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  4. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: Understanding Theatre Space

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: Understanding Theatre Space

In this essay, a companion piece to The use of set and costume design in modern productions of ancient Greek drama, I will discuss the importance of theatre space in contemporary productions of Greek drama. Of necessity, I have limited my choice of productions to a set of (around) a dozen examples; all of these can be found catalogued in the database. It is hoped that the reader will be able to apply the basic ideas expounded here to a fuller range of productions than those alluded to in the text.

Live performance takes place in a three-dimensional space. The study of any period of theatre history will reveal that there has always been a constructed evolution of theatre space, both formal and informal. In all cases, the audience member, the spectator, becomes part of the performance, and is therefore an integral part of the space itself; for contemporary performances, the theatre space and the spectator’s relationship to that space can range from a strictly formalized proscenium-arch stage to a make-shift performance space in a busy street or in an abandoned warehouse. Whatever the logistics of the acting space, there is always some kind of visual setting in operation: in the case of the temporary and impromptu street performance, the visual setting might just be a circle or semi-circle of passers-by with carrier bags and the background of a shopping-centre; it might be a green lawn and shady trees set before a castle wall for a more formal open-air production; the visual setting might be the black walls of an indoor ‘neutral theatre space’, so popular at the moment with postmodern stage productions; or it might be the glitzy painted scenery of a West End stage. The concept of space is a very important one in the theory of theatre practice, and is used to identify very different aspects of performance. The notion of space can be broken down into several categories: there can be a dramatic space - an abstract space of the imagination, i.e., a 'fictionalization'; there is stage space, which is literally the physical space of the stage on which the actors move (this can include extending the acting space into the audience arena). Another concept of space can be termed gestural space, which is created by the actors and their movements. Finally there is theatre space, the area occupied by the audience and the actors during the course of a performance and which is characterized by the theatrical relationship fostered between the two. The theatre space is product of the interplay between stage space, gestural space and dramatic space and, according to Anne Uberseld, it is constructed,

"on the basis of an architecture, a (pictorial) view of the world, or a space sculpted essentially by the actors' bodies."[1]

The focus of this essay is with this fourth definition of space. What I am not concerned with here is the idea of diegetic or narrative space, certainly not in the strictest sense of the term 'narrative' (for example, a messenger's speech in tragedy which often narrates an event which has taken place off stage). The narrative cannot take on too much importance in the body of the play without running the risk of destroying its theatrical quality; therefore narrative is often confined to static monologues. However, in recent years there has been an escalating trend in Greek tragic performance for re-thinking the concept of narrative in visual and spacial terms. This usually employs the dramatic staging of an event which properly should only form a narrative recitation, an idea most fully developed in Katie Mitchell's version of the Oresteia in which the long choral narrative recounting the death of Iphigeneia was played out in abstract form in the theatre space (and employing that space to its best advantage too). The figure of the mute Iphigeneia - a character who is, after all, absent from Aeschylus' cast-list - was integrated into the main action of the drama throughout, silently commenting on or endorsing the narrative element. [1a]

Theatre Space

On entering a theatre of any kind, a spectator walks into a specific space, one that is designed to produce a certain reaction or series of responses. The reception of that space becomes part of the total theatrical experience. There are several dimensions that affect the audience entering into a space for the first time and several questions need to be asked. How, for example, is the space entered by the audience? Do they enter through grand wide-open doors or do they climb narrow stairs? Moreover, where has the audience come from before entering this specific space? In other words, is there a space before this space? Once the audience has entered into the theatre space it becomes important to note how is the space divided. Where do the audience sit (or stand) in relation to the performance area, if such a formal space exists?

Bearing these points in mind, let us now examine the relationship of theatrical space, design concept and audience reception in modern productions of Greek tragedies, for it is evident that several contemporary directors have utilized theatrical space to full advantage in order to manoeuvre audience reactions in particular ways.

