Uncovering Genius: How Space and Action Make a Production Great

By Chris CombemaleHumanities, Cycle 7, 2016



Today, theatrical practitioners have reached a point of division; we see little integration between Bogart’s Viewpoints techniques and Stanislavski’s approach. However, it is clear that the most critically and commercially successful productions display a synthesis of these two drastically different methods. In order to investigate pragmatic approaches to bridging the gap between them, it is important to analyze other revolutionary developments in dramatic practice, such as the rise of “total theatre” (Brook 82), where suspension of disbelief is abandoned in favor of self-consciously maximizing the capabilities of the theater. Pioneered by Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook, “total theatre” opens up new avenues for creating work that departs from the highly formalized naturalistic drama of the early twentieth century.


The last century has seen a rapid development in theatrical conventions, from the technologically induced naturalism of Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavski that explores character through subtext, to the unorthodox movement patterns of Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki that train the body as a physical instrument. Bogart’s Viewpoints techniques use spatial relationships between bodies to develop a narrative, whereas Stanislavski uses text and the actions of the performer to shape the play’s emotional progression. However, whilst a range of innovative movements have emerged over the last century, many practitioners function in isolated bubbles. Directors and actors often work within a single method. Little research has been done into how different styles may be combined effectively to have greater impact. This is largely because the seminal texts of the field are largely a collection of essays that detail the ideology of an influential practitioner. Today, theatrical practitioners have reached a point of division; we see little integration between these two approaches. However, it is clear that the most critically and commercially successful productions display a synthesis of these two drastically different methods. In order to investigate pragmatic approaches to bridging the gap between them, it is important to analyze other revolutionary developments in dramatic practice, such as the rise of “total theatre” (Brook 82), where suspension of disbelief is abandoned in favor of self-consciously maximizing the capabilities of the theater. Pioneered by Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook, “total theatre” opens up new avenues for creating work that departs from the highly formalized naturalistic drama of the early twentieth century.

Yet, it is clear that the most critically and commercially successful productions of the last 15 years have not relied exclusively on one approach or the other. Rather, they carefully consider the subject matter and take a flexible approach that intertwines a focus on achieving authentic characterization through an analysis of motivation while employing more visceral, physical methods that draw on a history of ritual. More research needs to be done in codifying a way to effectively combine and enhance various methods in the rehearsal room in order to create more dynamic, exciting, and authentic theater for the modern audience.

The success of contemporary British productions such as DV8’s John and the National Theatre’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime illustrates that directors and actors cannot continue to rely on purely textual exploration or the development of narratives through Bogart’s highly physical Viewpoints techniques. To create the most powerful emotional arcs, practitioners must fully exploit the power of action, space, and text. To achieve this, it is essential to have a codified understanding of the processes by which an actor moves from impulse to expression. The technique in creating expressive and impactful performance consistently is often masked as “artistic genius” within public discourse. I suggest that while consumers of theater may benefit from a knowledge of the processes underlying the development of creative work, having a method to discuss the mechanics, impulse, and expression will result in a more reliable system of producing successful stage performances. A historical approach that breaks down the evolution of theatrical convention will provide the backdrop for a discourse on clashing and ultimately resolving diametrically opposed dramatic ideology in today’s theater world.

Contrary to popular belief, theater practitioners rarely initiate the greatest changes in theory. Rather, technological advancement lifts creative restraints and opens up new possibilities. Naturalism in the theater evolved during the late nineteenth century and sought to create an illusion of reality. Audiences could suspend their disbelief because actors and playwrights authentically explored human behavior. Yet this would not have emerged without technological advancement. Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 heralded a tectonic shift in performance technique and playwriting style. In 1881 the Savoy Theater in London became the first public theater equipped with electric lights (The Times). These had far greater output than earlier gas lamps. Before 1881 performance spaces were dim, forcing actors to adopt a style of “ham acting,” where movements and facial expressions were deliberately clichéd and exaggerated in order to communicate the action to the audience. The term “ham acting” was derived from the ham fat used in greasepaint makeup that was applied copiously to accentuate the features of an actor. Suddenly, increased visibility enabled the formation of a new movement of actors and directors, driven by director Stanislavski and playwright Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre at the turn of the twentieth century. They were wary of externally reflected emotion, meaning stock gestures and facial expressions, as this “teaches an actor to watch the outside, rather than the inside of his soul” (Stanislavski, 20). By this Stanislavski addresses what he perceives as a disconnect between the genuine emotion experienced by the character and mechanical representation that fails to communicate emotion truthfully to the audience.

