Harry Feiner


in memory of Ralph G. Allen: artist, scholar and the best of friends


“...to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory ...the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable... This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty...
. . .The duality of art is a fatal consequence of the duality of man.
Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life1

I have always felt that one of the defining qualities of any art form is its ability to convey a sense of being: an awareness of the ineffable sensation humans experience when we perceive the consciousness of own selves. Thus our “place” is intuited between a universe of our beliefs, and the vagaries of our empirical perceptions. It exists between the inevitability of (our own) time’s end and our feebly perceived sense of the vastness of the infinite. What I believe sustains such sentiments are the rich ambiguities inherent in the various forms of art and the skillful manipulation of those contradictions by artists. One’s own era always believes itself the most capable of endeavoring to capture the experience of “modern life,” or being in the present. It is an endeavor the theatre is perfectly equipped to accomplish with its veridical juxtaposition of the “ephemeral,” “fugitive” and “transitory,” with the “eternal and immutable.”

Human thought seems to be nourished in such sensibilities by the constant atmosphere of conflict and opposition in our thinking and everyday experience. The pre-Socratic contradiction embedded in the Greek idea of the “the one and the many” embodies the dialectic between the eternal and the mutable, belief and empiricism, and so many of the dualities that pervade most aspects of our thought and action.2 Its development into the antagonistic world-views of Platonic idealism and Aristotle’s (qualified) empirical materialism is “natural,” in the sense that it is our nature to organize experience as defined by such contrarian concepts. It is no accident that the basic structure of the drama is organized around the clash of protagonists and antagonists, mimicking the archetype of divergence and conflict that we can observe in almost every component of our lives. The pervasiveness of such antagonisms and the ambivalence associated with such a symmetric sense of truths may be a “fundamental aspect of the dynamics of cognition”, suggesting “that reciprocity (or trade-off) may be a feature of all intellectual life, reflecting the irreducibly ambivalent operations of the processes of cognition themselves.”3 So although directors and designers clearly deal with space and the practicalities of composition within the domain of theatre sets, my interest here is in exploring how spatial composition in the theatre might replicate elemental archetypes of perception, and what those perceptual processes may do to support the diverse texture of experience the theatre provides for us.

Of course I am prejudiced in believing that the theatre is paramount in its capability for sustaining the copious ambiguities of dualism. The theatre nurtures an attendant sense of being that derives from the abstract formulations of the elusiveness of experience into a suggestion of time and place. It is not just the theatre’s incorporation of many arts and disciplines into an endlessly malleable and fugitive form, but also the constant variability with which the perceiver and the perceived exchange positions and adjust their attitudes and perceptions (both in regard to one another and the space they share) for an evening’s immersion into a performance’s own autonomous verisimilitude. I believe the success of achieving a sense of that verisimilitude is not based on the photographic resemblance of objects or vistas, or the three-dimensional duplication of such objects and their spatial relationships, but of how the feeling of perception in the theatre is a heightened metaphorical cipher of acuity. A key facet of this delicate maneuver of perception is the arrangement of the theatre’s different constituent parts of the physical production: space and its associated visual elements of design.

I have previously written that my own preference for expressing the ambiguity of conflict and contradiction in theatre space is most fully realized in the interplay of the concepts of the Real and the Ideal.4 The Real expresses our predilection to believe the world understood through the sensa of empirical experience. The Ideal understands experience as an imperfect expression of a universal structure that we believe exists; we cannot see it explicitly, but we rationalize its presence through the constructs of reason. Both concepts simultaneously maintain a tenacious hold on our ability to formulate a “picture” of experience. Being, the awareness of our selves and the sensation of the texture of consciousness, is perceived from the phenomenal framework that juxtaposes such dualisms within the construction of art.

Perhaps it is the perception of being that makes humans create art; that bittersweet awareness of the parallel existence of time’s infinity and our limited habitation of the space it transgresses (which the theatre mimics so movingly in the act of performance). Space is a crucial element of such a sensibility. Creating a vehicle to convey the sense of such feelings is what directors and designers intuitively do when addressing the needs of performance. The physical “resemblance” of a mise en scène to a recognized or imagined place is not as important in creating a semblance of the “act” of being, as the mental processes of sensation and emotion invoked by the experience of perception. The director and designer map a journey between cognitive states that allow us to replicate the experiential sensations of Time’s characteristics through imagistic transference. It is this “back and forth” of potential perceptions, replicating how we comprehend and our thought mechanisms, which permits us to experience so vividly in the theatre. The skillful manipulation of such cognitive variants can emphasize which aspects of experience best seem to advance the awareness of a project’s unique intent.