The French company Le Théâtre du Soleil, under the leadership of director Arianne Mnouchkine, famously created in the early 1990s a remarkable production of the Oresteia which was preceded by Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis and performed under the banner-title Les Atrides (DB ref. no. 152). Mnouchkine’s vision was to create a theatrical experience where past and present intermingled seamlessly; she realized that the audience had to be transported to another conception of reality. . Her concept of mis-en-scène was of a kind of historical construction-site, and this was realized as soon as the spectator stepped into the theatre itself, at least in its original staging at Vincennes.(2) In a large reception hall outside the auditorium, a huge map of the ancient Mediterranean world, highlighting the voyages of Agamemnon, was suspended against a deep blue wall. Around the room there were books and photo displays of ancient Greek life; in addition, Greek food was prepared, sold and eaten on site. In this way the audience was prepared, nurtured, and coerced into accepting the ‘other world’ waiting for them beyond the foyer.

On their way into the performance area, the audience had to walk through an antechamber and along a path above what appeared to be (on first sight) an unfinished archaeological dig which was filled with recently unearthed life-sized terracotta human figures, resembling the famous Chinese terracotta army. The audience walked past this ‘archaeological site’ and entered the performance space from behind steeply raked seating-blocks; below the structure, the actors sat in little booths, fully visible to the audience, and applied their make-up and tied on their elaborate costumes. As they walked by, audience members were stopped by the performers who frequently engaged with them in some light conversation in a conscious effort to break the “us” and them” barriers of conventional Western theatre practice.

Having crossed the ‘excavated’ transition space and the actor’s dressing area, the audience took their seats in the raised seating-blocks and waited for the performance to begin. They were aware of a low hum of gongs and other exotic instruments, and they could smell the perfume of burning incense. When the lights dimmed, the sound of a kettle drum rose to a thunderous roar and suddenly the dancers of the chorus rushed on from the back of the stage with exuberant shouts in a whirling blaze of red, black, and yellow costumes, as if the terracotta ‘army’ had come to life and had found its way up and onto the stage.

The effect (and I experienced it myself) was breathtaking. Mnouchkine had succeeded in bridging the gap between the two worlds of past-theatrical and present-mundane and had persuaded her audience to accept the overtly theatrical conventions of her production. She also succeeded in transforming the theatrical space into a ritual space.

Katie Mitchell’s productions of two Greek tragedies, one for the RSC (Phoenician Women, 1995; DB ref. no. 211) and one for the Royal National Theatre (The Oresteia, 1999 DB ref. nos. 1111, 1112) have been noted for their stark and minimalist use of theatre space. The audience entering Stratford’s The Other Place for the first performance of Phoenician Women were ushered into a bare black box and seated on hard backless benches. They were not provided with programmes, so that a familiar aspect of twentieth-century theatre-going was denied to them; instead they were handed simple sprigs of thyme, a kind of ritualistic gesture which was presumably intended to prepare the audience for the spiritual dramatic experience that awaited them. They were seated on three sides of the performance area which was backed on one side by a rudimentary kind of skene decorated with little lamps and terracotta figurines of ancient Greek and Near Eastern deities. This decorated back wall helped to transform the space into a place of holy ritual.

Unfortunately, many audience members found the experience less than mystical, and critics voiced a common complaint that the design decisions about the use of the theatrical space were badly made. Nick Curtis of the Evening Standard noted that,

“There is little concession to comfort: the stringently minimalist design of Rae Smith and Vicki Mortimer extends to backless benches for the audience.”(3)

For the Stratford Herald critic, Paul Lapworth, the emotional agony experienced by the characters in the tragedy was matched by the physical suffering of the audience:

“The pain . . . was . . . matched by the discomfort of the seating arrangements, the audience perched on blocks like tiers from a Coliseum. It was the least satisfactory adaptation in an otherwise fascinating renewal of an ancient dramatic experience.”(4)

Others beside Lapworth attempted to justify Mitchell’s decisions to terrace the audience on uncomfortable benches by alluding to ancient theatrical tradition. Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote a particularly virulent attack on the design decisions, but attempted to make sense of them:

“It would be dishonest to pretend that this is an enjoyable or even a physically comfortable evening. Euripides’ stark tragedy lasts more than two hours (sans interval) and the RSC has mysteriously decided to make the seats in the theatre even more uncomfortable by turning them into backless benches. I was all set to work up an indignant head of steam about this when a thought occurred. It can’t have been comfortable on the stone seats of Greek amphitheatres and in those days audiences sat through four different plays.”(5)

