The Director in Fight with Space (a l’italienne Stage and the Search of the New Staging Shape)


Using the examples of theatrical practice of the last half a century, I would like to show the issue of the relations between the architecture and the drama. Additionally I would like to prove the thesis that the new drama, the changes in acting art as well as the born and development of theatre theory have produced the changes in theatre architecture, driven the directors out of the stage into the space of the audience at first and later into the space of the whole theatre building. The directors, actors and theatre experts have forced on architects a new way of thinking about the shape of staging space and a shape of the theatre space on the whole.

Pavis’ dictionary acknowledges 11 definitions of the word ‘space’. Anne Ubersfeld’s classical typology will be the best for my considerations as they are regarding something that she describes as espace scenique (a real space for acting), lieu scenque and lieu theatral – architectural space (literal meaning of it) of the given theatre building.

Fifty years ago we had 57 drama stages in Poland. They were mostly old buildings, renovated or rebuilt with only four of them built after The Second World War. They all were classical Italian stages and the new ones were built in the same way. The first buildings with a different performance hall shape were built in the seventies. Teatr Narodowy opened in 1996 was the first theatre building that was essentially classical, but the space was fully adaptable to reshaping. All those popular in Poland ‘small stages’ operating next to the main theatre stages, initiated by the theatres on very economical basis, adopted the spaces of the hallways, smoking rooms or painting rooms. That is how the most renowned ones were created: Rehearsal Hall of Teatr Dramatyczny (1957) and Ateneum 61 (1960), where the most important premieres took place (after the war). Obviously I mean Chairs by Ionesco and Two on the Bench by Gibson.

The former Rehearsal Hall with a little stage without any elevation, as wide as the audience and with no wings, was suppose to be an experimental stage (as Puzyna wrote), where the actors who were free at the time could have tried new forms and means of expression. Fundamentally it was experimental; the stage was changing the shape and the placing, it was moving to the side wall, in to the middle, the audience was sitting around it on the landings, on both sides of the stage. Ateneum 61 was also experiencing reshaping numerous times. Even though the name of the theatre did not suggest an experimental character, the repertoire there was more consequent than in Dramatyczny – Genet, Mrożek, Pinter, Ionesco, but also Herbert and Kołakowski. They all gained huge popularity.

Nevertheless Kafka and Ionesco, and most of all Beckett were performed on the ‘normal’ stages. The most well known Godot was performed in Współczesny Theatre (a small cramped box). Could that intimacy be the reason of the performance success and the later performance: Tango by Mrożek success? Every new premiere evidently showed the need to leave this box. First and second avant-gardes as well as the dramas of Angry Young Men became the basis of the actors work in studio theatres (as they were called then). The change also influenced present situation where the ‘face to face’ confrontation of the actors and the viewers is a less common event.

The studio theatres experiment encouraged directors to act radically even on the big stages. The actions have two directions. The first one concentrates on the audience, the viewers, I would call it ‘teasing the audience’. The spectacle, the performed reality is no longer a picture viewed comfortably from the seat. The viewers suppose to be active; they suppose to participate in the performance; in the most extreme version – they suppose to co-create the performance. To give an example: the actor mingling among the audience, the actors performing in the various spaces of the whole theatre hall activate the viewers (they consciously have to choose where they look).

The second reason for the space experiments: in the middle of the fifties, Stanisławski and the theory of the forth wall as ruling doctrine are no more at power. The actor was suppose to become ‘fully dimensional’, the actor can perform with the back, with the side, standing on the head, the situations do not have to be ‘true’ and scenography is no longer a depiction of reality but it suppose to create the circumstances for acting. Therefore the scenography expands upwards, downwards and most importantly outside the stage. There comes the time, which in Poland after the war was called: directors’ epoch. It is the director who builds the performance and does it with growing independence from the text. If in her staging vision the classical box is an obstacle, he has two solutions: either adopt the box or go outside of it. Both solutions were used in various variants. Bearing in mind the intentions of directors as well as their reasons for utilising certain variants, I made an attempt to classify them.

A catalogue of utilised space solutions:

  1. Changes of place – the actors perform on the audience, the viewers are on the stage.

  2. Actors among the viewers:

  • The character performed by the actor is one of us

  • Alienation of one of the actors from the acting space

  • Intriguing the viewers by the viewer-actor

  1. The performance in other rooms of the theatre

  • Variable space (viewers follow the actors)

  • Invariable space

  1. Viewers perform among the actors

  • Consciously

  • Unconsciously

  1. The viewers circle the actors

  2. The experiments with space (both on stage and at the audience)

  3. The design of the audience enters the stage to underline world’s unity.


Let us now find the reasons for the above-mentioned ‘theatrical tricks’. Obviously, they are:

    • A search of new formula (without the fourth wall, the demolishing of illusion);

    • A search of new space, new relationship with the viewers;

Or finally:

      • The rejection of the classical theatre convention, a search of neutral places, which are not associated with theatrical tradition.


  • Jerzy Jarocki in Sen o Bezgrzesznej [Dreaming of Immaculate Nation] underlined the polyphony of the text by creating a spectacle consisting of numerous sequences performed in various spaces for different groups of the viewers. In the last part, where everyone was watching the same act in one place – everyone had different experience therefore different lenses.

