The question of performance space’s importance in conveying meaning and guiding audience response is complicated. First we must define the term “performance space”. In a broader sense, it can refer to venue, which in the case of site-specific artists such as Shunt, means performance space is indeed central to the construction and context of meaning. Venues also come with their own sets of conventions and coding, which may alter the reading of a performance. On a smaller scale, it is a defining of areas between audience and performer, therefore having a more proxemics based analysis.
There is a tendency throughout history to establish a norm of performance space. This has meant in general, a designated space solely for performance, with audience spectating from a separate area. How separate an area it is has shaped audience response in a cultural sense. The peaks of audience participation have arisen in times when there is close proximity to the stage, encouraging the spectator to feel like another performer.
The use of performance space can be an unconscious one. Performers, particularly professionals, must devise or present or work within the performance space that have obtained funding for. The audience member is often not conscious of the use of performance space, focusing instead on the overtly designed aspects of the production. This lack of open awareness is, in my opinion a reason why performance space has a profound effect on meaning. By becoming a subconscious signifier, performance space create an ambience through which we filter all of the overt signs and symbols before decoding, its influence pervades all
Within modern performance, venue involvement and performer/audience relationships are gaining wider attention as means to shape meaning and reception, by working with or subverting our cultural norms or coding of found spaces. The rise of the site-specific movement shows both performers and audiences are acknowledging the key role of a performances surroundings. It is also interesting that non site specific work being performed in less traditional surrounds in order to democratize theatre and performance away from the bourgeois connotations of established theatre spaces (the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has seen several productions performed in lavatories,)
In a venue sense, the performance of Winter; The Triumph of Time, in the George Wood theatre emphasised the importance of performance space in contextualising the piece. The performers later indicated that they had expected the audience to leave during the stillness at the “end” of the piece, as it was intended to become an installation art work, which the audience would in their own time tire and move on from. The vast majority of audience members remained in their seats, showing that they were adhering to the learned conventions of modern theatre attendance; they stayed quietly in their seats until indicated by the performers (through curtain calls, for example) or their technical staff (by opening the exit doors, turning up the house lights or giving cue for applause) that the performance was over. Winter was read as a theatre piece, solely due to its performance space.
Venue can also engage senses that are otherwise hard to stimulate. During the performance of Tropicana , I was acutely aware of my sense of touch ;the walls were damp, and often crumbled slightly to the touch. The venue also had distinctive smell of mould. The slimy, unpleasant feelings these created were consciously used within the piece and added to the sense of sensory overload the work was trying to create. These senses are rarely triggered by the performers themselves, leaving venue alone as the main stimulation for two out of five senses.
Audience response to work is also influenced by the relationship between audience space and performance space. Rigidly defined performance/spectator areas can lessen the effect of the audience being “involved” in the piece. This is mainly a question of proxemics; the creation of distinct areas often involves physical distance in order to clarify boundaries. During Winter, due to the design of the George Wood theatre’s auditorium and the performers use of the area behind the proscenium, the audience were about 10′ away from the performers. I found this made me lose a lot of the detail in the performance, the nuance of the paint cracking and solidifying was lost on me for example. The distance also created a sense of “receiving” the production,. I was more inclined to intellectually analyse and consciou1sly deconstruct than to “feel” the performance and become absorbed by its journey.
Tropicana redefined its performance space on several occasions, often with no distinction between audience and performance space. being within the performance, in a sense as a performer oneself, left the audience unsure how to react. Many of the piece’s early comic moments were not laughed at, as the audience were unsure of their role. When , in the second half, we were directed onto conventional tiered seating, the audience were much more willing to laugh at jokes, to “aaah” at the rejection of one of the characters and to talk amongst themselves, due to the return to theatre norms.
Exactly how important a tool performance space is varies considerably with the objectives of the work; Shunt actively seeks to reflect venue through performance, and the piece performed in any other setting would produce far different decodings and responses than were originally intended. With less site-specific works, the link between audience and performance space is less obvious in a venue sense. Yet there is no space that does not add some coding to work performed within it. Even contemporary “black box” spaces convey colour symbolism and expectations of post modernism.
Performance space is indeed important to performance. The venue and proxemics employed for each performance becomes central to the mise-en-scene of the piece, framing the work both literally and contextually. It can convey its own set of conventions and alter the way in which a performance is read. However, these ideas relate mainly to live performance. Performance over other mediums such as film of television would have the added consideration of not only original performance space,but the connotation of how it is received.
Devised and performed by the Shunt theatre company, 9th Oct 2004
Winter: The Triumph of Time- Cleanliness is next to godliness explored
Devised and performed by Helen Spackman and Ernst Fisher 10th Nov 2004