The sum of scenic devices or, more generally, devices used in a performances. Today, scenography is not only, according to its Greek meaning, a “painted set for theatre”. Obviously, it takes into account the conception and setting up of the set, the layout of the stage, the spatial organization of the stage and the auditorium (“house”), the annexes, but it must also, like any communication space, manage every aspect of the public’s relation to the stage performance: vision, sound, lighting, distance between actors and audience, accessibility, comfort and security.
Historic Performing Areas
If one wishes to look at the matter synthetically, it could be said that there are only three great families of historic performing spaces: the Greek theatre, the medieval play area, and the classic Italian theatre. These three forms have influenced puppet theatre, whose history is associated with the actors’ theatre. The notion of scenography was probably born from religious ceremonies that took place in the ancient era, from the Egyptians, the Hebrews and the Greeks. Greek theatre made its own set-changing machinery and the first “special effects” such as the deus ex machina, automata before its time that are, in effect, similar to puppets due to their special effects. The interdiction by the church of spectacula (spectacles), where men and animals fought and that the Romans preferred to dramatic pieces, benefitted the itinerant performances that hence spread through Europe.
However, Christianity was, from the 10th century, at the origin of European theatre’s renaissance, such that it became an integral part of liturgy. Later, theatre left the sacred precincts of churches to, instead, be performed in church squares. Genuine theatrical performances, mystery plays, thus took place using a codified frontal scenography around 1315.
Puppet theatre in Europe experienced the same evolution, moving from the altar to the church squares and from the latter to the streets.
From the 15th century onwards, the Italian theatre model imposed itself, and the central notion to the construction of these theatres was perspective, as can be seen by the plans of Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554; see also Décor / Stage Setting and the Italian-style Stage).
This kind of theatre’s counterpoint was the traditional puppet theatre stage (see Puppet Stages). In parallel to this, in the first half of the 16th century, the genre of commedia dell’arte, whose relationship to puppetry is well documented, began to spread. From a scenographic point of view, the set is not of prime importance as commedia dell’arte can be performed just as well in the streets, on trestles, as in theatres.
Edward Gordon Craig, in England, Adolphe Appia in Switzerland, Max Reinhardt and Walter Gropius in Germany, the Futurists in Italy, Szymon Syrcus in Poland, all of these scenographers broke the boundaries of traditional scenographic space. Beyond their differences, they all shared the sentiment that the traditional stage was nothing more than a museum, and that its inner dramatic quality had to be found in order to reinstate the structural unity that it needed.
The Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, was also occupied with theatre and puppetry. In 1922, Ilse Fehling proposed a project based on a circular puppet theatre for elevated manipulation puppets and Oskar Schlemmer participated in the theatre workshop from 1923 to 1929 in Dessau. His Triadisches Ballett is an interesting example of his research where dance, costume and music were intimately linked. In fact, the costumes were genuine “walkabout” puppets (see Costume Puppet). Kurt Schmidt presented in 1923 a mechanical ballet project, composed of abstract, geometric puppets. Wassily Kandinsky drew the sets for Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, made for the Friedrich Theater in Dessau in 1928, while Kurt Schmidt, George A. Adams-Teltscher, Heinz Loew, Andor Weininger, Roman Clemens, László Moholy-Nagy, and Lothar Schreyer all conceived mechanical ballet projects that were in fact sets that incorporated abstract animated forms.
In 1927, Erwin Piscator had the idea of a transformable theatre, even speaking of a “transformation of the conscience” by these new forms of theatrical performance, cinema, and the recently born television, and introducing in this regard the projection of films in a show. In 1931, Antonin Artaud demanded the eradication of the audience area and stage, to be replaced by a single area, with no walls or barriers.
A movement from the 1950s that must be mentioned is the “theatre of total movement”, the brainchild of Jacques Polieri who founded in 1956 the Festival de l’Art d’Avant-garde with the architect Le Corbusier. Scenographer, director and theoretician, he conceived revolutionary scenic spaces. Equally, he worked with the puppeteers Harry Kramer, Georges Lafaye, and Yves Vedrenne. It is because of this that the latter, in 1956 at the Theatre de l’Alliance Française, experimented with abstractly formed puppets, mounted onto skates and springs for a show directed by Jacques Polieri and based on the work of three authors, Jean-Pierre Faye, Fernando Arrabal and Jean Thibaudeau.
Six basic principles govern the organization of modern scenography.
The frontal performing space
The show takes place in front of the public that sits on a horizontal level, the stage being slightly elevated. In this same configuration, the stage finds itself down below with the public sitting in the terraces. The combination of the two is, generally, found in Italian theatre. The puppet theatre is a replica on the scale of the puppets. It is the most common layout. Black (light) theatre, which can only produce its essential illusion in front of a black box, also uses it. In a general manner, shadow theatre is played frontally but it is not disallowed to attempt to use different spaces. The traditional Japanese form of puppetry, Bunraku, also implies a frontal performance.
