Actions Speak Louder than Words
The Growing Place of Visual Theater
What is theatre? This is big question, one many of us have spent time pondering and your answer likely depends, at least partially, on where you are. Where you are in your career, where you are emotionally, and where you are geographically. I have found myself questioning what theatre is on many occasions, including when I encountered my first piece of visual theatre. The piece was not a traditionally scripted play, in fact there was no dialogue at all. The performance was movement-based but lacked the technique that I associated with dance. And while some visual theatre pieces feature complex stories, this performance pieced together a series of vaguely related vignettes. I was fascinated by the idea of visual theatre after first seeing Quest Visual Theater perform Mosaic at The American Alliance for Theatre and Education Conference in 2006. I left the performance intrigued by the piece and the company who had created it.
My definition of visual theatre has evolved quite bit since that first encounter. Movement is the central organizing principle in visual theatre as performers communicate information, relationships, and emotions primarily using their bodies incorporating traditional mime, sign language, gesture, or the circus arts. Some visual theatre pieces include puppetry and masks. Visual theatre is not necessarily silent or nonverbal, it may contain spoken word, music, or other sound. It may also contain multimedia elements such as video or projections. However, the essential meaning of any visual theatre piece transpires through its visual vernacular and the use of movement. This type of physical theatre exists at the intersection of the performing arts. It draws on traditions that are universal and blends techniques, styles, and themes across a spectrum of theatre, movement, and gestural art.
A few years after my introduction to visual theatre I found myself working with Quest Visual Theatre Company as the education assistant for their biannual international visual theatre festival Questfest. This provided me the opportunity to see visual theatre performances from all over the world and to take a number of master classes as well. I saw visual theatre performances featuring deaf actors from Hong Kong, a one-man show by a Singaporean performer, a piece by well-known Romanian artists, and met visual theatre performers visiting from Iran. I came to know visual theatre in the United States as a type of theatre serving the deaf community, but at Questfest I encountered several companies who were primarily serving hearing audiences. Around the same time I also had the opportunity to see a piece called The Voice of Anne Frank by Miřenka Čechová on a university sponsored trip to Prague. To this day, I vividly recall the performance and regard it as one of the most incredible pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Visual theatre seemed to be something that was primarily happening abroad, leaving me to question how visual theatre fit into the theatrical landscape of the United States.
A little over three years ago, shortly after beginning graduate school at University of Texas at Austin, I encountered the work of Patch Theatre Company, which further enlarged and heightened my definition and experience of theatre. Patch Theatre Company (Patch) of Adelaide, South Australia, was founded in 1972. Patch creates visual theatre performances designed for four to eight-year-olds and their families. Over the past forty years, it has presented more than a hundred visual theatre performances serving more than 1.6 million audience members. Patch’s performances tour throughout Australia and all over the world. Their work came to my attention as I was gathering sources for an annotated bibliography on theatre for the very young. I was intrigued by the possibilities visual theatr held for the very young. Part of the beauty behind visual theatre is its ability to transcend language barriers. I was excited to begin experimenting with how visual theatre could engage very young audiences who possess limited verbal communication skills.
My first venture into theatre for the very young (TVY) was a piece called HANDS that was part of the 2011 Cohen New Works Festival presented by the University Co-op at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). HANDS was a piece of visual theatre designed for children under the age of three. During the development of HANDS my research into TVY brought to my attention a number of companies using visual theatre as a way of engaging very young audiences. While finding new companies experimenting with visual theatre for young audiences, Patch stood out for their history of success in creating new work.
