Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Aesthetics of the Stage Design

One time while I was teaching a class in scenic design, a student asked me whether the director controls the blocking in a play, or the designer? After all, the scenic designer creates the environment for the actor, wouldn't it make sense that he also control how the actor will functions in that world. It was a very good question. My response was "yes", the designer does control the blocking, but it is the director who creates it. How the scenery is positioned on the stage is directly related to how an actor will move, react, and respond to that world. The first and most important function of an effective stage design is to support the action.

Much of my creativity as a designer and director has been influenced by the works and writings of Robert Edmond Jones, Max Gorelik and Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold. They continue to provide me with inspirations as I move in new directions. Many years ago, I obtained a copy of Max Gorelik's unpublished manuscript entitled, The Scenic Imagination. His "method" for effective stage design was based upon three components, Action, Documentation, and Metaphor. Of the three, the most important of these is action.

Vsevolod Meyerhold kept meticulous sketches (notes)as he composed each scene within a play. These drawings showed hand gestures, movement and composition, and traffic patterns for each scene visualized. His studies in stage space and composition show us that action is paramount to the creation of the total visual effect of any theatrical piece. At the same time, it shows us that stage scenery must work to support that composition, not detract from it. Director/ Designer collaboration in the initial stages of the design process must consider this element before all else. If a designer positions a door in the upstage right corner of the stage, or a staircase to the upstage left, then all action (blocking) will be forced to move along the traffic patterns established by the designer. Composition of actor movement will be compromised (or enhanced) by the decisions made in the early stages of collaboration.

Documentation is the research that goes into any production. It refers to:
1. research into the historical period and background of the play. This may include time of day (lighting), locale, and mood.

2. the style or artistic expression of how the play is to be represented.

Of the two, research into the style of a production is the most challenging, for the style relates directly to the theme of the play as expressed by the playwright and the director's interpretation of the script. Style is a mode of expression. Summed up: style refers to the "isms"; realism, expressionism, post modernism, etc. However, a word of caution is in order. No artist ever created an "ism". "Isms" are created by critics in their attempt to classify artistic work into a particular historical category. As scenic designers, we may visualize a playwright as writing in a particular style. And, in our attempt to bring the playwright's material "to life", we may borrow from that style. However, the most creative artists do not borrow styles from other artists. They stand at the forefront of their craft by exploring new modes of expression.

Metaphor establishes a specific feeling for the play. Its purpose is to provide a visual reinforcement for the theme and provide overall unity. It makes an implicit comparison between theme and production. Gorelik used metaphor as a tool for the designer in developing style, mood, and overall unity to the play. It provides unity to all the visual elements of production; costumes, props, lighting, sound, direction, and even acting. It provides a justification for the environment existing. Examples of scenic metaphors I have used include:
A Hell Mouth for Miller's The Crucible
A Gold Fish Bowl for Williams' The Glass Menagerie
A Bank Vault for Moliere's The Miser

Metaphor is not to be used literally. It is to be used connotatively. A misuse of metaphor would be disastrous to any production. To design Harpagon's home in The Miser as a bank vault instead of a house that has the feeling of a bank vault would place emphasis on poor scenic choices rather than on the characters and the action. Effective metaphor provides a production with the "claritas" or radiance Joyce so aptly defines as a quality of universal beauty. For the theatre goer, this is what is to be experienced.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Aesthetics of the Dramatic


Now we come to the next problem in aesthetics. What of plays and novels in which there IS action, and there ARE characters and people that are either lovable or loathable. What of the desire and loathing situation here? How can we achieve stasis in a kinetic art form as in the dramatic?

For the answers to these questions, Joyce turns to Aristotle and his Poetics. Aristotle speaks to us of the tragic emotions: Pity and Terror. (The comic is not mentioned, but Joyce does so in an earlier work, Stephan Hero)

The static emotions of the tragic are Pity and Terror.

The static emotion of the comic is joy! Joy in what you are experiencing. No desire, no loathing- just delight.
Pity is the emotion that arrests the mind (aesthetic arrest) before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer.
Terror is the emotion that arrests the mind before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the SECRET CAUSE.

Now these are important definitions to our understanding of how stasis is achieved in the dramatic. Pity is the emotion that arrests the mind- "static arrest", before whatsoever is grave and constant-"cannot be changed", in human suffering, and unites it with the human sufferer. I stress that the words are human sufferer- not Hispanic suffer, black sufferer, economically stressed sufferer, but the human suffer. We are united with the tragic hero as a human being; not as a human being with a certain social characteristic.

Terror is the emotion that arrests the mind, "static arrest", before whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering, "cannot be changed", and unites it with the SECRET CAUSE. Our mortality is the great secret cause. We are all going to die. It is the mystery of the relationship between a man's death and the function of his life that becomes the SECRET CAUSE. It is what is grave and constant in human suffering. If you haven't gotten through to the constant, than you have not gotten through to the tragic work. This is what opens us up to transcendence. We experience the life of the tragic hero on the stage and this is what purges us (catharsis) of the kinetic emotions of desire and loathing. All of the processes of life are this way. They should not be corrected. If this does not happen, then the experience closes us up and we are in a sociological melodrama which is no tragedy.

