Starting places

For a designer there will always need to be a place to begin – a point, aside from the text, that provides a visual idea from which to elaborate on the themes and the narrative.
Often this may be an historical reference from art or fashion and whilst this will not necessarily be an image that remains part of the main design process it can lead to new and different visual research pathways.

A piece of art at an exhibition, a photograph, an image from a book – each can provide a range of different information to inspire design ideas – from shape, style and silhouette to fabric references, hairstyles and accessories. From this perspective the costume designer develops a range of historical references, from art and fashion to architecture and graphics.

This first image may become less or more relevant during the design process, but it’s important to keep each image for reference at a later stage – whether that’s to communicate an idea to the cast and director or to clarify or develop an element within the design process. It may be easier to photograph and digitally store this process – creating a map from which to chart the different key moments in the design process.

This may also assist in the development of additional design elements such as light, sound, set and movement and can provide a connecting point between different areas within the design process.

For instance a Klimt drawing may lead to the development of a particular style and shape of a dress or the choice of a certain type of fabric that echoes the physical qualities rendered by the artist. A photograph of a building or an open space may lead to the choice of a particular colour palette or a range of textures that assists with the development of a costume and how that costume moves. This in turn can assist with the development of character and/or the interpretation of the original text.

Play, empathy and interaction

When it comes to the development of performance practice it has been acknowledged that performance can be more than illustrative – that the act of performance has the potential to inform and initiate a range of different embodied learning experiences. It can also connect people, facilitate collaboration, the exchange of ideas and can, under certain circumstances, make visible the processes involved in its creation. For instance, Foreman’s writing practices demonstrate the ability of a performance itself to document and make visible the creative process and the gradual and simultaneous development of both narrative and its meaning, turning the creative process into one that closely resembles academic research practice.

In the digital era connections made through performance still occur, yet the way in which this process occurs has altered how some performance companies address their working processes. To review how this type of work occurs multiple areas need to be addressed, and it is important to remember that because success can be measured in a variety of different ways the ‘impact’ and ‘value’ of this performance is difficult to assess. For example, it’s popularity, the demographic of its audiences, it’s ability to widen access to performance and it’s financial success all play a part.
However, it’s also worth questioning why this approach is used not just how it is used.

One such performance was the RSC’s on-line interpretation of Romeo and Juliet – Such Tweet Sorrow. It’s ability to provide an insight into each character proved popular, offering a multi-viewpoint perspective through which the audience could choose which elements they were most interested in – a selective process that occurs differently within live stage performance. This meant that audiences were more involved, even though they may have lived miles apart, connecting them with both the performers and other audience members.

This performance also offered an interesting alternative to highly priced theatre tickets, especially in relation to the idea of collaborations between ‘outsider artists’. It is important to note that when I use the term outsider art I use it to mean a collaboration between those professionally trained in performance industries that have been disconnected due to location or financial restrictions. In this instance, digital platforms become performance platforms and a way to share data, but also a way to make the creative process and the intricacies of this process a little more visible.

However, whilst the platform used by Such Tweet Sorrow may be a useful one for some it will not be for all, just as the theatre auditorium may exist as an accessible and relevant space for some but not all. The open nature of the performance platform itself meant that such an approach to performance development, albeit new, puts it at risk of trolling and unhelpful, distracting comments. And whilst its application may facilitate a multi-character perspective that appeals to a specific type of audience member it is necessary to look back as well as forward.

For instance, this interpretation of Romeo and Juliet offers an interesting view of how a specific demographic has explored as well as performed Shakespeare. Yet, there are similarities between this process and that used by established practitioners. Drawn back by the open nature of the writing process of Foreman and the physically explorative processes used by companies such as Frantic Assembly, alongside the need to move forward, there are perhaps different ways to use interactive practices to engage new audiences in key texts.

29th Oct 2018.

Re-formatting layers

There are moments in which the  re-tracing of a performance becomes an accidental re-formatting of its composition – a way of exploring the different layers of a character or the different elements that contribute to a specific movement or gesture. This could be viewed as a type of choreography parallel, although not the same, to that which occurs during the development of a performance. A performer may repeat the same gesture to explore and internally embody how physical changes to this gesture can alter its meaning and facilitate its successful recreation. Through this process they can react to how the body relates and responds to the space in which it exists and can make decisions about what to include or omit in their performance.

The act of re-tracing this performance on the page provides a further means of embodying an understanding of how specific gestures and any associated meanings are created by the body. However, the points at which this tracing digresses – for example, the failed attempts to effectively recreate a movement – offer new pathways for further investigation, development or new arrangements between the body and the performance space.

Specific to both these processes is to acknowledge and understand the differences between one creation of a movement and its next iteration and to better understand why a slight change to one element might effect the entire composition of that part of a performance. Tracings offer a useful approach – a way to try out and explore new compositions using a range of different angles, directions and shapes and a way to both deconstruct and re-create the different layers of a performance.



