Essay: Portfolio documenting final part of Master of Scenography

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  • Portfolio documenting final part of Master of Scenography
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This portfolio documents the final part of my master of scenography at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. The time frame I had to work on my subject and the fact that I was designing several shows outside of university made me reframe my subject and I chose to focus on youth theatre which is a subject I am passionate about . In this document I am constantly trying to jump and create crossovers between contextual, reflective and projective spaces and ways to ‘move out of the frame’ to create youth theatre.

As I was thinking about the direction I wanted to give to my sustained independent project I realised that over the past few months I had worked on several projects curated for youths or with youths:

  • Aidia, Threads of the past – English National Opera Baylis – director. Freya Wynn-Jones – youths led production,
  • Alice through the looking glass – Britten Sinfonia – no director — production for children (4-10 years old),
  • A Day Dawn – Royal Opera House – director Freya Wynn-Jones – youths led production,
  • Made in Dagenham – Latymer Company – director Justin Joseph – youths led production.

And while I was working on my sustained independent project I am also designing Jekyll and Hyde for Chickenshed directed by Jonny Morton.

Children’s theatre is quite often disregarded, potentially because a few decades ago it was still considered as ‘second class’ theatre with bad acting, bad sets and very few texts. Youth theatre had absolutely no reason to be different from adult theatre, they need to be challenged the same way as we do.

Whilst working with children I have noticed there were a few observations that I know associate with Youth theatre through each production I worked on when compared against adult theatre that they were potentially the most challenging sort of audience, if they don’t like it they won’t applause at the end, if they are bored they will simply say it at loud during the show. I – as a set designer — find this extremely challenging and have been wondering what were the codes to design for youth theatre?

In this project I will be questioning the ways of designing for young adolescents and particularly teenagers : focusing on the age frame of teenagers of thirteen to nineteen years old. And the ways we can create a dramaturgy for young people.

In the 1840s, children could mainly attend shadow and puppet shows or they were going to the theatre to see adults shows. However, there were very few shows created for children. The only children’s shows of the time remained simplistic, without a lot of reflection or prior artistic research.

Two writers played an important role and allowed children and parents to come and see shows for them. In 1874, Jules Verne adapted his Around the World in eighty days in Paris, with a spectacular setting. Then, in 1907, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote Blue Bird, a theatrical piece for children.

In the nineteenth century, theatre experienced a change and became more philosophical, political and social.

In the mid-60’s, the idea of youth-centred performance became hugely popular. Created in Britain in 1965, Theatre in Education (TiE) is a theatre company performing in educational settings including performative and interactive moments. Through TiE, youths become engaged with their learning but it also helps them to reflect on our social behaviours because it is providing a safe environment where they are able to think about and examine the issues raised and the consequences of actions for themselves.

There is no such thing as youth theatre. Nevertheless I am questioning its name, why do we need to say that it is ‘youth theatre’ to which extend is it different from ‘adult theatre’, what are the reasons why it is different but also, can an adult see a children show and vice versa.

Why should we take children to the theatre? Simply because it has the potential to encourage them to become competent members of our culture.

I have decided to work around Kaspar as I studied it in depth for the unit two: embodied spaces and thought it was an interesting play offer to a young audience as it is addressing a subject which is of interest for them: language Kaspar is about language and its ability to torture. In this play Handke allows us to listen differently and to react on how language is forced upon us by a society where conformism is the norm and received speech an almost tyrannical exploitation of the individual.

It is also a play that suggests individuals are bound to negate themselves under the pressure of the societies that they live in.

Individuals can also invent themselves using the language. In Kaspar, Handke writes:

“Already you have a sentence with which you can make yourself noticeable . . . You can explain to yourself how it goes with you… You have a sentence with which you can bring order into every disorder…”

Kaspar is based on the real story of Kaspar Hauser – a German youth who claimed to have grown up in the total isolation of a darkened cell.

Designing Kaspar in 2018 can be seen as a strong sociological choice. I believe it is important today to stage this play again as it is showing the power of language. It is looking into the mysteries of human condition, loneliness, death and rebirth of language.

