Just to summarize, this is a series of posts about things that are always effective design tactics onstage… and why. Part 1 was about walls of stuff — think scenery that are piles of a single type of object (be it walls of books, boxes or chairs) — and also included in that section are cabinets of curiosity and the like.
Here we are, after a long hiatus, at part 2. Nature/Artifice.
I went to the zoo today. It’s not something I do often or anything, but it’s walking distance from my parents’ house in DC, and it was a lovely morning, so I went.
Zoos reveal the best and the worst of humanity. The impulse to preserve, study, learn and teach about animals is really beautiful. Zoo exhibits are devoted to teaching visitors to love and respect the natural world. They are only interaction some people have with the huge variety that you see in nature.
That said, anyone who has ever been to the zoo probably has mixed feelings about them. Seeing wild animals caged with people gawking at them and children screaming can be really sickening. Today I saw a wolf hiding in the shadows of its exhibit while 15 7-year-olds howled at it incessantly in a cruel role reversal. I tried to imaging the children in the exhibit and the wolves on the outside. My experience was in many ways more revealing about people than animals.
I took some photos in the bird house that seemed a fitting start to this post:
Nature/Artifice. A fancy way of saying that trees inside make really awesome sets. We love seeing nature displaced. Recontextualized. My first example (obviously) is the caging of nature. I can’t tell you how many times zoo exhibits, natural history dioramas, aquariums and the like have inspired me in my design work. First of all, they quite literally provide a frame or a stage for nature. So they are inherently theatrical. They are little sets of their own. Secondly these places are about preservation and re-creation. They are nostalgic in that way (see: cabinets of curiosity in Part 1). When it comes to Insta-Theater, nostalgia is a great place to start.
An then there are ruins.
This is a drawing of Tintern Abbey from the Romantic period. Coming in with late imperialism, romantic artists were obsessed with ruins. They developed an entire aesthetic credo around the idea of the Picturesque, which was the impulse to idealize nature in its wildness. There are many reasons why this happened, and why it happened when it happened, and why it happened with the English. They are fascinating, but I won’t discuss them here. In her excellent book Pleasure of Ruins, Rose Macaulay talks about the human impulse to love ruins and to romanticize them. She also talks about the ruin craze of the mid-nineteenth century when people had ruins manufactured on their properties. Yes, just like in Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. Its an awesome book.
In the modern period perhaps this translates to those amazing images of ruined factories in cities like Detroit, which has become a mecca for ruin-hunters.
Putting trees/ nature into interior spaces also creates a very “dream-like” space. It can feel fantastical. I think we have all seen the restaurants with the trees covered in Christmas lights in the dining rooms.
This is an image that I find incredibly inspiring. That moment in Where the Wild Things Are when the wallpaper expands into a forest completely captures the power of bringing nature into an interior space: It builds into our childhood desire to bring the outside inside. It creates instantly the sense of a fantasy space, simply by improbable juxtaposition. I’ll get into juxtaposition more in Part 3.
I keep mentioning trees and plants, but the same rules apply to other natural elements such as water or fog: a baroque drawing room that’s been flooded? That’s Insta-Theater to me.
I think of that wonderful set in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that is the flooded hotel lobby. You could do almost any play in there, and it would be make sense.
I leave you with that thought. Part 3? Upstairs/Downstairs. Not the show.
Oh and PS. the tree? Totally a prop.