2.3 Theatrical Space
Turning to theatre space we find that Elam (1980) takes a lead from Goffman’s concept of ‘frame analysis’ (1974). For Elam, what he calls the ‘theatrical frame’,
is in effect the product of a set of transactional conventions governing the participants’ expectations and their understanding of the kinds of reality involved in the performance. The theatre-goer will accept that, at least in dramatic representation, an alternative and fictional reality is to be presented, by individuals designated as the performers, and that his own role with respect to that represented reality is to be a privileged ‘onlooker’.
This division is reinforced by such markers as the stage,
the dimming of lights, the curtain, the banging of wooden clappers (in Chinese
theatre) etc. which give a more precise spatial and temporal definition to
what is included and excluded from the frame (p.88).
Scolnicov (1987) is even more precise in her delineation of dramatic spatial organisation, specifying three areas: ‘theatre space’, ‘theatrical space’, and ‘theatrical space without’ (pp.8-13). Theatre space is essentially the physical space which encompasses both actors and audience, most commonly (in our culture) a building called a theatre. Theatrical space is most usually defined by the stage, but can extend to appropriate other parts of the theatre space - aisles, the entire audience etc. – if required. Actors further define the theatrical space through words, movement, gesture and the aid of props, scenery, lighting and acoustic effects, thus creating a space that is cut off from the everyday and that within its boundaries achieves freedom from the everyday (p.12). This allows actors to discuss what is happening in some other place or to leave the surroundings for some distant place, all of which serves to extend the theatrical space, and all of which, in terms of performance, are very real spaces, though they remain unseen. This creates the ‘theatrical space within’ and the ‘theatrical space without’, the former being the concrete visible space on stage (perceived space), the latter being extrapolations of that space (conceived space) (p13). Such a clear laying out of performance space is easily recognisable to a present-day theatre-goer; the necessary structural division between performers and audience discussed earlier appears ‘given’ and generally is a necessary component of participants’ expectations. But how did it come about?
Scolnicov notes the parallels between the severing of theatrical space from everyday space and the separation of sacred space from profane space. Drawing on Ernst Cassirer, she points out that the word ‘temple’ indicates this separation as it is derived from the Greek root ‘tem’ which means ‘to cut’ or ‘to delimit’ (p.12). A further etymological point, which stresses both space and performance, is made by Issachoroff; ‘theatre’ comes from the Greek TEatpov, which means ‘seeing place’ (1987:187). One more similar point comes from Harrison, who, when discussing the move from ritual to art in ancient Athens, notes, ‘a dromenon became the drama, and we have seen the shift symbolised and expressed by the addition of the theatre or spectator-place to the orchestra or dancing-place’ (in Burns 1972:24). Thus, from its inception, theatre involves the delimiting and cutting of spaces which divide the performers from the ‘onlookers’.
In his discussion of classical Greek comedy Slater refers to the Theatre of Dionysos on the southern slope of the Acropolis in 5th century BCE Athens. This theatre, which served as a model for many others built thereafter throughout the Greek world, had three components: the skene (a low stage with a backdrop building), the orchestra (dancing place), and the cavea (seating place). This was not a tripartite space but ‘a simple, unified, hieratic space, a place where the entire city of Athens came together to worship the god of theatre Dionysos’ (p.1). Of interest for our purposes is that he makes no mention of sacred and profane, it all seems to be sacred space (unless he speaks metaphorically). Also, it is the orchestra which takes up the central place at this point (Figure 2), coming between the stage and the audience, a point which fits in with his sacred interpretation as the orchestra is the space which had an altar in the centre. But for Scolnicov, the orchestra was simply ‘a reminder of the sacred nature of the theatrical performance: it is a sacred circle transformed into a theatrical space’ (p.13). She gives no time reference so perhaps her view does not contradict Slater’s; she may well be speaking of the later development away from religious ritual. Either way, what we have seen here is already the formalised division between theatre space and theatrical space with distinct places and roles for the performers and audience. (The foregoing views, it should be pointed out, favour the ritual origins perspective of theatre development.)