The question as to how an audience can receive this play today is about linking Handke’s message to today’s world. Kaspar wants to be a symbol, a reflection of life, but this symbol becomes more and more a demonstration. This play is constantly questioning the audience — indeed, the prompters voices are stopping the main action and suddenly a reaction and exchange with the audience is put in place.

Staging Kaspar in 2018, it is breaking the ritual of theatre. What are the codes making our education, our relation to art and theatre? It is not about giving the audience a lecture about the world but it is about showing how it works to free ourselves.

At the beginning, Kaspar is — in an unstructured way — trying to end his role helped by the voices and then in a more structured way. During the interval he is evolving in harmony with the space. He moved objects and they are now where they should be, he is also using language in a proper way.

Kaspar is sharing his truth with the audience. But the more he talks the crazier he becomes. This is shown by many ‘Kaspars’ appearing. They are making his speech impossible to hear. Kaspar is then lost in this world he created.

The audience will come in a dark space — there will be enough light to see the faces of the others. As they’ll come in they will be able to listen through headphone devices to the voices of the prompters but also to Kaspar. The actor playing Kaspar will be alongside them, the audience will only be aware of this as soon as Kaspar starts acting and moving around. During the second part of the play, the audience will discover that all the different Kaspars were within the audience during the entire play, acting like them.

By doing such a scenography, I am hoping to make the audience listen to the text purely. The darkness, the intimacy with the voices will increase this.

When the audience will come into the space they will feel alienated as an empty-dark space is not something we usually expect when we come to the theatre.

During the scenography exhibition in June I worked on a design where the audience would be as involved as the cast on the set. Indeed, the audience will work around Kaspar and build a giant mess around the main character. They will also have the opportunity to write on the floor words from the text that they will hear. By being nomadic and not fixed in space, the scenography has the potential to become a performer in its own right moving with and by the spectator/participants.

I do not know how this will work, if children will actually interact with the elements they are provided. Children will play with the chalk and the material they are given and to a certain extend it relates to paida: Paidia is our childhood nature that emerges in some moments of our adult lives. Pure paidia gives rise to activities that are often spontaneous, irrational and risky. Roger Callois wrote in this book that:

“there is also no doubt that play must be defined as a free and voluntary activity […]. A game which one would be forced to play would at once cease being play.”

(Caillois, R. Man, Game, Play, 1958 : 6)

As a scenographer I believe that interactivity is a way to take young people aboard and make them enjoy theatre. More and more theatre decide to use video or technology as a way to make young people interested by theatre but again, we are just adults making assumptions about the actual needs of children.

Just like all the arts addressed to young people, we feel the need to specify the very fact that it is addressed to children (for example youth literature). However, the importance of specifying this audience means that we consider this art as different from the actual theatre. Indeed, when we talk about ‘adult theatre’, we do not specify its audience. The mention of young audience is everywhere.

As Maurice Yendt explains, the term “children’s theatre” means nothing and everything. In the same way as the expression “popular theatre” illustrated by Jean Vilar, it is defining the audience of not the genre. Children’s theatre means young spectators in front of the stage. It’s as simple as that. However, the meaning of a young audience or children’s theatre would mean that it is a theatre that puts itself at the service of its audience by giving them performances that correspond to what they are expecting. But it is true that theatre, even more than any form of art, exists so that its public can see, there is no theatre without audience; indeed, what would theatre be without audience in the auditorium?

I have asked several children to answer a series of questions about what they remember from things they have seen and what they were expecting from it. I recognise that I could have gone more in depth in the series of questions I have ask.

– “I went to the theatre and it looked like a theatre”,

– “There was no set but it was good anyway because the actors were making funny faces”,

– “The set was really nice. I liked how we could see the theatre crew on stage. The props were nice”.