Working through visual analysis

Working through visual analysis

When it comes to examining movement there are many different methods. Photographs can reveal details of the body that the eye might miss, with slow frame motion capture demonstrating both the aesthetic qualities of the performing body as well as the positioning of, and shapes created by the body as it moves. Video analysis will help to examine how a movement is created, making apparent some of the differences between what is felt and what actually occurs in the moment of a performance. And drawings can provide new and additional information, making visible different angles and shapes of the body, different forces and directions.

However, how these images are analysed and made sense of becomes problematic. This is partly because each performer and performance is inherently different, which means that each attempt at gathering data requires a certain level of flexibility. It is perhaps useful when it comes to collecting, organising and processing research data to view the process as a ‘semi-structured’ interview, where new information is created between the body of the performer and the body of the observer/researcher. Where the medium through which the data is collected is constant, but where the pathways through which it is collected may change direction, alter and diverge. And where, eventually, data will need to be re-read and re-examined using a framework that enables information to be organised, compared and contrasted to existing data and re-contextualised in an effective way.
As previously mentioned, whilst this might offer a useful analytical structure for this type of data, certain information contained within a performance will invariably be lost in translation. Yet, as with interviews, the information translated from the stage to the page via visual media provides a range of data that can be re-visited and re-examined once it has been formally organised.

In some circumstances visual work may stand alone to be examined and discussed as a means to better understand its content, in others visual images and themes within them might be placed in a different order to develop a useful taxonomy of different visual categories. However it can be difficult to compare and contrast drawings made on separate pages, particularly if the medium through which data has been collected is very different. Cut and paste options help to map narratives, explore interpretations and make comparisons between different physical qualities of a character or movement; a bricolage-type approach that may also help to provide a multi-view perspective of a single moment within a performance. However, documentation of original data is required which means re-formatting via a cut and paste method isn’t always practical. Digital editing offers a partial solution. This enables the reorganisation of information without effecting the original image, but also enables small changes to be made to the visual data so that different elements within the image might be made more or less visible.

Using iPhoto images created during both the drawing and re-drawing stages of my research were edited. Figure 1. shows an original drawing (left) of dancers from Sleeping Beauty (Sadlers Wells. 2016) as they perform a waltz alongside the following two digital edits (right) of this drawing.
Increasing the brightness and contrast of my image in incremental stages, gave the bold marks, representing the movement of the main dance couple, priority, the thinner marks, representing the larger group of dancers, highlighting the direction of and forces involved in their movement. In this sense, the visual images relate to the documentation of a performance that in turn maps the geography of a space, embodying and externalising part of its scenographic composition.

Enhancing the image in this way therefore made it possible to more clearly identify both the different types of movements observed and the way in which these movements created a flow which in turn defined the performance space. Whilst the final edited image on the right confirmed the differences I had identified between the sharp, angular and straight lines of the movement and the flowing rhythms of the other dancers, it also revealed moments in which the curving lines created by the bodies of the two lead dancers pick up the main flow and rhythms of the group. These moments occurred more frequently at the bottom of the page, the area nearest to the audience. Whilst this is only an example, there is perhaps more to be done in examining how manual tracings could be examined alongside digital tracings.

Figure 1: Waltz – edited drawing.








However, as with interviews, the dialogue between one person and another is key and for further analysis ‘follow up’ drawings of the same performers and the same performance might be particularly valuable when looking to validate research data.

It is possible that the application of editing in this way can make clearer the gaps between one quality of a movement and another, between one sequence of actions and another, and between the angles or shapes of multiple performing bodies. Acting as a means to break up the sequence of movements in new and different ways and to reveal anomalies that highlight something previously unnoticed within the dialogue between the performer and the observer/researcher.

12th October 2018

Performance research; archiving and retrieval

The problems associated with documenting performance, have been discussed for decades. In the 1990’s The Theatre Museum housed a particularly well articulated film discussing problems that are still relevant today. At the heart of the problem is the understanding that as soon as theatre is translated into another medium it loses something of its essence. For those designing and creating performance, and for those researching it this can be particularly frustrating. Film and photography are used to re-create a performance but angles, colours, textures, movement and sound all change when viewed through a new lens. Archival footage however is key for many different reasons; accessibility for new audiences, research and analysis and historical study beyond the context of the original performance. Yet it is important to recognise that the choices made about how this documentation is created carry their own creative biases.

Today performances can be filmed, they can even be screened at a cinema. Instagram and Twitter enable the sharing of new viewpoints, a kaleidoscope of images that offer a multilayered map of a single event. But the core essence created between the different elements on the stage exists only for a few seconds at a time between the points of one still frame and another. These transitional moments can sometimes be found in film and photography, but often go unnoticed.

Laura Knight created a series of paintings documenting performers backstage, breathing life into moments that disappear as quickly as they are made, and that few rarely get to see. Her paintings create traces of movements of, and interactions between performers and, through the way in which the paint is used on the canvas, provide a little insight into the energy contained within the body of the performers she observes. The popularity of re-creating performances in this way, or more commonly today, through photography perhaps has something to do with the need to keep a record of an event – a memory that we can look back at and re-trace. But the traces left will inevitably reflect something different back at us; the connection between artist/observer and performer lost as soon as the image is finished.

