The search for a neutral chair !

Alison Chitty once taught me a very simple, but enlightening, mental game to show the story telling power of objects. Imagine an empty space, and then put in it a carved wooden chair and a willow pattern tea cup. Then take away the cup and put a martini glass in its place, you may add an imaginary cherry or pointless little umbrella thing. Then take away the chair and put a yellow beach towel next to your glass. What has happened with each switch? Whenever I play this game in workshops these four objects in their various combinations never fail to move people from indoors to outside, some move from the past to the present. Each pairing conjures up a new image of who might be using them and a strong atmosphere of the place they might be in. Unconsciously this is what we do all the time in theatre, make associations based on the messages an object gives us. A martini glass was probably designed at the turn of the C20th so we must be in a more modern place than with the willow cup, but add a broadsheet newspaper lying  on the chair with the tea cup and perhaps we are just in the house of relatively wealthy C21st person with conservative taste. The choice of paper will instantly cause the audience to predict the type who might read it.

So part of a designer’s role is the weaving of objects to tell the most vivid and clear story of location, and social situation. The audiences’ imagination will fill in the gaps as long as the objects make sense with each other. The designer Ultz made a very interesting point that the further away in time we get from the period in which a play is set the more difficult it is for both designer and audience to know the significance of an object. To Chekov the exact style of a samovar probably said a lot about the social class of the people using it (think of the various stories a kettle will tell us now!), but now a samovar on stage conjures up a far more generalised image of period Russianness, so it is not telling the same story the Playwright would have unconsciously expected from the naturalism of his day.

Things get more complicated for a designer when we want to try and have objects that can exist in multiple locations and need to tell different stories each time they are used.  I tend to believe that, especially in Shakespeare where the words tell you where you are, that it is not necessary to flesh out every single location and that with the right design objects can be transformed in the mind’s eye to fit the needs of the text, that way scenes can flow one into the other without scene changes. Hence the elusive search for the neutral chair, i.e. an object that can function as perhaps a banqueting chair in one scene and then with a change of characters be in a refectory; as I am hoping to achieve in King Lear where the same table and chairs are used in the opening engagement party for Cordelia and then for the scene with the riotous Knights. For a while the bentwood was the stalwart of choice in many a production, simple, lightweight and evoking a fin de siècle theatricality. Now they are a cliché, so how about banqueting chairs , these told the right story for the first scene but are too specific for further use i.e. they were just too good at saying we are at a wedding or corporate function and not good at all at being in a private house. So given the slightly industrial found space nature of the world we are creating we have been trying to find a simple metal and wood combination. The first choice, although they looked interestingly nondescript, fell off the tables when stacked so weren’t fit for purpose, others look too much like school chairs, maybe we have found an interesting aluminium version I am on my way to Glasgow to see if they will work. The tec starts in four days so we are running out of time and money!

chairs at the citz

still looks like a bentwood !

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