Ariane Mnouchkine is a theatre director working with the Théâtre du Soleil. She is known for her “activism, formalism and cosmopolitanism” (Singleton, Contemporary European Theatre Directors, 2010 : 29) . The kind of theatre she is making is made for people and breaks with the elitist perception of theatre. She believes that theatre is the most democratic art form but also the fact that collaborative theatre is a very strong medium. Her actors have to facilitate the transformation of a ‘normal’ spectator into an active participant. Even-though Ariane Mnouchkine is not technically creating work for children, her work has this genuineness that I really appreciate where the audience is acknowledge as active people and taken into an entire experience from the moment they enter the theatre to the moment they leave the building.

Based in Shoreditch, Fevered Sleep makes performances, installations, films, books and digital art, for adults and for children. It is led by David Harradine and Sam Butler. Created for an adult audience Man and Girls dance brings together adult male and young girl both entities are dancing together in public spaces such as museums (for example the Tate Britain in July 2017), taking a performance outside of a theatre space is also giving access to it to a wider audience. Man and Girls dance has the ambition to encourage us – the audience – to change our perception of things

For me, reconsidering the audience means that we accept teenagers as citizens like any other group of people, and therefore they deserve to have access to any art form.

A proscenium is

“The division between audience and stage in the traditional form of theatre where the audience sits in a single block facing the stage. The proscenium takes many forms from a definite arch, not unlike a picture frame, to an undressed termination of auditorium walls and ceiling.”

(Reid F., The ABC of stage technology, 1995 : 72)

Richard Wagner used the term ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ in his two essays Art and Revolution and The Artwork of the Future and it means ‘total work of art’, he is stating that all works of art should be unified through theatre. Wagner wanted to come up with a new theatre type of venue and, as a matter of fact he was thinking that the audience was distracted by the fact that the auditorium was lit so he forced an absolute darkness into it so the audience payed attention to what was happening on stage. The proscenium arch hence became a perfect rectangular luminous screen. These differences of lighting and the design of proscenium arches forced the entire audience to look at the same thing on stage creating a linear perspective.

Youth theatre is often staged in proscenium arch theatre for several reasons: it is easy to tour as regardless of the stage size it’s usually just a rectangular stage, there is a hierarchy between the stage and the auditorium and usually it is an easy rig. Nevertheless, I think proscenium arch theatres are preventing any interaction with the audience (or at least it is making it harder), also there is also a fixed seating position.

In May 2018 I was asked to design an interactive piece for Britten Sinfonia “Alice Through the looking glass” — the show was to be performed in Norwich Playhouse with an end on audience but with many interactions with the audience as they would be encouraged to participate fully throughout the concerts : sing songs, create actions with the cast and musicians and make a soundscape. I had the feeling that even though children were interested by the interaction created between them and the actors there was a physical barrier between them as children were sitting away from the stage and the action, children would participate albeit as a seated audience.

In his book Theatre in education in Britain, Roger Wooster says that

“[we] should pa[y] attention to audience size and to the age profile of the children rather than producing generic ‘shows for kids’”

(Wooster R., Theatre in education in Britain, 2016 : 30)

I have a feeling that whilst producing Alice we were not really focusing to these and I created more of a ‘generic show for kids’ as I looked at clichés of children and things that would interest them (bright colours, funny things with no real meanings…)

Helen Nicholson writes in her book Theatre and education that

“working outside the confines of the proscenium arch theatre […] inevitably require[s] radical approaches to staging and scenography”

(Nicholson H., Theatre and education, 2009 : 30)

and I think that in order to make youths participate we need to come out of the luminous frame created by a proscenium arch.



An empty and bleached stage cage, no orchestra pit, musicians lined up on a mezzanine floor upstage with doors slamming … This extremely classic proscenium arch opera seems all new and enlarged. Later white cubes suspended from the fly bars reflect lights and become plain props. It is a very unusual thing to see in this venue.

