"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.
"When the plot was first pitched to me, I knew it was something I had never done before. Something I was sure the Indian audience had never experienced in theatre before. And there was my reason to become part of Re:play.
What started off as exercises of the mind and body slowly became intricate pieces in the sketches of the play. Everyday was a new beginning, because each sketch demanded its unique approach and ambience. We started taking Yoga classes to see how much more we could exploit of our bodies.
From a pathetic start I went onto learning how to control breathing and commanding the body. It was one of the most refreshing experiences I've ever had. Each sketch was designed to fit the stretch of each performers ability, so every piece was only as good as ourselves. And with the contrast between the sketches being quite stark, I had a challenging time switching moods, sweating it out and wiping it off.
The idea of Re:play being a duet was the second challenge, in terms of energy and mindfulness. To be a performer and yet not be 'The character', that was the subtlety we had to work against! Directors can be tough!
Spatial awareness was by far the toughest task, with objects and people at such close proximity we had to constantly watch our every move.
Re:play was always an experimental piece to me and I hope it wins hearts and leaves the audience with a kind of nostalgia that only comes with this genre of intimate immersive theatre." - Manav Chidambaran, performer, Re:play
Anne Bogart classifies gesture to be behavioral as well as expressive. Behavioral gestures are descriptive, everyday gestures, while expressive gestures express an inner state, an idea or a value. Bogart also illustrates gestures having a beginning, middle and an end.
Through the process of Re-play, working with gestures has been a significant part of the process. With the use of both static and dynamic gestures, the various sketches have been composed. Given that the performance does not take place in a conventional theatre space, the composition of these gestures are being considered in a 360 degree fashion.
So what is Re:play?
In a line, Re:play is a devised performance duet inspired by traditional Indian games. I have always been fascinated by traditional games and grew up playing many of these. A year ago, I came by an article in the paper about how we no longer play any of these games, given that most of us have moved on to become a part of the digital space. Suddenly, I started composing visuals in my head about how the different elements from traditional games could be composed into performance. I remember picking up a pen and scribbling out the patterns of these board games and how they can spatially be reconstructed in a performance context. This was the beginning.
I spent over 3 months in the rehearsal studio in London working with collaborators who were dramaturgs, movement practitioners and performers, to explore the possibilities that these games lend themselves to. Given that we were dealing with games, an element of participation was a key consideration. Re:play asks of the audience a bit more than just being a passive spectator. This is what makes Re:play an immersive performance. A lot in the performance is based on chance happenings, so one may not be in control at all times, but one is in control of his/her experience through the performance.
It was really exciting to discover how Traditional Indian games have been played in different contexts through time. The performance also explores how these games and their elements are relevant to us by going through a journey that evokes themes of mythology, contemporary events, memory, Indian History as well as Indian folklore.
Research into Traditional Indian games reveal links of various games to events in Mythology and Indian history. From the story of Shakuni challenging the Pandavas to a game of dice to Chanakya strategising a game of Chaturanga for warfare to the game of strategy played between the Tigers and Goats to Abhimanyu's struggle inside the Chakravyuha inspiring the game of Kabaddi, the performance is an aural and visual journey of the sounds, textures, stories and rhythms of Indian games.
Re:play strings together these stories, events and anecdotes into a theatre performance. MOvement and gesture have been inspired from the games as well as their stories.
Come experience Re:play,come experience Indian Games,come experience a powerful piece of performance
In this blog space, we talk about performance processes, interdisciplinary practices and various ways of creating performance and engaging audiences.