The spatial machines and Slovene (no longer-)theatre

Published in Maska magazine, Spring 2008

Translated by Jernej Možic


I. Intonation

In the field of theatre and performing arts in the 20th century of unrest, Badiou’s unsolvable divisions between ending the old and starting the new was marked by a“ series of revolutions” that stirred up the configuration of the stage and the theatre hall. Parallel to numerous turns from the dramatic towards the non-dramatic, the non-literary, the post-dramatic, and the primacy of the scenery, there occurred a series of re-examinations and remakes, a dismantling and recreation of the notion of the stage. The common denominator for all these endeavours was the doubt in the black box as the prevailing model of the Western European modern theatre.


II. Dramatic and theatrical space

The theory of drama (such as Patrice Pavis’ theory) started to make clear distinctions between the dramatic space and the theatrical space and thus claimed: “The latter is visible and made concrete through direction, while the dramatic space is established by the onlooker or the reader…”[1]. The dramatic space (similar to the dramatic text) no longer acted as the fundamental directional sign for the chronotopos of the stage, as a kind of meta-text  or  “pre-direction” that the director could take into consideration or disregard; a fiction “in contrast with the stage space or rather the theatrical space”[2]. The dramatic space thus does not belong to the dramatic text;  the reader (audience member) constructs it (with the help of imagination) and creates “the spatial image of the dramatic universe”[3]. In this process, the theory was aware of the fact that different forms of aesthetics presuppose different designs of the space: from the space of the classicist tragedy to the scene of conflict, from the romantic space to the naturalist space which imitates reality with accuracy, from the symbolist space as a dematerialization of the set to the expressionistic space, and, finally, a myriad of spaces of contemporary theatre where a different notion of space is explored by every respective production.


It had become simultaneously more and more apparent that the typical Western viewpoint of creating interdependence between these two dissimilar sign systems and artistic practices, which are characterized by confrontation rather than transformation from one to another, might form a trap for the semiotics of the theatre. In the same way that direction is not coded in a performance text, the theatrical space cannot predetermine the dramatic space. Likewise, the existence of dissimilar directing approaches towards the same dramatic text allows for dissimilar theatrical spaces in the same dramatic space and text. The dramatic space is the “fictional universe that is structured on the grounds of the text”[4], while the theatrical space is the “fictional universe produced by the stage”[5]. The relationship between them is one of transference and co-staging.


III. The Crisis of Representation and the Classical Stage

The 20th century was characterized by constant newly-emerging crises of classical representation and the dramatist. On a different level, there were also new experiments to exceed and move away from the black box theatre, which was thought to be framing classical theatre in its realism and literariness. It is, therefore, not surprising that the first experimental theatre in Slovenia, established in 1955 by Balbina Battelino Baranovič (its name was simply Experimental Theatre, which clearly defined its aims and objectives), tried to abolish the black box and the frame it provided, and replace it with theatre-in-the-round, following the example of The Living Theatre. They decided (in what is today, still a paradoxical choice) to perform the naturalist novel Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola, who in the 19th century, tried to do away with the bourgeoisie light-entertainment theatre and to reform it by implementing strict naturalism.


Like many theatre reformers from the previous century, Baranovič tried to step away from the classical theatrical reception, which Barbara Orel (alongside directors Mile Korun, Jernej Lorenci, Bojan Jablanovec, and some of their productions that “violate” the regime and constitute new ways of reception in contemporary theatre) defines as »the castrated regime of camera obscura: a definition for the visual order of the black box theatre in which the audience (as observers within the camera obscura) is assigned to a seat in the dimmed theatre hall watching a performance unfold independent of them.«[6]


However, throughout the 20th century, the black box or, rather, its characteristics, which (as Johan Daenen points out) are manifested best in the expression “lijsttoneel” (the Dutch translation of the term black box, a direct translation of which is “theatre of (en)framing”), kept re-emerging in the theatre again and again (often emerging unpredictably by using the back door).