Fig. 2. Plan of the theatre at Epidaurus c. 150 BCE. (Brockett 1995:42).
Roman theatres were different. Where Greek theatres had been
built on hill-sides to accommodate the tiered audience i.e. they were a relatively
natural, open space, Roman theatres were built on flat land with a surrounding
wall of elaborately decorated masonry i.e. this was a more enclosed, and to
a modern audience, familiar space. As there was no chorus the need for a dancing
space (orchestra) disappeared. ‘The focal point of the Roman theatre
building was therefore the high stage, with tiers of benches in front and
an elaborate stage wall, the frons scaenae, behind, often two storeys
high’ (Hartnoll 1976:27). This raised stage looked back to the simple
temporary platforms - the phylakes – used in southern Italy
for farcical mime-plays, and forward to the raised stages used in dramatic
performances from the medieval period onwards (pp.27-8).
However, we must not think that performance space was only formal and fixed. The itinerant performers of the interregnum between the collapse of Roman theatre and the start of liturgical tropes performed wherever there were people. Swortzell describes how ‘[t]he clown and his company, sometimes consisting of just his family, simply set up a small portable wooden platform and waited for a crowd to collect’ (1978:26).
Moving on to church services, Bucknell observes that as the dramatic elements developed the whole of the church would be brought into use.
Stages (stages of the development of the story and the changing locale, usually referred to as ‘houses’ or ‘mansions’) were placed around the perimeter of the church and in its midst, allowing for continuous performance from one stage to the next. The player-clergy moved through the standing congregation from one defined place of action (as with Noh plays) to another. The mansions were simple structures symbolising such places as Heaven, the house of the Maries or the disciples, Emmaus, Galilee, Hell, or a jail, and so forth. They were most probably set up on little platforms, with a short flight of steps, up from the floor of the church to elevate the actor from his audience.
Hartnoll adds that the unlocalised space between mansions
(the platea – ‘playing space’) could also be put
to use, such that it ‘was to persist for hundreds of years and to prove
so useful to future dramatists like Shakespeare, since it could represent
any place the writer chose to make it’ (1976:40).
The mingling of performance and audience which took place in churches also occurred in later theatrical developments outside the church in medieval England. One type of structure that was built was the Cornish round theatre in which actors were placed on different points on the raised perimeter and in the centre was a plateau, an arrangement of space notably different from the classical Greek or Roman theatre outline above. When the actors needed to interact they descended onto the plateau and the audience moved to accommodate them accordingly. Burns comments, ‘Here the spectator must have become accustomed to constant forming and reforming of the boundaries of illusions through conventions shared with the actors’ (1972:73). That is, in Scolnicov’s terms, both the theatre space and the theatrical space were, within one performance, not static but mobile, shifting spaces.
Later theatre design also had spatial conventions distinct from those of classical Greek theatre or from those of today. Burbage’s ‘Theatre’, which was also in the round, had a stage which actors who were not dramatically present were not obliged to leave. They could remain visible but out of the play, ignored by an audience who knew the difference between perceived space and conceived space. Also, in the public theatres of the time (16th century) separate precincts, stage, and auditorium were allotted to the actors and audience, but to raise extra money spectators were allowed to buy stools on the stage. This sharing of the same physical space by the performers creating theatrical space and a selection of the audience sitting watching in theatre space continued in these theatres until the mid-18th century when Garrick drove such spectators off the stage in Drury Lane (Burns p.74). Thus, once more a clear distinction was made between space and roles for the actors and audience. And just as a further reminder of the variety of spaces it can be added here that formal theatres were not the only performance spaces. The Commedia del’arte from the mid-16th to the mid 18th century performed throughout Europe ‘in a wide range of performance spaces from the streets and squares of towns, through hired rooms and halls, to the gardens, courtyards, great halls, and formal theatres of the nobility’ (Richards & Richards 1990:1).
