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August W. Staub

 

To those of us who work professionally in the theatre, there is a terrible truth that we dread to acknowledge: we think of our art as rooted in the concrete, but in its ultimate form theatre is composed of the most intangible of substances—energy. We all speak of energy with great ease, but when it comes to the description of energy, we are often tongue-tied. What is energy? In its simplest form it may be defined as the force necessary to compose and retain form. At least that is how modern physics views this phenomenon. As Brian Greene argues in his recent work The Elegant Universe all matter is composed of infinitesimally tiny strings of energy. {footnote}See Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.{/footnote} But form is not only composed of energy, it also uses that energy as kinetic energy, to move itself. In this process form becomes theatrical, for what is theatre but the “imitation of an action” as Aristotle pointed out many centuries before modern physics. Energy then both comprises form and provides the impetus for that form to move. This process of form and motion lies at the secret heart of all our known world, especially at the heart of the art that is fundamentally an art of energy, the art of theatre.

Having made such an all-embracing statement, I will explore now the more common aspects of theatre in terms of energy. To have theatre at all, there must be an agent of form. Although the most common agent of form is the human actor, that agent may be replaced, especially in this day and age, with puppets or even animated figures, but whatever the replacement, the referent remains the human actor. Because the most common agent of form is an actor, that agent has certain built-in directions: forward, backward, up, down. These basic directions may, of course be significantly altered. One type of down is a falling down; another type is a kneeling or sitting down. I am not reciting these basic truths as new discoveries, but only to make clear less obvious points which I will discuss later. At this point we may say that in the theatre the basic energy unit, the actor, possesses form and movement potential, so that an actor not only exists but moves, and does so in certain directions. Whatever the direction or change of direction, the movement will require that the actor have sufficient energy to accomplish the motion. In the theatre this “sufficient energy” begins with the perception of the spectator, for those observing the direction of the actor’s movements must feel that adequate energy is present. If not, the spectators are likely to reject the movement as inartistic, or worse yet “over-acting”.

Indeed, an even more basic concept than the built-in direction of an actor is the simple amount of intrinsic energy granted to that actor by the assembled spectators. Whenever an actor appears before spectators, that actor is immediately assigned a quotient of intrinsic energy. When that actor has spend his allotted energy, the spectator no longer believes any statement the actor makes, whether that statement be purely physical or include auditory pronouncements as well. We have all had the experience of smiling in disbelief when a small and physically slightly muscled actor overcomes another actor in a wrestling match, even if the dialogue claims that the physically weak actor is actually stronger than he looks. We know that the theatre is not the truth of real life, but we still expect the energies presented to be equal to a life situation. Unless, of course, the response we are seeking from the spectators is disbelief or laughter.

Of course, we can adjust some of this problem of intrinsic energy by altering a given actor’s appearance—through costuming, lighting, or even spatial location on the stage. And this is what this paper is about: the interchange between director and scenographers in the kinetic and visual aspects of theatre as those aspects relate to energies sought in a given production.

It is my intention to examine the director-designer collaborations throughout the range of kinetic and visual theatre, but let us begin with that most fundamental kinetic issue: the energy needed for an actor to move in any direction for any reason, be it to caress his love or strike his enemy, or even simply to sit because he is tired of standing. As we have already noted, the actor has built-in direction. Thus, all other circumstances being equal, less energy is required for him to move in the direction towards which he is facing than in the opposite direction, for the second movement requires his turning about or actually making two movements. Of course, in ordinary circumstances, moving in the direction of one’s face is not going to make an especially striking statement, but I as a director do insist that actors follow their noses when moving unless we agree otherwise. This “turning against one’s nose” is an unfortunate habit of a great many talented actors. It is said to have originated in the French baroque stage because one never turned one’s back on the king. Wherever it began, it is a custom that obviously is an enormous waste of intrinsic energy. Indeed the story goes that a famous American director once showed his disdain for a particularly active actor by reversing an old phrase thusly: “don’t just do something, stand there.”