The central performing space
A circus is an example of a central performing space. Situated in the middle, the stage is surrounded by the spectators. Buskers who set up in the middle of a plaza also follow this principle. The Bread and Puppet Theater (United States) and the Royal de Luxe (France) are currently the best examples of this. This kind of performing space can also be a rectangular shape, the central stage bordered on both sides by the public as in medieval games (e.g. jousting).
The ringed performing space
Here, the show takes places around the audience, who are seated in the centre of the layout. This configuration can create a dynamic that induces the immersed audience to participate. The Living Theater, created in 1951 in New York by Julian Beck and Judith Malina that was at the centre of the protest movements of the 1960 and of research into audience/performance relationship, was a notable school in this even though it disappeared in 1970. The Bread and Puppet Theater can be seen in certain aspects as its predecessor in puppetry with their processions of large rod puppets surrounding the audience during protests against the war in Vietnam. According to the principle established by Jacques Polieri, André Wogenscky constructed in 1968 at the Maison de la Culture de Grenoble “théâtre annulaire mobile”, a mobile theatre that offered spectators “a defocused vision, a perception of the environment for an unlimited theatre”. Repeating the words of Michel Corvin in Polieri, une passion visionnaire (Polieri, A Visionary Passion, 1998), the originality of this “spinning theatre” “resides in the double mobility offered to the spectators: first of all their own, as they are sat on a turning plate, then that of the spectacle, because it takes place both on a static ringed stage and a moving ringed stage. In this manner, no two spectators see the same thing, and none have an immediate tabular vision.”
The simultaneous performing space
The dramatic action is shown in several performance areas at the same time. Different scenes can be played simultaneously and the audience, being mobile, can freely follow the show at random, or even find themselves captivated by a particular part, and the scenes are interpreted several times in different spaces. For her show, 1789, Ariane Mnouchkine used podiums laid out in the large space of the Cartoucherie de Vincennes in which the actors and puppets performed.
The travelling performing space
This principle is used during carnivals in which floats, walkabout puppets (see Costume Puppet), dancing scenes and accompanying music follow an itinerary. The Carnival in Nice, with its Giants of the North, is an example of this (see Giant Figures, Giant Puppets). Likewise, the puppets in canoes, the dji kan do of the Bozo people in Mali, a travelling performance that the public follows from the riverbanks. In Japan, the karakuri ningyō shows puppets that are operated by means of strings, which trigger various gears, by several manipulators hidden in the richly decorated, hand-drawn floats. These travelling spectacles are accompanied by musicians. The Royal de Luxe in France instill in their drama, which is founded on the arrival of heroes from far away worlds, their encounters and departures for other adventures, a scenographic journey that invests the entire urban space.
The fragmented performance space
Other theatrical displays invest themselves in a place, a town or a site, proposing a trail to the audience that is marked by a certain type of architecture or a recurring theme to be discovered thanks to scenes played in different places. Stations are dispersed in an established order and the public moves from one set to another to see a fragmented representation. In 1998, the Scène Nationale d’Alençon and Jean-Claude Collot offered the public Les Échappées Belles (The Beautiful Escapes), a bike circuit allowing the discovery of the remarkable or unrecognized sites of the town. According to a pre-established itinerary short performances/playlets were shown during a stroll with, among others, giant puppets made by young people in a workshop run by Marcel Violette, reenacting a scene from Shakespeare’s Othello in an area filled with funereal monuments.
In the theatre of animated forms, there is a tendency to give prominence to the visual, no doubt because puppets come essentially from the visual arts. The scenographer is therefore the person who can put his/her knowledge and talent to work in order to create animated forms and theatrical images. The images created by the puppets should not only be aesthetic, but also meaningful. This cannot happen without the presence of dialogue between the playwright and the scenographer.
The traditional troupes, particularly in the 19th century, were organized around a family group, that is to say a few people. Today, grand, animated theatre productions are the fruit of a collaboration between puppeteers, actors, mimes, dancers, writers, playwrights, directors, scenographers, constructors, painters, costume designers, musicians, sound engineers, stage managers, lighting managers, etc., just as in “real theatre”. And as Alain Le Bon (Cirkub’U) claimed loud and clear in his show, Punch ou l’Autre Don Juan (Punch or the Other Don Juan), “it’s grand, it’s beautiful, it’s real theatre”. However, there are still many who maintain the vagabond and free tradition of puppetry, where scenography is reduced to its simplest expression.
(See also Puppet Stages, Stages and Performance Spaces, Scenery and Staging.)
- Corvin, Michel. Polieri, une passion visionnaire [Polieri, A Visionary Passion]. Paris: Adam Biro, 1998.
- Liking, Werewere. Statuettes peintes d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Marionnettes du Mali [Painted West African Statuettes. Puppets of Mali]. “Traditions africaines” series. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions africaines/Arhis, 1987.