The dynamics of the processes of discontinuance and re-emergence are displayed below. The timeline demonstrates the dynamicity and, moreover, the restlessness and haste of the century, the constant desire for replacing the old with the new, the resultant insufficiency and instability of the new, and the continuous reliance on the old or new treatment of the old:


1875-1920 the critique of the black box

1920-1970 the concept of functional space (total theatre)

1950-1960 the highest point in the critique of the black box

1970-1980 the period of “real space” when theatre happened anywhere and out of everything

1980-2000 the return of the black box


IV. Mutations of the spatial machine of the theatre

As the above timeline confirms, it is more adequate to regard the sloughing off of the theatre and its spaces in the 20th century not through their relationship to the black box – real unframed space –  but through Juri Mikhailovic Lotman’s term “semiosphere” and the traversing of borderlines within the semiosphere. We thus see it as an animated, dynamic process of the theatre: a spatial machine characterized by parallel passages from real to formalized space, from frontal to circular and multi-centred space, from the eradication of the borderline between the stage and the auditorium to the constitution of it and the mobility of both fields, the traversing of one into the other, their exchangeability, the revolving stage, the mobility of the elements of the stage and auditorium.


The spatial machine and its mutations have constantly been (often unsuccessfully, but nevertheless) subject to theoretical examination. In his book Postdramatic Theatre, Hans Thies Lehmann speaks of the difference between the dramatic and post-dramatic and proposes a co-existence of various spaces:

-         the space of the proscenium

-         the mental space of the production

-         the space of dramatic action


The dramatic theatre favours the medium space, but the travelling space as well as the very “intimate space” [7] appear to pose a threat to it.  By contrast, the classic theatre space functions on the principal of reflection, conceived as a mirror, and consistently carrying out the “certainty of the borderline between the transmission and the reception of signs [8], for this Lehmann sets these two principles:


  1. the centripetal dynamic of space, for example, Grotowski’s reduction of distance –  between the actor and the audience, the stage and the auditorium –  constituting physical and psychological proximity;
  2. the centrifugal effectof a vast space, for example, the Berlin Olympia Stadium in Gruber’s Winterreise (Winter Journey).


Lehmann remarks that, on occasion, theatre radically blurs the borderline between real and fictive experience and, consequently, the function of space thus becomes metonymic instead of metaphoric. In the light of the metonymy or, rather, the contiguity, the scenic space may be viewed as the real element and as a continuation of the theatrical space. In a metonymically functioning space, the distance covered by an actor represents, first, a reference to the space of the theatre situation, thus referring to pars pro toto – the real space of the playing field – and a fortiori of the theatre and the whole surrounding space.”[9] In contrast to the metonymic character of the scenic space, the classical (metaphoric) dramatic space can be understood through this prism: »space here technically – and also mentally – functions as a window and a symbol, it is analogous to reality ‘in the back’«[10].


V. Spatial machines of Slovene (no longer-) theatre

Lehmann traces a unique change in the understanding of theatrical space: the transition to the “postdramatic aesthetic of space” in the early 1980s. This was a time when directors like Gruber, Stein, and Mnouchkine used different ways of staging big tableaux and re-examined the appearance of the stage. They abandoned the principle interaction with the audience which had been hailed by the activist period of the 60s and the 70s.[11] For Lehmann, the fundamental premise or signifier of this new understanding of the stage is the principle of the tableau, a playing field for space and the surface, scenic montage, a new relationship between time and space (temporal space), site specific theatre, and heterogeneous space.


Through Lehmann’s prism of dramatic/postdramatic, we are, nowadays, heirs to these transitions. Throughout the last decades, Slovene theatre and performance practices have persistently changed and mutated “the dynamic between the participants of a theatrical event”[12] and studied the relationship between the performers and the audience. Parallel to this, there has, of course, also been a corresponding change in the relationship between the stage and the auditorium.: from theatre-in-the-round to empty space to extreme proximity, to contact between the performers and the audience – for instance, in Lado Kralj’s production of Dane Zajc’s Potohodec (Pathwalker) (1972). Even prior to that, there was the intervention of the audience and in the audience in Marjan Rožanc’s  Topla greda (The Cold Frame)(1964), the Oder 57 production  which was violently interrupted by the audience in which two auto-poetic feedback loops (Fisher-Lichte)[13] coincided –  the first one which was planned by the creators and the second by politicians who faced an agitated exasperated audience that was interrupting the performance and literally taking on the part of the agents of the action. The scene thus altered from the space of representation into a real space of political conflict.


