This is not truly an academic endeavor, but it will hopefully read that way. It is simply a repository for what I am learning and growing as a designer. After reading many books on theatrical theory, many meetings with Dramaturgs and directors I have just a few thoughts to share, the main one being Theory-Forward Design as a practice. I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on these ideas or complications and this seemed like the best forum for the ideas. Thanks to everyone who will keep my research accountable.
As an opening disclaimer: Semiotics is a philosophical theory which constitutes a way of describing life. We can get through the life part later as I learn it as I’m now starting on that. I do not claim to be a master of any of these theories but having read so many items on the topic I feel I have an informed opinion. And I don’t say that lightly, I may be 28 years old but I’ve spent a lot of time reading over 200 items surrounding these topics.
Through the use of signs, sign systems, and symbols we are able to break down the interrogation of what it means to live. It was founded in the early centuries and persists to this day. So what exactly theatrically can the use of semiotics be? As opposed to phenomenology or hermeneutics which my ideas are centered around collectively with Brecht, Artaud, and a touch of Nietzsche. We are after all in my opinion contemporary within a new era of thinking both theatrically and philosophically. Probably due to the digital age and the hyper globalization of every aspect of our lives.
Still to digress to the question of what can it be used for within theatre? There have been books which warn of construction of stage images through the use of both phenomenological and semiotic means. Such as there seems right now to me to be no working system to construct them, something I attempted as a lowly undergrad to do at University of Idaho. I believe there is an applicable enough theory to create a new working method for theatrical designers to construct images. As noted above, this work was done through the previous 6 years at University of Idaho and California Institute of the Arts as I read 270 articles, books, dissertations, and digesting art as a means of tests.
Semiotics in a way of working needs to be culturally accurate and truthful in many ways. This is more of societal semiotics, cultural semiotics. signs and sign systems do not translate between cultures in a way design aesthetic may. Choosing which design principle a lighting designer uses for concept is more traditional but this causes a disjunction of those ideas, a mediator. An example of this is on a previous show we decided to go with using Chinese color theory to create stage images. This may not translate to American nor European association within the audience's minds. At risk of being ethnocentric. This was using a simplified signified and signifier method of working, my favorite now being the interwoven meaning of signs each giving definition to the other.
But even this simplified version of consciously using semiotics reveals the lovely choreography of Zhihan Yang within a truthful manner very akin to their inception. And again, the use of this method is a conscious choice. All of what I share here can be a conscious choice to use or move to the next one, there’s no real rhyme or reason to these posts. It’s about each production to choose through.
But this post is a foreword to that construction, that I struggle to put into words. It is about digestion of works through this method. So there in Yaron Abulafia’s writings the groundwork of a modern interpretation of semiotics as tools to break down a performance. How each system works alongside each other is sign systems. How the poetic interpretation of each one is semantics. I was once laughed at for saying this in a presentation. Pragmatics is the implementation of each sign. When signs interact it creates a complex web of meaning. As seen in The Art of Light Onstage through the analysis of Madama Butterfly by Abulafia.
Semantics is a gooier subject. It for me right now relies upon a poetic sense of light and shape and form and the entirety of the image. See Digital Theory which I haven’t read yet due to the Russian war on Ukraine embargo from contacting a friend. I feel it is such that in the Madama Butterfly reference artfully stated X has a meaning of Y. A signifier and the signified. It builds off of conceptual semantics in that it begins to sign that we can adapt literature analysis to semiotic messages. And indeed much of semiotic debate is centered around linguistic aspects.
Honestly, within linguistic semiotics the reference and the referent could be an appealing way of working. It certainly maintains the scriptural ideals of working from a linguistic standpoint but falls apart for myself in that it is not a true conceptualization of core aspects. It’s rather a direct reduction of the linguistic principle. This is rather suited for my ideas on proximity within theater. A prop must function as its item or go into absurdity. However, linguistics aside, I digress.
This semantics part always has escaped me some time (probably to 2018 to be honest when I picked up my first book on these topics). I have been urged to avoid representationalism in my art in the last year and a half, favoriting phenomena as a means of making, still I say each show shouldn’t be pigeonholed into one theory and while we make our processes as students, it should be multifaceted and robust even within theory.
When looking at a stage (and researching a show which comes later in this blog hopefully as I learn more) we can use signifiers in the analysis. Such as the case studied in that same book and others we see blue may signify night and yellow may signify warmth. When placed together on the stage we signify through systems a light on at night in a warm color. I dare to say that we may signify non-world bound ideas in cultural analysis. But I’m working on that framework through these posts. I don’t quite have the language yet.
This topic is elucidated in many aspects of life. Such as a door. How do you know how to open it? Push or pull or biswing? I will often talk about this door. An analogy for design I like to use. This is the ”door of design” as I will call it from now on (Thanks Vox News!). What signs signify how to open the door? We’ve all had bad door experiences, much to our displeasure on first dates (no? Just me?). When we look at a door through our lense of semiotics we see signs that tell us how to open it. I believe (and very warily so) that we may digest theater as we digest the door of design.
I remember being laughed at during graduate interviews for these ideas and I am indeed weary to share them again. But through semiotic digestion I feel although art has no Truth (with a capital T) it does have Intentionality (with a capital I). So yes, while we strive at the truth of it through semiotic digestion, the truth will forever be in the nebulous of personal semantics and pragmatics. For me this doesn’t discourage me from using this method of digestion or construction as I currently stand, I think it offers a great way to teach and do research following through to construction of images. It is rather taxing though and there’s a certain mindset behind it.
Thank you for listening to this ramble, this probably will just be a rough and tumble thoughts at this point. I will come back and update this periodically to give better examples and more sources. As an academic disclaimer: some if not all of these ideas are not mine, the scope of this isn’t to write academic papers but just share what I’m learning. Some folks in this post are Yaron Abulafia, Unberto Eco, Door of Design based on Vox, and many others. My citation file got corrupted when I moved again. I will come back as I read those papers again. All of this to say, that I feel semiotics and phenomenology may combine later in the process.