Traditionally communication in theatre is understood as verbal. In this light, theatre is interpreted as dramatization of literature: a ‘translation’ of written words into spoken words aided by gestures, sound, lighting, costumes and set. This approach might prioritise comprehensibility as the most valuable attribute of a performance and verbal language as the most important and effective medium of communication.
But this is only one of many approaches. There are a multitude of examples of theatre practitioners and companies who reject the idea of a hierarchical structure and employ the text simply as one of many elements of the scenic creation, rather than its main component. This non-hierarchical approach is less preoccupied with remaining true to a text and delivering a message through conventional narrative devices and structures.
This reaction to the dominance of the written text is not a novelty. It’s not a unique feature limited to contemporary theatre practices and 20th century avant-gardes. The relationship between words, gestures and images and their relevance on stage were topics of discussion amongst theatre makers many centuries ago. One of the most famous actors of Commedia dell’Arte, Flaminio Scala (1552-1624), believed that emotions are more easily triggered by actions than words because ‘senses are more easily moved by senses than by abstract concepts or words’ (Scala, 1619). In this passage Scala utilises the Italian word sensi to refer simultaneously to sensations in the body and the emotions associated with them [Italian version: “…perché i sensi da’ sensi più agevolmente vengon mossi che dalle cose che sono in astratto”.]. Seasoned actor and capocomico, Scala knew that actors’ can be very eloquent both with and without words, through their use of gestures, actions, facial expressions, voice and sounds.
In my view, everything we experience in theatre originates from the actors' bodies. Each action, gesture, intonation of the voice; the sound or the silence, it all results from the actor's impulses arising from their thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations. This perspective is informed by my experiences directing and performing primarily devised theatre—a collaborative form of performance creation where the content, structure, and themes of a production are developed collectively by the ensemble, often without a pre-existing script.
Throughout the creative process, performers translate ideas and concepts into images, actions, sounds, and words. Through physical and vocal transformation, actors embody their characters and give shape to imaginary worlds. During the actual performance, spectators experience this process of transformation through their senses. They may not always be consciously aware of the subtle physical sensations they experience throughout the performance, such as minor changes in their breathing pattern, nevertheless, they are still affected by them. And those sensations can trigger an emotional response.
As a theatre maker, I am fascinated by the connections between actors' actions and spectators’ sensory experience throughout a performance. These physical responses strike me as the most powerful and mysterious aspects of live performances. By triggering the spectators’ senses, performers establish a form of communication that transcends verbal exchanges.
When text and verbal communication take a less prominent role in a theatre performance, the meaning of the events on stage becomes more ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, more resembling the nature of a dream. The audience is actively invited to engage in the process of constructing meaning, becoming co-creators of the theatrical experience.
Even when spectators may not fully grasp what’s happening on stage on a rational level, they can still connect with it on a visceral level. Understanding every detail of the story, every word, or the logical progression of the narrative is not a condicio sine qua non for the audience to be captivated by the actions unfolding before them and deeply moved by them. Their appreciation and enjoyment stem from the experiential nature of the performance itself. When spectators cannot rely primarily on verbal communication, they engage with the actions on stage with a sort of ‘extra-ordinary’ focus. Audiences tend toward paying attention to every move, gesture, facial expression and intonation because anything occurring on stage contributes to the creation of meaning. Each of the performance elements; objects, costumes, imagery, symbols, sound, lighting, characters’ actions and physicality, serve as signs.
The audience's interpretation of these signs becomes an integral part of what is often referred to as the 'performance text.' This term is employed to differentiate the written text, such as a play, from the dynamic 'text' that materialises on stage during the performance. It encompasses not only the written dialogue or script but also the non-verbal elements such as gestures, movements, spatial arrangements, visual and auditory elements, and the overall physicality of the performance. The "performance text" is not fixed or predetermined but evolves through the interaction between performers, audience, and the unique dynamics of each performance. It recognizes that the live performance itself, with all its embodied and sensory elements, contributes to the creation of meaning and shapes the audience's experience.
It is interesting to note that the notion of the 'performance text' resonates with both contemporary and historical theatre practitioners, including the commediante Flaminio Scala, mentioned at the beginning of this article. For Scala everything that works directly on the spectators, both on an emotional and physical level, stems from the actors’ actions on stage and their interactions with all the elements of the performance.
Performers can connect deeply with the audience, attuning themselves to the energy in the room and adjusting their performance accordingly. This connection allows performers to create a new performance each night with the audience, rather than for the audience. Actors discover new things about the piece and themselves while performing.
If this context, the enjoyment and engagement with a theatre performance is the result of a collection of instances where spectator and performer ‘meet’ for a fleeting moment and then leave each other to meet again in other moments throughout the performance. The connection can be interrupted and then found again. It is like dancing with a partner without being physically attached to them the whole time. These short (or long) encounters are moments of recognition between performers and spectators. In my practice I label them: ‘stage resonances’.
In these instances, the spectator feels a sense of familiarity, belonging or fascination. The events and characters on stage evoke something on a visceral level. Sometimes this can manifest as a physical sensation, a feeling or an emotion; other times as an image or a thought.
These moments of recognition might occur during or even after the performance. The symbols, images and motifs in performance leave an impression on the audience that might be processed long after the performance ends; and each spectator interiorises these stimuli in their own unique way. Spectators are not obliged to agree with the performers or the director or with one another. Each spectator has his own unique experience. Indeed, the ‘collection’ of moments, or ‘resonances’, will not necessarily be the same for every spectator. The proximity or distance from an actor, a detail that might be perceived only by some members of the audience, an eye contact or interaction that one might have with a performer in a specific moment throughout the performance …all these things would affect the spectator’s experience in a unique way. Not to mention their mood that specific night, their stories, memories or simply their physical and emotional state on that specific moment in time. Even though audience members at the end of a performance might agree that a specific moment was particularly moving or funny or a certain image was particularly powerful, each spectator would have experienced it differently through a unique web of ‘stage resonances.’
In other disciplines, like visual arts, we are more accustomed to this type of experience. When appreciating abstract paintings, we don't necessarily require knowledge of what the artists were painting (content), what inspired them (background), or even their intended message. While such information might satisfy our intellectual curiosity, it is ultimately the experience of these paintings that evokes emotions and allows us to connect with the artist.
Critics often delve into extensive analysis of the philosophical, historical, or psychological meanings behind the artwork. However, such analysis doesn't necessarily enhance our personal experience. A work of art can deeply resonate with us because it triggers our memories, dreams, fears, or desires. These personal connections may have nothing to do with the artwork itself or the artist's intention. We might experience intense physical or emotional reactions or find ourselves contemplating the artwork long after the initial encounter, engaging in reflection, contemplation, and philosophical pondering.
The impact of art on our lives can be profound, leading to a diverse range of emotions and feelings that continue to resonate with us long after the initial experience. This deep and immediate connection, experienced on both conscious and unconscious levels, is what makes any art form, including theatre, so powerful. Interestingly, the divergence between spectators' view and creators' view does not affect the audience's appreciation of the experience.
The concept of ‘stage resonances’ helped me to understand a bit better the profound impact that non-verbal communication has in theatre. It emphasises that the true essence of a performance lies not solely in the spoken words, but in the intricate web of physicality, gestures, expressions, and sensory experiences created by the actors and the actor-audience relationship.
The beauty of ‘stage resonances’ lies in their ephemeral nature, the fleeting encounters between performers and audience that evoke familiarity, fascination, and emotional responses. Each individual's unique journey through these resonances shapes their personal experience of the performance, reinforcing the transformative and captivating power of non-verbal language in performing arts.