Janet Field-Pickering

"Of Bears and Chairs and Empty Space" is a workshop I designed to enable students from elementary to university level become aware of how theatrical space exists and is defined. Objects and people moving in space have meaning that is apprehended visually and understood by any audience, even prior to the addition of language or other aspects of theatrical production such as sound, props, lighting, sets, costumes, or blocking. In Bruce Smith's Folger Institute seminar, "Shakespeare in an Age of Visual Culture," it seemed important to demonstrate a series of exercises that expose the elements of live theatrical presentation to acknowledge how objects in space themselves have meaning that can be interpreted and understood by an audience.

When I conduct this workshop I usually begin with an empty space—a bare stage, a cleared section of classroom, or a hallway—and have students enact a series of stage directions from the First Folio, the most famous of which is "Exit, pursued by a bear," and the most elaborate of which is the dumb show in Hamlet. Stage directions are text that is not meant to be spoken, but enacted, and requires movement and often sound to accomplish. It can be assumed that their intent is to serve the text in some way. Acting out stage directions points out the almost limitless possibilities that govern the execution of these directions, which on the surface appear to be quite specific and purposeful.

I discussed this aspect of the workshop during my presentation, but due to time constraints, I skipped it in favor of stripping the stage bare of any of Shakespeare's text, spoken or implied in stage directions, and playing some theatre games.

The first game was a simple improvisation involving object transference. Participants stood in a circle and were handed an empty plastic bottle. They were instructed to pass the bottle around the circle while saying, "This is not a bottle. This is a ________," with the participants filling in the blanks with words like toothpick, light saber, etc., and demonstrating how this newly defined object might be used.

The second game, "Chairs," has two distinct parts: Placement and Status. The first game is called "Making the chairs talk." This is accomplished by directing players to place the two chairs in a bare space and arrange them in such a way that they communicate something to the audience. Placing two chairs, facing front, side by side, in the middle of the space, for example, elicits interpretations from the audience that suggest both situations and relationships (such as waiting for a train, sitting onstage at a graduation ceremony, waiting to be told the results of a medical test). When a volunteer is directed to change the position of the chairs—tipping them upside down or placing them back to back—this elicits other imaginative responses assigning situations and relationships to what are essentially two objects placed in a defined space, and the game can be played for quite a while, with each new placement evoking different responses.

The next game with chairs focuses on the concept of status. One of the chairs is removed, and everyone is randomly given a slip of paper with a number from one to ten. Ten indicates the highest status, one indicates the lowest status, and all the numbers in between reflect different levels of status. The remaining chair is designated the official object of desire: everyone wants to possess the chair, but everyone must verbally negotiate for the chair in a manner consistent with the status they have been assigned. The improvisation that results is helped by the addition of improvised language, but the movements of the actors through space in approaching the chair illustrates how bodies in motion layer meaning on the visual without relying completely on the verbal.

The last game presented was an adaptation of "The Great Game of Power" created by Augusto Boal for his Theatre of the Oppressed. A table, six chairs, and a bottle are placed in an empty space, and the game is played by a group of anywhere from six to twelve people. Participants come up, one at a time, to arrange the objects so that one chair is always in a greater position of power than the other chairs, table, and bottle. The objects can be arranged in any manner—tipped over, upside down, etc. —but no object can be removed from the space. When the group is pleased with its arrangement, the participants themselves enter the space and occupy it, either vying for positions of greatest power in the arrangement or collaborating to grant power to a person or object. Boal's game incorporates concepts of power and status through objects and people arranged in space to create theatrical (and often political) dynamics that rely upon the visual apprehension of the audience.

These activities enable students to think about an aspect of theatrical production that they tend to completely overlook in viewing or performing a play—the importance of the visual, not just in blocking and production elements, but in the impact of the manipulation of actors and objects in space. If students have only experienced Shakespeare through film, or if they have experienced a live Shakespeare production in either a stripped-down or over-produced version they need to be reminded of what Peter Brook states so simply: "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged" (Brook 9).

Suggested Bibliography

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Trans. Adrian Jackson. London: Routledge, 1992.
Gibson, Rex, and Janet Field-Pickering. Discovering Shakespeare's Language. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1963.

Of Bears and Chairs and Empty Space
Visualizing the Material Culture of Shakespeare's London
Staging the Self: Theatrical Performance and Identity in Early Modern England
Implied Action and Renaissance Play Text
Othello After O.J.: A Photo Negative Image
Sharing Shakespeare: An Academic's Adventures with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media