“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage” is the very start to Peter Brook’s book The Empty Space. Although the question of what constitutes a performance space is not really the point of the book, it seems a pertinent statement to a subject that has cropped up repeatedly of late.
Since live performance is always in three dimensions, it has to happen somewhere, and the question of where that will be is paramount in getting started on a project. A company that has residence somewhere will generally have the same answer, while the rest of us have an enormous degree of variability. The choice is usually the result of a list of circumstances and desiderata. Availability and cost are unavoidable factors, but there’s also a long list of artistic considerations. A play might work better with a small, intimate audience, or it might require a central aisle. Maybe the concept specifically requires an out-of-door space, or perhaps that desire is counterintuitive to a production scheduled for January. It’s about finding the right balance.
All of that, however, still considers space as a canvas which, if not entirely blank, has only a few specific sketched-in lines, and treats space as an entirely passive factor. And it’s not. Because the facts of a space – how large or small it is, whether it is indoor or out, whether the audience will be sitting in rows before a proscenium-arched stage or on cushions in a circle around the actors – will have enormous significance for how the play functions, what it says, and what the experience will be for all involved. A performance does not just fill a space; it is shaped by that space as well.
It’s easy to get into a chicken-egg debate about space. Do you choose a venue first and then create a performance to suit its capabilities, or do you come up with a concept for a production and then look for a space that will fit its demands? There is a certain comfort and ease in developing a production in a place that you know well, but there is also much to be said for the challenge of creating a performance with new or unexpected parameters. Either answer is acceptable; either will have significant implications for the final result. And, of course, it’s possible to split the difference and have to cope with aspects of both: a production that is designed to tour has to factor in the flexibility to cope with an almost infinite variety of potential spaces, which will result in the possibility of extremely different experiences for both audience and company as those variables come in to play.
Historical drama is an area where the question of space and staging has long been considered especially important. The Georgian and Victorian eras solidified the dominance of proscenium-arch staging, which inherently created an invisible wall and separation from the audience. At the turn of the twentieth century, director William Poel began to question whether historic plays- specifically Shakespeare, initially- wouldn’t work better if staged in a manner more akin to the circumstances for which they were created. He started to produce plays staged on an Elizabethan model, bringing the audiences closer to and around the stage. As the first person to resurrect medieval drama (1901’s Everyman is considered the birth of modern medieval drama performances), Poel was also first to realise what has come to be seen as at least a general truism of medieval drama: plays written to be played in close proximity to audiences genuinely do benefit from being staged in that manner; some of their power is lost if they are separated from that intimacy and immediacy. (The Victorian conventions for staging may be part of why they were so dismissive of the performative possibility of medieval plays.) By the same token, many Victorian plays would be very difficult to work out in-the-round, as they were written with the implicit assumptions of a stage with wings, backstage, and distance from viewers. It’s probably not coincidence that the over-the-top characteristics of melodrama came into vogue at the same time that performers moved to a distance from their audiences. This is not to say that historic plays can only work if their original conditions are re-created, which is obviously not the case. It is rather to point out that space has significant impact upon plays from the past, and that one should at least be aware of that when deciding how to stage them today.
The next time you’re at a performance, take a moment to contemplate not just what you’re seeing but where you are. How different would the production be under different spatial circumstances? How might you feel differently about the performance or its characters? Chances are, the people who’ve put the production together have given thought to what your answers might be.