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Aesthetics in Contemporary European Theatre

Reija Hirvikoski

As a performance designer, I have had the privilege and opportunity to be a member of the curatorial team of Finnish national exhibition for the 2007 Prague Quadrennial (PQ), the curator of the Finnish national exhibition at PQ11, and the chair of curatorial team and award jury at the World Stage Design 2013 (WSD) exhibition in Cardiff. During PQ15, I also hosted a discussion series for professionals from around the world called Breakfast with Reija, where one subject was the PQ15 awards.

Professional scenographic exhibitions are no longer simply re-presentations of previously created performances or shows of objects involved in their design, such as scale models and costumes — they are also proposals for new, challenging ways of thinking about the field of performing arts as a whole, its philosophy and contents, and perceptions of it.

In my six years as a leader at OISTAT (International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians), and as the chair of its Performance Design commission, I have been privileged to travel across countries and continents, to witness professional presentations of my colleagues’ visual thoughts, and most importantly, to experience a wealth of international live performances. This has allowed me to form a broad overview of the field and has given me much food for thought. In this article, I want to share some of my observations and focus particularly on changes in theatre-making practices in European theatre, and how this has affected the aesthetics thereof.

Designing is thinking in the service of a performance

At the moment, the entire visual world that we see on the performance stage, the landscape, is still described using the word scenography. I have always found this concept problematic; it does not communicate the real and continuously shifting nature of the work, nor does it represent for me a contemporary conception of the performing arts. What scenography is or means is very difficult to define currently — even the concept expanded scenography, which encompasses something bigger than mainstream scenography, does not convey it properly, even for professionals.

To me, the work of the scenographer has never been or never should have been allowed to be purely two-dimensional, sight-based decoration of dramatic texts, mise-en-scène, or the visualising of the writer’s thoughts. The artistic premise of a performance must always be both: the shared premise of the artistic team and the private one of the individual artist. I believe that the terms scenographer/scenography were born from a need, from the notion that the visual designers of a performance have actually always done much more than create the decoration for a play, or support the “director’s idea” of how a play should be decorated. If we think of all canonised directors in the world and their so-called “personal visual idiom of the theatre”, I would claim that it is not solely their vision, “their visual theatre language” we are talking about. I would assert that this is simply not true. There have almost always been visual and other co-creators behind every director. I am talking about the era when the director was the only author of a theatre performance, and the performance was more and less based on a written play — a realisation of its written text, so-called text-based theatre. The biggest change in contemporary European theatre is that such hierarchies of the past are actually vanishing bit by bit among the younger generations of theatre practitioners — at least if I look to my own country, Finland, and to Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, and a few others.

The term scenography was supposed to be something to describe and underscore a broader philosophy of the aesthetics of the performance space as designed by professionals. It emerged from an era when the director and the stage designer started working together on advance planning of the production, and the stage designer, more often than not, designed the costumes for the performance. Yet scenography is not a clear expression in terms of concept or content. In contemporary theatre, we have within the creative team new, powerful, impactful forms of media and designers of specific production elements, such as lighting, video, and sound designers — and they do not call themselves scenographers at all. It is not clear to public at large — as we professionals like to claim — that everything aural and visual we as an audience see and experience on the stage is scenography. Nor, as said earlier, is it clear to me.

These days I prefer the term performance design, which in English expresses rather precisely what all of us designers (stage, space, costume, lighting, video, and sound designers) really do for the performance — we design an as-yet non-existent performance from our own position as artist. This conception also levels the old working hierarchies of the theatre, its conventional thinking. It is not the director who is supreme, with the other artists as subordinates and servants; it is the performance that is supreme, served by all the artists involved — the director, the designers, and the actors.

Nowadays our work as designers in Europe increasingly crosses professional boundaries; it is collegial and collaborative, involving the entire creative team. The term performance design also leaves the form of performance undefined; it does not bind it purely to theatre performances or performances executed at buildings constructed to present theatrical performances. There is such diversity of performance formats; there are so many things that perform.

Designing is thinking. I profoundly believe that a performance designer, in order to know what she or he is doing, has to have a good directorial eye, to have a bodily sense of space and costumes, to understand the art of acting and how sound and lighting can increase and lift up the space. Just like the director has to know why she or he wants to create this performance, at this precise moment, also the designer has to have something to say! I believe that the basis of a performance’s visual and aural world must always be the performing/performance space chosen for it.

What is the nature of contemporary European performance design?