But to return to formal theatres, the differences between theatre space and theatrical space were also defined by developments in theatre design. According to Hartnoll, two of the major innovations spread outwards from Renaissance Italy from the late 15th century onwards. ‘The first is the form of the new theatre building, with its proscenium arch, and the second is the development of painted scenery’ (1976:52). In England in the early 17th century the proscenium arch was introduced into some theatres and Inigo Jones arranged the normally free-standing props and scenery according to the receding perspective of landscape. In these theatres the theatrical space was not framed solely by the action but also by the scenery and the physical boundaries of the stage and proscenium arch. Thereafter the forestage dwindled to the extent that theatres built from the 20th century onwards are designed without one. ‘The curtain is drawn to disclose a picture’ (Burns p.75). Audience and picture are clearly separate.
The later development of moving pictures gave us cinema and television, two media which provide an even greater separation of performer and audience. For the first time the performers and audience were actually separate in time and space. The relationship of such audiences to the performance before them differs from that of a live audience and the significant details of this will be taken up in Section 8.
We have seen that at certain times particular theatre designs and conventions allowed for flexibility in the relationship between theatre space and theatrical space and yet the idea of performance did not lose its meaning or identity for the audience as audience awareness of spatial conventions has, necessarily, been there from the beginning. In her study of the spatial semantics of mediaeval theatre, King (after Twycross) points out that even when the drama left the confines of the church building (theatre space) in the form of processional plays which paraded through the everyday space of the streets, even then ‘despite the lack of physical separation, the actors are still inhabitants of the world of the play, the audience still onlookers. The illusion is not broken’ (1987:46-7). On this point Elam has noted that post-war performers and directors such as the Becks and Schechner have extended the bounds of the performance to include the audience explicitly (p.34). This idea was taken yet further by Peter Handke in his Sprechstuck (not ‘play’) ‘Offending The Audience’ (1966), in which four speakers (not ‘actors’) stand on a bare stage and address the audience directly in a fully lit auditorium. One of them comments:
There is no invisible circle here. There is no magic circle. There is no room for play here. We are not playing, we are all in the same room. The demarcation line has not been penetrated, it is not pervious, it doesn’t even exist.
(in Scolnicov pp.24-5)
Handke refuses to repeat the divisions in actor/audience
space and roles dealt with above and which are commonly seen as the defining
elements of theatrical performance. He deliberately desecrates such notions.
Scolnicov remarks on this foregrounding of space in certain contemporary dramas
thus: ‘Space is no longer a mere environment in which the protagonists
move. It has become a theatrical object in its own right’ (pp.24-5)
Such reflexive elements need not always be dealt with so weightily, however. Woody Allen in his drama ‘God (A Play)’ presents the following dialogue.
WRITER: As long as man is a rational animal, as a playwright, I cannot have a character do anything on stage he wouldn’t do in real life.
ACTOR: May I remind you that we don’t exist in real life.
W: What do you mean?
A: You are aware that we are characters in a play right now in some Broadway theater? Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t write it.
W: We’re characters in a play and soon we’re going to see my play…which is a play within a play. And they’re watching us.
A: Yes, it’s highly metaphysical, isn’t it?
W: Not only is it metaphysical, it’s stupid!
A: Would you rather be one of them?
W: (Looking at audience) Definitely not. Look at them.
Nor is this new. Swortzell observes that some of the comedic
characters of the Commedia del’arte would, as part of their role, ignore
the play and casually chat with the audience until hustled away by the other
However, Scolnicov also notes that such attempts cannot succeed in their aims because their ‘as if’ activities cuts them off from everyday space. (In Handke: there were still paid actors on stage speaking scripted words to a fee-paying audience who watched from their seats in the auditorium.) For example, street theatre may repudiate theatre space by going outside but it carries its theatrical space around with it, a point made in different terms above by King about medieval procession plays: the illusion is not broken. However, the illusion can be broken, but if it is then the performance breaks down and, however briefly, ceases to be a theatrical performance. (It may become a performance of another kind, of course.) To give an example of this takes us on to the next point to be discussed, the performer-audience relationship.
2.3 Theatrical Space