When re-enactors create their performances they seek to re-present the past – knowing, as their audiences often do, that this snap shot of a time is only a representation; an informed guess that makes the past accessible to different audiences. However, even knowing this, audiences still go. The gaps between what was and what is presented provide the flexibility to allow for character and creativity. Much of what is presented to an audience is, as with the artist who re-traces the body of the performer on the canvas with their arm and hand, experienced and learnt through the act of performing. Although, unlike the painter, this tracing is not based on direct observation and leaves no lasting image other than a memory. Recreations are therefore based on a cycle of research, physical re-creation and a collective sharing of ideas.

When archeologists locate an artefact, creating a new surface on which an object or a body can be viewed they too re-trace surfaces, angles, lines and shapes; building up a picture of something that no longer moves or exists in its original state – to make it visible and to better understand what it once was. The object itself is made present by the actions of the archeologist, but the knowledge that this act creates is, in part, embodied by the archeologist themselves.

Painters, archeologists, re-enactors each have their own methods for re-creating things from the past – but all use their body to create these traces and all embody a part of their experience as a result. Documenting history in these examples therefore becomes partly a matter of revealing and making knowledge visible and partly a case of experiencing and developing an internal set of knowledges based on what the body senses as it moves. Archiving performance and using archived footage is therefore only part of a story. The performers, the designers, the re-creators of past objects and eras, embody another and reveal them at different stages and in different ways.

However, for the researcher observing a performance, placed external to this knowledge, and attempting to understand and reveal what occurs during the process of a performance; what connects the audience to a performer, a performer to an audience, one story is not enough. To understand what happens in that transitional moment in which a person is not one thing, but not the other either, multiple perspectives often become a necessary approach. Formal interviews, background research, a reconfiguration of existing data in light of new data and a continual refinement of large quantities of information. However, the researcher will also know that what is sensed and what is experienced is difficult to access and document and that even when this information is made visible it can easily be misinterpreted. It is here that the researcher requires formal analysis and where, with no absolute, the process of interpretation itself often becomes a focal point.

Therefore, on the one hand, the practice-based researcher role is valuable, as it enables wider access to embodied knowledge examined by a trained researcher who understands the problems of such an approach. It also enables an examination of the data from the perspective of someone who has created it, understands it and has access to the sensory data in a way that an external observer would not. On the other hand, the connection between external and internal information makes the process of data collection subjective and therefore requires a range of different approaches to limit researcher bias.

It’s not difficult to see the complex relationship between the need for both practice led research and effective analytical processes, but it’s also easy to see how externally observed and documented knowledge and understanding of the transitional points within performance – key moments of transformation – may never fully and meaningfully translate into lists and graphs. Maybe that’s why audiences continue to attend live performances and why artists have for so long attempted to recreate them.

When Brook argues that a performer does not build a character, he eliminates it, there is more than a little of the researcher at play – unsurprisingly, since a director with his level of experience would have a vast knowledge of the way in which performers transition and transform and a constant curiosity in how to apply this knowledge effectively. It certainly makes sense that in order to locate and understand the moment ‘betwixt and between’ there is a need to remove (or hide? Is it possible to remove?) external layers of existing character. Perhaps this occurs on one side of the transitional point, whilst on the other, the process of building character begins. Perhaps the liminality that Turner writes of is the point between these two places – an undefinable space that can not quite or fully be explained or described through words.

Perhaps this is why the archeologist’s own act of tracing is just as valuable as the visual data that is produced after the event –  perhaps it is in this act that ‘the other’ is semi-present; an act that enables an embodiment of knowledge of something of the other. However, as sports professionals will understand, to define this space too much can often be to destroy it; a heightened awareness of a process that creates a greater gap between point A and point B.

The phenomenological researcher balances this knowledge, knowing that setting a pre-existing framework may be needed when it comes to examining transitional moments within performance, but also knowing that this framework may change the type of data that they hope to collect.

However, whilst new iterations can reveal but are never a true reflection of original content – they do reflect the very nature of creative process and practice. Practices in which perception and interpretation inform us of how we see, view and interact with things around us – both past and present. But that must also be examined in more detail so that the differences between the original subject and its new iterations can be better understood.

Re-tracing a performance is one way to do this – although who re-traces it and how is perhaps still a relevant question when it comes to establishing data relevant to research and development.

12th October 2018



5th August 2018

WSS set design sketchbook

New spaces

When performance spaces change and develop performer’s adapt and creative teams use their skills and training to collectively move work forward. A small work space, a lack of funding, a problem in locating equipment can all lead to problems, but sometimes these things can also lead to the development of successful work, usually a great deal of work – and sometimes creative success appears in the smallest or simplest of things.

'There are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words.' - Doris Humphrey.