This is not to say that mechanical acting lacks technique. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Stanislavski notes that mechanical acting depends on “rather elaborately worked out methods of presenting the role with conventional illustrations” (25). This refers to the use of clichéd gesture and expression to convey a set of stock emotions. In a new, artificially lit environment where subtlety appeared necessary, practitioners sought to enliven a conventional mask of carefully honed presentations by adding a seemingly intangible vulnerability in order to draw the audience into the performance. Chekhov therefore constructed plays rich with subtext. Critic Martin Esslin notes that Chekhov’s plays urge both actor and audience to understand the personal history and motivations of characters as driving the plot (200). Stanislavski’s acting technique mirrored this. He improved actor’s wooden performances through emotional memory exercises. Actors were trained in “emotional recall,” where they developed a toolkit of memories accessed by reliving a sensory experience that engendered a specific emotional display (Stanislavski 177). The naturalists of the early twentieth century theorized that this would create real and vivid portraits of a character, without stereotypical representations of broad emotional categories. Rather than focusing on effect, they focused on stimulus. Performances were crafted with “units and objectives” (Stanislavski 121) that broke down the text into individual moments, units, and character objectives. Hence practitioners who adhered to Stanislavski’s style developed richly layered performances. This soon characterized the performance style of a drawing room drama, which involves familial intrigue that takes place primarily in the drawing room of a home. However, this was not an artistic development limited to the theater. The rise of naturalism and realism during the twentieth century was due to the intertwining of socio-political changes during the late 1800s. The political upheavals across Europe in 1848, known as the Springtime of the Peoples, removed archaic feudal structures and established broadly democratic systems of governance. The entrenched romanticism so closely tied to courtly life was gradually eroded and further removed from the norm when scientific advancement gave way to a belief in pragmatism over lofty idealism. The focus of playwrights echoed this, and the middling classes soon occupied the imagination of audiences, leaving the lives of the aristocracy a fascination of the past.

However, some later practitioners believed that this highly naturalistic method of production was not able to capitalize on the strengths of theater as a medium of live performance, especially as film took hold of the public consciousness. Antonin Artaud, a renegade avant-garde writer and director in Paris formulated the basis of the Theatre of Cruelty, (1938) calling for actors “burning at the stakes, laughing at the flames.” His style was aggressive, decisive, and attempted to evoke visceral physical reactions. Artaud was influenced by Eastern art forms such as Butoh theatre and Balinese dance. Both of these forms use hyper-controlled and stylized movement to create grotesque, extreme imagery and tackle taboo topics. Actors, “athletes of the heart,” as Artaud called them, were pushed to their limits, often recreating ritualistic experiences of abuse, violence, murder, and betrayal. In many ways, Artaud reacted against the manicured psychology so present in the earlier works of Ibsen and Chekhov.