The director and designer formulate and resolve the contradictions and ambiguities within the conceits inherent in the use of performance space. This is generally not a conscious effort; as with most visual artists (as well as all types of artists), I believe these concerns are primarily addressed intuitively. They may also be processed in a combination of sub-conscious and intellectual processes, but collective sentiments feel like they are always approached as a tangent; they have the quality of a continuous, sub rosa universality attached to the process of producing a work of art. That process is directed toward the end of producing “compositions,” the ability to shape the look of individual moments on stage as well as the progression and fluidity with which the staging can create the “pictures” that are comprised of costumed actors in the space of a setting that has been (momentarily) defined in a certain aspect by light.

The theatre has always had a kind of identity problem in this regard; is it pictorial, a “picture”, set off by the proscenium’s frame, or an architectural volume of space, containing masses (including performers), like any volumetric architectural interior (because regardless of whether or not a setting is meant to evoke the outdoors, an interior space or an abstraction, it takes place primarily inside the volumetric hub of an auditorium’s stage). In the pictorial, performers seem “plastered” against a background; in the architectural, they are primarily oriented to the floor as the primary symbol of spatial expression. Design uses all three Cartesian axes formulated through the horizontal (floor) plane and the vertical (picture) plane, in conjunction with the dimensional aspects of time. By concentrating more of the compositional prestige in either the vertical or horizontal plane, the design may maintain a bent towards being more pictorial or architectural, thereby supporting the potential impact of all the possible meanings connoted by the association of that particular visual formula for the piece being presented. Is this tendency to shape the stage picture between the pictorial and the architectural a sign of some fundamental aspect of our humanity that is part and parcel to our nature? Is it a manifestation of the classic dualism that seems to have always preoccupied human thought and predominated so manifestly in the modes of expression we have used to express our sense of our own existence?

The “vertical” is an equivalent for what I have called the pictorial. It displays a tendency toward using the Cartesian vertical plane, or the frontal plane of projection as the principal organizing directive in composition. In the theatre, the pictorial can be imagined as a compression of the space between the most upstage elements (often a backdrop) into the most downstage plane (fig.1). This imaginary downstage “picture” plane, situated at the proscenium or the edge of the stage space closest to the audience, is a symbolic equivalent for the stage “as a painting”; such a setting is metaphorically disposed of as if elicited on a flat surface (fig. 2). (In Illusionistic painting, this “compression” or confusion happens “naturally,” because the sense of depth is not actual but virtually indicated on the plane of the painting itself, which occupies the vertical plane.5) In such a system, the elements of the design become flattened as a frontal view and the impact of the actual depth between elements is negated or minimalized.

We seem to have a tendency to want to see things frontally. Is this because we have an innate desire towards experiencing life with the clarity of the Ideal and its pleasing qualities of balance and stability? The pictorial type of composition seems simpler, in that it is based, in a pure sense, on the contrast of shapes, or positive objects, on a ground, or negative space. It has the appeal of the Gestalt paradigm for the prevalence for the regular and the equally proportioned. (The pull of the Ideal seems so innately strong, that to be a realist we have “to force” ourselves to give up what may be perceived as unrealistic ideas and adopt cynical notions in conflict with what we would rather believe things are like. We seem to “adopt” ideals naturally, but we need to be dissuaded by realistic observations to abandon them.) The frontal plane seems to advocate for many idealized qualities. It tends toward a strongly centered symmetry, where the weights of composition are distributed in a way that locks balance by means of a “closed” compositional system emphasizing stability.6 The vertical has a greater ability to sustain the immobility of the Ideal, emphasizing its quality of stasis through a stable system that is more independent of the fugitive characteristics of Time. To be at rest is to emulate a presence at the center of a hierarchal system that is pleasing in its clear, obvious structural relationships and groupings.

The notion of a parallel to a Gestalt paradigm of organization is appealing. There are many theories of perception and they all may help explain some aspect of how we visualize experiential phenomena, but the tendencies to organize objects and space, in a manner that parallels expression of the Ideal, seem to be predicted by many Gestalt precepts.7 Gestalt theory notes the propensity for the human mind to function innately along certain perceptual guidelines. The desire to experience “wholeness” and “satisfaction” in “balance” and “completeness” are powerful dispositions that may make us both “group” elements in the act of creating visually and also be disposed to see the same constructed groupings as part of the perceptual experience of cognition. The proclivity toward “simplicity,” “pattern recognition,” etc. all may impact on the way in which designers and directors formulate compositions for theatrical space as well as the way in which the audience perceives what is presented to them. Whether the perceptual frameworks we are prejudiced toward “setting” experience in does or does not “blind” us misses an important point; in a visual medium, the artist has the opportunity to control the impact of their material through the manipulation of these prejudices in the process of perception.