Another example of the reversal of roles in the audience-actors and auditorium-stage relation is Ljubiša Ristić’s production of Dušan Jovanović’s Igrajte tumor v glavi ali onesnaženje zraka (Act a Brain Tumor And  Air Pollution)[N1] , 1976) in SLG Celje Theatre. An even more apparent one occurred most vividly in the time of political theatre in the 1980s, in a series of productions at Slovensko Mladinsko Gledališče (Mladinsko Theatre) directed by Ristić in which he realized the majority of postulates of the avant-garde reformers:

-         Craig’s empty space, which can be modelled for each separate production so a new hall-scenography-set can be built for any type of drama;

-         Piscator’s and Gropius’ model of total theatre which is able to theatricalize the whole of possible relations between the stage and the auditorium;

-         Artaud’s lieu unique, a space with no borderlines, simultaneously the space of action which will be redeemed from the classics of the world’s dramatic literature.


In productions of Missa In A Minor (1980), Romeo and Juliet (1983), Leviathan (1985), and Resničnost (Reality) (1985), Ristić declared all the halls of Baraga’s seminary (designed by Jože Plečnik) as a utopian realization of the total theatre. He changed the halls into non-theatrical spaces, Craig’s empty spaces, which were modelled for each separate performance. These spaces were liberated from the conventions of theatricality and declared lieus uniques, spaces with no borderlines. In them, Ristić proposed his own postdramatic commentary on the grandeurs of dramatic literature (Shakespeare) and contemporary, non-dramatic script based on novels, short prose, documents, and other heterogeneous materials. Theatrical space, as an architectural entity, was replaced by a unified space without borderlines, which was persistently created by total theatre and inhabited by actors and the audience constantly generating unique relations.


The unfinished or non-theatrical spaces of the Mladinsko Theatre suited this artistic approach perfectly (Festivalna Dvorana Hall, the venue for social dancing; the Soča Cinema, today’s Mladinsko Upstairs Theatre, where the screening of films alternated with theatre shows for young people; and, finally, the vacated and rudimentary, non-renovated former warehouse of the bicycle factory Rog, nowadays the Mladinsko Downstairs). It seems to derive from the postulates famously summed up by Antoine Vitez at the opening of the unfinished Théâtre de Chaillot in 1875, “This theatre is unfinished architecture and that is good; what will give it the finishing touch is the performance and the direction.”[14]


The second half of the 1980s saw the work of the “new directors “of Mladinsko Theatre  and the evolving independent scene of the time. Tomaž Pandur, Janez Pipan, Vito Taufer, and Dragan Živadinov all referred to Ristić’s experimentations of liberated theatrical spaces (and, along with that, to the work of Mnouchkine, Brook, Stein, Wilson, Russian historical avant-garde, etc.). Živadinov readdressed and reinterpreted the (neo) avant-garde forms of total theatre in a series of “retro-gardist” events (such as Krst pod Triglavom, Hinkeman, Marija Nablocka, Fiat, Zenit, Kapital, Naseljena skulptura Noordung). Simultaneously, these productions constituted a subversive attack on the biggest black box in Slovenia: the stage of Gallus Hall in Cankarjev Dom.


In the 1990s, the concept of empty space as established by Craig and Brook was consistently developed by Meta Hočevar. Her productions of Dušan Jovanovič’s Antigone,  Uganka Korajže (The Puzzle of Courage), and, even more, her paraphrases of Ibsen’s Wild Duck and Mishima’s Hanjo, functioned as unique forms of the theatre of images which, like the work of Robert Wilson, derive from tableaux, but despite the conceptual “architectural” framework did not materialize in abstract and geometrical content, but, rather, in concrete content.  Hočevar defines it as follows: “The space is the proof for the story. [...] I believe the story because I believe the space. [...] The elementary systems of relations which define a theatrical performance [...] develop between the visual and the acoustic parts, between two poles that complement each other, contradict each other, illustrate, compromise, oppose, and correspond to one another.” [15] 


In the same period, directors of the third generation[16] brought the ultimate demolition of the borderline between the theatre and visual art, and drew nearer to the new understanding of performance art as an interdisciplinary art of the spectacle [17] that has derived from the tradition of the happenings of the artistic group OHO, Pupilija Ferkeverk, performance art Pekarna, the early stages of the Glej Theatre, and also, of course, the American and European theatrical and visual neo-avant-garde.


