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The Realm of the Senses: Theatrical World-Building for Social Activation

Essay by

“The future of philosophy lies in architecture.”

— Madeline Gins

“You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.”

— Louise Bourgeois

 

Sometimes in theatre, particularly within the proscenium, theatremakers build environments to paw at bruised and insecure humanity like a self-entertaining feline.

What if we instead consciously built emergent ecosystems with the goal of creating a prismatic penetrable world, akin to what anthropologist Arturo Escobar would call a “pluriverse,” a world “where many worlds fit”?

As world-builders, we are now morally and socially obligated (dare I say: required) to radically dismantle live art design norms that imperil our spiritual and collective health. As performance-makers, we must release ourselves from the notion that we build entertainment. We must render and promote experiential environments that encourage and develop an interpersonal connection through inclusive interactivity, sensorial confluence, and responsive fellowship. (And it can be fun.)

Otherwise, we are just cats playing by our own devices.

As engineers of lived experience, how might we position and design theatre as an essential space for healing, pleasure, and connection through an intertwining and interdependent realm of the senses?

1. Position Theatre as a Salve to the Moment

Humans, as a collective species, are sick. Off-balance at best. But theatremakers have the opportunity to build healing environments.

Here is what we know about our collective well-being:

→ The climate is at a critical tipping point.

Humans, with increasing scale, are nature deficient. And in pursuit of gratification, dominance, and capital, humans have inherited the grief-stricken outcomes from ongoing violent atrocities on ecology. Disaster porn surrounds us, and humans have accumulated a profound “species loneliness” amidst the collapse. Divorced from nonhuman life and nonhuman systems, humans exist in a kind of solitary confinement on Earth. We are out of sync with naturally occurring mutualisms. Let us reattach our outcomes with broader systems beyond the human realm.

→ In the United States, our arts organizations and performance spaces are driven by capitalist market demands.

Audiences have shrunk. Or, alternatively: as a field, we have shrunk the audience, in that theatre companies and venues have too long made visible a narrow nexus of “relatable” stories, thus alienating theatre from maintaining pronounced cultural relevance and encouraging myopic and safe programming that suits the bottom line. Let us continue to decentralize our storytelling norms in organizational frameworks while shifting what spaces are “sanctioned” to hold which stories.

→ Healing and design are linked.

According to Evidence-Based Healthcare Design, facilities that prioritize psychologically supportive environments reduce patient anxiety, blood pressure, postoperative recovery time, use of pain medication, and length of stay. This means that the following elements generate positive health outcomes: a focus on natural light, increased color, crafted auditory experience, olfactory curation, access to nature, tactile and versatile materials, and spatial layout that encourages social engagement. Let us build environments that boost collective health.

→ Our young people are in crisis…

… and the schools in which they approach maturity claim to facilitate things like social-emotional learning over rigor, equitable learning environments, community engagement, and whole-child/student-centered project-based education. And yet... Standardized testing in the United States remains acceptable practice (though that might, at last, be shifting!) and we haven’t moved to implement national proficiency-based reporting instead of using grades as the standard measure of success. Let us model how holistic values inform on-the-ground practice.

Beyond this, school buildings are uninspired. Consider what might happen, though, if the government prioritized a broad renovation plan for our public school buildings, which tend to be long overdue for updates and often mirror the architecture of prisons: long hallways, closed doors, muted colors, small windows (or none at all), sterile seats, linear/hierarchical room arrangements. This is the social learning environment of origin for our most formative years. (Yikes!) Let us generate spaces that upend fixed notions of where and how learning will take place.

By using theatre’s practice of placemaking as a springboard, makers and leaders have the opportunity to recenter institutions, venues, and happenings as responsive, activated spaces for collective healing and empowerment.

→ Our elders are alienated.

Is it because we fear expiration, failure... irrelevance? American culture exalts youth, glamour, and genius but death comes for us all. If we are lucky, age and wisdom will, too. As the obsession with prolonging life (and the frenetic capitalist construct that supports it) rages on, the elephant in the room is that we don’t give our elders platforms or visibility, nor are we literate in how to frame the final moment of a life—for others, for ourselves. Let us make space for reflection and celebration of life and give well-traveled bodies and stories space to roam.

→ User experience dominates design.

We are in the age of embodied first-person perspective and immersion. Individuals want to matter. Apps and devices are structured to amplify that desired value. On a related note, inclusive design within technology and spaces has come a long way, yet society remains steeped in traditions that construct dominantly for two senses: sight and sound. Let us expand the entry points for empathetic encounters through tactile, multi-nodal, and mutable relationships within constructed experiences.

→ Immediacy is equated to power.