For centuries, the premiere theatre country in Europe has been, of course, the United Kingdom, but the world of canonised theatre in the UK consists primarily of male directors. I once interviewed my highly respected colleague, the boundary-breaker Pamela Howard, and she told me that she was the first female designer at the Royal National Theatre in London to work on a production with the first female director there, Di Travis — and this was 1987. In terms of visual thinking in European theatre as a whole, the most influential living director of our era is Peter Brook. He worked with a co-designer, the architect Jean-Guy Lecat, for 25 years. Lecat had huge impact on Brook’s spatial thinking — they changed the entire atmosphere and the proportions of the audience experience in their work at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. To me the greatest artistic principle they jointly manifested was that, when touring, they always selected performing spaces and sites so that they could re-design them to look the way the production was visually and spatially executed at Bouffes du Nord. They did not just want to pack up the “set” and erect it wherever they happened to be invited. In an interview, Lecat once told me that Brook’s concept of the empty space is misread — they wanted to create a theatre where everything was real and true, not decorative; they actually started rehearsals with a variety of objects to test and play around with, most of which eventually fell by the wayside. Jean-Guy Lecat also talked about the position of a scenographer, and said that when you work with such a big-name director as Brook, you lose yourself as an artist. I see this as referring to perceptions and the way we talk — to the fact that we talk only about “Brook’s visual language.”

Germany has had a major, long-term impact on visual design in contemporary theatre; many German designers have had significant influence on the content, form, and conceptualism of the plays they are working on. German theatre has assumed the written text as a starting point for designing a performance, but as a general rule, the approach has not necessarily involved taking the written text literally, even if it is a classic. The artist-designers involved seemed to have something to say to their audiences. Great designers like Johannes Schütz, Katrin Brack, and Anna Viebroch have created many stunning solutions in their art.

German actors possess an enviably refined capacity to handle text. They must also have a profound understanding that they are part of the visual world of the performance, and that the visuals are critical to context. There are many types of aestheticisms, and there are no real rules per se when it comes to the aesthetics of the stage. It is interesting to explore why one thing works and something else does not. When I look at the scenography of the German designer Johannes Schütz, I absolutely cannot believe that the performing stage could ever have been designed without the partnership of the director (for instance, Jürgen Gosch), without a shared, common vision. I see no discrepancy between being a strong, independent artist and being capable of cooperation — or participating in live, daily changing processes in the interest of achieving successful performances. Johannes Schütz’s designs are well thought out, simple, minimal, aesthetic, and simultaneously architectural and demanding spatial solutions that emphasise the actors’ work. They constantly rely on the spectators’ imagination and the actors’ energy. This requires special understanding on the part of the actor — acting in a space where there is no support from illustrative, realistic elements: kitchen chairs or coffee cups. Or not even really enough space — just a white wall at their backs, and a very narrow forestage, as in Roland Schimmelpfenning’s variation of the ancient Greek play Idomeneus (2009), which I saw at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The scenography works and lives with different objects as part of the whole narrative.

The designer Katrin Brack, who frequently works with the directors Luk Perceval and Dimiter Gotscheff, fills and multiplies her stages with different materials and objects: swings from children’s playgrounds, sheer coloured confetti, balloons, water, rain, soapsuds, sleeping bags, Christmas decorations, videos. The objects play with time and space; they are sets as such, and they are installations as such. The designs are sensual and haptic — and absolutely do not arise literally from the content of the play. They create an atmosphere of the world that the performance is telling about. They demand a lot of understanding from the actors — and a director who has to know how to use such space with the actors.

The scenographer Anna Viebrock, whom I greatly admire and who has collaborated with the director Cristoph Marthaler, designs life-like stages by researching the neighbourhood surroundings of each performance space. She collates the visual material she gathers into a stylised surface material: objects, dimensions, or images on the stage. I consider the scenography of these kinds of performances “living room sets” or “kitchen sets”, and the line between this and naturalism is slender indeed. However, Viebrock’s stages have nothing to do with realistic spaces or naturalism per se — they are not precise living rooms, halls or offices or houses, nor are they facades of constructed walls. They have their own weird story to tell, and their atmosphere is a very carefully designed landscape for the performance executed. Viebrock offers her directors fascinating but concrete, structured performing stages.

