As mentioned in my scenographic statement atmosphere, as Gernot Böhme has so accurately described, is “the emotional tinge of a space”(1). “they bathe everything in a certain light, unify a diversity of impressions in a single emotive state”(2) In a theatrical context, atmosphere is how light and space are constructed to influence the mood of the spectator. In traditional theatre, atmosphere is a supportive element for the performer/script. I find Scenography so interesting because it is a design-led approach where spatial functions and elements of space, light, sound, and objects inspire audience engagement - to paraphrase Richard Shearing. It is theatre designed first from the construction of atmosphere to create a mood.
Atmosphere as character and background in cinema:
In essence atmosphere is broadly understood as an environment. So if looking at atmosphere as a character, what I am describing is the character of an environment. The quality of the light, the texture of the sound, the way objects in the space relate to each other. It is through designing the qualities of an environment that a theatre-maker constructs an atmosphere. My background in cinema studies greatly influences my interest in design-led theatre.
Within the field is it commonly accepted that location(environment) is one of the characters of the script - not merely a setting. The environment is incredibly powerful in building your world and creating the emotional environment of a film. Designing/or choosing the correct environment has a massive impact on the atmosphere - it’s simple, huge landscapes give us context of our scale as human beings, walls and sound can make us anxious, lighting can make us lost, and movement can bring us peace. Think of any film you have seen and imagine it in a different setting . . . the entire film and your memory of it changes.
My interest in world-building has something to do with my I find myself stopping and investigating atmospheres from a research perspective. An atmosphere is a mood, it's a something, a difficult to describe sensation. It is a moment where objects, light, sound, and movement seem to aligned to form a perfectly constructed world. As if a scenographer had placed all these elements, these ambiances, in a shot to built a world and in doing so influenced my mood. I as the curious spectator/researcher deconstructing this world to understand its parts fascinates me. I want to understand the parts so that I can use the information to create my atmospheres(design-forward theatre) to other spectators. Shearing offers a debrief of theorist Michael Heim to relate world-building to scenography.
“Virtual reality theorist Michael Heim questions how a world exists as a world. He proposes:
[a] world is not a collection of fragments, nor even an amalgam of pieces. It is a felt totality or whole. You cannot make a world by patching together this part and that part and the other, because the wholeness, not so much its particulars, makes the world exist [...] The world is not a collection of things but an active usage that relates things to each other that links them [...] World makes a web- like totality [...] World is a total environment or surround space.
(Heim 1998: 89-91)
Heim’s virtual reality perspective can be expanded to include performance worlds where the experience of a performance world operates as dynamic relational process – as a web-like structure. The participant forms an active relationship with objects, be they people or ‘things’, and this helps to construct and sustain a world. It is the encounters that create an ‘immersive’ experience, not the mere presentation of an alternative performance world”(33).
Two related topics of world-building within Shearing's writing also stand out in my interest to dissect and investigate atmospheres. Firstly the concept of immersion as not mere presentation of an alternative performance world, and the active participant.
Show don’t tell
Like Shearing, the presentation of an alternate world is uninteresting to me. In theatre terms, I am uninterested in mimesis. In my process, I defend this by refusing to use the word re-creation. I am uninterested in recreating a scene I experienced, I am uninterested in re-producing a script for theatre, I am uninterested in giving all the answers and telling an easily understandable and digestible story. This most certainly comes from my background in cinema and dance. In cinema, there is the commonly used commandment “show don’t tell” where we are constantly reminded to respect that our medium is visual. I don’t want people to read my scenography, I want them to experience it. Just like going out and hitting a wall of atmosphere and emotion is indescribable but intensely feeling - more so than reading it from a character's perspective in a book, or listening to someone explain their dream. Dance is the purest example of showing rather telling a story. Dance is simply the velocity of the body through time and space.
I became interested in scenography long before I even knew what it was. Being devastated by how dance on camera was captured (purely archival) and often feeling under-immersed as a spectator in the audience, I created my first stage work titled “The experience of a moving picture” where I used my knowledge of film - edits, shot composition, motion, and carefully selected score - to create a dance piece that felt more visceral(experienceable) from the seats. This turned into a study on montage, Meyerhold, and choreographic composition in film. My application to scenography read as follows
“What defines my scenographic practice is composition, specifically cinematic choreography. Regardless of the medium, I am interested in influencing the audience's focus - using motion, detail, and design - so that they are immersed entirely in the world I create. A scene no matter how small never stands alone; it should always exist in its unique history with its own laws and boundaries.
Choreographic Composition in cinematic form. Having a background in dance and academic training in choreography and composition causes my work to be driven by movement. I am most captivated by film and theater where the movements of actors, design of sets, and/or lighting is choreographed. To the viewer this choreography impacts the pacing, the spectacle, and the visual rhythm of a film/work. Importantly, however, this should be done with subtlety. A theater production is not a light show but can work congruently with elements such as light to create unique senses of motion.
When I say choreography I do not mean dance in its classical form; more an advanced form of blocking where rhythm or unison is exaggerated from the norm, where color design or lights dictate motion and the focus of the viewer, or even where the art design challenges the classical visual depth and visceral experience of the audience”(Berghäll).
For me, this inclusively of the audience/spectator is a co-creative process. My father - a marketing director - understands scenography as creative marketing. We can not show sadness and make a spectator feel sad, what we can do carefully construct a space so that from the perspective of the spectator a certain atmosphere can be experienced. The Scenography of atmosphere lies in the boundary of construction and manipulation but without the perspective of an onlooker, the atmosphere can not perform. It is here that I seek to ask questions about the autonomy of space and if an atmosphere can perform?
This leads me back to my process in an investigation on whether such a subjective experience, me stopping to investigate a fully built world, can be translated into something more universal?
Subjectivity and collaboration
As stated the beginning of my process begins as an entirely subjective one. I’ve found support for this topic again with Böhme
“Finally, atmospheres are something entirely subjective: to say what they are or, better, to define their character, one must expose oneself to them, one must experience them in terms of one’s emotional state. Without the sentient subject, they are nothing.
The matter looks different if approached from the side of production aesthetics, which makes it possible to gain rational access to this “intangible” entity. It is the art of the stage set which rids atmospheres of the odour of the irrational: here, it is a question of producing atmospheres. This whole undertaking would be meaningless if atmospheres were something purely subjective. For the stage set artist must relate them to a wider audience, which can experience the atmosphere generated on the stage in, by and large, the same way. It is, after all, the purpose of the stage set to provide the atmospheric background to the action, to attune the spectators to the theatrical performance and to provide the actors with a sounding board for what they present. The art of the stage set therefore demonstrates from the side of praxis that atmospheres are something quasi- objective. What does that mean?” (4).
I attempt to answer this question using abstraction and/or collaboration. In-depth research on both appear on their own pages but in short, abstraction is dissecting the atmosphere to find the core - the essential - components to the feeling of the world I have experienced, in hopes that this core is what I wish to translate simply and universally into Scenography. Collaboration lets me use other languages. Atmospheres themselves are already indiscernible and the languages I have at my disposal are light, and movement these, however, will not always be those essential pieces to the world of a particular atmosphere so I choose to bring in the language of sound, sculpture, architecture, etc. and so I need to find someone who speaks that language to help me.