Insta-Theater! PART 1

I’ve been designing elements of 2-3 shows per week for the last 6 months. Like 2–3 different shows: different scripts, different periods, different styles, different elements. After a while, if you haven’t completely burnt out, you start to notice that there are certain design tropes that are sure-fire ways of making something look theatrically effective. Not necessarily right for the play, but visually arresting. Thus, “Insta-Theater” is born.

Quick caveat — this is not just about theater: you see Insta-Theater everywhere. In film, store windows, web and print design…. wherever someone is trying to get your attention with an image. Also, I have no problem with Insta-Theater. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m just interested in what it is about these scenarios that is so effective.

Is that vague and general enough? How about examples. (I’m going to use examples from the art world primarily in this post because I think that its hard to talk about actual theater sets purely aesthetically since they also need to be considered on the level of the text, how the space is used, the directors intention etc.)

Insta-Theater method 1: Lots of the same thing piled up over and over.

This is a kind of general category, because there are basically 2 approaches: The walls of stuff method, and the cabinet of curiosity method.

The wall of stuff method is essentially the repetition of a single item over and over again. Somehow when you do this, the object in question kind of transcends its meaning or use — becomes a texture and an image. It also makes us question all of the meanings that we bring internally to certain objects.

This is an installation by the artist Ai Weiwei in the Turbine Room at the Tate Modern in London. Essentially, the entire floor of this massive space is covered in tiny sunflower seed sculptures made from porcelain. We could talk all day about what this piece means, and how it was made, and what the atmosphere is like, and whether its effective or not, but people far more qualified than I have done so already. However, its a great piece of Insta-Theater. Think about it onstage: an entire floor made of some kind of seed, or toy or… anything. Depends on the play.

I think the pile of stuff method is really effective because in asking us to see the same thing over and over, the artist/designer is referencing both our own associations with the object (nostalgia will be coming up a lot in this post), and the unfamiliarity that comes with excessive repetition. Somehow, that makes us feel something.

part 2: The Cabinet of Curiosities.

This isn’t necessarily the same as the same thing over and over, but I group it with that because I think that the Cabinet of Curiosities employs the same sense of nostalgia and unfamiliarity.

This is a piece by Damien Hirst called “Where theres a Will, theres a Way”, from 2007. Its basically a giant medicine cabinet filled with thousands of cast pills.

I think what makes me insert this into the Cabinet of Curiosities section is that by separating the viewer from the object with a window or a door, Hirst asks us to see these objects differently from Weiwei’s seeds. They become dangerous, forbidden. To me, that is what makes the Cabinet interesting, both in this form and the more familiar, traditional form:

This is the cabinet belonging to Joseph Bonnier de Mosson was created in 1735. These are amazing in and of themselves, and in their original form, Cabinets of Curiosity definitely lend an atmosphere of obsession, nostalgia, and wonder to any space. I would go on about the history of them, of the Enlightenment, scientific discovery etc… but that would take forever. However everyone should read this lovely article about them from Cabinet magazine, and the book Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes.

I think that’s enough for one post. To be continued…


About meredithries

Meredith is a set designer living in Brooklyn, NY. See her work at: This is a repurposed old blog. Because continuity is important. Malaprop is a malapropism
This entry was posted in art onstage, cabinets of curiosity, insta-theater, Meredith Ries, nostagia, set design, set dressing, theater, theater design, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Insta-Theater! PART 1

  1. Laura Berman says:

    Hey Mer, Don’t forget natural elements: fire, water, earth. (Air would mean total emptiness, right?)

  2. Summer says:

    Hey! I found this while researching something else entirely… and it reminded me of your post…

    so cool!

    – Summer

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