New approaches to European performance design and the factors behind them

Theatres always need new audiences, especially now as cuts and cuts and more cuts are being made to cultural funding across Europe. Theatres also compete for the time of their potential spectators; these days, there are so many events, happenings, medias, and developments people can spend their time on. Partly for that reason, and partly for the reason that creative people seek new forms of expression, contemporary theatre-makers have emerged from their physical theatres to create performances. A rich tradition of community theatre and citizen theatre has existed for a long time in the UK, but in Italy has its practitioners as well, such as the group Teatro Potlach located in Fara Sabina, near Rome. They created an all city performance back in 1991 called Invisible City (directed by Pino di Buduo), and have re-created it since in Stockholm, Liverpool, Bahia, Rome, Klagenfurt, and Berlin. I just saw, on an extremely hot, dark night in Palermo, the opening of their new production, Contemporary Landscapes (2015), which was also created through collaboration between actors, community artists, students, and citizens. It took place at the Cantieri Culturale alla Zisa as part of the iArt Festival. What is so special about this group is that they add plenty of delightful, demanding, and highly professional projections and lighting designs to accentuate the story and atmosphere of the partly open-air, walking performance experience designed primarily by Luca Ruzza and his crew.

The National Theatre Wales is a unique institution. It was founded by a community of theatre-makers and practitioners in 2009; it operates out of the city of Cardiff but works all over the country, using the diverse landscape of Wales, its towns, cities, and villages as stages for their productions. They also perform all-night marathons and episodic performances that last multiple days. They do not have a physical theatre of their own. They have put on 40 productions to date — staging them on trains, at military training grounds, on beaches and mountains, in warehouses, nightclubs, tents, village halls, schools, aircraft hangars, and libraries. One of my favourite designers, Simon Banham, has had a major influence on the thinking behind the concept and aesthetics of these productions. And the atmosphere of very different locations has a fascinating effect on the creation of these productions, including The Persians (2010), performed at a military training facility, with one wall totally missing and open to the elements, and Coriolan/Us (2012), which took place in Hangar 858, a decommissioned World War II aircraft hangar at RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan. This latter production relied on sound and video technologies in very specific roles to create the performing space. Audience members heard the speech and sounds through headphones, and were free to move around. Two large screens at the centre of the space showed the action being filmed from within the crowds and from above. Banham works in collaboration with the co-directors Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes.

My Swedish colleague Ulla Kassius, the Gold Medal winner in performance design at the WSD2013 exhibition, where she also won the Silver Medal for exceptional achievement across all categories, has demonstrated exceptional thinking in her designs for Backa Teater, the municipal theatre of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her collaboration with theatre’s artistic director, Mattias Andersson, on the design for Utopia 2012 was based on background research and interviews with members of the surrounding community, conducted primarily by professional sociologists on a variety of themes, generating interesting, truthful, and spatially experimental performances in their theatre, located in a renovated old warehouse. Their philosophy is to create performances out of reality. They are not a repertory theatre; they perform one production at a time, and the city places no demands on them to bring in huge audiences for any single performance. That gives Kassius the freedom to play with audience seating arrangements and to influence the audience’s phenomenological experience, as she did in Utopia 2012. I have seen many Backa Teater performances, but moving the audience into four circles during the intermission, after sitting and watching the first act in a space arranged like a normal proscenium theatre, was breath-taking in effect; and then we as spectators moved our chairs yet again. It completely changed our approach to the subject of the performance, the young drug addicts of Gothenburg. Kassius also uses stylised colours, minimal objects, and believable costumes from the present day. Her designs always lend the performance a credible, functional form.

I have only seen a filmed version of and heard designer Sophie Jump’s presentation on the production Like Fish out of the Water (2012), which won her the Gold Medal for exceptional achievement across all categories at WSD2013. I wish I could have experienced it — it seems so wonderful. The design is sensual, poetic, sophisticated, and warmly humorous. Developed in collaboration with English National Ballet as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Festival, the piece consisted of an outdoor walking performance at swimming pools and the surrounding areas. A three-year research period formed the basis of the content and concept. The piece introduced an exciting new concept that blends real location-based performance and handheld video technology. The spectators receive mobile prompts, fed by an actress with a soft, extremely appealing voice, on how to behave during the performance. The artists, dancers, actors, and audience embark on a magical journey around London’s lidos, where pre-recorded performances, installations, and the everyday life of the lidos overlap. The storyline follows the narrative of an elderly woman revisiting her childhood memories, fantasies, and fragments of insights. Myths and legends, mermaids and selkies all come together to create a fascinating, multi-sensory experience. The group Seven Sisters developed the performance concept in collaboration; the artistic director of the group is Susanne Thomas.