The greater the verticality in the orientation of the frontal plane, the more “free” objects in a composition seem to be from the humanizing pull of gravity. A lack of concentration on the floor of a space, (the plane of depth), not only pushes the composition more toward the frontal plane, it also makes the objects of the composition (which are principally the performers), “float” more. Thus, greater freedom from the powerful anti-idealizing force of gravity, (a constant reminder of our physical limitations), is analogous to the tendency of “closed” compositional devices to create a sense of superseding the movement seen in the perambulation of Time. The impression is created of a composition that stands “outside” of the transient limitations of mortal existence, a necessity for transmitting the transcendent qualities of the Ideal.

The more vertical the proportions of the frontal plane, the more the verticality seems to be able to support divisions into multiple panels, each with its own central focus. As a result, the vertically orientated frontal plane lends itself well to bipolar and tripartite divisions, like the multiple panels of many Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces and architectural painting. These panels create compositions of manifold centers in reflective balance, as they each make up a symmetrically balanced mini-composition within the symmetry of the whole (fig.10). When such compositional techniques are used on stage, they tend to “freeze” or lock space, with the geometrical connections they superimpose on the vista. This type of overriding stability and stasis is typical of “closed” compositions, because one of the principal ways we experience Time is through the change of bodies’ relationships in space.

“Framing” helps to sustain the vertical mode of composition, whether through the emphasis of the proscenium or the inclusion of framing elements as part of the setting. The prominence of a frame in the view of the stage promotes the frontality of the vertical plane as the principal organizing factor. The less horizontal the ratio of the frame, the less significance to the composition of the floor’s horizontal plane, which is at odds with the vertical, both literally (through its perpendicularity) and conceptually in what it connotes (fig. 5). The effect of the framed field of view to concentrate attention on a selected visual area, directs further focus on the importance of a strong center to the composition. The frame seems to command a central concentration. This is perhaps made clearer by imagining a space without a frame. Unbounded, the stage can have no measurable center. No stage space is unlimited, but choices can be made to play down the clear, structural delimitation of the frontal plane so that cognizance of its perceptual presence attenuates see fig. 3, as compared to fig. 5). I shall refer more to this tack latter.

The use of strong peripheral limits supplied by a physical framing device relates stage compositions to one of the quintessential paradigms of frontal organizational, linear perspective. In contrast to its use on the flat surface of painting, perspective has a compound relationship to the stage, inherently contradictory, and indicative of the complexities of stage composition in general. (Those complexities arise from the fact that theatrical design, in addition to mixing sculptural, painting, architectural, fashion, decorative, graphic, multi- media and light disciplines, also merges actual three-dimensional space with illusionistic devices to purport virtual contexts of space.) Like the frontality of the vertical plane, perspective tends toward provoking heavily centered compositions, particularly when a single vanishing point is used (fig. 8). This is especially true in the traditional Italianate perspective format for the stage, which depends on a series of receding surrogate “proscenium” frames, thereby heavily reinforcing the frame’s centralizing power. Although the use of perspective devices is supposed to convince the viewer of the limitless extension of space, its ability to do so contains the contradiction of achieving its effects on a flat projected “picture” plane of geometrical constructions that mitigate the perceptual sense of extension in the horizontal plane. Even though a traditional perspective vista onstage displaces a relatively large depth of space from the proscenium to the backdrop, (or end of the space), it has the psychological sense of being compressed into the frontal plane of pictorial composition because —regardless of where audience members are viewing from—it demands to be “read” that way. Paradoxically, because perspective can be a symbol of infinite space, the series of framing elements keep the sense of the composition from “spreading out” in the horizontal plane for several reasons.8 First, the lateral sides of the scenery frames limit its flat expansion. Second, the traditional wing and border format sets up a rhythmic encroachment of the horizontal plane, both visual and architectural, moving in towards the center of the series of rectangles created by the portal frames. That series of frames geometrically focuses on the center through the suggestive presence of its diagonals, which recede into the depth of the stage’s vertical “picture” plane rather than spreading horizontally (fig. 8). Once more this prejudices the composition to be developed around the “center,” visually and psychologically. Last, as mentioned before, the construction of the perspective around a vanishing point tends to make it weighted toward central organization. Though this seems like a self-evident observation for conventional single point perspective, even the two-point perspective associated with the Baroque’s scena per angolo tends to proportion the emphasis of its multiple viewpoints equally around the center.9