Above, I have used the phrase “all other things being equal” when discussing the actor’s need to follow his nose. I used that caveat because the contributions of the scenographers might greatly change the rule of energy conservation. Let us imagine that an actor is dressed so that the brim of his hat has a point in the rear and that point is colored in highly saturated crimson, while the front of the hat is mid-range gray. There is a very compelling reversal in basic direction being presented, so that it will cost the actor much less to move backward than forward, but only if he actually backs up. If, however, he turns around to go in the direction of the red point, that point is now behind him calling for a new change of direction. I know that this example may seem a bit silly, but costume decisions are being made all the time without either the director or the designer considering such basic energy phenomena and their ramifications throughout a given scene.

Not only does an actor possess intrinsic energy, which allows him to move, and to move in a given direction, but the energy also permits him to move or not move at a particular rate. A small actor burdened with a large cape will require a larger than normal expenditure of his intrinsic energy just to stand still and an even larger expenditure to move about. And an even greater expenditure of energy to increase the rate of his motion. If that same small actor burdened with a large cap needs to move rapidly against his built-in direction, he may well be straining the audience’s credulity too far.

Of course, we have spoken just of the simplest matter of form alone—the size of the cape. We might well explore our small actor in terms of the color of his cape. A black cape will increase the weight and demand more energy for motion; raising the value of the cape color up the scale of black to white will reduce the virtual weight of the cape and thus its demands on intrinsic energy. But once the cape color passes mid-range gray, the apparent size of the cape will increase, with the concurrent demands which size places on the energy pool of the actor.

Our example of the cape may also serve as an example of another aspect of director-designer collaboration which will have an effect on intrinsic energy. Line, form and color may immediately increase or decrease an actor’s intrinsic energy, without any change in the actor himself. The cape we have been talking about could be, as are most capes, generally curvilinear. In which case the cape would have little effect on the actor’s energy, except, perhaps, to reduce the energy slightly because of the burden implied simply in controlling the curves. But, if the cape were dominated by firm, straight lines, an additional energy might be implied, as is the case when an actor is dressed in the firm, rising lines of nineteenth century male clothing, as opposed to the flowing and more curing lines of nineteenth century female clothing. Here is a case of society’s insistence on which is the stronger sex and which the kinetically and emotionally more complicated.

To continue with our cape, we have already discussed the effect of raising the gray value of the dark cape, but even the selection of color hue will affect intrinsic energy. All other things being equal, highly saturated red possesses more energy than does a highly saturated blue. Warm colors possess more energy than cool colors. Also, the prejudices of the spectators towards a given color will affect their allocation of intrinsic energy. Some cultures, for instance, associate certain reds with intense sinfulness, which brings with it an excitable energy. Other cultures might see red as possessed of greater intrinsic energy because it is the “color of passion”.

Whatever the case, putting our small actor in a highly saturated red cape with strong straight lines will immediately grant him more intrinsic energy. But this situation brings its own complications. If the actor does not move for any length of time, having such a cape will also spend his energy. Saturated colors do not simply possess energy; they also are actively spending it. We can’t take our eyes off the fellow in the cape. Why does he just stand there? Since we are always looking at him and since theatre is the imitation of an action, he should be moving about. It is costing us energy just to watch him not spend energy. Therefore, let’s subtract that energy from the actor so that we as spectators do not become weakened. Well, you say, that is a director’s problem. No, it is the equal problem of both the director and the designer. It is the kind of problem that requires collaboration and constant consultation.

