Hello Everyone! Some notes.
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 tof 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.
Phenomenon and their theories.
The start of a post is always the hardest, but it’s a phenomenon that exaggerates itself. When writing I find starting is the hardest part. I was told it was great to have me share my ideas on design, rooted in philosophy and human nature. Not agreeing too much in that review, a side answer of sorts.
Phenomenology relays to the present moment, something hard to achieve for people. I said at University of Idaho that the small walk for me of miles to my meetings gave me a moment to meander. To waltz with the phenomenon. Backed up in Theatre and Phenomenology by Daniel Johnson. This is more of a University of Idaho post though as I was able to feel the phenomenon around me unmuted.
What is phenomenology? And why is it mystic? Phenomenology deals with this simple fact, it’s ever escaping. In my experience as an artist and designer it comes late at night with a scotch. Laying in bed. Being. Brecht had a term for that, Dasien. The act of being. In your wonderful dialectic self. But it’s mystic because it’s hard to achieve. My Theory Professor Asher Hartman could attest. Phenomenology is not really too fun, it’s reacting and experiencing unmitigated phenomenon. But it is central to being an artist.
I often felt closest to the exact moment when studying meisner actor training. Which is centered squarely on phenomenological principals. To be there, in the moment it occurs. Much of my life has been trying to retain this moment. Where spirits and light collide. Spirits as Elizabeth Gilbert said as Deamons from the Roman ontological aspects of their work “Big Magic”. But honestly, as a scientific mind. Why the mysticism.
Why not some science in the process? That’s what Antonio Demasio deduced within the first book truthfully I read on this topic. Subsided through the idea Art and Science can converge. “Self Comes to Mind” by Antonio Demasio. I was 13 when I read that first, now 28. What constitutes perception of self? And how can we shut it off?
What does it mean to be? As a self? An artwork? A hand from the artists that coalsesses so. That’s what’s to be hoped for. But I find feet planted, (do this with me) favorite music on, breath. Breathe. The eyes which you see focus so straight on the present. The fingertips. Escape me. But they may not for you. This is a meditative practice. To be here, fully.
Phenomenology is the unmitigated act of being. It’s been here since the 1920’s and before. I dare say Van Gogh realized it in their time. Saying Neruda found it lying in a well. Trying to write this is in part with me needing to sit at a bar in the front having the wind hit me and a drink in my hand. Phenomenological observation is hard to teach. Even more so within the more philosophical realms. I only feel it when busking a performance or late at night. What does it mean to interrogate the being of the moment? With self? Without self?
There is no objectivity to be had here. They are so fleeting. The struggle of phenomenologists.
Now really, the use?
Imagine you are in a tech, something isn’t working. You don’t know what it is. A color or shape. Something is amiss. So you can reach for your book of research (hopefully collected through semiotics, well if I can write that), and then say “can we just run it in this cue?” Haberdashery at that. But… There's a very important reason for it. Phenomenology. The phenomenon we see and experience can be broken down into each idea or system. That can inform your next move.
Everything here can be broken down to a system of drawings but I’ll spare you them. I’m simply trying to comprehend the idea of phenomena and a new way of designing. Theory-forward designing. It’s not for everyone, and I hate that name. It stuck though. So while in tech I may experience red as greed, in Chinese color theory it’s prosperity. Understanding how to filter phenomena is equally important.
After reading over 200 items on theater, this will simply be a repository for my thoughts on theatre, ready for healthy and lively (yet respectful) debate, articles updated and reading items appreciated fully.