If the frontality of the vertical plane makes it more prone to centralized, closed compositional tendencies, then the horizontal, architectural plane—often called the “plane of action”— is more suitable for emphasizing the expansive scope of decentralized composition. Here we have the world seen “sideways” through the picture plane, in its true depth, rather than being compressed into the pictorial vertical plane.10 As one would imagine, such a schematic opposition connotes and provokes many antithetical qualities to its rival visual component. This is the plane we actually move in, a simulacrum for action, and it should be the principal orientation of thought for theatrical design. It has a physicality anchored in time that contrasts with the potential of the vertical to liberate itself from terrestrial concerns. (Although we move primarily in the horizontal, perhaps the vertical is the more appropriate realm of idealization, imagination and dream.) Here the experiential nature of human existence is prominent; the constraints and quotidian concerns of our obligations to gravity are preeminent as the objects of composition are anchored to the ground. One of the horizontal’s prospective connotations is equality; it is on this “leveled” stage that men strive and fully exercise their fundamental potential for the antagonistic tendencies essential to dramatic construction and so vital to the human psyche.

In the theatre, the floor, the greatest corresponding visual symbol of the horizontal architectural plane, becomes a dynamic compositional element. The more the audience sees of the floor, the less capable a composition is of dominating in the vertical realm. The devices that raise the floor plane into greater prominence, such as the use of rakes on the stage or the steeper elevation of pitch for the audience seating, increase awareness of the horizontal plane. With that increased awareness comes a sense of a greater gravitational dependence of the performers. They are seen “in” the floor plane,” which naturally diminishes the compositional strength of the pictorial plane (fig. 4). However, it can also create a feeling of visual frisson, for as the floor plane is raised higher into the audience’s view, the vertical and horizontal plane approach a tendency to merge, illustrating one of the chief contradictions inherent in design for the theatre: the pictorial and the architectural both maintain distinct identities while perceptually also combining into other partial variants.

The horizontal is “open,” with less potential anchorage from the strength of central verticals in general, and their overbearing organizational centrality in particular. It is less prone to strong symmetrical centrality that heightens the aspect of frozen balance detached from time. The horizontal can stress “linearity,” and therefore Time’s dominance, because the relationship of space to time is obvious in the architectural plane. We all instinctively “know” that it takes a certain amount of time to cross a span, and we tend to think of such spans horizontally. “Action” is associated with crossing through space; it is animated by the space necessary to “do”. Distances that exist between elements purely in the vertical plane can have a supernatural quality, emphasizing the attribute of vertical release rather than horizontal pull (fig. 5). The performers are tied to the audience in the architectural plane, where they share the same basic physical orientation. This is especially true when the director and designer choose to deemphasize the proscenium or other framing elements in the composition (fig. 3). The horizontal aspect of space can then be thought of as not only being expansive from side to side, but can also facilitate a front to back sense of openness by using the thrust capabilities of theatrical space. Metaphorically similar to the virtual effect of Baroque foreshortening, the subjects are literally projected into the midst of the audience’s space, another assault on the vertical plane of composition. The openness of the floor plane allows for the turbulent flow of earthbound eccentricity. It unleashes the full panoply of life devoid of any ideal construction of decorum. Rather than objects emanating an energy that keeps them hovering free, or centrally stabilized, they are pulled and pushed along by the endless scope of the horizontal expanse. In the horizontal plane, all is ephemeral. Its “being” is in the fugitive present, tumbling along its transitory trajectory toward the realization of the action. It is where our primitive, biological, visceral senses predominate, rather than our rational, intellectual understanding.

Thus far I have described some of the general differences in the compositional attributes of the pictorial vertical plane and the architectural horizontal plane. They are organizational paradigms, which taken together define a spatial modus operandi prescribing a chief part of the purview of the director and designer’s scope of interaction. They form a classic dualism, emulating our awareness of consciousness as a tendency to conceive of the expression of our perception of experience through seemingly contradictory concepts. In fact, their complementary engagement and ambiguous overlap is necessary to convey the intricacy of life’s truths, as visual theatre composition does not exist solely in one of these two planes, but in the tension that exists between the two modes of expression. The theatre simultaneously engages the human desire to step away and view experience in a pure objective manner while actively drawing us into participation and subjective immersion in the moment.