Before the interval, 60 000 green plastic balls are dropped from the grid, they then fill the orchestra pit. Dancers jump into it and start to throw them onto the audience. Finally, an essential dimension of the game for Ekman is to surprise the audience, create the unexpected and avoid boredom at all costs. Ekman also has fun deceiving the audience at the end of the show. After a long choreographed moment of calm movements, one of the dancers remains alone on stage and undresses slowly. Once in white underpants he leaves the stage and the curtain falls. Is it the end? I expected a final firework. Yet the dancers come and stage and bow, Alexander Ekman joins them. Then the curtain falls again and when it opens one last time, the singer Callie Day is on stage and there begins the final party, where the public is associated. Giant inflatable balloons are thrown into the audience who throw them back on stage, dancers throw more balls of different sizes creating a giant game between the spectators and dancers but also breaking the boundary between the auditorium and the stage. Ekman creates a truly participatory piece, but it is far from being limited to a hollow entertainment.

At the moment I am currently designing Jekyll and Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886. The play is addressed to an 11+ audience as Jekyll and Hyde is part of the GCSE curriculum. Joseph Morton — the director — and Lou Stein — artistic director of Chickenshed Theatre decided to present a brand new version of the story to deliver it through music and dance. The main inspiration for this was Hamilton a sung- and rapped-through musical written in 2015 by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Jekyll and Hyde is also addressing questions that all teenagers are asking themselves as they are getting ready to enter the adults world: Do I know who I really am? Am I pretending to be someone who I am not? Can I truly tell the difference between the good and bad choices I make in life? In the story, Stevenson is writing “Man is not truly one but truly two”, he is telling about the capacity for good and bad within everyone’s personality, but also what defines a person are the choices that they make.

In terms of design I have decided to try to create an experience for the audience as they are taken into the atmosphere of Victorian time London straight from the beginning as have to walk through a bricked wall corridor and then face a red door to then be able to seat. The audience is also sitting on four seating banks, facing each other creating a central stage in between them. During the show the actors are coming from all around the seating banks but also using them and visually soliciting the audience. The set consists of a raised platform and a total of four doors: a door to Jekyll’s laboratory, Jekyll’s front door, Hyde’s back door and a red door that we see as we come into the space. Those doors as explained by Stevensons have a huge symbolic potential as they can

be opened to grant access or opportunity to something or someone, but they can also be used as a protection to keep something or someone out. In Jekyll and Hyde, doors represent good and evil but for teenagers they are reflecting the many choices they are facing to choose who they want to be.

On September 25th we opened the show to the audience for the first time and the audience was mainly composed of 14/15 years old. During the performance I was able to see that the teens were really engaged with the show. The actors feedbacks about the performance were that a teenagers audience is really a different audience, indeed they were reacting at loud at what was happening on stage but also chatting between them.

I wish I had taken the time to create a survey to give to the audience at the end of the performance but I did not have the time to do this. I could have asked them what door they like most and why for example. Or what the many doors meant to them at this moment of their life.

Anyway, Chickenshed made their own survey and I was able to have access to a few answers:

– “Simple but effective staging”,

– “I was really exited when I saw this show staged in traverse […] bravo for utilising the space so well”,

-”Staging was excellent. Brilliant use of the space. Clever use of distraction techniques”.

Unfortunately the answers were very generic and not as useful as I would have liked them to be so I am not able to use them efficiently for this purpose.

Teenagers live in an adult world and quite often adults make assumption for them of what they will or will not like/what will interest them (eg. technology). But actually working for youth people has to be about their creativity and their input on a project from the beginning. It is about empowering them to make choices about what good theatre is. The importance of youth audience can be seen in various aspects of the shows we are addressing to them. As I have explained earlier the notion of youth theatre includes the idea that this theatre is at the mercy of its audiences which can sometimes create issues. Obviously teenagers are not deciding what we are showing them — actually if we look at the etymology of ‘children’, it is coming from ‘infans’ in Greek: the one who does not speak — they are dependent on adults; adults are deciding what should surround them.

In August I assisted Kitty Callister for the Royal Opera House Youth Company summer project. The company (aged between eleven and fifteen years old) devised over six days an opera considering the story of Hansel and Gretel and addressing issues such as what children need versus what children deserve. The final story they created was really interesting as they decided to create a world without adults. Theatre – like literature and most arts – has the power to create world that would never actually exist.

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