Nevertheless, the use of theatre space in Mitchell’s Phoenician Women seriously marred the production’s other qualities. It was the discomfort of the performance that was remembered by most audience members, not the play itself. The public dissatisfaction with the use of space was clearly registered by the director who, despite any pretensions to artistic vision, was compelled to adjust her ideas when the production moved to The Pit at the Barbican in London in June 1996. As The Times critic Jeremy Kingston noted,

“Katie Mitchell’s . . . production is more audience-friendly in the basin-like pit than on the level floor in The Other Place.”(6)

Learning from past mistakes, perhaps, Mitchell’s RNT production of The Oresteia was self-consciously more conventionally theatrical in its use of the theatre space. The black box of the Cottesloe Theatre was kept in its regular traverse stage orientation, with seating blocks erected on raised platforms on both sides of the acting space and mounted by black (comfortable) chairs. The upstairs gallery surrounding and overlooking the stage consisted of padded benches and high chairs.

So theatre space is a very important element of the design process. It can successfully create a mood (as witnessed by Le Théâtre du Soleil), but it must remain functional and comfortable. Directors and designers who do not acknowledge this are imprudent. An audience is prepared to undergo a transformation as it walks from foyer to auditorium, but there is little doubt that an audience will not put up with physical discomfort for too long. To justify pain by saying it was the common experience of the ancient Greek theatre-goer is perverse; it is probable that Greek audience members came fully prepared for a whole festive day at the theatre with cushions and blankets; besides which, audience etiquette, like that inherited by us from our Victorian ancestors, probably did not force the Greek audience to sit in reverential silence or stillness throughout the entire length of four plays.(7)

Each director and designer responds to space differently: famously, Peter Brook calls for an ‘Empty Space’,(8) Josef Svoboda calls for a gigantic space,(9) and Jerzy Grotowski calls for an intimate space.(10) The use of space has a profound effect on the audience; in ‘orthodox’ theatre, the lit proscenium stage contrasts with the darkened space of the auditorium and the effect is one of alienation: the audience is aware of a barrier between themselves and the performers, a concept that was entirely absent from the ancient Greek theatre experience. Interestingly, directors often toy with the notions of audience visibility and the breeching of the invisible ‘us and them’ barriers. Peter Hall’s famous 1981 National Theatre production of the Oresteia (DB ref. no. 207) climaxed with the Furies (transformed into the Eumenides) progressing up the steps of the Olivier auditorium as the lights rose to incorporate both masked performers and the audience into the ritual as the audience found themselves cast in the role of Athenian citizens. This was also the case in Katie Mitchell’s more recent Oresteia. In the second of the two parts, The Daughters of Darkness, the theatre space was transformed into the Athenian Areopagus and, accordingly, Athene addressed the seated and visible audience (lit by the house lights) as “Citizens of Athens” and instructed them,

This is the first case of homicide
To be tried in the court I have established.
The court is yours.
From today every homicide
Shall be tried before this jury Of twelve Athenians.
And this is where you shall sit, on the hill of Ares.(11)

Not all uses of theatre space or conscientious attempts to break down audience boundaries are as successful. A recent production of Aristophanes’s Peace by Chloë Productions at London’s Riverside Theatre (DB Ref. no. 877), in the scene in which the chorus drags away the stone that keeps Peace hidden within her cave, encouraged audience participation by handing them lengths of rope and asking them to haul along with the masked cast. As the cast moved among the audience and coaxed them into action, there arose (from personal experience) a distinct feeling of unease among the passive spectators. In this sense, the attempt to open up the use of theatre space unfortunately failed.(12)

In conventional modern theatre performances, the lit proscenium stage or other types of organization of space often allow for a broad visual perspective, but any communication within that space is usually one-directional – from stage to auditorium. The audience members sit next to one another in the darkened auditorium, but there is no communication between them, nor do they necessarily see one another. Interestingly, Katie Mitchell’s use of live video images in her Oresteia frequently highlighted blocks of the audience or even individual spectators and projected their images onto a giant screen, reminding other audience members that they were part of a wider group of spectators sharing a common theatrical experience.

Unlike the audience of ancient Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus, modern audiences rarely sit within the scenic environment. The notion of environmental theatre is taken to its furthest extent by Grotowski, who often has his performers address the spectators directly as they walk and sit among them in a space that is totally devoid of theatrical formality.(13) This may not be an appropriate way to best stage Greek tragedies (although it could work well for comedies), where a formal distance of time and space between the actors and audience is often necessary.