The director and designer must skillfully manipulate the stage picture to approximate what they perceive to be the best relationship between verticality and horizontality. That relationship has many variables, depending on the sensibility of the project at hand, the given auditorium space, and the artists” feeling for conveying what will most amplify empathy for human experience, and therefore the truth of that experience. Furthermore, the constant give and take between the planes of composition is a natural means for creating the visual variety necessary for an evening’s performance. Skillfully manipulated, such juxtapositions of compositional structure can also achieve variety through the rhythmic patterns of the changing stage picture, not only maintaining interest through the course of a “two hours trespass of our stage,” but also creating a semblance of progression in time with visual cadences.

The preceding characterizations of these two modes of composition I have been describing concentrated mostly on their attributes in isolation, as if they could exist in a pure state without reference to the other. This is not only highly improbable, but also undesirable; such purity might eliminate all the rich connotations of contrast and ambiguity to be derived from the lifelike entanglement of the different modes. Perhaps the purest expression of the pictorial is in the traditional musical-comedy format, especially in the “in-one” scenes in which a truncated downstage area is played against a backdrop located in the shallow space near the stage’s apron. But such an example does not usually allow the elevation of the performers themselves into the vertical plane, which is one of the vertical’s strongest images. On the other hand, an ascetic stage arrangement, which uses only the stage floor against an almost nonexistent or neutral (absorbent black) ground, may be the best example of a purely architectural composition (although it may have little or no architecture per se) (fig. 4). As pointed out before, such designs usually call attention to the floor as the most important visual element and “plane of action.” Often a rake is used to enhance the prominence of the floor. Although the use of a rake places emphasis on the horizontal plane, and further ties the performers to a sense of gravity the more the horizontal spreads out, a rake also raises the floor plane (and the most upstage objects) into the picture plane, injecting a paradoxical tinge of verticality.

I have mentioned earlier the tendency to centralize compositions and the intrinsic magnetism of balance, symmetry and centricity to “please the eye.” Certainly the center of any visual form has a powerful perceptual hold on our psyche and in the case of stage position that attraction seems all the more important. Although some of that power can be attributed to the practical aspects of maximizing visibility for the theatre audience, some of it must also come from the psychological power of the center position and its implicit connotations.11 Is the tendency to centralize cognitive visual schema prejudiced by any of our human neurological or receptive structures? Do we naturally mirror our own left- right symmetricality (the cognitive amalgamation that naturally happens between the slightly disparate images perceived by our two separate eyes) when we express through idealized forms? We always seem to want to “find” the center, or “balance” our view when looking up or straight ahead. (Interestingly enough, the same tendency does not seem to predominate when we are looking down at the floor plane.) Perhaps the compositional role of the director and designer can be thought of as the potential to create central nodes or complexes of elements. The designer would then need to allow for the kinds of groupings, series of relationships, and locations of groups that the designer and director instinctively feel the project requires. The designer then provides a type of “chessboard” suited for certain types of conceptions in the arrangements of the “pieces.” The main pieces, or elements, are the performers of course. They act as flexible sculptural parts, capable of being repositioned bodies in space. They can fit into the “board” in numerous ways allowing for great variety, but the particular board (or setting) created for a particular production also predetermines a cluster of possible arrangements that will be most effective. What style will the board be? Will it be flat? Raked? Broken into raised levels? Separated along the rows? The columns? Will it stress the diagonal? Will it be made into a scaffold of stairs and balconies?

Fig. 1-6

Fig. 7-12

The vertical gains a great deal of prominence from elevation, so emphasis is naturally drawn into the frontal plane on stage with the use of elevating elements like stairs and platforms, even though those raised levels most always move into the horizontal depth of the stage (fig. 6). The most purely vertical use of height on stage would come from scaffolding, or elevated structures close to the down stage vicinity, that use height with a minimum of depth. This is because compositional approaches that depend more on the position of the performer are substantially more engaged in the process of the theatre. Such approaches rely on a model of scenography that is not visually independent of the performer. Of course, a stage environment could exist both as a successful visually independent piece as well as a space that gains its greatest imagistic efficacy from the presence of the performer. Perhaps the best would be, by encompassing yet another duality (and a poignant expression of temporality), in the legitimacy of the composition, both with and without the compositional impact of performers. The theatre setting absent of performers, empty after a presentation or waiting to be populated again, is a moving symbolic manifestation of the theatre’s relationship with Time. But there are other means of emphasizing the vertical and its qualities (without suspending performers in the location of the picture plane, which is after all not an everyday necessity for most production schemes). The placement and suspension of major elements (or “fragments”) above the floor level creates the potential for vertical “connections” to performers placed below. Any such compositional arrangement joins the performer to the power of the vertical, regardless of their proximity to the floor, for when the eye is drawn up it pushes the composition into the frontal plane (fig. 10).

