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Reviewed by:
  • How Theatre Means by Ric Knowles
  • Kate Nygren
How Theatre Means. By Ric Knowles, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Hardcover $80.00, Paper $26.95. 248 pages.

Although a semiotic approach underlies much of theatre theory, its relevance has been—as Marvin Carlson and Keir Elam, among others, have noted—under-emphasized since the 1990s. Ric Knowles’s new introduction to the field, How Theatre Means, offers an accessible and concise corrective: namely, not only do we all already engage with semiotics, but also a more conscious engagement can better prepare us to understand theatre and its modes of communication in an age of globalization and interculturalism. At the time of his writing, Knowles was helping to bring to life just such an intercultural project: Monique Mojica and the Chocolate Woman Collective’s Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. The play and its rehearsal process blend languages and cultural spheres, clearly inspiring Knowles’s argument. This work, then, becomes one of two central texts (the other is Ibsen’s A Doll House) used to concretize Knowles’s explications throughout.

The book is divided along a familiar binary: theory and practice. However, the two halves do operate in tandem—as Knowles intends—rather than reify the divide. The theory section begins with a chapter providing a brief and broad overview of the foundations of semiotics. Well-versed semioticians may lament the fact that Knowles treats Saussure and his legacy with greater depth than Charles Peirce, but such choices are perhaps necessary given the breadth of the project. The second chapter delves into theatre semiotics specifically, beginning with a brief overview of the Prague school and its basic devices of foregrounding and showing. The [End Page 134] chapter continues by introducing a compilation of various taxonomies of theatre semiotics from Tadeusz Kowzan’s to Keir Elam’s. Knowles’s approach centers explicitly on performance analysis, so his categories of character, mise-en-scène, performance text, and audiences and spectatorship (to name a few) highlight the practical applications of semiotics that many theatre practitioners and scholars no doubt recognize, but may have failed to isolate in their own analyses. Again, such emphases demonstrate theatre studies’ indebtedness to semiotics. Throughout these overview chapters, Knowles acknowledges his own simplifications, referring newly minted semioticians to denser and deeper explorations of the field, such as Elam’s second edition of Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (2002) and Marco de Marinis’s The Semiotics of Performance (1982, translation 1993). Such references help Knowles overcome the necessary limitations, making these first chapters a cogent and inviting introduction to the field’s key questions.

The final chapter of Part I: Theory, “Disseminations,” demonstrates the overlap between and complementary nature of semiotics and various other theories, which he divides into two categories: the phenomenological and the material. The first of these marks a significant contribution, as Knowles rejects the often-espoused position that semiotics—as a structural approach—misses the fundamental “thingness of the thing.” Instead, Knowles convincingly demonstrates that the field benefits from phenomenology, affect theory, and cognitive theory through the reminder that “meaning is the multifaceted product of thought, emotion, and physiological response working together” (90). Still more importantly, Knowles astutely warns, such approaches can threaten to universalize human experience; thus, a need for sociosemiotics—a materialist semiotics—must not be ignored. Knowles follows Sue Ellen Case and Marvin Carlson in relating the ways in which materialist feminism has grown through semiotics, and he also directs his readers to his own “materialist semiotics” from his 2004 study. In the latter half of this chapter, then, Knowles promotes a theatre study and practice engaged in the pursuit of social justice—a vital emphasis given his interest in intercultural theatre.

The second half of the book makes use of well-chosen, extended examples to demonstrate semiotics’ practicality. In keeping with his attention to the varying cultural interpretations of signs, Knowles considers “the act of analysis to be a generative one, an act of creation” (111). After a brief glossary of theatrical styles, the fourth chapter explores the creative act of both script analysis and devised performances. Knowles offers his personal process and a series of questions for the practitioner...


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pp. 134-136
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