Of course, there are numerous other spaces for performance: the apron stage, the thrust stage, the arena stage and the surround stage. The apron stage format is one in which the audience sits on three sides of the acting area or part of the acting area. This type of organization was utilized by the Glasgow-based theatre babel’s five-hour triple bill, Greeks (DB ref. nos. 2510, 2524 and 2521), and by Katie Mitchell’s Phoenician Women. The thrust stage is an acting space located in the middle of the audience who are placed on two opposite sides of the theatre space, as used by Katie Mitchell in her National Theatre Oresteia.

An arena stage is one in which the audience entirely surrounds the acting space. This can be an effective way of mounting tragedy, but it is not often utilized. An arena stage was adopted by the National Theatre’s production of The Darker Face of The Earth (DB ref. no. 1089), at the Cottesloe in 1999 where the audience was seated on four sides of the acting space, which consisted of a central pit surrounded by movable wooden boardwalks.

In a surround stage, on the other hand, the audience sits in the middle and the dramatic action occurs around them. To a certain extent, this (brave) staging was attempted by Nick Ormerod in his design for a production of Antigone in 1999 (DB ref. no. 1091). Here the vast set extended into the auditorium of the Old Vic while additional members of the audience were seated at the rear of the stage.

Additionally, performances can take place in a found space, such as a church, a warehouse, or any other space which does not have any other major specifically designed theatrical pieces (sets, etc) imposed upon it, or in a converted theatre space. These are specially found theatre spaces which are transformed by adding designed seating and/or architectural or scenic pieces that help locate the action of the performance. Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides is an excellent example of the use of such a space. The Cardiff-based Welsh language theatre company Dalier Sylw produced its 1992 production of Bakkhai (directed by Ceri Sherlock DB. Ref. no. 2604) in a sparse, largely unadorned, warehouse with no specific audience seating areas; the audience was promenaded around the space which was separated into different (often elaborately designed) locations (the palace at Thebes was a parched stone harem building, Mount Parnassus was a vast mound of wet earth and grass) and was only settled into fixed seating towards the end of the performance in order to witness the Bacchic frenzy.

Increasingly, highly specialized spaces for hosting athletic events are being temporarily converted for theatre performances. A Cambridge student production of Trojan Women in 1998 (DB ref. No. 952), for example, set the action in an empty swimming pool, which was awash with blood by the end of the production. Purcarete’s Les Danaïdes (DB ref. no.153) was staged in vast exhibition halls in Vienna, Avignon, Amsterdam and Birmingham.

Because theatre space dictates so much of the emotional and sensory impact on the spectator, directors seek the most appropriate space possible for each production. When considering a space a director must address a number of important issues, deciding, for example, if the audience and performers should be formally separated from each other and whether the spectators should be observers of or participants in the performance. The director must decide upon the number of entrance and exit locations to be used and whether the entrances will be the same for actors and audience. In addition, a director will engage with the emotional and psychological feel of the space and decide if it should feel open or confined, friendly or hostile.

Once the guidelines for these spacial elements have been developed, the director is ready to explore the other visual sign systems: proxemics, picturization and blocking.


Proxemics is a recent discipline of American origin wherein the organization of human space is systematically analysed.(14) As a study of space as it relates to physical distances, notions of proxemics are of fundamental importance to the director. In the theatre, the first step towards designing the production’s mis-en-scène is to determine the nature of the space that the performers will use. The ground plan of the space determines the possible movement of the actors and the special relationships of the characters, since the physical distance between people can relate to social, cultural, and environmental factors. Changes in those spaces can therefore stress character and plot development. A director uses proxemics in his/her manipulation of space and spacial relationships among the setting, objects, and actors. A stage space that is enclosed and cluttered with objects and performers creates a very different mood and atmosphere from one that is open and contains only one simple piece of setting and few performers.