Simple backgrounds tend to stress frontal arrangements, especially when they are planned to create contrast with the performers and objects in front of those backgrounds (fig. 7). Such backgrounds create a classic “object-ground” relationship despite the separation between the planes (foreground and back). Such a relationship propels the verticality of the composition, compressing its sense of definitive three-dimensional depth into a metaphorically incongruous arrangement of two or more planes existing independently, as well as perceptually being squeezed into one level. Many kinds of backgrounds can operate in this manner. The simplest and purest example is a relatively flat surface (both dimensionally and in the pictorial aspects of color and shape) that performers and other objects stand out against. But the ground can operate in a similar way—even if it has significant depth and dimension—if it has some sort of unifying theme that gives it a sense of continuity. Here again is another example of one of the ways in which theatre design has a great possible scope of impact; such a “ground” can exist at many points “between” the states of absolute flatness or depth. Depending on many factors, like the position of the performers, the lighting and the viewing angle, the variation of the visual potential in theatre is multifaceted.

An example of a “ground” that is not flat is what we designate as a surround. It encircles the performers on all visible sides in a manner that visually integrates the enclosing stage. It has the depth of the stage space and is broken into multiple parts, but because it has some sort of overall motif, (usually a singular treatment of surfaces that combines color, materials, pattern or texture), it visually fuses its disparate parts with the scheme of a consistent background (fig. 7). The “surround” mimics the fluid reversal of spatial perception (between vertical and horizontal formats) familiar from the observation of paintings; but it is a mirror image of such a reversal. It is a dimensional space masquerading as a plane rather than a picture (conceived as a flat plane) that pretends to be dimensional space through the use of perspective.

Perhaps one of the reasons that traditional wing and border perspective simulates the impression of a ground is that the underlying orthogonal structure of the illusion acts like a surround. Its substructure is an overall grid (like the classic tiled Serlian floor), on which the perspective shapes are developed and placed. The same might be said to be true of the decreasing increments of the portals usually associated with perspective; the proportional rhythm of the repetition of these elements sets up an “all-over” grid that acts as a ground for the figures of the performers (fig. 7). Modern lighting also contributes to facilitating grounds because it both melds background elements together and picks out foreground objects (like performers) and perceptually “projects” them forward. But the stage designer has many techniques to use toward accomplishing this task. There are many devices that can homogenize backgrounds by subduing contrast. Edges can be softened, value differences reduced and color variations harmonized. These can either make the background coalesce into a “ground” or push it back, becoming a non-linear device for enhancing perspective depth and distance. The fact that such devices can potentially stress both the horizontal and vertical simultaneously (going back in depth and fusing as a ground to the frontal plane) again helps account for the dynamism possible in the visual characteristics of the theatre. The combination of types or modes of organizing space mimics pictorial art’s conundrum of indicating depth and distance on a flat plane. That conundrum seems elemental to our perceptual sensibilities and desires, because it combines these two seemingly antithetical systems into a perceptual whole in which both are indispensable.

The diagonal vector is the most powerful spatial relationship in the horizontal plane. Just as greater height separation seems to increase the frisson between objects in the vertical plane, greater distance and depth displacement seems to provide for strong magnetism in the horizontal. The potential contained in spatial attraction and repulsion seems to gain power from increased distance between inevitabilities.12 (Having performers diagonally opposite each other not only has them apart from stage left to stage right, but also simultaneously maximizes separation in depth from downstage to upstage.) The strength of the diagonal is amplified when it crosses the center (fig. 9). This phenomena is derived partially from the extended length of the vector the closer it comes to the true diagonal of the horizontal space, but there is also a part of it that comes from intersecting that center of the compositional view, as if power was derived from the conflict with another point of great visual magnetism. Providing the possibility of elevating one end of a diagonal with platforms or ramps increases its power by lengthening it as well as raising it partially into the vertical plane. Without any height difference, some figures visually intersect each other and lose the animate force of their separation. Once again, increased visual power can come from being in multiple planes simultaneously (fig. 9).

