The Necessity of Both Context and Purpose in Design

 We do not add anything to the empty space that it can achieve on its own, so what is designed comes from a need for the physical communication of the story.  We find that anything superfluous only gets in the way of the storytelling; anything that is not used by or for the actors seems out of place in the production.  The designs thus far tend to open the possibilities for real physical actions and spatial composition.  We are inspired by the work of Neher:  “His sets are significant statements about reality.  He takes a bold sweep, never letting inessential detail or decoration distract from the statement, which is an artistic and intellectual one.”  We design with the idea that anything that is not serving the truth of the story is working against it.

    The design does not have to be minimal, but it does have to be useful.  When it is not being manipulated, touched, or talked about, it has to exist in the space in a meaningful way. The design has to function in a way that gives it real life in the world of the play rather than looking like something from real life outside the theatre that has no function on stage.  Neher protests in a letter to Brecht: 


“The young people on whom everything depends shouldn’t learn from such articles how to construct a steam-engine, rather how a steam engine works—that would be reality for you—how it starts, lets off steam, moves its connecting rod and so on.  Too little attention is paid these days to the life of reality.  The things we put on the stage are dead, never mind how real they are, if they have no function—if they are not used by the actors or used on their behalf.”


Without context and purpose, what we put on stage just takes up space that could be filled with action, and thus would impede the storytelling.

    It is important to consider that what is happening on stage is actually happening and it is happening on stage.  Caspar Neher refuses to comment officially on realist stage design, and writes to Brecht in a personal note that, “The words ‘picture’ and ‘stage’ are incompatible…A picture is never realistic, the stage is always realistic.  That’s why I maintain that the ‘realistic stage picture’ is a nonsense.  Nor can I imagine what can possibly be meant by it.”  We understand his statements to mean that there is reality in the theatre, but it is in the context of the production.  Everything in a production should be designed to exist and function realistically in the world of the story.  Using physical action as storytelling, we are able to teach the audience how the world we have created works.  The term ‘realistic’ is most commonly used to mean ‘mimicking the world outside of the theatre’, while to us, as we have learned from the works of Brecht and Neher, the term means ‘true within the context of the story’.

    All parts of a production must function like gears of a machine together.  If anything is working independently of the rest of the production, it is outside of the world of the play and is irrelevant or superfluous to the story. 

Rehearse-ability and Using What We Have to Discover What We Need

Most of our discoveries and decision-making about our productions happen in rehearsal or in workshops before rehearsals begin.  When approaching a script, it is important to understand the history of the playwright and subject of the play, but we tend to refer to that type of research as ‘homework’—something absolutely necessary to be done, but the fruits of which should be brought subconsciously to the rehearsal room after it has been given time to settle and incubate in the mind.  For us, the rehearsal room is a creative and dynamic environment where everyone is either on their feet or actively observing in order to understand something about the way the play is trying to behave.  Peter Brook explains his agreement with Brecht about the rehearsal process in The Empty Space in saying, “The quality of the work done in any rehearsal comes entirely from the creativity of the working climate—and creativity cannot be brought into being by explanations…the act of putting together a play is always a form of playing, watching a play is playing.”  We use one or two days of rehearsal to work through the language and technicalities of the text and discuss what we all should know about it, but then we need to explore the story of the play, and that must happen in motion.  

    The story begins to take form when we gradually add limitations to the possible physicality of the actors.  The first limitation is the knowledge of a script and its histories or the knowledge of an idea for a story we plan to tell.  The second limitation is the space where we intend to rehearse and whatever that space, however empty, contains.  Once we enter the space, the space contains the people in the room, who also serve as limitations of the space.  With knowledge and a very basic container, we begin to physically explore the possibilities of storytelling.

    Music is integral to the very beginning of our rehearsal process because it inspires motion and encourages a body to explore its abilities in the room it occupies.  The music we choose to play for the actors to use as they warm up may not be what we ultimately use for our production, but it is informed by our first impulses to the story and the space we are using to explore it.  Adolphe Appia, in his essay Man is the Measure of All Things, writes of music and the body in space, saying that, “The body, at the behest of music, commands and orders space.  Little it cares for age-old conventions, for deep-rooted customs—all must be cut to its measure, all must adopt its pattern.  Is not man the measure of all things?”  Because of music’s aptitude for inspiring motion and ordering space, it is often one of the first things we introduce into the rehearsal process.

    We work in character before spoken text because of our investment in real physical action as storytelling.  An actor must understand the feelings and impulses of their character in order to discover the actions needed to communicate them, and then they are able to show their true meaning beneath their designated words.  It is during this time when we begin to discover what we have and what we need in terms of objects and acting spaces that help drive the story of the play.

