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Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 32 No 2

The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography

The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography. Arnold Aronson. London: Methuen Drama Publishing, 2018; Pp. 254.

Arnold Aronson originally published The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography in 1981 when the term “environmental,” then recently popularized by Richard Schechner, had not yet lost ground to terms with more current purchase like “site-specific” and “immersive.” In this revised edition, after reprinting the first nine chapters save for minor alterations, the author attempts to incorporate the scenographic developments over the last four decades into his original argument, centering around the “environmental tradition.” While the two new chapters do not sustain the same level of deep, historical engagement, the small but poignant edits to the original text and the addition of illustrations throughout help to streamline and illuminate Aronson’s argument.

Organized along a loosely chronological sequence, Aronson works along a continuum of environmental theatre, from completely “frontal” productions which starkly divide the audience and actors, to productions that totally incorporate the spectator into the frame of the performance. To Aronson, who echoes Schechner, environmental theatre refers to the relationship between audience, performer, and space, stipulating that a performance is not environmental if the audience retains a detached, frontal relationship to the performance even though it might take place outside of a theatre proper.

The first chapter lays out myriad modes of performance that negotiate the shared space between performer and spectator, from actors reaching out through the fourth wall to outdoor, processional, multi-space, mobile engagements. Chapter two historicizes these spatial experimentations and innovations in what he terms the environmental tradition, lucidly displaying that non-frontal uses of performance space can be found in religious, non-Western and folk traditions, citing Christian mumming plays, the fêtes of the French Revolution, and the Indian festival of Bhavana. Aronson’s scenographic approach to performance history allows him to examine amusement environments such as fairs, carnivals, and processions in how attendees and audience are incorporated as performers within the larger space, and to anticipate later experimentation from Schechner’s work with The Performance Group to Reza Abdoh’s perambulatory use of New York City’s meatpacking district. While the author is the first to that this is far from an exhaustive study of non-frontal performance, his book nonetheless remains an invaluable resource for scholars and designers, offering critical touchstones in the influence of political and theoretical movements on performance forms and theatre architecture in the 20th century.

Centering performances, manifestos, and theoretical sketches by Appia, Jarry, Marinetti, Reinhardt, and Piscator among others, Aronson organizes his third chapter around early 20th century reactions against the limitations of the proscenium stage. Aronson brings to light the environmental aspects of Futurist, Surrealist, and Dada presentations, from Marinetti’s tactile theatre that necessitated audience engagement via touch to André Breton’s call for the Surrealists to take to the streets. Bauhaus artists and architects are the focus of the fourth, where Aronson highlights Frederick Kiesler’s attempts to architecturally integrate the spectator into the scenography of the performance.

The fifth and sixth chapters comprise a cogent overview of revolutionary Russian scenic innovation from the 1890s to the 1930s. Well-researched, detailed, and attentive to the broader political, sociocultural, and artistic influences from both Western Europe and the US, I believe that these chapters are best suited for scholarly use. Using Meyerhold’s progression of Constructivist experimentation as an organizational through-line, Aronson argues that environmental and post-revolutionary Russian performance share a core concern with the perception, creation, and use of space, going as far as to say the first “truly” environmental theatre productions were produced by Nikolai Okhlopkov between 1932 and 1934. Meticulously attending to disparate vectors of influence, Aronson shows that while Russian practitioners theorized these architectural innovations within contemporary Communist principles, scenographic roots can be found in Medici and revolutionary French pageants, fêtes, and processions.

Chapters seven, eight, and nine survey popular postwar performance forms outside traditional theatre spaces: Happenings, found environments and transformed spaces. Aronson highlights performance experiments that attempt to manipulate and alter perception, breaking spectators out of conventional viewing habits, often using specific characteristics of spaces not originally intended for theatrical performance. Chapter eight has the only explicit section on dance; here Aronson explores the uses of found and created space in the postmodern dance movement, taking Meredith Monk’s dance-theatre work Vessel, which took place across three locales in New York City, as emblematic.

Read historiographically, the first nine chapters offer a glance into early Performance Studies, revealing the author’s close proximity to the work of Richard Schechner. Not only does the text lean on one of Schechner’s coined terms, but his six axioms are reprinted in their entirety. Aronson finds a way to link back to Schechner’s work in every chapter, regardless of the time periods.

Juxtaposed with the chapters on revolutionary Russian theatre architecture written with a honed eye for historical and cultural detail, the two new chapters seem like an additive gesture rather than a thoughtful reconsideration of the larger project. By framing “site-specific” and “immersive” theatre squarely in the continuation of the “environmental tradition,” Aronson glosses over key questions of perception, audience agency, history, and politics inherent to these theatrical innovations. As the author states in the introduction to the revised edition, the narrow focus on spatial organization is limited, and as such, is best read in tandem with texts like James Frieze’s edited collection Reframing Immersive Theatre, which augments a strictly scenographic analysis with broader inquiries into the political and cultural implications of these developments.

Aronson’s 1981 edition has been and surely will continue to be, cited and used in introductory theatre studies and theatre design texts. Similarly, Aronson’s edited volume The Routledge Guide to Scenography is required reading for anyone in the discipline. Thus, I am left wanting at the end of this revisited monograph, having anticipated more. Still, Aronson’s text remains an important jargon-free point of entry to the intersection of theatre theory, performance, and architecture in Europe and the US, serving as jumping-off point into more nuanced, theoretically ambitious works such as Dorita Hannah’s Event-Space: Theatre Architecture and the Historical Avant-Garde and Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance by Josephine Machon. At its core, The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography lays out a vastly useful if not sparse rubric, against which students and researchers can find their bearings in the history of a number of non-frontal performance traditions.

Michael Valdez
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

 

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