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Writing About Scenography



Giving language to something visual this is the million dollar question, remarked the London-based critic and correspondent Matt Wolf.


The German critic Thomas Irmer agreed: “The printed page has its limits. To describe design, it might be necessary to use certain tools that are not verbal.”


“One reason critics write so badly about design is that they are writers, and not designers,” added the American critic Robert Brustein. “In talking about acting, critics must respond verbally to a person acting onstage who is also verbalizing the play.”


These and other diagnostic statements were put forward by a troop of international critics Saturday June 16 at the Lecture Hall in the Industrial Palace in a symposium titled “Writing About Scenography.” Wolf, Irmer and Brustein were joined by their international colleagues Vlasta Gallerova of the Czech Republic and Nikolai Pesochinski of Russia. Arnold Aronson, the PQ commissioner, acted as the moderator.


The truth-telling that arose from this lively discussion proved to be quite revealing. Brustein himself confessed, at one point, that when he started out as a young critic, he often could not remember what he saw onstage and so had to make a point of describing the physical world of the play as soon as he entered the auditorium.


Wolf testified that in the British critical establishment, the work of lighting, costumes, set, sound and visual designers are frequently slighted in favor of describing the literary world of the play. Part of his problem is that journalistic space devoted to reviews and criticism has greatly diminished over time.


A dramaturge and writer, Vlasta Gallerova discovered that she was more successful as a critic when talking about scenography on Radio Free Europe rather than writing about it for the printed page.


A theatre researcher, Nikolai Pesochinski went so far as to gather empirical evidence by surveying of 16 reviews of Russian director Lev Dodin’s St. Petersburg production of King Lear. Pescochinski discovered that the reviews diverged widely in their descriptions of the scenographic elements of this production. “How are we to develop out interpretation of the visual aspects of the show?” Pesochinski asked, rhetorically. “Should critics impose our own subjective concepts of the design? Or should we offer a more objective composition of what was seen on stage? If the act of watching is not impersonal, can we get ride of personal readings?”


“Even more problematic is the theoretical discourse,” Irmer offered. “While the debates in the visual arts seem open to nearly everything from pop culture to film theory, it oddly excludes the discussion of design in theatre. Art magazines rarely devote themselves to the work of stage designers. Theatre seems to be a ghetto for the artists that he or she is only allowed to leave on rare occasions.”


However, the Czech writer Vlasta Gallerova warns that one cannot write about scenography separately from the world of a performance. “We have to think about theatre as a whole in all its complexity,” she says. “Our duty as critics is to give out the full information and to offer readers some navigation about which way to go. We have to let them know about the visuality of the production, but you cannot talk about scenography without also talking about how it informs and supports the actors, the directors and the dramaturge. We need to write about everything together—scenography’s very close connection with everything that is done on stage.”


Irmer, who has specialized in writing about scenography as an independent critical discourse, stated that while there are training programs for writers and university courses on critics, he has never heard about writing workshops that deal exclusively about scenography.


“This is a problem,” sums up Nikolai Pesochinski. “We need special workshops not just about how we write about scenography but also about how we read or interpret the live performance.”


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