Together with the designer, the director will draw up a production ground plan to indicate the proxemic potential of the actors and the theatre space. The ground plan has to be a pictorial representation of the acting space, indicating entrances and exits; it must outline the set, indicate the location of doors, the floor area, any ramps, platforms, pits or trapdoors. The ground plan should also indicate the whereabouts of freestanding props and furniture. Below, a ground plan for the second part of Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia at the National Theatre, indicates her proxemic use of theatre space:

The theatrical space consisted of a thrust stage measuring 9.9m x 12m, with seven main entrance/exits for the actors: one main entrance through the huge steel door at the far end of the acting space and six entrances dispersed around the audience seating-blocks. At the opposite end of the performance area from the great door was a high and narrow platform reached by a stepladder. A trapdoor in the stage covered with a metal drain cover served as the grave of Agamemnon. In the “Eumenides” section of the play, a section of the stage covering was removed to reveal an oblong pool of water. Behind this was a raised rostrum with steps on which stood the “statue” of Apollo. The acting space, seating blocks and surrounding curtains were coloured black. There were several set pieces: upstage left of door was a piano and piano stool. There was a long table (actually composed of two tables) which was unadorned in “The Home Guard” but surrounded with dining chairs in the opening half of “The Daughters of Darkness”. In Act II the same two tables were placed together to form a square. Ten chairs (which had first been set upstage, below the high platform, into neat rows and which had been used to seat the sleeping Furies) were placed around the edges.

According to Edward Hall (‘The Father of Proxemics’) there are three types of space: fixed-feature space, semifixed-feature space and informal space. (15) In the case of fixed-feature space, the parameters of the acting space are defined by permanent features such as walls, columns, and doorways. A good example of fixed-feature space is, of course, the ancient Greek theatre itself, which had an open thrust acting area (the orkhestra), two fixed levels above (the stage and the roof of the skene) and fixed entrances (into the skene by one or more doors and into the orkhestra via the two paradoi). Furniture and scenic pieces appear to have been kept to a minimum in the Greek theatre, and the playwright often created a change of dramatic location (i.e. scene) through dialogue alone.

The acting space used in Les Atrides was also a fixed-feature space, consisting of a bare and sparse open acting area which had no curtains, no flies, and no wing-space, just a huge expanse of a dry, parched-looking sandy floor surrounded by a crumbling blood-splattered wall which was broken up by recesses and a double-doored gate upstage. It looked very much like a bullring. In fact, the acting space was an enclosure within an enclosure: the crumbling wall that enclosed the stage was itself enclosed by a huge wooden wall painted blue like sky or sea, in the middle of which was another big gate that sporadically opened to reveal an expanse of blackness beyond.

John Napier’s set design for John Barton’s RSC production of The Greeks at the Aldwych Theatre in 1980 (DB. Ref. no. 138) can also be classified as a fixed-feature space. Enclosed within a fixed proscenium arch, his set was a permanent structure, which comprised of,

“A large black platform with a scooped-out area in the middle, worn by sun and usage.”(16)

The Times Education Supplement critic, Bernard Crick, described the permanent structure as,

“[A] clean, uncluttered, open and steeply raked stage, basically a rectangle with a circle in it that can suggest, at different times, an arena, a meeting place, a secret grove. . . . There was a bare stage, except for a few bushes by a golden mask of bloody Artemis mounted on a totem pole.”(17)

Dionysis Fotopoulos also created a fixed-feature space for the design of Tantalus (DB. Ref. no. 2578). Also enclosed behind a formal proscenium arch, a basic circle (or pit) of sand surrounded by curved metallic walls served to function as a modern-day beach on a Greek island, the palace of Mycenae, the Greek camp, the city of Troy, the corn fields of Phthia and many other locations.

For The Clytemnestra Project (a working of Iphigeneia at Aulis, Agamemnon, and Electra. DB ref. no. 1029) at the Guthrie Theatre in 1992, set designer Douglas Stein created a proscenium arch fixed set that consisted of a sixteen-foot curved rake that resembled a hill or cupped saucer which was backed by two simple semi-circles of white starched curtains that extended the concentric circles of the stage up to the fly tower. Together they created a strong notion of a horizon. The inner circle at the center of the stage was given a polished black gloss so that it shone and contrasted to the white curtains. The overall effect was of restrained, almost Japanese, elegance.(18) As Dramaturg Jim Lewis noted in his production notebook,

“There will be no mistaking this environment for a realistic setting. It is a sacred space in which actors will perform; the audience is included in this space, invited to observe the action of the plays along with the chorus.” (19)

