Monday, July 12, 2010

Design in the Theatre

Design in the theatre :

Design in the theatre has seen major changes in the course of the 20th century . While it used to be (regarded as) the surface decoration of the stage, it has become an independent and important component in the making of any theatrical event, and with it the designer has gained equal status with the actor and the director. Distinct areas of design are differentiated: set, costume, light and sound. Even among those there is a kind of hierarchy: thus the Who’s Who in Contemporary World Theatre lists numerous famous designers who specialise in set and costume, much fewer who specialise in lighting, and hardly anyone specialising in sound design . It is striking, though, that quite a number of designers now no longer specialise in one or two conventional forms of design, but combine them all, at times even with directing and devising the productions in question . The term to capture this combination of formerly distinct areas of design is scenography, and the artist becomes the scenographer.
Design Creativity in the Theatre :
In the theatre, there are many forms that design creativity can take: when providing the design for a farce, the task is to be as true to the author’s instructions as possible so as to allow the design to fulfil the function of enabling maximum laughter. Any deviation from those instructions may ruin those chances. In other genres of theatre, the design may serve to support the message, or it may intentionally be at odds with the message, for purposes of alienation or foregrounding.
There are five stages of the creative design process: the idea, the drawing, the model, building the set in the workshop, and exploring the set on the stage . Predominantly, the study of scenography deals with the last four stages: developing the ability to critically assess the scenographic work of other artists, which includes aspects of theatre history, and developing practical skills of creating scenography oneself. Thus, a reflection of what happens in the process of scenography from a cognitive perspective in the mind of the scenographer, (the idea and how it transforms to drawing and model and so on) would not (yet) be at the focus of studies. It is this gap I want to begin to address.
Scenography, in most general terms, deals with space. Space is important for us in daily life, regarding, among others, the following issues:
  1. Where am I, and how are my body parts currently oriented?
  2. Where are important environmental objects in relation to me?
  3. Where are these objects in relation to each other?
  4. What do I need to know about these objects?
  5. How should I go about doing what should be done?
Design and the Brain :
While moving in space, we always have to take the above points into consideration. This usually happens without us being aware of it at all times—in most cases we realise the level of success, though: if while walking we bump into an object without intending to, or if we loose our way while travelling to a new destination by car, we clearly got it wrong. Human abilities related to space are conceptualised and studied in the discipline of cognitive (neuro-) psychology as spatial awareness, or spatial cognition. Conventionally, the brain area considered in charge of spatial cognition is the right parietal lobe although research suggests that the superior temporal lobe is in charge, and not the parietal lobe.
People who create scenography have more highly developed abilities of spatial cognition, and should perform better in tasks devised to test such spatial cognition abilities. Perhaps scenographers recognised as ‘great’ will perform better than ‘average’ scenographers. Possibly performance in spatial cognition is correlated with levels of success and recognition. One specific activity will develop one specific region in the brain by developing numerous further connections of neurons . A different activity will develop a second specific area. By implication, the posterior parietal lobe (or the superior temporal lobe) should show more neuronal connections in scenographers than in members of professions that do not engage in activity requiring spatial awareness to the extent that scenographers do.
Spatial cognition is related to mental imagery, which is defined as the ‘experience that resembles perceptual experience, but which occurs in the absence of the appropriate stimuli for the relevant perception . Such experiences may ‘seem to anticipate possible, often desired or feared, future experiences’. It would be interesting to collect qualitative data about the creative processes of scenographers, and to compare this with existing research into mental imagery.
To further elucidate the relationship between space and consciousness, lets refer to research into the meaning of Vedic Literature of India. The 40 aspects of Vedic Literature correspond in structure and function to the human anatomy and physiology. The aspects of Vedic Literature that correspond to the parietal lobe are twofold: first, to the third house (bhava) in Vedic astrology (jyotish), and secondly to the third of four chapters of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Reading or listening to reading, in Sanskrit, of a specific aspect of Vedic Literature would have beneficial effects on the part of anatomy and / or physiology related to that specific aspect. Reading and / or listening to passages in Sanskrit from jyotish and yoga should improve spatial cognition, and thus the ability for scenography. This science is now what is known as epigenetics .
Design and Sthapatya Veda :
In Indian philosophy, the discipline relating most closely to scenography is Sthapatya Veda, comprising a range of treatises on architecture and design. Design in the context of Sthapatya Veda refers to building on every conceivable scale and in every conceivable context, ranging from a room to a building, a village, a city, and even an entire country. Sthapatya Veda also comprises the creation of form in the arts. In each context, and at each point of the scale, the purpose of applying rules of Sthapatya Veda is to achieve form that is ‘in full alignment with the structuring dynamics of the whole universe’. In terms of consciousness studies, those dynamics are the dynamics characteristic of the state of consciousness refereed to as pure consciousness, or pure consciousness event: apart from waking, dreaming and sleeping as most commonly experienced states of consciousness, pure consciousness is a state that is devoid of any contents of consciousness while experienced as fully awake. When pure consciousness is eventually experienced together with waking or dreaming or sleeping, higher states of consciousness are developing. Thus, Sthapatya Veda provides practical knowledge how to create visible form that is in tune with the principles and procedures of invisible pure consciousness at the basis of form. Form created in line with Sthapatya Veda will express the laws of nature responsible for that form to their full extent, undiminished and unobstructed. Why should we wish to achieve such alignment? Because any form that complies with the rules of Sthapatya Veda will, in turn, have the impact of enlivening and structuring the laws of nature in the observer of that form that led to its creation in the first place. For example, research suggests that houses built in accordance with Sthapatya Veda make their inhabitants think more clearly and creatively, make better decisions, feel happier and healthier, feel more alert and refreshed throughout the day, enjoy more restful and refreshing sleep, enjoy more energy and less fatigue, and experience less stress and greater peace of mind.
What applies for architecture for domestic dwellings should also apply to scenography. In this context that Vedic texts have their direct correspondence in the human physiology, Sthapatya Veda is related to the spinal chord and the nerves emanating from it. “The spinal chord, with its 35 segments or nerves on either side (…) presents two symmetrical parts which total 70 divisions. These 70 divisions correspond to the 70 chapters of Sthapatya Veda”
The question is whether perceiving form created in line with the rules of Sthapatya Veda has the same effect as reading Vedic texts. Thus reading Sthapatya Veda should have a measurable impact on the spinal column and the nerves emanating from it. If this hypothesis is true, similar effects should be found when watching a scenography that follows the rules of Sthapatya Veda.
Design and mirror neurons :
How could any impact of scenography on the spectator’s consciousness work in neurophysiological terms? Research on mirror neurones suggests that when we see the movement of another person, specific neurones fire in such a way that we would copy the movement we see if other neurones would not stop this mirror action by firing more intensively at the same time. In some cases, such a yawning, the inhibitory effect seems ineffective or not present. . Applied to the theatre, when we see the actors’ specific movement on the stage, neurones in our brains fire in such a way as to imitate the movement we see, while at the same time other neurones fire in order to prevent the actual movement. However, some neuronal activity in the spectator has been induced by the performance, and it might be possible to theorise further that such neuronal activity may have broader effects, triggering secondary processes short of actual movement. It would also be interesting to establish whether mirror neurones are limited to the sense of sight.

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