    When we can afford to, we prefer to start from zero in terms of the scenic limitations for the rehearsal process.  Bertolt Brecht in his essay About Starting From Zero, describes an ideal stage designer as someone who:


Instead of setting out by working up an enthusiasm for the play, getting into the right mood, sketching out his visualizations or trying to think how far he can incorporate something he always wanted to do, should make an effort to sober up, not to be enthusiastic so much as open-minded, not to seek sensations so much as to reflect.


If any one member of the creative team tries to have personal sway over the designs or staging, it is evident in the production and pollutes the directness of storytelling.  It is not that a designer must go into rehearsal unprepared, but rather, prepared for anything.

    When the time is right to consider what scenic elements might be necessary to serve the physical storytelling of the play, we use whatever objects or architectural structures are readily available to us in the space to explore our options.  We use what we have to discover what we need to tell the story.  We often use ordinary things in extraordinary ways to fulfill our needs for physical communication of ideas and feelings. Bertolt Brecht writes of Caspar Neher and how, “He often makes use of a device which has become an international commonplace and is generally divorced from its sense.”  We often discover that an object has a purpose that drives the physical action of our play that it might not have in everyday life.  If the object fully achieves our goal in terms of its use for physical storytelling, we will use it or design something that functions in the same way for our production.  

    Sometimes we find architectural elements or objects in our rehearsal space that may differ from what is available to us in the space where the production will be—if the rehearsal space and the space for the production are not the same.  We examine what it is about the rehearsal elements that works, and determine how to bring those useful functions into the design of the play.  If something we are using in rehearsal is not giving us enough of what we need to physically tell the story of the play, we discuss what about it we should change.  In Anne Bogart’s The Viewpoints Book, she describes Composition as, “a method for generating, defining and developing the theatre vocabulary that will be used for any given piece.  In Composition, we make pieces so that we can point to them and say: “That worked,” and ask:  “Why?” so that we can then articulate which ideas, moments, images, etc., we will include in our production.”  Using what we have in rehearsal often shows us what we may need to design for our production.

    Lights and costume pieces are also added into our rehearsal process to continue to give form to our story.  Once all basic design elements are introduced, the vocabulary of the story becomes more specific, and the necessity of more particular things in rehearsal is more apparent.  Peter Brook describes the importance of what is brought into rehearsal by saying:


…the height of the chair, the texture of the costume, the brightness of the light, the quality of emotion matter all the time:  the aesthetics are practical.  One would be wrong to say that this is because the theatre is an art.  The stage is a reflection of life, but this life cannot be re-lived for a moment without a working system based on observing certain values and making value-judgments.


What we use in rehearsal becomes more specific as the physical action of our story attains its form.  The properties of rehearsal objects hold value in the telling of the story, not only in how they look, but in how they function together.

    It is vital that the design choices for the production have an adequate level of ‘rehearse-ability’, that is to say, they must come from the discoveries found in the rehearsal process or allow for discoveries to be made in the rehearsal process and not from outside of it.  With Diventare, we were able to start from zero in the rehearsal process and discover what we needed from what we had readily available to us in our rehearsal room.  With Hedda Gabler, a show to be produced on a larger scale, the main scenic designs had to be submitted before rehearsals started in order for them to be built.  We were able to approximate what would be useful to drive the physical storytelling of the play through several workshops, and we decided on something that we could explore using architectural elements and objects already existing in the rehearsal space.  


I was recently turned down for a faculty position at a college very dear to me.  I am a bit heartbroken about this for many reasons, but mostly because it seemed like the perfect job for me at this time in my life.  Steady work teaching and designing, working with people I know and love, the ability to live on campus with my husband and future children, and the goal of reaching tenure as a great push for me to further my professional career.

Switching gears, and letting go of the structure of a life in academia for now, I am left with all of the things that I still want, but no idea how to place them all in my life and still keep it functioning.  This is a great dilemma of many theatre artists who want to advance in their artistic calling, but also make a living, and perhaps try to assemble some sort of family life.  How do we do it all?  How to we get by financially, make interesting things happen, and have enough autonomy over our time to be able to prioritize our other roles in our lives?

I have only ever worked in the arts and have a slight panic attack when I think of my skill set (painting, design, drafting, model making, mediocre carpentry...) in contrast with the skill sets required for so many jobs out there (sales, customer service, knowing the entire Adobe Creative Suite).  For the skills I do have, many companies only offer unpaid internships, which is a blow to my ego, as I earned a master's degree in these things and believe I should be paid for my expertise.  When I look a little deeper into what other jobs are asking for, I realize that I do have many skills that are useful outside of the theatre setting.  I can manage several people on different projects at the same time.  I can budget a large event and make a production schedule so it all happens on time. I know how to talk to clients and use creative problem solving to give them what they want for a fair price.  I use algebra.  I use Excel!  I even know part of the Adobe Creative Suite!

