- Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design ed. by Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer
Joslin McKinney and Scott Palmer’s engaging and provocative edited volume Scenography Expanded: An Introduction to Contemporary Performance Design is both timely and necessary. In the Foreword, Arnold Aronson suggests that seeing through the lens and employing the principles of expanded scenography is a means of understanding, organizing, and responding to a wide range of nontheatrical activities: “carnival, theme parks, . . . ritual and festive performances, sporting events, architecture, . . . parades, political events and even urban streetscapes” (xv). Yet, understanding how scenography, or more specifically expanded scenography (a term interchangeable with performance design), is being used as a critical tool to make sense of the above events and activities has for the most part been ignored. As one of the first collections to provide a survey of contemporary performance design as a critical tool, Scenography Expanded does an admirable job of exploring and filling this knowledge gap.
In the introductory chapter to the book, McKinney and Palmer argue “that scenography [can] operate independently from a theatre text . . . is now widely in evidence” and “scenography . . . can happen anywhere,” but suggest that “the rapid expansion of scenographic practice . . . has left little room for reflection on what its defining characteristics might be” (1). The anthology is an attempt to begin defining what expanded scenography is. The collection features a number essays written by leading practitioners/scholars who chronicle, catalog, and discuss their practice and use, as well as their understanding of expanded scenography. Creating a solid foundation for the practices, discourse, and theories around expanded scenography is the primary goal of this collection.
The editors suggest that relationality, affectivity, and materiality are central markers of expanded scenography, but then organize the eleven essays into five subsections— “Technological Space,” “Architectural Space,” “Agency,” “Audiences,” and “Materiality”—with the “hope that concepts of relationality, affectively and materiality in scenography will resonate throughout and in slightly different ways in each of the parts” (14). It is possible that the eleven essays are micro-organized, and that it is difficult to create a solid foundation on the evidence of two essays. When read in its entirety, however, the volume clearly demonstrates the scope, range, and possibilities of scenography when it is released from the bonds of its traditional function of emblematic representation.
The essays speak primarily (although not exclusively) of the practices of performance design in Europe. This Eurocentric focus might be viewed a slight problem with the volume; it certainly could be problematic, because one of the key aspects and political aims of performance design is the democratization of scenography, and thus concentrating almost exclusively on European performance disrupts this egalitarian approach. However, that concern is easily offset by the understanding of all the contributors that the core of the anthology is on practice and production; this is not a volume of history analysis or disconnected theory, but instead the essays are grounded in examining, reflecting, and discussing expanded scenography as it is currently being used by professional and semi-professional artists.
This emphasis on performance and performance practices is what makes this anthology so vibrant and strong. [End Page 188] It is very much a record of current performance design practices, and as such is a valuable resource for understanding how scenography moves away from its theatrical roots, and further how expanded scenography is created, received, and discussed. What is striking about this collection is the wide range of performances and performance design the eleven essays are able to cover: The Transparent Wall (Artists without Walls, Israel/Palestine), Roman Tragedies (Toneelgroop, Holland), La Victoria de Victor (La Patriótico Interesante, Santiago), Die Schutzbefohlenen (Thalia Theatre, Hamburg), End (A Two Dogs Company, Brussels), Weather Machine (David Shearing/West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds), La Réve (Wynn, Las Vegas), and The Han Show (Dragone Productions, Wuhan, China), to name but a few. The performances range from seemingly traditional productions (Roman Tragedies), to those featuring only scenographic elements (Weather Machine), to street performances (When the Oil Runs...