A semifixed-feature space identifies a performance area in which there are design elements (furniture, props, scenery pieces) that have size and/or bulk but which can be moved during the performance. This was a noticeable feature of Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia, in which a simple trestle table became the focus of major dramatic action: in “The Home Guard” it became a catwalk for Agamemnon and a place of sanctuary for Cassandra, while in “The Daughters of Darkness”, as the action moved into the palace at Argos, the table was placed downstage (in the same position that it had occupied in “The Home Guard”) so that it dominated the action of the following scenes. It was surrounded with dining chairs and covered with a dazzling white tablecloth and napkins and set with elegant crockery, glass and silverware. The table played a vital part in the staging of the latter half of the “Choephoroi” section of the play since it was here that the royal family sat to receive their foreign guests (Orestes and Pylades) and it was here that the ghosts of the dead Agamemnon and Iphigeneia (and the murdered old man of the chorus of “The Home Guard”) joined their living relatives for supper. When the bloodlust began, the order of the dining table was literally overturned and glasses, crockery and furniture were strewn across the acting area. The corpse of Clytemnestra was laid on the table and it was from this position that her ghost was reanimated at the end of Act I.

In direct contrast to the fixed-feature and semifixed-feature spaces, an informal space is an open space with no structural definition at all. Open-air and promenade productions fall under this heading. An example of this kind of staging would be the Australian director Greg McCart’s production of Oidipus the King set within a basalt quarry and played at sunset (DB ref. no. 156).

Picturization and Blocking

The theatrical process comes to life for the audience when they observe stage ‘pictures’, either in movement or in static formation; in other words, the audience witnesses either a series of frozen moments or a flowing sequence of movements which results in a constantly changing and developing significance to characterization and/or plot.

‘Frozen moments’ can be classified under the heading picturization (although the terms tableau or tableau vivant may be just as applicable).(20) This is a major feature of Oriental theatre, particularly Japanese Kabuki productions, where the formalized frozen pose is given the name mie.(21) Not surprisingly, picturization has been a major visual facet of ‘Orientalist’ productions of Greek tragedy, in particular Mnouchkine’s Kathakali-inspired Les Atrides and Ninagawa’s Kabuki-style production of Medea (DB ref. no. 177) and Suzuki’s Noh-style Trojan Women (DB ref. no. 1086), his Kabuki Dionysus, and his hybrid East-West Clytemnestra (DB ref. no. 1028).(22) The nature of Greek drama, given the inherent elements of the chorus, is especially given to the creation of moments of picturization.

The movement of actors around the stage is known as blocking. It is important that the director, sometimes in collaboration with the designer(s) and choreographer(s), using the ground plan as a tool and visual aid, ‘blocks’ the play in the early stages of rehearsal. Good blocking should allow the actors to be visible to the audience and enable characters to move around and on and off the stage. Blocking should also contribute to the communication of emotion and to plot development by tracing character relationships and focusing the action to give emphasis to an event or series of events.

For Greek drama, the notion of blocking is intimately connected to the issue of choreography; in fact, the two are almost inseparable. This merging can take the form of strict ‘dance routines’ such as the powerfully evocative Kathakali steps employed by the stunning chorus of Les Atrides, the Oxford Playhouse corps de ballet of young girls in Helen Eastman’s production of Iphigenia at Aulis (DB ref. no. 966), and the Aboriginal chorus in Greg McCart’s Oidipous the King.(23) Alternatively, the merging of blocking and choreography can result in carefully controlled movement utilized for comic effect, such as the Keaton and Chaplinesque slapstick routines of Dictynna Hood’s 1997 Birds (DB ref. no. 854), or the controlled wheel-chair manoeuvrings of Katie Mitchell’s chorus of war veterans in The Home Guard. Donald McKayle, the choreographer for Tantalus, recalls that movement, gesture, blocking and dance were indistinguishable and that,

“There are no set dance pieces in ‘Tantalus’. The dance is part of the dramatic fabric. It gives colour and weight and variety to the words. There are so many words. Sometimes the dance extends to one or two minutes but often it lasts just a moment or two. Sometimes I give movement a vocabulary to the actors to utlize within a scene. It’s a fascinating experience of underscoring dialogue with gesture as well as sound.”(24)

As we have seen, space is central to the performance’s meaning(s). Directors acknowledge that the size, shape and layout of a theatre space directs, even dictates, a performance’s mise-en-scène. Some directors, like Greg McCart and Ceri Sherlock, even choose to look outside the traditional theatre space for an appropriate place to bring a concept, a script, performers and audience together. For others, like Katie Mitchell and Nick Ormerod, a more conventional theatre space is chosen, but used in imaginative new ways. In either case, however, space is seen as a pivotal element in the directorial relationship between the performance and its spectators.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
June 2002



(1) A. Ubersfeld, L'école du spectateur. Paris, 1981. 85.

