Some of you may be familiar with theatre-in-the-round, which is a kind of performance space in which the stage is surrounded on all sides by the audience.
If you were from Ancient Greece, this sort of thing would be normal to you. But though we are well-accustomed to watching hockey in this way, for the contemporary audience this manner of presenting theatre may seem strange or off-putting. Maybe this is because theatre-in-the-round offers too many differing points of view. Or rather, it creates a lot of points of view that the individual theatregoer, in his individual seat, does not get to experience.
Most of our media, after all, is presented to us in one dimension and from one carefully-orchestrated perspective. There is usually, in a sense, a “correct” viewing experience. When you come to see a show at Theatre NorthWest, for example, every set piece, lighting effect, and movement is designed to be seen from the front of the stage – we have what is called a proscenium stage.
At our shows you don’t have to wonder what the guy on the other side of the stage is seeing and whether you’re missing out on some important detail. But a theatre-in-the-round performance has no front. No point of view is more “correct” than any other. At this point, you may be thinking I’m leading toward some kind of lesson in relativism, but bear with me. I’m really just trying to segue into an intriguing theatrical innovation I heard about the other day. For ease of discussion, I’ll call it mail-slot theatre.
No, mail-slot theatre is not some avant-garde theatrical genre you’ve never heard of. It’s a brand new approach to presenting live performances during a pandemic, pioneered by Japanese dance company Moonlight Mobile Theatre. If you pop that name into Google, you can see a short video of what I’m talking about, but basically this is theatre-in-the-round with an anti-social twist.
The company created a performance space surrounded by a circular wall composed of individual cubicles. Audience members sit in the cubicles, isolated from one another, and watch the performance in the centre of the circle through a mail-slot. While I’m not one to encourage peering through letterbox slots in general, I was struck by the simple ingenuity of this idea. Not only does it offer a safe way for people to watch a performance, it also presents a strange new kind of physical engagement with art.
Like the traditional theatre-in-the-round, this set-up fosters a multitude of perspectives. But what is especially novel here is that because of the size of the opening through which the audience watches, the audience not only cannot see each other, they also cannot view every aspect of the performance at one time. They must move their bodies in order to continually reframe the performance they are watching. In a limited way, they get to choose their own perspective from a set of options that shifts as dancers move around the centre of the circle. This is a feature of the design rather than a flaw. It could be avoided by substituting plexiglass for opaque walls with tiny slots. But this would make for a much less intimate and unique experience. The audience members would be seen– not only by the performers but by each other.
I think part of the allure of mail-slot theatre is the idea of seeing while remaining unseen. Isn’t this the position of the writer, who presents their observations, hidden behind their written voice or like the playwright, invisible behind actors playing out their text on a stage?
Here at Theatre NorthWest, we love hearing about different ways theatre is being made accessible around the world in spite of life’s limitations and obstacles.
For now I’ll leave you with some words from G.K. Chesterton: “art is limitation.”
The photographer knows that beauty is created through framing, in limiting what is seen. The stage director knows that what is not seen can mean as much as what is. And this writer knows that if he went on forever, no one would bother to read his Citizen column.