Hey good lookin’

Hey good lookin’

28 March 2018

Anne Mullener explores the aesthetics of Albatross, Kinder K and Grounded

We all know how it goes: you have a text or idea and want to stage it. You find some friends or cast several actors and start rehearsing. You start thinking about the costume and design but are so engrossed in your blocking that the thought passes you by. It only returns a week before the performance, so you have a quick look in the miscellaneous costume cupboard of your drama department and voilà: your content has an aesthetic.

This process is understandable, yet problematic: the aesthetic of a piece is almost as important as the content at the heart of it. That’s why I want to take a look at the connections between aesthetic and content, and how several shows at NSDF have confirmed or challenged this miscellaneous-things-from-the-drama-department-cupboard approach.

Aesthetics are often needed to represent specific elements of a piece’s context. Theatre used to go overboard with this – just google “naturalism in theatre”. Nowadays, productions often use several elements to signify a bigger naturalistic context: a desk chair signifying a whole office, a military hat signifying an officer and so on.

In Grounded, directed by Qasim Salam, this aesthetic-as-direct-representation is applied in two elements: a desk chair and a pilot uniform. Because the piece transitions between numerous locations, too much set would have made transitions difficult and therefore Salam opted for this minimalist format. The only other aesthetic decision that is used to represent the context of the piece is the red, white and blue lighting, aka the American flag. The use of these elements fits and is in line with the piece’s content: the choices make sense.

However, these choices are based on tropes that circulate in our cultural landscape all the time. Such direct representation can be unimaginative: as long as you follow the directions outlined in a script or stick to a certain time period you create an aesthetic.

There are other ways, however, that a piece can create an aesthetic without direct representation of a context: theme as aesthetic. This is how Cut the Cord approaches Kinder K, by signifying its themes of eugenics, abortion and ethics through the overall palette: white – cleanliness, science, hospitals – and harsh lighting: hospital corridors, cold. It underlines the action portrayed onstage and sets a mood from the start.

There are elements of direct representation, for example a jacket with military elements, yet they are subtler than in Grounded. Rather than choosing a straightforward military jacket, Cut the Cord uses a simple fold over coat and red line to represent it. It relies on the audience knowing the tropes of the military and therefore recognising the signifier. The result is a more layered form of representation.

And then there is The Search for a Black-browed Albatross. It made me realise there is another version of aesthetic, one that has, as far as I know, been invented by the Backpack Ensemble: plot as aesthetic.

Albatross engages in a similar way with aesthetic as theme as Kinder K. Their use of blankets to form the set is reminiscent of childhood: building forts and hiding under covers, signifiers for the theme of growing up. These blankets are held up by tent poles and ropes, which is clearly linked to the theme of the outdoors that permeates the piece.

But Albatross goes beyond this in that the overall plot of going into the outdoors is represented in the Backpackers Ensemble – even the name! – coming in as if having just gone on a hiking trip, backpacks and all. The show comes and is folded back into backpacks that are intricately linked to the plot: aesthetic as plot.

This innovation is what theatre needs now that it is increasingly moving into spaces that were not originally designed for it. Aware as I am of the restrictions of budget and time; all I am saying is that aesthetic doesn’t have to be expensive; a range of creative and thoughtful choices can make all the difference. In contrast to Grounded’s minimal aesthetics, Albatross shows how far minimalism can go when approached creatively.

@noffmag // [email protected]

Photo credit: Giulia Delprato