The open narratives created by visual theatre allow for meaning-making by the intended age group of four to eight-year-olds who Brown believes are in a prime age of imagination and possibility.|
In 2012 I met Patch Theatre’s Artistic Director Dave Brown, which eventually led to the opportunity to visit Adelaide, Australia, to observe the development process for one of Patch’s pieces. According to their website, Patch’s goal is to “keep the artist alive in every child,” playing off Pablo Picasso’s famous quote, “Every child is an artist; the challenge is to keep them so.” Patch’s use of visual theatre allows them to create “open narratives,” visual theatre pieces that are open to interpretation, which are often devised using a limited palette of objects allowing the pieces to be “elegantly simple,” The open narratives created by visual theatre allow for meaning-making by the intended age group of four to eight-year-olds who Brown believes are in a prime age of imagination and possibility.
While in Adelaide I was fascinated by the development process Patch undertook in creating their visual theatre pieces. I came to learn that their process begins with a “germinal idea,” or central organizing thought, as well as a set of objects or images. Patch develops their visual theatre pieces over four sessions spread out across an eighteen to twenty-four month period. In these sessions the artists explore and devise short two to four minute segments that begin to be pieced together and refined in the final two phases of development. My trip to Adelaide served as a precursor to a visual theatre collaboration that would take place at UT Austin later that year.
The Balloon Project invited UT Austin student-artists to engage in a visual theatre development process that blurs the traditional roles of theatre-making through engaging in open exploration and play. The week-long process for The Balloon Project provided many of the student-artists and audience members their first exposure to visual theatre. One of the performers shared in a company blog entry, “On the first day of The Balloon Project. I had no idea what we were doing. As the day went on, I realized that there was a method to Dave’s ‘madness.’ This project is very unique to anything I have done before. I’ve learned that there is ultimately no limit to what you can portray…” This comment highlights how exposure to visual theatre began to shift the understanding of what theatre could be for those who took part in UT Austin’s exchange with Patch.
I would later see similar responses to visual theatre in Singapore, where I traveled this past summer on TYA/USA’s Ann Shaw Fellowship. While visual theatre has a stronger presence in Eastern theatre tradition, verbally based theatre is still the most common form of theatre for young audiences. As I observed the development of mOOn ballOOn, a piece being developed by Dave Brown and The Esplanade Theatre in a collaboration similar to The Balloon Project, I saw that the previous work being produced as part of The Esplanade’s “Playtime Series” for preschoolers was all highly verbal. Similar to the student-artists in the United States, visual theatre is different from the usual work of the artists collaborating on mOOn ballOOn. Of the two performers, one typically appears in traditional theatre performances, while the other mainly identifies as a puppeteer. The local director for mOOn ballOOn had previously directed several performances in the “Playtime Series,” all of which have been highly verbal. As I observed mOOn ballOOn rehearsals over a two-week period, I noticed the performers gaining increasing comfort with visual theatre similar to the shift I saw in the student-artists who worked on The Balloon Project.
Working with Quest, Patch, The University of Texas at Austin, and other companies I learned that scripting elaborate prose was not the only way to create theatre. Although I first came to know visual theatre in the United States as a type of theatre serving the deaf community, being exposed to international theatre made me aware that this type of theatre was far more prominent abroad. As my understanding of what Europeans considered theatre was enlarged, my own definition of theatre expanded and I began to recognize that the US definition of theatre I grew up with was somewhat limiting. In fact, discovering TVY drastically shifted my artistic process with visual theatre serving as my primary mode for the creation of new work. When aiming to serve an audience that has a limited capacity for spoken language, highly visual means of storytelling prove practical and powerful vehicles for both entertainment and meaning-making.
And it turns out I am not alone in this feeling. Over the past five years TVY has become increasingly prominent in the United States. Companies large and small are beginning to experiment with presenting and producing work for very young audiences. Several US theatres including Imagination Stage, Alliance Theatre, and Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis have all begun creating and producing visual theatre among their work for the very young. Additionally, in 2010 the United States’ first company focusing on theatre for the very young, Arts on Horizon, was founded as a visual theatre company creating work for children 0-6. This leaves me to ponder a different question: what might visual theatre offer mainstream US audiences? How can visual theatre serve audiences whose capabilities for spoken language are developed? And finally will visual theatre continue to grow in prominence as part of the US theatrical landscape?