(1a) It is hoped that a fuller study of this important trend will follow.

(2) When Les Atrides subsequently played at Bradford conditions of staging forced Mnouchkine to abandon the ‘terracotta army’ archaeological dig experience.

(3) 25th October, 1995.

(4) 26th October, 1995.

(5) 26th October, 1995.

(6) 28th June, 1996.

(7) For audience comfort see Aeschines, Against Ktesiphon 76; Theophrastus, Characters 2.11. For audience behaviour see Athenaeus 11. 464; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1175b; Aristophanes, Wasps 56-59; Scholion to Aristophanes Wasps 58; Aristophanes, Wealth 788-801; Demosthenes, Against Meidias 226; Theophrastus, Characters 11.3. According to Harpokration and Pollux, the word eklodzete (œklozete) referred to a particular ‘clucking’ noise made by audience members to drive bad actors off the stage.

(8) As noted in his "Any Event Stems from Combustion", New York Theatre Quarterly 8 (May) 1992, 107-12, esp. 107:"An empty space entails the elimination of all that is superfluous – the polar opposite of the constant wastage and excess which exists in life, where we are bombarded by thousands of impressions constantly. Theatre doesn’t reproduce life, it suggests it by clearing away and freeing up space around the action . . . In a space swept clean of all superfluities, it is possible to inhabit several different ‘times’ at once."

(9) See A. Aronson, "The Svoboda Dimension." American Theatre 4 (October), 1984. 24-35.

(10) See J. Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre. New York 1968. See also, E. Braun, The Director and the Stage. New York, 1982. 195.

(11) Ted Hughes, The Oresteia. London, 1999. 178.

(12)It is feasible to suggest that the audience interaction failed in this instance more due to the actors’ inability to handle the situation skilfully and confidently rather than due to the device itself.

(13)For details see T. Burzynski & Z. Osinski, Grotowski’s Laboratory. Trans. B. Taborski. Warsaw, 1979. 13 ff .

(14)See, most importantly, E.T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension. New York, 1966.

(15) E.T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension. New York, 1966.

(16)Observer Colour Magazine, 3rd February 1980. 31.

(17) Times Educational Supplement, 15th February 1980.

(18) The Design Note for DB ref. no. 1029 reads, "The set for the ‘Clytemnestra Project’ was minimal, evoking the ancient Greek theatre and the Mycenaean age. Grey transparent curtains hung in semi-circles upstage, with a deep red panel to indicate Mycenae. A dark reflecting metal circle defined the stage."

(19) J. Lewis, "The Clytemnestra Project" in M. Bly, ed., The Production Notebooks. Theatre in Process. Volume I. New York, 1996. 29. Other productions which fall into the category of fixed-feature space are Hall’s 1981 Oresteia, the Cambridge 1998 Trojan Women, etc.

(20) The tableau was particularly popular in eighteenth-century theatre. Its chief proponent, Diderot, wrote in 1758 that the tableau is "an arrangement of the characters on stage that is so natural and true that, were it rendered faithfully by a painter, it would please me on the painting. . . . The spectator in the theatre sits as before a canvas on which different paintings appear as if by magic . . . The figures must be placed together, brought closer or dispersed, isolated or grouped together, to form a series of tablaux, all composed in a great and true fashion." See D. Diderot, De la poésie dramatique. Paris, 1758 (1975). 110.

(21) For Kabuki terminology, see M. Gunji, Kabuki. Tokyo, 1985.

(22)For a recent interpretation of Ninagawa’s staging style see M. Smethurst, "The Japanese Presence in Ninegawa’s Medea" in E. Hall, F. Macintosh & O. Taplin, eds., Medea in Performance 1500-2000. 191-216.

(23)According to the programme notes for McCart’s production, the choreographers deliberately aimed to present, "a unique connection between the dance culture of ancient Greece and the dance culture of contemporary Aboriginal Australia, based on their shared imitative nature and spirituality."

(24) Taken from the Tantalus programme notes, 2001.