Opening the Boxes

By Lisa Wymore

January 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

For some reason I have always been drawn to the rough spaces in theaters. There is a mood within these spaces that is rich with history, objects, technologies and stories from different eras. I think back to the time when I first entered a conventional proscenium theater from the stage door – from the back “bowels” of the space. The quiet drafty areas behind the stage were alive with people who did not perform in the traditional sense and I remember being mesmerized by the quiet working and dim coolness that existed there. The wings, like pages of a book, cut the stage into fragmented views and reframe the bright activities on the stage into surprising new side-ways choreographies. The wires taped down to the floor were covered with old carpets – like the entrails and arteries of the theater itself. Headsets blinked, miscellaneous glowing blue and amber lights created an eerie quiet world that was powerful. Performers dashed off from the main stage to breath heavily and recover in this space – laboring quietly, recuperating and drawing in new energy. I was about five years old when I entered this space and I could probably remember the smell of it too. It made a huge impact on my life. How mysterious and hidden it all was. How can all the rough spaces within theaters contribute to the overall tone of a dance and be seen as useful rather than simply areas that need to be hidden?

Being backstage means that one is allowed to see the machinations of the theater, the stuff beneath the skin, the things that are glossed over from the house view by black drapes and expert maneuvers of technicians. Those that work backstage are mysterious, talking in whispered hushes to others who can’t be seen—running and operating equipment and devices that also seem to disappear. These activities are indispensable to the performance yet they are invisible. The purposeful disguising of the technologies and laborers of the theater is something that I think of as “smoothing.” This smoothing of the theater allows for an easy audience interface with the stage presentation. Only the “artistic vision” is seen through the window of the proscenium opening.

By now I have lost track of the theaters that I have performed in. Some have elevators, some have stairs leading to underground or high above dressing rooms and back areas. One theater stands out in my memory; The Ruth Page Theater in Chicago. It feels haunted and old in comparison to most. The rickety stairs go on forever leading to the steam heated dressing rooms far above the stage. There are odd places to crawl about and dusty corners filled with surprises like old broken chairs, lost socks, discarded and broken jewelry, and odd pieces of fabric. Each secluded nook or fragmentary space in that old theater reveals something about its history and relationship to those who have been there, contributing to the institution that it has become. Every backstage has this but the older theaters that have been a bit more neglected have much to share. They are both smooth and rough spaces at once—often because the smoothing techniques have fallen away or have become outmoded.

There are shared stories of the spaces within theaters written over millennia by all those who have contributed collectively to its design—by those who have invested in and built upon techniques that allow the theater to reveal magical images of bodies captured within the proscenium archways. It is exactly this layering of techniques and design that creates the time warp feeling within a theater. Bruno Latour, a French sociologist of Science and Anthropology talks about this layering over time in his book Pandora’s Hope; stories, or fictions, are written by both humans and nonhumans in relationship to one another. (Latour, 188)

Let us imagine being in the role of the person who has decided to build a theater. Let’s say that the goal of the theater is to present stage activities forward to an audience and to hide away all the mechanisms that would be considered rough or coarse to the viewer. To reach this goal various objects and technologies are created; wings, backdrops, stage skirts, headsets, sound booths, etc. We could go deeper into why we as humans construct things often using fronts, backs, sides, etc. but that is another subject.

When the builder of the theater is gone, and the labor is complete, all of the major themes created during construction remain active. For example the doors that lead to stage, the location of the curtain pulleys, the ladder to the cat walk, the lip of the stage, the aisles that lead the audience to their seats, the size of the stage space etc. all inform how the space is used. The theater itself can be seen as an actant upon people (actors) who enter the space and use it. (Latour, 180) The theater has a story to tell that is carried out for as long as the space is configured in such a way. As an example one can think of the actual names for the stage that remain prominently used in most theaters: downstage, upstage, stage left and right, etc. (This is a narrative of sorts that a performer engages with when he/she steps onto the stage.) The stage acts upon the performer just as the performer acts upon the stage.

