Heiner Goebbels, Stifter’s Dinge, Image by Mario del Curto
Prevailing belief about scenography is the one of a decor that is added to the play, supporting the text and the actors. This hierarchy has already been broken with the works of theater directors such as Heiner Goebbels with his play without humans, Rimini Protocol using the audience and non-actors for their productions and working outside of theater buildings, Romeo Castellucci with his choreography of bone dust and machines, or Susanne Kennedy who masks her actors and distorts their voices with a playback dialogue, having elaborate sets and nonlinear dramaturgy. Within contemporary art, artists such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer,Hans op de Beeck, and Geoffrey Farmer deal with theatrical and interactive installations and transcend the limits of their field. However, the set still rarely has the priority on stage or in performance. Even if you consider the classical model of a play, with actors at the center, the set itself cannot be something that is added as a background or décor anymore, but something that is acting as well. Otherwise, it does not belong on stage.
"If you mention a tree on a stage, you don't also have to show it." (Goebbels, 2015, xxxiii)
A theater play is usually based on a dramatic text with actors as central figures. As Peter Brook writes in his Empty space: “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged.” (Brook, 1968, 33) But what happens when these norms are questioned or modified? Heiner Goebbels writes in his Aesthetics of absence about the absence of this central figure, the human actor. He makes the case for modifying the hierarchy that we still have in theater, where the actor is a central figure and the rest (text, lights, stage, costume, music..) is secondary. What is important here, as Goebbels points out, is redefining this hierarchy by displacing the subject, the human actor and - possibly - text. That being said, he suggests to redefine what we are used to, which could still involve actors, but they might not necessarily have the main focus on the stage.
However, at the very beginning of dramatic art, Aristotle in his Poetics (c. 335 BCE) claims that anything other than human presence and the written drama is a mere technical element, not worthy of poetics and further development. He places them at the bottom of the list of dramatic tragic elements. Further on Grotowski in the 1960s emphasized the elimination of all elements of theater other than actors. Therefore makeup, lavish costumes or elaborate sets, he found redundant and focused on sole relation actor-director. Perhaps, absurdly, the very method from Grotowski and his focus on one element (human actor) could be taken as a starting point for the idea of the theater without them. At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward Gordon Craig adapted the Cubist way of thinking and replaced realistic scenery with forms which suggested the character and the atmosphere of an environment rather than depicting it literally. It was a turning point for that time. Appia recognized the potential of lights and shadows, although still having the actor as the central figure.
This defocusing of the subject is not a radical statement where a human actor is seen as unnecessary to deliver a play. It is, on the contrary, seeing a person as such a strong presence on the stage, that perhaps one (human) or the other (set) is enough to stand alone. It is really this possibility that is relevant in terms of changing the commonly accepted perspective on theater. Peter Brook points out in The Empty Space referring to his Holy Theater: “If the need for a true contact with a sacred invisibility through theater still exists, then all possible vehicles must be re-examined.” (Brook,1968, 44)
Theater can communicate on other levels than the linear and direct narrative. If we take away the authority of the text, the viewer is not following a certain story and then making conclusions based on the clear information received, but rather having a direct experience, similar to the one they would have listening to a musical piece. This kind of theater without people, just like Lehmann's postdramatic theater, becomes a space that emphasizes experience rather than knowledge. If nobody is telling you what to think, you are left with a broader field for interpretation and experience.
With Gertrude Stein’s “landscape plays”, we are offered “pieces without a narrative thread or linearity, sounds and textual fragments the audience can browse, listen to and glance over.’” Goebbels (2015: 12) A play might as well be based on a landscape painting, where the dynamics of the play would refer to foreground and background. It is about an experiment with the intention to explore the unfamiliar. There is nevertheless, a balance of the familiar and unfamiliar that has to be found in order to relate to the audience at all. This also refers to the individual and collective. A reference too personal can be so abstract and unrecognizable to another individual that it would not bring much to the experience. Too well known, on the other hand, could be banal or kitsch. This balance is, therefore, a difficult one to achieve.
“Anything which is not a story can be a play!” Stein (1935: 260)
The boundaries of working fields are slowly fading and they start to intersect. Today artists, such as Geoffrey Farmer or Hans Op de Beeck, embrace this concept within contemporary art. Farmer sets his installations in such a way that the visitor in a gallery seems to be inside a play that is constantly changing with lights, sound or movement of the objects. You enter to see an exhibition and you leave with an experience of a play.
Op de Beeck comes from the field of set design in theater. His installations are still and resemble a deserted set where visitors are absorbed in his monochrome environment and it leaves them guessing where they found themselves. These works belong to the fine arts field, but they really are a theatrical performance starring a set, a room, a space, an object.
This theatricality in contemporary art installations further opens art to the structure and methods otherwise foreign to the field and likewise theater can make use of the process within a gallery settings.
Steve Dixon in his Digital Performance explores performance from the time when the computer began to play an important role in how performances and plays were staged and what this meant for the development of the dramatic experience. With the embrace of digital media, new perspectives in performance as well as theater direction, acting and set design are unfolded:
“Digital is a more purely technical concept, narrow in origin but extremely broad in its’ applications. It is a particular way of describing the real world, a specific technique of encoding sensory data (sound, music, movements, sets, costumes, etc.) that allow that information to be communicated, altered, manipulated and ultimately interpreted in a complex and potentially intelligent manner. It is an enabling concept. It includes multimedia and interactivity as you have a huge and constantly expanding toolbox of theatrical effects that each has their own intelligence, sensitivity and subjectivity, that in a sense become characters on stage. And we would argue that it is potentially a new paradigm in theater and performance.” (Dixon, 2007,Preface (xi))
The choreography for bone dust by Romeo Castellucci to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is a perfect manifestation of this concept. When the performance starts the audience can see red dots activating the machines who are the performers. All through the performance powder like material is pouring down to the rhythm of Stravinsky’s music. The powder is actually bone dust, made of animal bones and is industrially manufactured fertilizer. At the end of the play men in overalls come to sweep it off. It is visually and emotionally powerful and on a conceptual level thought provoking. Perhaps the contact we are looking for in theater can be delivered so powerfully without us (humans) on a stage after all? Referring to Castellucci’s piece, theater director Susanne Kennedy remarks, in a statement for Volksbühne Berlin: “Maybe this offers us a chance to arrive in the midst of the creative power of Life itself. What seems like the ultimate paradox: losing oneself to (re)connect with life. This is not an easy concept to grasp for us. In fact it is not a concept at all and there is nothing you can grasp. You have to do it, experience it, practice it, experiment with it."
Brook, P. (1968) The Empty Space, Avon Books, New York, New York, USA
Dixon S. with contributions by Smith B. (2007) Digital performance, A History of new media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and installation, Cambridge, Massachusetts the MIT Press, London, England, Institute of Technology
Goebbels, H.(2015) Aesthetics of Absence, texts on theater, London, New York, Routledge
Stein, G. (1935) Plays in op. Cit., Lectures in America, Boston, Beacon Press
Kennedy S. (2017) “Susanne Kennedy, what can this 2,500-year-old theatre ritual right now bring forth?”, 8 August, accessed 8 August 2018, www.volksbühne.berlin