Artist Ene-Liis Semper, Golden Triga winner at the PQ15 exhibition for best exposition, for the project Unified Estonia (2010), and the Gold Medal winner at PQ 2015 for innovative approach to performance design, is a colleague from a neighbouring country whose work at the NO99 Theatre (founded in 2004) I have been following for quite some time. I have seen many of their superb, always-interesting productions. NO75 (they number their productions from 99 downward), Unified Estonia, was a fictional political movement created and performed by Theatre NO99. Significant numbers of Estonians believed it was a genuine political force and treated it as such. The theatre called a press conference announcing the creation of a new political party under the name Unified Estonia. The party they created had a visual identity, an anthem, slogans — all designed by Semper. The actual project lasted 44 days. The enormous performance ended with the Unified Estonia movement meeting in a huge sports hall, with more than 7,500 people in attendance. NO99 has its own stage in Tallinn, but they also perform in other places, and in this case the sports hall was ingeniously put into the service of this performance concept. Politicians were performed by the theatre’s actors, who looked and talked like real politicians. The charade was revealed at the end of the performance, after the director Tiit Ojasoo was “elected” one of the official candidates of the party. The artwork itself was both an interesting example of political theatre and a radical reinvention of the possible role of performing arts in contemporary democratic societies. It also unified reality and fiction in highly imaginative way. Unified Estonia performed a hyper-populist party that offered everything to everybody. The concept of the production used all the populist mannerisms that could be copied from the existing parties, and the theatre-makers shamelessly manipulated the Estonian media. With numerous interviews, press releases, poster campaigns, and scandals, it was constantly front-page news. The video documentation of the whole project lifted the artwork to a completely new level. Tiit Ojasoo and Semper created the idea and the concept of the production, and Semper and Ojasoo executed the direction of the performance. What I always liked about their collaborative practice — they both call themselves artistic directors or co-directors — is that Tiit Ojasoo is a professional director and Ene-Liis’s background is in fine arts.

The best use of video I have ever seen also comes from one of their productions, NO72, The Rise and Fall of Estonia (2011), directed by Ojasoo and Semper. The auditorium was once again enormous, and the spectators watched a gargantuan screen. The whole performance took place on that screen — and the whole time, as a spectator, you are wondering: how on earth are they doing this? The lighting design was like from a real movie shoot; the actors’ faces were very well lit. The actors changed from one scene to another very quickly; they changed from one mood to another with amazing speed. On the screen, we saw long, touching close-ups. At the end, it is revealed that the whole performance was acted on a big conglomeration of sets together, like a built movie set — but with corridors between the sets for cinematographers to run with their cameras from a set to another. At the Tampere Theatre Festival, which is where I saw it, it all happened actually behind the screen as a live-filmed performance. That production of the recent history of Estonia saved my life that day — and that means the narrative, too.

In Finland, where we still have 59 government-funded theatres for 5 million citizens, we have, like nearly everywhere in the world, repertory municipal theatres and mainstream theatres, but also a growing number of small, experimental theatre groups. I am wondering how long this support will last. Will what happened with grant funding in the Netherlands a few years ago happen in Finland as well? I wonder what will happen to European performing arts because of economics, but artistically, things are on the right path. The biggest change that has taken place is that younger generations of Finnish artists want to co-create performances through shared rehearsal processes with their artistic collaborators, whom they view as equals — to increasingly practice so-called devised theatre. The entire creative team wants to act as a highly collaborative, productive group of colleagues creating one production. Finland has a long history of highly regarded female playwrights and managing directors, and has a superb new bunch of educated young female directors and lighting, sound, and stage designers. Unfortunately, like elsewhere in the world, men still do the most work. But in Finland it is not always the director who calls the creative team together for a production — it might be the lighting designer or stage designer.

The aesthetics of the performances taking place at found places, site-specific productions, performances performed in spaces not originally intended for theatre productions, have had and will continue to have a major influence on the philosophy of and thinking surrounding contemporary European theatre aesthetics, and this applies to mainstream and municipal theatres as well. I truly believe that on the ready-built stages of theatres, even in black boxes, a designer has to be capable of actively breaking down fences, changing established practices, and creating novel, bold, interesting visual forms of performance, to artistically provoke the existence of the spectator. Designers are growing more aware of and engaged in the relationship between audience and stage, the performing space as a whole, and to the aesthetics that this relationship creates and demands.