- Contemporary Mise en Scène: Staging Theatre Today by Patrice Pavis
Patrice Pavis has been thinking about mise en scène for a long time. He concluded his earlier celebrated work, Analyzing Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2003), with an open-ended query of which theories are best for which mise en scènes. He then returned to mise en scène in a series of lectures at the University of Kent between 2002 and 2007. He first published La Mise En Scène Contemporaine in French (Armand Colin, 2008), then revised this version into an updated second edition three years later. Contemporary Mise en Scène is the English version of the French second edition.
All this is to say that reading Pavis’s latest work in English is more like dropping into the middle of a conversation rather than being presented with a completely articulated theory. There are drawbacks to this type of scholarly encounter. Readers may struggle to follow definitional shortcuts, to flesh out understated connections, or to become immediately comfortable with Pavis’s stream-of-consciousness writing style. Pavis understands that his central argument is hard to access without some larger context, which he therefore provides in introductory chapters. The first sentence of his first chapter suggests impatience that he needs to catch his readers up to his current thinking on the subject: “Must we, once again and almost obsessively, return to the origins of mise en scène?” (2). Yet he does review the origins and history of mise en scène, and reviews borderline cases “where mise en scène tries to negate itself” to try and provide context for what will follow (18). [End Page 185]
The benefit of dropping into Pavis’s culminating work is the enthusiasm with which readers, no matter their familiarity with his material, are invited to join Pavis in revolutionizing theatrical practice: “It is high time that we thus recover the fictional, ludic, artistic and poetic dimension of the theatre, whatever its current identities may be” (303). For Pavis, the linguistic turn of the 1970s and 1980s caused a restructuring of performance and mise en scène that made the contradictions between the two terms more tangible but also more productive. Pavis defines performance as everything about the final product that is put onstage, with particular emphasis on movement and bodies. Mise en scène, on the other hand, is the process of transitioning text from page to stage. The central thesis on which Pavis builds the rest of his analysis is that contemporary theatre requires and reveals both the textual and the physical, or what he calls the semio-phenomenological. He proposes the new hybrid terms “performise” or “mise en perf” to reflect the “strange objects that productions have currently become” (61).
The bulk of Pavis’s analysis is devoted to exploring a wide range of theatrical practices that are torn between the tensions of performance and mise en scène, or that gesture toward performise. The majority of these are drawn from little-known French and German performances, but Pavis’s evocative language provides plenty of context to appreciate the examples, even if they are unfamiliar. Unsurprisingly, Pavis also does detailed readings of mise en scène from two intercultural sites: the work of Guillermo Gomez-Peña and contemporary theatre in Korea.
Pavis presents examples from six different French designer/director teams to explain how mise en scène and scenography easily blend together to work toward the same goals and meanings. He considers whether contemporary texts call for, or create, new ways of staging, an effect he calls “mise en jeu.” He examines the relationship between technology and liveness by closely reading productions that use a variety of technologies. Pavis is most hopeful for the use of technology in contemporary theatre as a means of engaging performise: “far from being destroyed by the media, mise en scène is reshaped, recreated and relived by it” (156).