New mutations of theatrical spatial machines embodied different politics and strategies of performing arts. Bojan Jablanovec, for example, took to the exploration of the relationship between text and geometry, the visible as an illusion of the invisible. Marko Peljhan and Matjaž Berger drew from the samples of historical avant-gardes, the American Theatre of Images, and performance art and developed “open rhythmical-scenic structure that had complex sound/vocal/musical and visual textures”[18]. Emil Hrvatin established the genre of the performativity of theory [19] through detailed examination of time and space. Vlado Repnik investigated the non-synchronization of time and space and the sculptural usage of sonic materials and performers. Matjaž Pograjc theatricalized the relationship between the hyper-reality of the media simulacra and the physical, numb, body in an atmospheric or non-scenic space. The list goes on.


Throughout the last two decades, the tactics of landscape plays, visual dramaturgy, scenic essay, metonymic space, framing, scenic montage, aesthetics of speed, the quiestion of the aesthetic versus the real body, and intermediality (to enumerate the terminology of Hans-Thies Lehmann) took the Slovene (no longer-) theatre into heterogeneous spheres of contemporary performing arts at the point of intersection with various artistic mediums that have enriched the field of the theatre. The spatial machines of performing arts follow the principle of Badiou’s restlessness, embody new interpretations of the classical stage, and establish new variants of utopian concepts of the (neo) avant-garde such as empty space, total theatre, and lieu unique (let us only think of Dragan Živadinov and his concept of the theatre in zero gravity). At the same time (as Wilson and a sizable part of American theatrical avant-garde had done decades ago) the performing arts keep returning to the black box which is understood similarly as Lotman’s semiosphere, a dynamic space of transition and crossing of borderlines; It functions as a space of liveliness in which centripetal and centrifugal processes take place. If we return to Badiou[20], the century did not make a choice in this field, which is why we move, together with it, between beginning and ending, between the classical space and the empty space.  



[1] Patrice Pavis, Dictionary of the theatre, University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1998.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Patrice Pavis, »From Text to Performance«, in: Performing Texts, Univesity of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1999, pp. 86–100, p. 90.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Barbara Orel, »Izza očesne mrežnice. Konfiguracija percepcije v sodobnem slovenskem gledališču«, Sodobne scenske umetnosti, Bojana Kunst in Petra Pogorevc (ur.), Maska,  Ljubljana 2006, 358–374, p. 360.

[7] Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre, Routledge, London 2006, p. 193.

[8] Ibid. The sentence does not feature in the English translation. (translator's note)

[9] Ibid., p. 150.

[10] Ibid. The sentence does not feature in the English translation. (translator's note)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Orel, 2006.

[13] Lichte uses the term when studying the performative resversal in post 1960 theatre especially in her  book Ästhetik des Performativen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 2004 in the jounral Theater seit den 60er Jahren, Tübingen und Basel, Francke, 1998.

[14] Qouted after La lieu, la scène, la salle, la ville, Editions Théâtrales 11–12, Louvain 1997, p. 23.

[15] Meta Hočevar, Prostori igre, MGL, Knjižnica MGL št. 127, Ljubljana 1998, p. 12.

[16] Expression coined down by Eda Čufer, cf. »Tretja generacija«, Maska, vol. II, no. 3,1992, p. 45.

[17] Miško Šuvaković, »Negotovost ali point de capiton«, Maska, vol. VIII. no. 5–6, 1999, pp. 39–44.

[18] Johannes Birringer, »Enjoying Our Symptoms«, Maska, vol. IV, no. 1–2, 1994, pp. VI–X.

[19] Šuvaković, 1999.                                                                         

[20] Alain Badiou, The Century, Polity, Cambridge 2007.