Notions of success are increasingly tied to results-driven data, brevity, bytes, and viral capacity. All this, and at a quick clip to boot. We have become habituated to this capital-centric pace associated with white-dominated culture. Yet, time unfolds in various scales: architecture is experienced through movement, music experienced in sequence, memory skips, and holds. Let us nurture the capacity for making, stretching, and cultivating space for time and impact.

By using theatre’s practice of placemaking as a springboard, makers and leaders have the opportunity to recenter institutions, venues, and happenings as responsive, activated spaces for collective healing and empowerment.

2. Design Theatre as a Pleasure-Informed Forum

Let us design for a social and sensitized body.

Let us design for the realm of the senses.

Let us design for unabashed liveness and heightened connection.

If not now, when?

Already, there are countless examples of methodologies used by artist collectives, organizers, architects, and designers, plus therapeutic and educational professionals, that generate powerful reverberations in their fields and in the audience they aim to stimulate toward vibrant relational engagement.

One could argue that the joy of working in theatre is not directly reflecting our world but, instead, in bending its perceived limits. The vibrancy of theatrical form relies on makers’ dedicated obsession to mixing elements of the known world and generating a superlative one that relates to and challenges real life. Utopia is what the making is after, either in the narratives we construct, or in the aftereffects of experiencing them.

As theatre practitioners, we are in the business of spiritual gathering: we stretch metaphors, spool speculations, and reach toward transcendence. We seek to extend the capacity for empathy in those who enter our worlds. If not this, then what are we contributing?

As an educator, my work requires me to be swift, adaptable, and generative with a wide array of learners. One methodology that I’ve found particularly helpful is that of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). As a means toward equity in the classroom, UDL broadens the scope of opportunity to engage with material and offers multiple access points and tactics to amplify an individual’s experience in a learning environment.

Now, what if theatremakers also utilized the structure of Universal Design for Learning in order to construct a theatrical environment in which immersive, sensorial, and restorative community-led practices were embedded with the intent to produce healing outcomes?

Instead of using alt-text to describe a song or how a trumpet sounds, make a trumpet that buzzes when held or blasts the scent of a joyous parade while bursting with confetti.

3. Design for a Sense of Connection

Community organizers, activists, and executive trainers will all tell you: the power of why is what gets people in the room. How do you get to why? Your emotional map. How individuals value objects, people, and experience arises from this generative, sometimes narrative, domain.

Designers must work to recruit audience interest, sustain effort, and encourage self-regulation through multisensory and inclusive-design-centered experiences that welcome diverse entry points and provoke emotionally resonant encounters.

→ Consider participants’ first impression first.

Design Justice encourages designers to integrate community by asking what a community needs and involving community in the process, thus holding makers and the work accountable. Theatre can no longer be a tourist destination. It must emerge from the needs of a community. What might remain familiar to theatre participants and what might nudge them toward the unexpected?

→ Offer multiple modes of entry.

Designers must optimize choice in the type of challenges, rewards, and sequences informed by participant needs and interests. Design for connection to the theatrical work’s intent while heightening the sense of the participants’ influence. Embed choice within the context of the larger group. No participant exists in a vacuum. Maximize choice, minimize threats, amplify care, and foster collaboration.

→ Activate spatial and relational exploration.

How might the environment and participation of audience members increase awareness, physically and emotionally, to heighten compassion and collective meaning-making?

A grey-colored person looking off to the left with colorful flowers bursting from their head.

An illustration by Wriply M. Bennet inspired by the essay.

4. Design for a Sense of Synesthesia

It’s all about the approach to the content. What are audience participants learning and how is it presented? How might theatremakers shift design processes and participant experiences to account for creator standpoint (culture, experience, and learning) and affordance perception (how a participant can “read” the interaction/interface) while adjusting design to integrate a more responsively dynamic lexicon of symbols and references?

A confluence of the senses challenges set notions of order and expectation. This in turn has the power to provoke knowledge originating from the body rather than isolated reason. It reformats notions that might otherwise remain fixed. A new way of sensemaking via tactile, polyphonic, prismatic synesthesia has the potential to produce cross-generational, cross-ability, and cross-cultural understandings extending beyond the analytical.

→ Reduce the retrofit.

Rather than first creating an experience for dominant sensorial structures and then secondly tacking on accessibility options, designers can design with integration in mind, expanding the possibilities of objects and environments to encompass multiple nodes of understanding. Instead of using alt-text to describe a song or how a trumpet sounds, make a trumpet that buzzes when held or blasts the scent of a joyous parade while bursting with confetti. Does the trumpet call out a song of heartbreak? Make the instrument out of glass or ice: it glistens, it weeps, and it begs to be held with care.

→ Consider circus, protest, and the club.