The actor or other performer is a dynamic, mobile center that takes the focus with him, depending on where on the stage he is placed, what groups he is a part of, and how he is related to the other visual aspects (objects and ground) of the design. Performers serve as “landmarks” in a fluctuating compositional system, because regardless of whether or not a particular design is more “open” or more “closed,” stage composition is truly “finished” by the placement of the performers. This can be a momentary phenomenon, as performers usually occupy a particular arrangement briefly. Making stage compositions is comprised of configurations that are fluid or sequential. Composition in the theatre is built up, moment by moment, rhythmically. The director uses the stage’s vertical and horizontal potentials to compose from beat to beat around centers either demanded by the existing form or by avoiding implicit centrality directly and arranging around it, or moving between both. In a more “closed” or vertical approach—and it does not have to be purely vertical to be closed—the stability of the composition is completed by the performer, as if a space had been left in a painting to be filled for the moment (fig. 10). But regardless of whether or not the structural configuration of the scenography has been constituted as closed, locked or fixed, on stage it is unlikely to hold only one compositional possibility of completion. The disposition of the stage to be a composite of symmetrical perceptual formats allows (and in some sense demands) the complexity of multiple solutions succeeding each other in complicit contradiction and paradoxical support.

The “open” system needs objects (performers) to momentarily give weight and organization to an instant of composition. These instances are adaptable and unstable in regard to each other. They fluctuate, their own mobile centers of organization repositioning throughout the open space of the setting’s metaphorical horizontality. This “disunity” of reality and its unlimited multiplicity of potential centers are disturbing, possessing the instability of experiential life rather than the power of the mind’s organizational prejudices. The notion of “modernity,” a sense of the immediacy of the moment tending to do without the distance of history to frame experience, makes the present seem fragmented and disparate.13 Here I need to mention a parallel to the later nineteenth century tendency toward pictorial representations of reality as haphazard moments in the flow of time’s chaotic course. Like the practices of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such works are made to seem arbitrary and “artless,” trying to capture the chaos of the everyday by a seemingly unfocused account of life’s volatile stream. But of course the sense of a lack of artifice was achieved through the effort of a great exertion of art; technique was employed to make it seem as if there was no technique. A similar process occurs in stage composition that is primarily horizontal. The lack of a center emphasis may favor non-centric compositions that seem to be remote from structured qualities of equilibrium and organization, but the presence of the center is still implicitly perceptible (figs. 11 and 12). We can “decentralize” only by recognizing the center’s power through avoiding it (with artifice); yet it is always there, loitering, patiently expecting acknowledgment. The horizontal may stress a multiplicity of centers or compositional weights that are not symmetrical, but in balance, momentarily locked into each other rather than the vertical plane’s allowances of a limited number of satisfying positions. They are not “closed” in the sense of the pictorial’s vertical tendencies because they wish to tumble away. It is their balance around an implicit center rather than in that center that gives them a feeling of uncertainty and the predisposition to be perpetually reorienting.

I have been talking about these two paradigms of stage composition as if to suggest they existed in a pure and rarefied state with only a limited (and therefore unified) vantage point from which to observe the space. Of course, theatres offer the opposite of such a situation. The audience has a wide difference of viewing angles, both from side to side, and in height between the orchestra, mezzanines and balconies. At first, such a disparity might seem like an insurmountable obstacle towards creating any conceptual consistency by the director and designer, except in theatres with the most limited variation in differences of seating. But perhaps the seeming contradiction in the multiplicity of views is another example of the multivalent visual richness and ambiguity possible in the theatre? Although it would seem that a great difference in the viewing angles would diminish the intelligence of the design intent, a type of phenomenon similar to the robustness of perspective appears to intrinsically compensate for such disparities in the mind of the viewer.14 Robustness, along with other compensatory activities such as size and color constancy, acts to regiment and stabilize the perceptual sensibility of art that has perspective formats. It is a cognitive correcting action that our minds seem to execute intuitively. It was originally expected that viewing angles other than one in line with the perspective’s observational center of a work would suffer from varying degrees of distortion relative to how far removed the observer’s point of view was from the observation point of the scene’s central geometric projection. But it seems the presence of the mind’s perceptual mechanisms for “correcting” for such discrepancies is why we may move about a perspective-based painting and feel no contradiction in the spatial metaphor we see.

Is it possible that in the theatre a similar corrective measure naturally takes over when we view a setting oriented toward the center (as all must be to some degree) from a distance away from the intrinsic center of observation? Furthermore, does this operational scheme for robustness act as an adjunct to the mental process (or matrix of mental processes) involved in seeing performance, thereby augmenting the intensity of the experience? We (the audience) become complicit in conceiving the space for the theatrical event, both for a specific event and in the general sense of the complex conception of space in a theatre. That conception depends on the unity of the vertical and the horizontal as a cognitive entity. We are always subconsciously aware of the two paradigms and their fluidity in our perception just as directors and designers are in using them. The artistic team that can manipulate such an entanglement of polarities enhances the innate potential of the theatre to mirror life’s dialectical tensions. The theatre space demands we negotiate the multiple facets of experience as part of the theatre experience.