  • Paweł Passini in Śpiewnik Chazarski [Khazars’ Song-Book], the latest premiere of the theatre in Opole, used a similar method: the viewers divided into few groups were walking through the rooms of the theatre and watching different parts of the spectacle.

  • In The Canterbury Tales rbury Tales by Chaucer, the pilgrimage literally w a l k e d, walked endlessly around the viewers on the stage that circled around the viewers.

  • In Matce Joannie od aniołów [The Mother Joan of the Angels], the performance was happening in the monastery, in a tavern, but most of the time on the road; we were peeking from behind the fences spread along the road.

What could be another reason for such actions? A new way of acting (mainly derived from the film acting, but also changing due to the TV influence), that demands different reception; sweaty Cybulski hurling across the stage and forgetting the text affects the audience differently while being one meter away and differently when he was further away on the stage. The rector of the theatre school once summarised this kind of acting: ‘they speak, the way I speak in a café’. The acting that would perfectly fit in a one level theatre hall, in a close contact, but it will not cross the ramp. This kind of acting is predominant at the moment.

But we have to remember that the change of space, the change of space relations between actor and the viewer also forces the change of acting directions. For example, in The Beauty Queen of Leenane actresses perform facing each other only, with no physical contact along the stage, therefore they always are with their side towards the spectators. On en ronde stage an actor has to remember that he is always watched, in every situation, from every side therefore he has to act ‘around’. Placing an actor in the middle of the audience, encircling the actor from every side results in him becoming multidimensional. The actor is no longer posing in the beautiful picture for the audience peeping through a stage hole onto a long distance, and that is what concentrates and dynamises his performance.

Up until now I was talking about the reasons and goals standing behind the resignation from the box stage. Now I would like to go back to my first thesis: the shape of the theatre determined the shape of the drama. With some modifications, it is still valid even today. The theatre hall, its shape, its space determines (or inspires) the choice of drama – from enormous choice of various poetics and conventions. For example, the practise of Mała Scena [Small Stage] in Opole or Ateneum 61 proved that those theatres were not appropriate for Aycbourn’s or Cooney’s farces though they were perfect from psychological drama, especially the heavy modern drama or brutalits’ drama (Mała Scena in Opole) or the most contemporary, avant-garde drama (Ateneum 61).

I presented directors’ practices that broke the traditional theatre, where the viewers and actors are on two opposite sides of the stage window, divided by the ramp or the curtain, I tried to present the reasons for such actions and their goals. At the end, I would like to look at one more aspect of this issue: the above mentioned ‘ stage window’. I believe this term is crucial in understanding various directors’ experiments with building the relationship between both sides of the spectacle. We are thinking here about the stage window but also about the stage frame, the stage portal. The frame surrounds both the picture and the window. One looks through the window (actively) but one looks at the picture (passively). We know though that the stage opening – to use a neutral term – is an enlarged middle entrance of the scaenae frons, as the word ‘portal’ (la porte – French for door) denotes. We enter/exit through the door: the interior, the performed world.

In some of the presented examples, the viewers entered this world. In the majority of them though, the world came out to them. This is the latest tendency. At the beginning of twenty first century we have 150 drama stages, where 60 of them are classical big stages, almost 30 – similarly classical small stages, but over 50 – stages with free possibilities to arrange the space and variable number of sits (from 30 to 100). The later are usually called ‘margin’, ‘studio’, ‘painting room stage’, or ‘foyer stage’, sometimes there are ‘at the backstage’ or ‘at the attic’. Other rooms of the theatre are also used for the field of performance (to mention the famous tunnel under Wierzbowa) or – which is more common – the spectators are seated together with the actors on the stage. In a moment the spectacle will leave the stage and enters the spaces essentially devoted to completely other activities.

Finally, I would like to add one more notice: it is not an invention of the twentieth century, there were such ideas, both in theory and in practise, before: in Poland before the war, in the twenties. To mention some of them: Feliks Krasowski and his incremental stage; Iwo Gali with the white wall and theatre; Andrzej Pronaszko and Szymon Syrkus with their simultaneous theatre or Andrzej Pronaszko and Stefan Bryła with the theory of the mobile theatre; and in practice: Solska Studio in Żoliborz (a district in Warsaw) with the changeable stage laid out from the platforms among the spectators.

The need of theatre standing behind the changes in stage arrangements is clear. The director did not want to conform her staging vision to the given space. She was looking for her own space, unmarked with anyone’s imprint that allowed her own way of communication with the audience. Nevertheless, she remained within the theatre building. The new generation will exit the building.


Magdalena Raszewska

(Traslated by Anna Kędziorek)


Ph.D. Magdalena Raszewska – theatre historian, professor at Warsaw’s Fine Arts Academia (Media Art and Scenography Department). She cooperates with Zelwerowicz’s Theatre Academy in Warsaw and Polish Academy of Sciences. She is an author of the monographes Teatr Narodowy 1949-2004 (The National Theatre 1949-2004), 30xWST. Warszawskie Spotkania Teatralne 1965-2010 (30xWST. Warsaw Theatre Meetings 1965-2010). Recently, she is working on the book discussing contemporary theatre space.




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