"All signs and sign systems should not produce equally strong signifiers all the time, or the spectator will experience sign overload and confusion. Some order of priority needs to be establidhed for literally every moment in the performance" (Whitmore:1994)
Whitmore, author of Directing Postmodern theatre and professor in theatre arts focuses on shaping signification in performance. He asks us to look at every gesture, sound, movement or text as communication of meaning to the audience. Through his book, he urges practitioners to push boundaries to explore new ways of signifying meaning.
Over the last few months, I have been exploring performance composition through workshops in Chennai and Bangalore, working specifically on aspects of space and shape, looking at how shapes within space generate meaning. The challenge was to look at these elements and vary them in size, intensity and scale to create compelling performance moments. From my experience of facilitating these workshops, I would like to share with you some of the ideas that emerged in the process of performance composition.
Looking at spatial extremities: Whitmore talks about space in four kinds of distances: intimate, personal, social and public. The distance between two bodies/objects in the space influences the relationship between them. While public distance will applicable when a politician is waving to the crowd, intimate distance would apply to a couple having a conversation in bed.
As part of the composition workshop, we explored how power structures can be communicated using spatiality. Expansion and contraction of physical space gave us an idea of performance intensity, depth and relationships. Complete contraction also meant coming into intimate and personal distances with one another. This triggered a bit of discomfort for the participants, pushing them to explore distance on a vertical axis, creating levels within a contracted physical space, converting intimate distance to personal distance.
In one of the workshop sketches, a duet about power struggles, the audience was located in a tiny corner of the room, seated really close to one another. The action took place right in front at a diagonally higher spatial position. The audience was consistently looking up at the action and were being spoken down to - a great spatial expression of power. The concept of proximity was coupled with expansion/contraction and that amplified the movements of the performers even though they were playing it subtle. When the performers were very close to the audience, even a small gesture seemed big.
This made me realise that one of the first decisions in composition would be to assess the distance between the audience and performance space. This distance will then dictate how much expansion is actually amplification and how small the contraction can potentially be. While the performers may have chosen to play an intimate distance, they must also be aware of what distance they are creating between themselves and the audience and for the audience from one another. Amongst the audience, I experienced a personal distance with the others, which made me conscious of my presence in the space and therefore influenced the way I interacted with the sketch.
Another very interesting aspect in the space was the use of smell. As the audience entered the performance space, a smell of musk enveloped the air, sending signals of heightened male energy. So gender engulfed the space through smell. Through the course of the performance, the smell of musk slowly faded, contracting space for the audience. It was wonderful to notice how multiple senses were engaged and how each of them could influence the audience’s perception of space.
Playing with shape and influencing space: Inspired by Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, the workshop explored expressive gesture as a way of creating shape. Participants used their bodies to create an idea, emotion and concept. The beauty of body based expressive shapes is that it is open and left to the interpretation of the audience. Shape allows the participant to respond to a stimulus through the body within a given space. For example, if an actor stands in an exaggerated shape really close to you, would that influence your body shape within the space? Depending on the narrative that you choose to communicate, triggered by the body, you will either decide to play and expanded or contracted shape.
When shapes come together, the scope of expanding/contracting increases. This way shape influences space and space inspires shape. When two or more bodies in the space do the same thing in a coordinated way, what happens to space? Does it give you a feeling of expanse or can it communicate proximity? Aural volume, pitch, tone and text also contribute to creating an illusion of space, by adding layers to the shape.
Repetition is another key to shape. If an action is performed 25 times instead of once, will it mean something different to the audience? Can it amplify the meaning because it was repeated so many times? Or does it become redundant?
What was a big revelation for me was that when you push participants to look at performance space differently, an element of immersion happens, bringing the audience into your work or constructing your work around them – the decision of where they are placed becomes critical.
Apart from Space and shape, we also looked at forced inclusions within performance composition, which I will be writing about in my next post.
In this blog space, we talk about performance processes, interdisciplinary practices and various ways of creating performance and engaging audiences.