Robustness seems to depend on the “awareness of the illusion”; in painting we need to be able to see the surface of the canvas, otherwise the effect is of a visual “delusion” that may fail if its conditions are not met. Certainly on stage, such “awareness” is fulfilled by the clear placement of the parts of a design and their position on the floor plane (because illusionism exists virtually in the picture plane). It is another example of how the floor plane and the picture plane are intertwined in mutual elucidation through the contrast of their simultaneous presence.

It is true that director and designer are habitually concerned with a great variety of issues in the normal course of planning the implementation of a performance. These issues take the form of practical matters, such as the placement of entrances and exits, as well as conceptual questions like the period of the setting and the content of the stage’s imagery. The director and designer can bridge the given (auditorium) and the invented (stage setting) by focusing on the manipulation of visual perceptions, as I have emphasized here.

I began this discursion by stating my own feelings on the importance of the ambiguity of art and how that phenomenon reflects the ambiguity that is part of every day’s life experience. No matter whether we contrast the Real and the Ideal, sensual and intellectual, mind and body, rational and emotional, Apollonian and Dionysiac, eternal or transitory, conservative or liberal, observed and intuited, or objective and subjective, when we frame our experience in this way we seem to emulate the native imagery of day and night, winter and summer, and death and life, that must have occupied our thoughts since we began that uniquely human process of negotiating between the observations of our natural senses, the rationale of our thinking, and the emotions of our beliefs. The contrast of architectural (horizontal) and pictorial (vertical) planes of composition is another such pair of dualistic concepts (polarities, antitheses, or many other labels) that capture the same sense of a basic process. It is by the very negotiation of that mental process, the cognition of ambiguous paradigms of understanding, that the theatre makes the experience of performance so deeply moving. Regardless of whether or not designers and directors are consciously aware of such processes (which I think not), intuitively use them (because they are perceptive visual artists), or a mixture of both, these processes are a life-sustaining force that needs to be better understood and celebrated. At their best, directors and designers working in the theatre are the “painters of modern life,” submerged in the experiential turmoil of their own time. Careening back and forth between fragmentary images of the multiple states that convey the experience of cognition and the empathy created by that experience for the passing of time, creates an event that makes theatre the great symbolic form of life. Toward a better understanding of that end I have concentrated this small effort.



  1. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 3, 12-13.[back]
  2. Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 146-149.[back]
  3. See Barbara Hernstein Smith, Belief and Resistance:Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 41, xvii, xxiii, 39.[back]
  4. Harry Feiner, “The Real and the Ideal in Theatrical Space: Towards a Critical Methodology of Theatrical Design”. In Tradition and Innovation in Theatre Design, ed. Anna Wierzchowska (Cracow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2001), 109-117.[back]
  5. Michael Kubovy, The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 41-42.[back]
  6. Heinrich Wolfflin, Principles of Art History (New York: Dover, 1929), 124-126.[back]
  7. Ian E. Gordon, Theories of Visual Perception. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1989), 50-56.[back]
  8. See also Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans. Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books, 1969.[back]
  9. See also Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.[back]
  10. Rudolph Arnheim, The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 42-43.[back]
  11. Ibid., 13, 19, 31, 34-35.[back]
  12. Ibid., 21-24.[back]
  13. Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: Fragments as a Metaphor for Modernity (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 24-26.[back]
  14. Kubovy, 52-62.[back]


Harry Feiner is a Professor of Theatre at Queens College, in the Department of Drama, Theatre, and Dance. He has designed for the Pearl Theatre Company, The Pittsburgh Public Theatre, The Philadelphia Drama Guild, The McCarter Theatre, George Street Playhouse, Studio Arena Theatre, The Pennsylvania Stage GeVa, Syracuse Stage, Actors’ Studio, Two River Theatre Company, Raw Space, and The North Carolina, New Jersey and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals; opera designs for Central City Opera, The Philadelphia Opera Theatre, Syracuse Opera, Opera Theatre of Rochester, Boston Lyric Opera, The Bronx Opera, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Chatauqua Opera, and The Manhattan School of Music, and dance designs for North Carolina Dance Theatre and The Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre. He was also the resident designer for the Missouri Repertory Theatre and the principal designer for the Lake George Opera Festival.