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  • The Front Porch: A Case Study in Designing Domestic Stage Space Using Semiotic Analysis
  • Anita Tripathi Easterling (bio) and Jeanmarie Higgins (bio)

“The loveliest and most poignant of all stage pictures are those that are seen in the mind’s eye.”

—Robert Edmond Jones, The Dramatic Imagination

As theatre semiotician Michael Issacharoff has said, “[a] play when enacted must take place somewhere. Its performance must occur in some real, visible space, on a stage or in an area fulfilling that purpose. That much is obvious” (211). For the scene designer, that “real, visible space” is the stage space, defined by theatre semiotician Patrice Pavis as “the actual space on stage in which the actors move, whether they confine themselves to the stage area per se or mix with the audience” (344). Of course, scene designers focus on what the script calls for in the stage space, but equally important is what the script suggests exists offstage, a type of space that Issacharoff refers to as “diegetic stage space.” In contrast to mimetic space—that which is represented onstage—the diegetic is space that is “referred to by the characters,” produced in the audience’s mind and seen only in the audience’s mind’s eye (215).1 Since the New Stagecraft Movement, designers have consciously analyzed offstage spaces, facilitating what scene designer Karl Eigsti has noted as the audience’s role in constructing the world of the play: “to see what they imagine” (qtd. in Aronson 1985, 30). Further, twentieth-century directors have heralded the power of diegetic spaces of the mind, so to speak, the psyche’s hidden spaces, from Arthur Hopkins’s assertion that “the theatre is wholly concerned with the unconscious” (qtd. in Larson 162) to Alan Schneider’s self-proclaimed attraction to “all of the substances lurking behind the closed eyelids of the mind” (qtd. in Schevill 58). These directors echo New American Stagecraft pioneer Robert Edmond Jones’s foundational idea that “the loveliest and most poignant of all stage pictures are those that are seen in the mind’s eye” (136).

This essay advocates the scene designer’s inquiry into these hidden, offstage spaces through the practice of semiotics: namely, “the study of signs—those objects by which humans communicate meaning: words, images, behaviour, arrangements of many kinds, in which a meaning or idea is relayed by a corresponding manifestation we can perceive” (Fortier 19). Scenography scholar Arnold Aronson wrote that “design is inherently semiotic” (2010, 18). We now take for granted what early theatre semiotician Tadeusz Kowzan observed in 1968, that “everything is sign in a theatrical representation” (53),2 just as we understand implicitly that designers create visual metaphors. In semiotic terms, scene designers make a significant contribution to creating the sign system of a production, creating signifiers that, in turn, activate signifieds for an audience: “In theatre, the signifier level (of expression) is made up of stage materials (an object, a colour, a form, a lighting effect, a facial expression, a movement) whereas the signified level is the concept, the meaning one attaches to the signifier” (Pavis 334). Theatre semioticians have outlined systems of theatrical signs, what Pavis calls “stage languages,” to facilitate discussion of how meaning is created in a theatrical production from a critical perspective.3 This essay discusses the production of theatrical meaning from the designer’s point of view. Conscious semiotic analysis asks the designer to engage with both phases of the sign—that is, to take into account how the audience will read what the designer has put onstage.4 [End Page 35]

This is especially true when the design project calls for ways to account for places, characters, and ideas in the diegetic spaces of production. To illustrate this semiotic process, we conduct a case study that is rich in possibilities for considering offstage space as a catalyst for a scene design; specifically, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2011 production of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,5 a play that requires an intense investigation of diegetic space in order to arrive at what will be put onstage, primarily through the script’s reliance on the front porch as a playing area. The...


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