Indeed, color and form are two of the three fundamentals of kinetic theatre. And while we have begun with costume, there is yet to be discussed the issue of form in space in terms of the stage shape. Before we turn to that issue, we should explore one final aspect of the actor as fundamental shape and the actor as costumed and cultural shape. This issue is deeply tied to the concept of the kinesphere as first advanced by Rudolph Laban in his work The Mastery of Movement on the Stage. {footnote}See Laban, Rudolph, The Mastery of Movement for the Stage, third edition, trans. Lisa Ulman. Plymouth, England: MacDonald and Evans, Ltd., 1971.{/footnote} Laban is known for his system of notating movement for dance, but I am much more concerned with his concept of the kinesphere, which forms the basis for a technique that I have been teaching actors for over forty years. Simply defined, the kinesphere is the space in which we, as individuals, move. Architects and social scientists call this idea personal space and even have assigned certain specific measurements to it. But I am after something more subtle and more tied to time, place and culture. The kinesphere is the shape of our bodies and the surrounding space assigned to those bodies by ourselves, always, of course, within the limits and dictates of our time and culture. Earlier, we had spoken of the tall, straight lines of the nineteenth century gentleman in Western culture, and of the fuller, curvilinear lines of the nineteenth century gentlewoman. Examined more closely, the kinesphere of the nineteenth century gentlewoman is generally in a large “S” shape, with the bosom curved and thrusting forward, a tiny waist, and the buttocks curving quite far backward, enhanced in this shape by the wearing of the bustle. It is not a shape suggestive of strength or quickness of motion. A kinesphere such as this requires considerable expense of energy even to move at a normal rate, much less an accelerated one. The nineteenth century gentleman, on the other hand, is presented as a tall, straight cylinder, a tight vest binds in his waist so that it does not protrude (and, indeed, men often wore corsets to bind the waist). To reinforce the cylindrical kinesphere, a tall top hat was added to the male dress. The immediate impression is of great and tightly controlled energy, but with movements in certain directions, such as bending at the waist or dropping of the head, virtually impossible, but rapid forward movement is not inhibited greatly. People are not normally shaped like this, but the actor, the director and the scenographers must be aware of this shape if they are to present any work by Ibsen or Chekhov. Moreover, in terms of the total kinesphere, the nineteenth century female is granted more overall room in which to move, while the male is restricted to a much smaller total kinesphere. Because he has a smaller kinesphere and because it is in rising straight lines, the male spends less intrinsic energy moving. The female spends a great deal more and is thus given to so much energy loss in even the simplest of movements that she often gets dizzy or faints. Hence the presence of such furniture as the fainting couch or such personal accouterments as a small bag of smelling salts tied to the lady’s wrist.

In baroque France—and throughout much of Europe into the eighteenth century—the basic kinesphere was more closely related for both males and females. The ideal was that of a fairly sizable and symmetrical balloon. Thus though there were differences in specific male and female garments, they all were controlled by the ideal. In order to make the head and hips conform equally to the balloon kinesphere, women wore panniers at the hips, which were matched by elaborately expanding wigs on the head. To achieve the balloon shape, men wore an elaborate cape, which flowed about the shoulders and ballooned again at the hips as can be seen in Rigaud’s famous portrait of Louis XIV which hangs in the Louvre. In order to maintain and create minor variations in the balloon kinesphere, men were given a long staff and women a fan. his balloon kinesphere is still the ideal sought in ballet. It gives the impression of requiring little energy to stand and less than normal expenditures of energy to move in any direction, which is the sense of effortlessness so sought after even in modern ballet. Of course there are other, more contemporary dance forms which are based on the opposite effect that of spending extreme amounts of energy. These forms, of necessity, employ rather different kinespheres than ballet.

Indeed, our contemporary male and female kinespheres do not in any way seek out the ideal of the balloon. Generally, we find the balloon kinesphere to be a bit repulsive as is revealed in a story in the March 14, 2004 edition of the New York Times entitled “The Diva’s Big, Fat Operatic Dismissal,” in which it is reported that the accomplished soprano Deborah Voigt was let go from an upcoming production of Ariadne auf Naxos at London’s Royal Opera House because “the company decided she was too big for the costume.” In an accompanying photo Voigt is pictured as being so overweight that she is naturally balloon-shaped.

The actor, as does Miss Voigt, brings a basic kinesphere to any production. The costume designer either retains that kinesphere or alters it. The alteration might be dictated in part by the time and culture of the production. It might also be dictated by the artistic statement of the costumer in collaboration with the artistic ideals of the director. The shape of the kinesphere is crucial, for it may alter intrinsic energy or energy required for movement in space. The Royal Opera House casting director complained that Miss Voigt’s basic kinesphere was undesirable because “...it is just not a question of how someone looks; it is also how they move onstage.” In actuality, a balloon shaped soprano might be more graceful that a soprano with a more modern, more slender and curvilinear shape, but in terms of contemporary audience perception the ballooned soprano is spending energy in a different way and at a different rate.

In terms of the fundamental energy container in the theatre, the costumer and the director have a number of obligations in collaborating to hit upon the right amount of innate energy assigned to each actor and the right amount of energy expenditure artistically required to play the scene with the appropriate expenditures of energy by motion in space.

