Not Just a Chair

Considering Design Choices

It is often useful to use the chair as an example because it perfectly encapsulates many of the concepts and ideas we struggle with in theatre. This article is not alone in this usage as it is often used as an entry into theatrical thinking. For the purpose of this piece, the chair will remain the central figure. It is easy to say that a chair is necessary, and it could be argued that this is as far as one’s thinking needs to go. However, let us take a moment and consider what it means to put a chair into a charged space such as the theatre. In this circumstance, nothing is simply what it is. A chair is used, or left unused, in a different manner than in real life. Its usage and the way an audience reads it, interprets it, and experiences its usage is far from simple. This piece is in no way meant to be proscriptive, but rather an invitation to have a little fun.

Assuming we admit the presence of the chair, we must now deal with its existence. Is it merely for sitting? Is it used as a point of power by achieving height over others? Is it a symbol of luxury to sit upon a chair while others must stand or crouch on the rude ground?

Before we even get to how an actor utilizes the chair, we have the perception of the audience. The show has yet to start, but they have already started their duty. Analyzing the information they have, they are reading it like any information system intended for their consumption. What is this object, how do I relate to it, and how will others relate to it? How might the actors relate to it? These are some questions that enter into one’s mind while waiting for a performance and the only information available is a chair. Another flurry of mental activity is the fact that once there is a chair to study, the audience does not only think of that particular chair, but also their memories—the type of chair, their ideas of what a chair means to them, or perhaps their favorite chair. All of this occurs before the audience views the performance to contextualize what the chair could or should mean to them. Intentionally or unintentionally, those first thoughts the audience has are carried into the performance with them, a cause for discernment unto itself.

The simple placement of the chair can speak volumes to an audience member, embodying the knowledge of the given context of the story we are being told. There it lays, on its side in the corner of the performative area, almost an afterthought in its usage. What does this predict? Surely someone will right it, rescue this cast-off thing and restore its dignified utility: to be used, to be sat upon. An oasis in an otherwise chair-less world.

A chair on a set
This chair seems out of place, as if it were left here. Or is it intended to be, so that the seated may view the wall, but to what purpose? Besides an interesting composition, this chair affords a host of information and questions. Photo by Jon Gillies.

No one would question that there is the occasional need to put a chair on stage. How we make the choice of what chair we are using, how it will be used, and what the chair itself means is not easily glanced over. A chair means many things. The low hanging fruit of the conversation is that there is now something to sit on, lean against, etc. What we are also offering is an island in an otherwise empty space (if the only object in the space is a chair). Because the chair exists in the space it must be used, or we have a different sort of performance with the avoidance of the chair, or the seeming ignorance of the possibility of the chair. The chair could be a piece of rubble or discarded trash, which also casts a different sort of context.

Assuming we admit the presence of the chair, we must now deal with its existence. Is it merely for sitting? Is it used as a point of power by achieving height over others? Is it a symbol of luxury to sit upon a chair while others must stand or crouch on the rude ground? Will it emphasize the affluence of those that possess a device made solely for them to sit upon? In this world there are only the options of being a chair, or a flat common space. Does this chair resemble the platform, which provides levels in an otherwise flat world? The chair/platform has some advantages over a platform in that it is easily movable and can be used in ways a platform never dreamed of. The one disadvantage is that a chair is a very small platform, and getting three or more people standing on it would be a performance all of its own—the lazzi of the chair.

Perhaps this chair/object does not simply demarcate status as previously suggested. Perhaps it is a much more performative object. Imagine one character’s back is turned while the chair becomes a rapier thrust upon them to bring about their undoing. Perhaps the chair is a club instead, signaling that brute force can be manipulated to bring about an exerted force from one to another. The reverse may also be true. At the height of confrontation, the bullied woman turns to the one life line offered to her, and the lowly chair becomes the shield that is required, the legs now pinions to avoid violence.

Once we start digging into the possibilities that bringing a single chair on stage presents to us, it is hard to find the end. What has been presented here is not an exhaustive list, and I am certain that you have devised your own ideas on what a chair could mean. Take a moment to contemplate how an object becomes performative by delivering it into a performative environment, which can lead to new possibilities. If we take our thinking beyond the simple choices for a fun way to pass the afternoon, we deepen our thinking and our choices. 

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James -- I loved reading this essay, a great reminder of how thoughtful and detailed a seemingly simple artistic decision/choice can be and all its many implications. It matters. Thanks for taking the time to articulate the process.

Design choices are some of the most important aspects of a play. Even more so than the words. As a student, I have taken a myriad of classes, all that have to do with every aspect of theatre. A set design that is done well sets the whole tone for the show. As mentioned in the article, if a chair is in the correct spot, it can be used for anything. To state the obvious, it can be sat in, or it can be thrown at a wall in a moment of rage. The less there is on stage, the more significant each object will be.

I cannot agree more that minimalism is difficult, as each small choice takes on much more significance. There is nowhere for your choices to hide, and each must be carefully considered. I would, however, advise against creating a hierarchy of importance, as the performance is what every collaborator works toward, each with our role to play. It is certainly true that often the first thing the audience experiences is the space in which the performance takes place, and it does carry weight, as you say. Thanks for you thoughts!