In his book, Tragedy and the Common Man, Arthur Miller states, "The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life [without fear] to secure one thing... his personal dignity". I use for example, Miller's play The Crucible. If we examine the play as a complaint against a strict, overzealous, puritanical society, then we are in a sociological play, not a tragedy. If we see how John Proctor's suffering and ultimate death was as much a part of his living, then we have broken through to the grave and constant.

When we have broken through the instrumentality and experience the SECRET CAUSE, then the sufferer is not an Hispanic man, a black man, an economically deprived man, or any person with a particular social characteristic- he is a man.

Aesthetics - Why we appreciate art

I have always begun my Introduction to Scene Design lectures with an introduction to aesthetics- or "why we appreciate art". I use James Joyce as a model because Joyce makes understanding the aesthetics of art very clean and easy to understand.

In his book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce defines a theory of art which forms a structure for all of his later writings. This theory of art is a classic and well realized theory of aesthetics.

Proper vs. Improper Art

Proper art has to do with the aesthetic experience. Joyce's formula for an aesthetic experience is that it does not move you to want to possess the object. The aesthetic experience is simply the beholding of the object. Proper art is static. It is not moving you to do anything. You are immobilized in what Joyce calls "aesthetic arrest". Joyce uses the word aesthetic in its prime sense i.e. having to do with the senses. The actual apprehension or moment.

Definition: aesthetic arrest - “a spiritual state very like to that of a cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani called the “enchantment of the heart”
Portrait pp376

The mind in that mysterious instant that Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal.
Portrait pp375

Improper art is art in the service of something that is not properly the function of art. Improper art is kinetic. It moves you either with desire or with loathing or fear for the object represented. You are moved into action. You are NOT in aesthetic arrest. The meaning and sense of the object is not delivered in its formal organization. Art that moves you, moves you with either desire for the object or with loathing (or fear) away from the object. Art that moves toward the object, Joyce calls pornographic. ex: advertising, TV, magazines. You are not enchanted by the object you are beholding.

What of Proper Art and the static? What moments of experience can be defined? For this, Joyce turns to St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas gives us a definition of beauty. Beauty is what pleases. There are three moments to be recognized:

Qualities of Universal beauty:

Integritas- Everything within a picture frame is to be looked at as one object, not an assortment of objects.
Consonantia- Within this frame, what is important is the relationship of part to part, part to whole, whole to each of its parts, etc. These parts include the basic principles and elements of design: color, mass, form, texture, line, shape. The instrument of art is rhythm.
Claritas- When the rhythm of the art is fortunately achieved or rendered you are held in aesthetic arrest and experience a radiance. This is the mystery. This is what holds you. This is the mystery of art and as we will later learn, the mystery behind the Theatre Experience. A rhythm out there establishes within you a resonance of a corresponding rhythm within you and you are fixed in a harmonious rhythm of relationships.

If there is a rhythm and radiance that does not totally overwhelm you we call it beauty.
If it is something that so diminishes your ego that you are in a transcendent rapture; this is the sublime. What renders the sublime is immense space or immense power. Very little art handles the sublime. One has to experience the sublime. It is the diminishment of ego where your own inner self opens out. All orientation is just blown.

Integritas- Wholeness, integrity.
Consonantia- Harmony, consonance
Claritas- radiance.

These are the basic principles of non objective art. You are not move by desire or loathing, your are held in aesthetic arrest (held by a beautiful accord). Joyce calls this "the rhythm of beauty which stills the heart". What this represents is a breakthrough. You have passed through the object and experience a kind of transcendence which has manifested itself in you by the object represented. Pure object turns you into pure subject. You are beyond desire and loathing and are suspended in a beautiful accord: aesthetic arrest.

Stage Design and the Design Process - Introduction

I created this blog to provide an opportunity for anyone, amateur or professional, to comment on the aesthetics and/ or methods for designing for the stage. There are many books and publication available on the subject; the best I have found are and continue to be, Robert Edmond Jones', The Dramatic Imagination, Darwin Reid Payne's, The Scenographic Imagination, and lastly, Mordecai Gorelik's unpublished manuscript, The Scenic Imagination to name only a few. Neither one presents itself as a "how to book" because there is no set formula for designing for the stage. I have methods and techniques that have worked for me after years of experience. These methods and techniques will not necessarily work for other designers, and most certainly not work for every director/ designer collaboration. The techniques I have used have been adapted and modified to fit the needs of each dramatic presentation.

It is the purpose of every theatrical production to provide an experience for an audience. Theatre is to be experienced, NOT viewed. As I look back on my work in the theatre, both as a director and designer, I work to excel to this end. At the conclusion of the evening's performance the audience should leave the theatre feeling differently than when they first arrived. If this has not occurred, then something in the process went wrong.

It is my hope to encourage anyone involved in this most wonderful and creative art form to share their thoughts, experiences and even failures on the process.