But motion in space brings up the collaborative contributions of other visual artists as well: the theatre architect and the scene and lighting designers. As far as the architect is concerned, his contribution may be made only once in a number of years and then without the collaboration of any given director. But some architects provide a given design for a given director as happened in the thrust stage of the famous Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Others design so flexible a playhouse that many staging approaches may be accomplished. Having accepted the configuration of their playhouse, or having decided upon the desired configuration, the director and scene designer now must work together on the spatial arrangements of the setting with an eye to actor motion and energy expenditure. Some of these arrangements, as in the shape of the costume, may relate to the time, place and culture of the play. But those requirements aside, the director and the designer must both consider three fundamental laws of motion. First, a body in motion (or a body at rest) will stay in that same motion or non-motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Second, masses attract. Third, vacuums attract.

Let’s first look at attractive vacuums. How many movies have you seen in your life that begin with a shot of an empty road winding through the country, a common vacuum. Soon a car appears on the road and the action of the movie begins. Vacuums attract. This is an obvious example, but a good director and a good designer will find many more subtle attracting vacuums. But still we often begin our productions with an empty stage on to which an actor appears. It has cost that actor very little energy to walk into the vacuum of an empty stage, for he or she did not go into the vacuum; the vacuum pulled him or her in. But we cannot depend on the stage’s being emptied for every required move by an actor. But now that the first actor has filled the vacuum, he or she becomes a mass to which a second actor is drawn. If that first actor is in a costume which enlarges his mass or which with color increases the amount and intensity of his energy, he becomes an even more compelling mass. The color may have been placed there by the costume designer or by the introduction of specially filtered light by the lighting designer.

The question of the architecture of the theatre is profoundly related to the issue of mass. If the theatre is a frontal theatre, proscenium or frontal stage, then the spectators themselves become a very compelling mass. When an actor enters from upstage or stage right or left, the spectator-mass is immediately and always pulling him in their direction. Thus as the actor goes from upstage to downstage, his motion is increased and then stopped by the outside force of the spectators. He has spend very little of his intrinsic energy even in coming to a halt, for indeed, the actor will be stopped by the mass of the spectators. But it will be very energy- consuming for that actor to move once again unless some very powerful force breaks him into motion. That force may be an equally compelling mass elsewhere on the stage, a powerful vacuum elsewhere on stage or another energy force, such as laughter, from the spectators.

Naturally, the simple relationship of the actor-spectator-mass attraction may be complicated and even subverted by the scenic design. Compelling masses and vacuums distributed about the stage will offset the attraction power of the spectators. Say, for example, that we are doing Ibsen and that a large fainting couch is placed just off center stage. The size and weight of the couch will be a compelling mass. If it is also upholstered in crimson then the attraction will be even more powerful, and may even supercede the attraction of the spectator-mass. Naturally, the problem then becomes: can the actor ever escape such a compelling mass as the couch? One way to effect an escape would be to place the couch on casters and pull it rapidly off stage at a required times, thus creating a vacuum to which the actor is also attracted. Indeed, the most compelling vacuums are those created by masses which have just been exploded. This is the compelling power used in movies when a cut is made.

Interestingly enough, the issue of the spectators as movement-compelling mass diminishes in thrust theatre and all but disappears in full arena theatre. This is because the spectators in non-frontal theatres are assembled in multiple directions so that the attraction from one direction is cancelled by the attraction from another. Directors and scenographers may be pleased not to be required to fight the built-in attraction of spectator-mass at every moment. But this newly acquired freedom comes with the burden to create reasonable attractive masses and compelling vacuums elsewhere. This burden is further complicated by the fact that the vision of the playing space is different for different groups of spectators. In a full arena, there are two areas shared by all spectators, though the sharing may not always be identical. The first of these areas is the stage floor itself. In the arena, there is a strong sense of up and down, that is much like the sense of toward and away from the spectators in frontal theatre. In the arena, the center of the playing area is shared in an almost identical manner by all spectators, so that an empty center stage is the most powerful attraction in the arena, just as an empty downstage is the most powerful attraction in the proscenium. These naturally attractive vacuums can be employed, or they can be negated by scenic arrangement. They can also be altered by lighting: an arena center stage that is lighted dimly immediately loses some of its attraction. But, why should the spaces be diminished in attraction? Because, of course, all the actors would be attracted to that vacuum, with a resulting loss in artistic variety. But this loss must be balanced against the little energy required to move towards an attractive vacuum. Moreover, such a powerful vacuum has its own intrinsic energy (acquired, if from no where else, by the continuing focus of the spectators), which it can give to an actor who fills the center vacuum. The reverse problem is that the center is so attractive that it will require extreme amounts of energy for the actor to leave center once he has arrived there.