Because of these skills, I was also offered a job this week.  A very impressive production house that designs and produces large events in Chicago offered me a management position in their art department for a yearly salary and benefits.  It wasn't easy, but I had to turn them down.  Yes, it would be financial stability, steady work, and a creative environment, but it was not a creative position and required 60 hours a week, including weekends, leaving me no time to keep up my own design career.  Even if I did make time to do even just four shows a year, I would have to further delay having kids, never see my husband, and wouldn't be able to travel to New York to do projects with Helikon.  I would essentially be taking another career and not continuing the one I have started.  I would also be losing my identity and missing out on the rest of my life.

So what is the answer?  Should we all turn down full-time salary positions in order to follow our love of theatre?  It depends.  If there is a full-time job that is perfect for you, by all means take it!  But perfect things are rare, and we are changeable too.  

I am still trying to figure it all out, but this is how I'm managing to get by now:  I patchwork.  Ellie, Mary Ellen and I each have many different things we are working on, or leads we are following, independently and as a company, and that is how we get by.  We just do many things, and they all eventually add up (or get really close!) to enough money, enough art, and enough time for the rest of life--one week or month at a time.  Right now, because I would like to start a family very soon, I am looking for some kind of permanent part-time job at a theatre, school, or art center in Chicago managing projects or programs or teaching or something like that. I am also charging at a scene shop, getting ready to launch some outdoor Dabble courses in painting and crafting for the spring and summer, designing a play around Chicago, painting a show at House Theatre Chicago freelance, prepping to do a painting demo at a rehearsal dinner in April, putting together a series of drawings to be displayed at a venue in Cleveland, and working out a few leads for graphic designs.  I'm also learning Spanish (can't hurt!).

...And of course, I am writing this blog and plotting extraordinary things with the ladies of HelikonRep!

So if you can't find a full-time job that gives you all of the opportunities you want, patchwork some opportunities together in whatever way you can, and make something new.  Just because it doesn't exist doesn't mean it can't be done.  It just means no one has made it happen yet.  Make things happen.  Build your life yourself.

Cait Chiou

Real Physical Action as Storytelling

Real physical action is our answer to the search for truth in a story.  It is the result of a feeling leading to an impulse, and that impulse having a need for communication.  In Peter Brook’s book, The Empty Space, he describes the actor’s need for action in the way that, “It was not enough to feel passionately—a creative leap was required to mint a new form which would be a container and a reflector for his impulses.”

  When action springs from need, it is the most direct way to express the initial feeling or “invisible meaning” beneath the text or direction of a certain story.

  In directness, we find truth.

    Truth is not to be taken as action based in realism, but as the most effective way of interpreting the story we are trying to tell.  The theatre gives the opportunity for expression that is not bound by the limited possibilities in the everyday world.  We are inspired, to a certain extent, by the theatre of the Absurd in how we allow our physical vocabulary to evolve.  This is not to say that we abstract every physical movement, but we are also not interested in mimicking exactly what occurs regularly in the world around us.  Peter Brook describes the value of the theatre of the Absurd by stating, “The theatre of the Absurd did not seek the unreal for its own sake.  It used the unreal to make certain explorations, because it sensed the absence of truth in our everyday exchanges, and the presence of truth in the seemingly far-fetched.”

  A story sometimes requires more than realistic physical action in order to be told truthfully.

    Setting the limitations of physical action in realism increases the chance for predictability in a performance.  When an audience feels that they already know what is going to occur during a performance, it is likely for them to allow their perceived knowledge to cloud the message of the play.  This can make the play rather boring or irrelevant for them in the way that they do not learn or feel anything out of the ordinary.  As theatre artists, it is our duty to bring something extraordinary to the audience, to help them think and feel things in a new way.  Antonin Artaud, in his book The Theatre and Its Double, tells of the unique relationship between life and theatre by calling us to, “believe in life’s meaning renewed by theatre, where man fearlessly makes himself master of the unborn, gives birth to it.  And everything unborn can still be brought to life, provided we are not satisfied with remaining simple recording instruments.”

   By taking advantage of the creative possibilities for physical storytelling that exist in the theatre, and not limiting our audience or ourselves by what we already know, we open ourselves to dynamic communication between performer and spectator and share the discovery of a physical vocabulary as we establish the context of a world created on stage.

-Cait Chiou