The mise-en-scène, every aspect involved in the production, should be stripped of language and brought back to the raw elemental basics of human experience. Artaud used grunts, primal sounds, and seated the audience “in the round” to create a vortex of “spectacle,” reminiscent of the gladiator battles in Ancient Rome’s amphitheaters. In stark contrast to Stanislavski’s beliefs, sound replaced dialogue, as words were an insufficient medium of expression according to Artaud. Further, Artaud incorporated eerie screeches, loud bangs, cries, and screams to make audiences uncomfortable and often resulted in individual audience members’ breakdown. While Artaud may have been an artistic outsider in 1930s France, his work later influenced the Theatre of the Absurd of the 1950s. Themes of disintegration and isolation swept through post-war Europe, leading playwrights and directors such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Peter Brook to draw on Artaud’s manifesto on the Theatre of Cruelty to express the deep uncertainties of the time. Like most cultural movements, absurdist thought did not evolve in a vacuum. While the naturalists emerged from a modernizing Europe, the absurdists grew out of a period of grotesque horror. Dadaism in the 1910s sought to shock and express disgust at the First World War. The arrival of the Second World War turned this into stark discomfort with the evolution of human interaction. Hence the feeling of hopelessness that characterizes Brook’s work and existentialists such as Beckett and Ionesco is a clear response to the desolate turbulence of their time.

Thus, the cultural context in which artists work plays a large role in determining their output. The acceleration of globalization throughout the twentieth century allowed for stronger interaction between the creative practices of the East and the West. An early example is the influence of the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition. It was held in the Bois de Vincennes, a public park at the eastern edge of Paris, and for six months showcased the diverse array of cultures and resources contained within the French Empire. It was here that Artaud first experienced forms of Balinese dance, which peaked his interest in Eastern performance history, notably Japanese Butoh theater and Chinese opera. These were influential art forms in shaping Artaud’s writing in “The Theatre of Cruelty.” Yet the impact of the cultural climate is greater than just practitioners and theorists. It seeps into every aspect of creative production as artists reflect and respond to the socio-political environment around them. Correspondingly, their work begins to influence public discourse. Therefore it is impossible to analyze any method of creation in a vacuum as it operates as part of a larger system that is, on a macro level, the evolution of culture.

Such cultural interaction is noticeable in the work of British playwrights in the 1970s and 1990s. By the 1970s, the post-war affluence marked by televisions and washing machines had faded. The nation was struggling to contend with its stature as a diminished world power with a crumbling empire. In short, Britain was trying to find its place in the world. Moreover, the country was plagued by economic humiliation, following an IMF bailout in 1976. Britain became the new “ sick man of Europe” (Economist). This context is all imperative to understand the development of pivotal playwright, David Hare. His 1978 play, Plenty, used the character of Susan Traherne to explore the banality of day-to-day living, bereft of the feverish drama created in war. The slow deterioration of her mental health mirrors that of the country. Hence, Hare’s writing must be seen as part of that historical moment, reluctant to let go of the romanticized excitement of the past yet not ready to embrace the uncertainty of modernity.

While the work of Patrick Marber in his 1997 play Closer is a striking contrast to Hare’s play, it is also a clear record of the British public consciousness in the 1990s. Marber’s “in-yer-face” play is eclectic in its influences but is a strong response to feelings of liberation and self-exploration. British culture in the ‘90s was fresh and reckless. The unexpected and the strange became mainstream. While America busied itself with teen angst and grunge, the class barriers in Britain began to weaken with the meshing of cultural icons such as Blur, Oasis, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Eddie Izzard. Scruffy acts, previously relegated to the fringe suddenly became overnight successes – even if just by preserving a shark in a tank. Marber’s characters reflect this raw excitement and constant quest for a more complete truth. His heavy use of pause is not “pinteresque” and nihilistic but exploratory. Ellipses are a way of cycling through a raft of unexpressed thoughts best left to the minds of the viewer. It is not the pause itself that conveys the meaning, but what thoughts the character experiences in the time of the pause. Dan pleads, “Please…save me” (34). The pause after “please” marks a moment of decision where he must decide what to ask for. It lends weight to the ultimate choice of expression. The play bears the brutal, ritualistic, primitive, and even sadistic markings of Artaudian drama. It is filled with sexual spectacle designed to shock and force the audience into a place of extreme discomfort. The language is stripped bare, reduced to the minimalism and economy of Internet chat. The online sex depicted in Scene 3 is uncompromising and pared back, prompting a harsh evaluation of base human desires that had been hidden by the guise of technology. Marber combines this with a rhythmic focus, using short stichomythic exchanges to drive tension. Therefore the analysis of successful methods of performance must always be analyzed within its cultural framework. What is successful in the present era will almost certainly have to shift and evolve in order to stay successful.

