration ,” I compare text-based and physically-based dramaturgy to expanded approaches to scenography (McKinney and Palmer 5). The constant awareness, discussions and analysis of how the scenography might affect the spectators’ potential perception of the piece is not, in my opinion, the responsibility of the dramaturg alone. It is also the responsibility of the scenographer who is interested in fully engaging and considering the audience member’s embodied perception of an immersive piece.
As a member of the creative team, the collaboration of a scenographer proposing to expand design elements might, at moments, appear similar to that of the dramaturg. In contrast, the designer has their own interest and artistic preferences for the show, whereas the dramaturg does not. As I mentioned in the section, “Collaboration,” I mapped my own habits of perception rather than understanding my collaborators’. In collaboration with Hansen, I developed methods and strategies to realize my interest as artist and researcher in this project. These methods and strategies helped me establish connections between the preliminary design phases, rehearsal process, and performance period. I continuously attempted to analyze how our decisions (also regarding material factors like budgets and safety) affected the affordances of what we were attempting to create. Thus, the process was non-linear. The creative team was tireless, attempting to be truthful to the experience of Cowell’s life we wanted to facilitate for audience members. We made changes and tried new things when something did not fit the budget or was considered unsafe with regard to the regulations of the school. We needed to keep adapting in order to achieve our artistic goals. As a result, we did realize the intention of inviting the audience members into an immersive and complex set of relationships, full of the unstable narratives and experiential possibilities that Conduct offered spectators and performers.