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The evolution of stage design, from ancient Greece to Italian renaissance to modern India

Stage design in India in the past 150 years has been influenced by Western concepts.

The realisation of scenic design as part of a theatre in India needs special consideration, all the more because of its marked absence, as an entity in itself, in the tradition of Indian folk and classical theatre. If stage design in India in the past 150 years has been influenced by Western concepts – which, in fact, it has – what form is it going to take in modern Indian theatre? The search for a new and contemporary form of theatre during the past many decades leaves an open field for the evolution of scenic design as a significant force in the totality of the dramatic medium.

The full circle

The most primitive form of Greek theatre consisted of a tamped circle, which was the acting area, around which the audience stood or sat on benches. Later, actual theatres were carved out from mountain slopes in the form of steps for seating, and a flattened circular area called the orchestra, at the bottom of the slope, which was the performing area.

The curved bowl-shaped auditorium covered two-thirds of a circle around the performing area; the remaining one-third was left open to the landscape. Performances in the vast scale of the theatre and landscape took the form of mass choral recitation and singing. With the introduction of the actor by Thespis and with playwriting, a hut was constructed in the open one-third of the auditorium. This hut was meant for the actor to change his costume and mask so as to portray two or more characters during the course of the performance. The hut was called skene, which literally meant scene. This practical innovation became the first man-made scenic background, besides serving its function as a changing room.

Later the skene became elaborated into different shapes and sizes, with an increasing emphasis on its visual appearance, and in its use by the actor during performances. Doors were introduced to enable the actor to make dramatic entrances or wheel out on a mobile platform bodies of characters killed offstage. When the skene became a double-storeyed building, supported by pillars, paintings were placed between these pillars to increase the visual beauty of the skene. The raised level also gave the individual actor a prominent position to emphasise his stature and physique in relation to the body of the chorus, which performed in the orchestra’s region.

Roman theatre in Merida, Spain. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].
Roman theatre in Merida, Spain. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].

The Roman theatre, though conceptually similar to the Greek, became important in so far as it extended the scenic concept. First of all, the skene, orchestra and auditorium were unified into a single building. The auditorium and orchestra became semi-circular, bringing the skene closer to the audience, and proportionately increasing its size. The façade of the skene building became much more elaborately decorated, with a long, narrow, horizontal stage in front of it, derived from the first storey of the Greek skene. Two important features are brought into focus from the above description. Firstly, the idea that man could construct his environment or scenic background became a new consciousness in the theatre. Secondly, there was a relationship between the actor and his surroundings, which affected one another and evolved a different form of performance.

The medieval theatre

The next important milestone is the birth of the medieval theatre around the 9th or 10th century, a few centuries after the decline of the Roman theatre. The intermediate period, the Dark Ages, was a period when the theatre was officially banned by the Church. Ironically enough, the medieval theatre had its origins within the Church itself. This took the form of dramatisation of episodes from the Bible and from the lives of saints. To begin with, these events took place in front of the altar and gave rise to tremendous spectacle in the architecture of, and against the painted and ornamental walls of the Church. It was accompanied by music and choral singing and recitation. Gradually, in order to illustrate the stories further, separate booths were built to depict different locales, and these included heaven and hell. The booths were then moved onto the steps outside the Church, heaven being placed on the topmost step and hell on the lowermost. The action, expressing different aspects of life, shifted from one booth to the next. This idea was then exploited by the guilds, which set up immensely ornate booths in the marketplace or in courtyards, arranging them in circular or square formations.

The most striking feature of this period is the extreme visualisation of the dramatic form and the increasing emphasis on the use of visual elements in conveying ideas, thereby creating a visual language for the theatre. An important aspect of the Greco-Roman and medieval periods is the visual scale. Whereas the former, in relation to the actor, is vast, the latter is extremely reduced in size – both resulting in a spatial imbalance between the performer and his environment. Drama in both cases, being associated with religion, became a vehicle to convey these ideas.

The Italian renaissance

It is essentially during the Italian renaissance that one perceives the genesis of the form of modern theatre. The absence of religious ideas and the emphasis on the life and circumstance of man changed the entire perspective and attitude of dramatic performances. The theatres that were then constructed, of which the Teatro Olimpico is a classic example, were in the scale and proportion of man, even though architecturally they were Roman. The skene here reached an extreme degree of decoration. Its beautiful three-dimensional façade had five passages built within its architecture, on a raked floor with perspective vistas showing through the doorways.

Teatro Olimpico. Image credit: Peter Geymayer/Wikimedia Commons
Teatro Olimpico. Image credit: Peter Geymayer/Wikimedia Commons

Modifications were made in later theatres whereby the stage floor area was increased and wings and the proscenium arch were introduced. Scenery took the form of backdrops, painted in three-dimensional perspective showing different locales in front of which the actors performed. This kind of scenery marked the emergence of the scene painter in the theatre, then the scenic designer.

This preoccupation with the third dimension made it possible to create a visual extension of space. Because of its easy manoeuvrability, it was possible to change the scenery several times. It was now necessary to extend the third dimension spatially, whereby the action could move into its space and relate to the actor’s body. This did not take long to occur and the period from the 17th to the 19th centuries was one of intense dramatic activity in Europe. All this set the scene for the critical and dynamic changes the 20th century was to bring into the theatre and modern scenic design.

Two designers

It was finally with the work of A Appia and EG Craig at the beginning of the 20th century that stage design in its most contemporary form came into existence. They expressed an integrated relationship of space, time and the actor in its purest form and changed the entire concept of scenic design, and the part it played in the theatre of the 20th century.

With Appia, the concept of the mise-en-scene, as being scenery within which the action took place, or one which represented a decorative element pleasing to the eye, completely lost its earlier significance. He reformed these ideas by stressing the basic elements that form dimension itself – time, space and motion. Undoubtedly influenced by Wagner, he maintained that the stage setting participated actively in the performance, as did the actor. He related the plasticity of the actor to the plasticity of spatial dimension. Appia considered poetry, music and language developing as a progression in time, whereas painting, architecture and sculpture developing progressively in space. Since theatre was addressed both to the eye and the ear, it should be possible to reconcile space and time into a unity. He expressed a relationship between the movement created by the vertical and horizontal planes, inherent in design, to the actual movement of the actor, which animated, expanded or contracted space when such a confrontation occurred.

It is no longer possible to separate man from his environment, as the actor from his. We live in a world that shapes us and we create environments that change because of our presence. This very sense of confrontation and change reflects experience and animates matter and space. All this must evolve and be seen through design, as a process, and not an end product. In this sense it becomes imperative for the modern actor to experience the spirit of his surroundings and understand his relation to it and the part he is to play in expressing this totality. This goes beyond, yet encompasses, his talent and technique as an actor, into an area much wider than just himself, but one in which he plays the supreme role of integrator.

This article first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

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