We engage with the nonhuman elements of the theater even if we don’t realize we are doing so. Latour calls this concept “the folding of humans into nonhumans” (Latour, 176) and I find that it reveals the theater in new ways to me. According to Latour we are in a collective with nonhuman entities (and those humans who know how to operate these entities). We are not just performers acting by ourselves on the main stage. We enact the story of theater once we enter it regardless of what we are choosing to perform. A great saying that Latour uses to describe this collective that we engage with is the statement, “Boeing 747’s don’t fly, airlines fly.” (Latour, 193) One can apply this to dance as well. Dances are not performed by dancers only; they are performed collectively by institutions and the people and objects that make up the institutions. Dancers are part of this collective as well as choreographers, technical directors, Marley floors, stage lights, wings, backstages, and on and on.

There is a multi dimensional history to all things in the theater. Let us think about layers of technology and labor that are involved within a stage light. There are the metal materials, the wires, the glass lenses, the gel frames, clamps, etc. Each of these apparatuses is made up of technologies that are a collection of technologies from earlier eras and this labyrinth goes on so far that we could not account for all the millions of black boxes, as Latour calls them, that make up the nonhuman aspects of a theater. Over time, the black boxes that make theaters are congealed, smoothed over and painted black so the disappearance is complete and all we see are wonderful dancing bodies on the main stage of the theater. (Latour, 185) The backstages and technologies are nowhere to be seen.

What happens when we open the boxes and reveal the workings within? Many artists have chosen to open part of the smooth theater by pulling back drapes and showing the backstage in various capacities. Yet I would argue that it is the rougher theater spaces (those that either choose not to smooth over technologies or cannot afford to do so) that can be the most revealing. When I look at rough theaters in comparison to smooth theaters I am more interested in the dialogue I can have within the story that the rough spaces, and the people operating these spaces, manifest. As a burgeoning choreographer in Chicago in the late 1990s, the rough spaces were the only spaces where I could show work. The large proscenium stages with impressive smooth veneers and technicians hidden high above the house in soundproof booths, glowing in the light of new dimmer boards, were not affordable to me. I was not invited into these spaces as a young artist starting out with my young ideas that were not ready to be framed so distinctly by the proscenium stage. Because of my use of rough spaces I started to find something quite alive within them: something engaging and creative. And this investigation has remained part of my creative process since, even though I am at a place in my career where I could perform in more conventional stage spaces.

I embrace the rough theater and make choices to work in such spaces now not because of necessity but because such spaces inform my creative process. My partner, husband, and collaborator, Sheldon Smith, and I have worked to reveal the theater in new ways; to unmask it, re-mask it, comment upon it, and to make new theaters in unexpected places. Just recently we made a project together called Panorama – Multi-Media Happening and it was important to have the backstage areas totally revealed. Technologists working at their computers, masses of cables visible on the floor, lighting structures and wires visible, dancers never leaving the stage, audience interaction with technology, and 360 degree viewing of the performance, are some of the strategies utilized within the piece.

It makes sense that we both agreed to work on these concepts within our art making. The inner workings of the theater and the inner complicated places and hidden secret areas in theaters have always drawn me close, and for Sheldon this too is the case. Part of his artistic life allowed him to labor in theaters all over Chicago and the Midwest; constructing and rigging them with curtains, wires and light grids. He knows the feel of ropes, cables, levers —the mechanisms that make the theater. This has allowed us a shared sensibility for the rough spaces.

In this act of re-staging dances utilizing the roughness of a space, the mechanisms and techniques of the theater are made more real and visible. We chose to perform in living rooms, factories, lofts, parking lots and ballrooms—inhabiting these spaces and remaking them for our performances. The smooth theater that we know is always present but the black boxes that can hide so much are opened up in our work. It is an interruption to what is smoothed over and forces the audience to become more responsible for understanding what is happening within a performance. (Brooks, 72) Of course a new kind of illusion is created in doing this and by no means do I mean to disrupt the usage of the smooth space in theaters, which is powerful and important to dance makers. Rather, I hope our work shows that rough spaces have integrity and importance within the realm of theater making; that we can purposefully choose to open boxes within a theater space and know that this way of working has value for dance performance.

This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of In Dance.

Lisa Wymore is Co-Director of the dance theater company Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts. She is also an Assistant Professor of Dance at UC Berkeley in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and is a certified Laban Bartenieff Movement Analyst.