Currently, a merging of ideology is beginning to occur. In his seminal work, The Empty Space, (1968) Brook argues that “a word does not start as a word – it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behavior which dictates the need for expression” (11). Here Brook indicates that language is a route of expression. Since the 1980s, practitioners in the United States, such as Anne Bogart, have developed theories known as the “Viewpoints” that provide actors with a series of tools revolving around time, space, architecture, kinesthetic response, gesture, and repetition. These are used as the basis for developing ensemble performance and narrative spatial relationships. For example, the positioning of actors in relation to one another, and the way in which their bodies interact, both with each other and with the surroundings, are all used by adherents to the Viewpoints to create plot and story. These two methods are often presented as oppositional, yet Brook’s way of getting to language can work in conjunction with the physical exploration advocated by Bogart.

These various methodologies are not mutually exclusive. It is the combination of Brook’s approach to impulse and expression, Bogart’s method of physically relating actors to one another, and Stanislavski’s detailed approach to motivation that can harmonize to create fully realized and engaging performances that communicate a play more fully. While proponents of each method can be resolute in the practice, it is clear that the most commercially successful performances in Britain over the last five years have capitalized on the synergy that comes from a wide range of approaches to acting. This has likely emerged from a cultural context which is always looking for work that is fresh and exciting. In the Information Age the attention span of audiences has shrunk so they demand greater spectacle, more gripping plots, and unexpected surprise. Perhaps it is this that has forced a collaboration between stylistic, physical, and naturalistic theater in order to continue engaging and satisfying audiences.

The physical theatre company DV8 produced John, classified as a verbatim work because its dialogue was taken exclusively from interview footage. DV8 used an innovative revolving set to allow the actors to form still images on stage, using height, location, shape, and gesture to convey information. Yet this was also combined with a strong focus on dialogue and detailed vocal performances that had clearly used actions and objectives to generate convincing results. The company rehearsed with the audio recordings playing into their ear to accurately embody the vocal nuances of each character and scene. Similarly, Headlong’s adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 opened to great acclaim in London, largely due to the harrowing use of Artaudian techniques. Harsh, dissonant soundscapes partnered with raw, ritualistic scenes challenged and pushed the audience, almost terrorizing them in a way that was both shocking and mesmerizing.

Overall, it becomes clear that the most successful contemporary pieces are those that are capable of drawing on a range of methodologies to influence their approach. Language alone is incapable of conveying the intensity of human emotion yet a stripped down, bare approach fails to offer the subtlety and level of engagement demanded by an audience. It is the combination of the physical and the textual, the subconscious mind and the representative movement, that, when synthesized, give rise to a new technique that can consistently produce commercially and critically successful productions for the audiences of today.



Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double: Essays. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970.

Bogart, Anne, and Tina Landau. The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Print.

Stanislavsky, Konstantin, and Elizabeth Reynolds. Hapgood. Building a Character. New York: Theatre Arts, 1949. Print.

Esslin, Martin. Text and Subtext in Shavian Drama, in 1922: Shaw and the last Hundred Years, ed. Bernard. F. Dukore, Penn State Press, 1994,

“ham, n.1 and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 March 2016.

Hare, David. Plenty. London: Faber, 1978. Print.

John. Dir. Lloyd Newson. London. 4 Nov. 2014. Performance.

Marber, Patrick. Closer. New York: Grove, 1999. Print.

“The Real Sick Man of Europe – The Real Sick Man of Europe; Italy.” Economist (US) 21 May 2005. Print. Accessed Online.

“The Savoy Theatre.” The Times [London] 3 Oct. 1881. Print.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. By Simon Stephens. Dir. Marianne Elliott. London, National Theatre. 2014. Performance. Based on the novel by Mark Haddon.


Chris Combemale

Dramatic Art & English

Chris Combemale

Dramatic Art & English