Circus offers a longstanding model of resilience mixed with broad appeal. Meanwhile, circus profoundly commits, sometimes gratuitously, to phantasmagoric beauty and awe. As a social performative form, it actively mitigates various audience expectations as touring enterprises, responding to the needs or interests of its current locale. It’s an imperfect history, certainly, but when we look at forms of theatre that straddle the seemingly divergent spaces of spectacle and social commentary, it has clout in subversive performance models.

Might this form hold the key to activating critical social change? With its components, how not? A confluence of senses, core scintillation, magic, and the promise of the impossible finally realized—and, yes, pleasure too—can be made center in theatre’s function as a transformative (political) space. How might theatremakers spark erotic and safe connection to ideas, the earth, and one another? Humans are sensual beings. We must elevate this core. We act in service to that which we love (or fear).

→ Maximize materiality.

Designing for the bodily experience has the power to launch an audience into unexpected contexts and interconnectivity. According to designer Bruce Mau, “Texture is the third dimension of the surface; the interface between body and object speaks the language of feeling.... Texture is the element of micro-design that tells the user, ‘I care about your feelings.’”

So, how might designers texturize narratives in order to deepen the architecture of moments? How might we invert the materiality of the world to increase engagement and subvert expectations? Consider shape, compliance, weight, temperature, buoyancy, light temperature, color... How might we spring to action, flick away heat, press through questions, orchestrate narrative, eat ideas?

How might a map of healing be generated in the here and now, and how might theatremakers prioritize engagement, face-to-face acknowledgement, and on-the-feet collectivity, as well as dismantle the fear of missing out?

5. Design for a Sense of Social-Emotional Impact

How humans learn and integrate complexity is directly tied to our imaginations and social body. How might the theatrical space manifest opportunities for physical playfulness, responsive networks, bold interdependence, and communication between participants?

→ Make way for play, the primary language.

Children’s theatre, and some puppetry and object theatre, already run free with serious play. It’s a matter of course because the audience requires it for sense to be made. Yet games, sports, escape rooms, puzzles, and fantasy dominate our adult dreamscape, too. Not to be underestimated: soccer, as a language, is considered by many to be, ultimately, the most universal language on the planet working as a communication bridge across culture and nations. Activate the body and the heart follows.

→ Enmesh decision-making with sensorial experience.

Consider how human perception shifts when we are activated sensorially. In fact, we make decisions based on what we are experiencing: Scent draws us closer, repels us, evokes desire. Reverberations roil our stability or enliven lust. A warm cup in hand elicits feelings of understanding. A cold glass causes carefulness. Smell is the sense we have the most trouble recalling, yet it is more directly linked to long-term memory, particularly emotional memory. The senses are on our side and they cast spells.

→ Prioritize presence.

Theatre is ritual, ceremony, parade, spectacle, documentary, protest, conversation, contract, and medicine in concert with the world and an invitation for its visitor participants. How might a map of healing be generated in the here and now, and how might theatremakers prioritize engagement, face-to-face acknowledgement, and on-the-feet collectivity, as well as dismantle the fear of missing out? What if audience-participants felt they were exactly where they needed to be: with fellow humans in fellowship and with the built environment? Let us draw toward one another in communion. Otherwise, what are we here for?

Invite the Kitchen Sink

Let us imagine what this sensory-focused theatre could look like. Picture yourself in the room. The ceiling slants to a constricted corner. The remnants of a kitchen. Two chairs. One human. And you. The performer slices pepper-sharp onions, lamenting the dissolution of a relationship. The performer asks you what is to be done. Eyes prickling in discomfort, your fingers graze the tablecloth, embroidered hilltops and flowers sewn by an ancient and more patient hand. Its ridges comfort your whirled loss for words, its holes remind you of—

The seat suddenly creaks and the bully kid who lives next door shouts an obscenity.

Why is the world so hard? A door slams elsewhere, rattling the pots on the wall. The faucet drips color. The news is on in an adjacent room—just another litany of cruelty. Flicker, flicker. Flies. Mold. Perfume? Paint and wallpaper peeling, revealing a previous notion of home. Will you pull it further? A cat purrs on your lap. A neighbor bakes a cake. A love letter, long lost, sails through the window. Thud.

Perhaps then you feel the tears. Everywhere, dripping, viscous. An abundance of tears. Jars of tears, bottled up and catalogued, awaiting you to uncork or break them, divulging vicious secrets in copious, unrelenting whispers. Let it puncture you. Perhaps you drink those sticky hot tears... and they taste like kisses, like regret, like joy, like longing. Beneath the window a parade rumbles by. Will you join it? Which relationship will you choose: the kitchen or the parade? What message will you leave? What might you carry forward? Everything is possible in the realm of the senses. Come.

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It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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