Scenic arrangement, whatever the fundamental stage space, must also be considered in terms of space, shape and color. And these considerations are naturally affected by the costume and actor body-shape elements discussed earlier. Every stage set has its inherent pathways, its present vacuums and its more or less attractive masses. These can be altered by scene changes or more simply by changes in lighting. I might comment here that when I was young the ideal of all scene changing what to make scene changes as smooth--as energy inexpensive--as possible. But now, as an ancient mariner on the sea of theatre, I have come to realize that such ideals may be both good and bad. Scene changes that expend energy are not necessarily inartistic or undesirable. A scenic arrangement, which seems to fall apart before us, leaves in its wake an important quotient of new energy that may be used by the actors or even may settle into areas of the newly presented set. Having new energy available to compel or resist movement is usually an advantage. But this type of phenomenon must be handled by careful collaboration between director and scenographer. There are moments in the action of a play—such as the discovery in Hedda Gabler that Hedda has killed herself—where a reduction in over-all inherent energy is demanded.

I have here but scratched the surface of the issue of energy as contemplated by the director and the scenographers. To say that it is extremely complicated is tantamount to encouraging irony. It is the fundamental issue of theatre, but, sad to say, not frequently discussed by theatre artists. It is often on their tongues, but never explored in an organized manner. We have here come to terms here with some of the more fundamental aspects of energy in the theatre. We have seen the actor as the basic vessel of theatrical energy. In terms of the actor we have considered that artist’s intrinsic pool of energy as assigned by the play script and verified by the spectators at a given performance. That intrinsic pool will allow the actor to move or stay still. If motion is attempted it is in a given direction at a given rate. We discussed how the actor’s shape (kinesphere) will affect the expenditure of energy, and this brought us to the director-costume designer collaboration in kinesphere as well as in color choice, intensity and value. But if the performer moves it is in space and time, that is to say, the movement has a direction and a rate. Motion in space is also subject to three basic laws of physics: the uniform state of motion unless acted upon by an outside force, the attractiveness of masses, and the attractiveness of vacuums. These phenomena brought us to a discussion of theatre architecture and to the collaboration of the director with scene and lighting designers. The presentational shape of the theatre—whether frontal or partially or completely round—has an important influence on the presence and attractive power of certain masses and vacuums. But this power can be altered or changed in significant ways by the scenographers. For instance, in frontal theatres the spectators are all massed in a given direction and their attractiveness is extremely powerful, but by placing sizable units of scenery with intense colors in areas other than downstage center, the power of the spectator-mass can be reduced. Just so, while the spectators in surround theatres have no single mass, they do share somewhat equally stage spaces such as stage center and the stage floor. The power of these spaces must be considered in terms of energy conservation or loss in the discussions and collaborations of the director, scene designer, lighting designer.

There is little question that the issue of energy is the fundamental consideration of all theatrical art, for theatre is the art of motion and motion does not exist without the energy to accomplish itself. It is amazing how little organized discussion has been given over to the issue of energy in the presentation of the theories of theatrical art. I was amazed that so little had been said when I addressed this problem thirty years ago in my book Creating Theatre. {footnote}August Staub, Creating Theatre: The Art of Theatrical Directing. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.{/footnote} I continue to be amazed at the paucity of discussion of energy even today. Perhaps that is because so many of those who pretend to be experts in theatrical theory are neither practicing professional directors nor scenographers.

 


August W. Staub (1931-2008) was Professor Emeritus of Drama, the University of Georgia, USA. In addition to his thirty nine years as a university teacher, he spent thirty six years as a professional actor, director, and designer for stage and film. He served as President of the American Theatre Association, the National Association of Schools of Theatre, and the University and College Theatre Association, and was awarded a Distinguished Faculty Fellowship from the UNO Foundation and the Creativity in Research Medal from the University of Georgia. A Member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre, his publications include three books and over eighty articles in professional journals and books. He was also the editor of a series of books on the theatre published by Peter Lang, and presented numerous papers both nationally and internationally.