It might seem that without language it is hard to formulate a specific argument on a social or political topic, like climate change or global inequality. Yet pressing issues can be expressed through visuals just as eloquently as through words. Where language offers a degree of certainty to an issue, images are less defined and more open-ended: they allow theatremakers to formulate meaning that might be difficult to express verbally and allow audiences to formulate their own interpretations. An example of this is Holoscenes, an underwater performance installation I have been collaborating on over the last eight years with director and visual artist Lars Jan. In Holoscenes, performers execute mundane activities in a giant aquarium, adapting to repeatedly changing water levels—a powerful visual metaphor that connects individual everyday behaviors to long-term societal patterns driving global warming.
Learning Visual Literacy and Expression
I share my approach to visual storytelling in practical workshops, where I introduce participants to the basic concepts and strategies of visual dramaturgy, visual literacy, and visual expression. In these workshops I explore the dramaturgy of basic theatrical components—space, props, and costumes—and I stress that design is about making meaning, not just designing set, objects, and clothing for performance.
Last year, for example, I gave such a workshop at the CrossCurrents Gathering in Washington, DC—a meeting dedicated to the intersection of performance and politics—where we investigated how visual dramaturgy can play a central role in theatre with a social message. I emphasized the universality of the visual language, which was of particular relevance for this diverse community of workshop attendees who regularly perform in front of audiences who do not necessarily speak their native language. When ideas are expressed in another language, the intended meanings often get lost in translation. Visual language, however, is universal—it does not require translation and it transcends cultural barriers.
Visual language, however, is universal—it does not require translation and it transcends cultural barriers.
Using visuals to create meaning requires the understanding of a different theatrical language, so the first step for any creator is to develop visual literacy—the ability to read and comprehend visuals. This concept can be grasped through stimulating object exercises, which explore how the manipulation, creation, destruction, and rebuilding of objects can be used to express thoughts, concepts, and feelings. In my workshops I often place a table full of found domestic items in the center of the space. Appearing to be a worthless collection of unrelated junk, these objects are carefully selected to evoke a rich variety of responses and opportunities for storytelling. I start by asking participants to choose objects that express a particular theme or issue; at the CrossCurrents Gathering workshop we focused on climate change and inequality.
In a number of layered and increasingly more complex activities, each built upon the previous one, I guide the artists through a series of techniques to develop a new, expressive, and narrative life for these objects. In the first exercise, individuals are asked to use the object they select to come up with a set of solutions to the issue being explored. Questions to ask include: What narrative can this object deliver? What does the object evoke or suggest? How can it be used to construct a character?
I challenge the artists to visualize and manipulate the objects in their imaginations in order to immerse themselves in visual imagery and define an object’s emotional, sensorial, and spatial qualities. Through these explorations, concepts for characters and spaces begin to develop.
Another exciting object activity, which helps artists understand how the internal potential residing within objects can promote creative thinking and communicate meaning, involves conveying a character’s transformation through the act of breaking and then reassembling the object. The artists can decide how to destroy their objects and put them back together. Most of them usually enjoy the opportunity to creatively destroy an object using whatever is at hand—hammers, heavy objects, furniture, or even their own shoes—but I often see people express a great deal of sadness when they see the broken objects they had begun to feel connected to.