Designing the Didascaliae

How often do we take magnificent pieces of performance art for granted?

Yes, quite often, right you are.

Ever considered how often we take the reality of it for granted? The reality being, what allows us to place ourselves in the world of those performing?

I bet you haven’t, not really anyway.

It goes without saying that no production goes without its problems, whether it be theatre, film or a live performance. The shred of light often being the clever art of improvisation by the performer, whatever it may be. However there is only so much that can be done once the environment is set. See, where performance allows for improvisation on the spot, improvisation or rather innovation, when it comes to the design of the space, well that’s step one. The very first thing a designer sits down with, is the impossible that the director or artist has asked. Problems get them going.

At least some own up to it.


“It was very f—ing difficult to do but we had some very good people on board who made it happen.”

– Roger Waters, The Wall (1980) [7]


And this is most definitely not a new thought in design – it applies to any form of it. Architects design based off potential problems, they almost create them just to solve them. Graphic designers ask how information will not be communicated, and then design away from that. The only designers that seem to want to keep the problems are those who design golf courses because well, that’s how you ruin a nice walk. Golf.

I digress.


Let’s start with theatre.

Image via Culturetrip [2]
The designer along with the director starts by interpreting the didascaliae of the narrative, reading into both what the playwright intended or what they might have intended. Most playwrights know there are certain conventions to follow when it comes to stage directions, they have an understanding of the theatre and they know what is possible, some merely suggest at things and like to leave it up to the designer and director to make the piece come to life in whatever way they seem fit. Others have preferences, and it is evident that they wrote the piece with a certain aesthetic in mind – respectfully those directions are followed.

So what about pieces like ‘Cleansed’ by Sarah Kane, where a field of daffodils arise from the floor and a man’s tongue and hands are cut off?

Playwright and academic Dan Rebellato states: ‘Cleansed is a very, very difficult play on a page. It’s full of what appear to be almost impossible stage directions.’ [3]

So why was it written in this manner and how do set designers approach it?

To answer the first question, playwright Simon Stephens puts it quite cleverly

“ … a commitment to intelligence in the rehearsal room. In my opinion what Sarah was always keen to engender, was a rehearsal room where actors were having to be thinkers, and were having to bring their imagination and their intelligence to the rehearsal process, rather than prescribing for them, exactly what they should be thinking and doing at any given time. This for me sits underneath the audacity of some of those stage directions in ‘Cleansed’ and what you probably get as a consequence of that is rehearsal rooms where actors are at the top of their game and great productions” [3]

And this most definitely translates into the design process as well. Just because a playwright doesn’t provide solutions, it doesn’t mean it’s unstageable, it just means you have to be clever when it comes to solving them. Over the years there have many interpretations of Kane’s ‘Cleansed’, often not literal. However in 2016, The National Theatre put on what was to be a very literal display of this piece. Under the direction of Katie Mitchell, all that which was deemed ‘unstageable’ was made to come alive.

Set designer Alex Eales explains the approach, claiming that the architecture of the space was based off the classical rules of composition. Decisions were made based off that, and one can see how the horrors that occur on stage have a somewhat biblical resemblance when it comes to the almost ‘painterly’ images they create. Slowly, the audience is informed of the time and place in which the piece takes place.

So they approached it compositionally, recreating familiar scenes in human history, as one would in a film. Which is exactly what Ridley Scott did in ‘Blade Runner’ (1982). It’s easy to assume that in film there can be no difficulties when it comes to the design of the space because surely, it’s all possible? Technically, yes. But creating the exact vision in mind, at the precise time with the right people? Still possible, just very nearly not.


Image via Screenhead [6]
Here’s the challenge: How do you create the future in the present, without alienating your audience but rather, captivating them?

“When it comes to science fiction, the devil is in the details”

– Ridley Scott. [6]

I can’t go into too much detail as I have a word limit you see, however, one example should do the trick: The iconic Bradbury Building, used in many a film from as early as the 1940’s. When Scott mentioned wanting to use this Los Angeles landmark, producers raised concern, claiming that it has been overused and wouldn’t benefit the mise-en-scene of the film. He responded by saying that it won’t be a cliché, not the way he’s going to do it. Now, you can’t exactly shut the Bradbury down, which meant the production team had only the night time to set up, film and clean before it reopened the next morning. This meant that in 10 hours they had to create a decaying, futuristic space with a sort-of constant water flow all around. Difficult as it may have been, this is clever design. In using such a multi-faceted building Scott was able to frame scenes whichever way he pleased, there is room for great movement and the play with light is made capable by the large glass roof structure. He took the original Bradbury and provided an alternative, something completely re-imagined and new.

Similar to the Kane play, the familiar was used and altered to allow the audience to comprehend yet not fully expect, what was occurring visually or where they were placed in relation to the actors’ environment.

There is another instance where an existing architectural structure has been repurposed and reinvented, however instead of changing the central message provided by the space, it was used to strengthen the artist’s views.

Image via Cravenhermit [8]
In 1980 Roger Waters asked to slowly disappear behind The Berlin Wall as it got built up throughout a Pink Floyd live concert, resulting in a performance that would essentially end with a blind audience and a bang – but that wasn’t the challenge. No, the real test was assembling, running and taking down the show, as it involved 420 cardboard bricks that would create The Wall, whilst an animation by Gerald Scarfe would be projected onto it, only to come crashing down with the bricks at the finale. Waters claimed the concept of the band being unseen by the audience would reflect that main character’s alienation from society, but this reflection meant that it couldn’t really be a touring show. The sheer amount of light and stage operators, as well as ‘wall builders’ meant that there was a lot more going on during the show, instead of just before and after. They even needed a special stage for the building of the wall, a sort of structural bracing piece. This together with all the transportation of it all, meant it added up to be extremely expensive and hardly feasible. However Roger’s claims that it was great to have done it at least once.

So, that’s nice.

These are three examples of many, displaying how the seemingly unstageable was staged. And how? Simply by staying true to the original concepts, not allowing compromise but also drawing from the existing as a base. You see, when you try to realise an idea as literally as possible, those where that is most effective, are the ones that are seemingly impossible to do.

Besides, ‘unstageable’ is a neologism so therefore; it can’t really exist, can it.








[1] Steinberg, Don. 2015. “Actors and Visual Effects: How to Behave on a Green Screen.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. June 18.

[2] Koller-Alonso, Paula. “The Most Controversial Plays By Sarah Kane.” Culture Trip. March 03, 2016. Accessed November 08, 2017.

 [3] Ntdiscovertheatre. “Sarah Kane: Staging The Unstageable.” YouTube. September 05, 2016. Accessed November 08, 2017.

[4] Eales, Alex. “Let’s Talk About Sets: Alex Eales on Cleansed.” February 19, 2016. Accessed November 08, 2017.

[5] O’Neal, Sean. “We visit the Bradbury Building, where the past and future collide in Blade Runner.” Music. July 11, 2013. Accessed November 08, 2017.

[6] “The details of Blade Runner.” Screenhead. May 21, 2015. Accessed November 08, 2017.
[7] Daveliftongmail-com. “How Pink Floyd’s Short-Lived Tour for ‘The Wall’ Reinvented the Rock Concert.” Ultimate Classic Rock. February 07, 2015. Accessed November 08, 2017.
[8] “Posts about Pink Floyd on Craven Hermit.” Craven Hermit. Accessed November 08, 2017.




Reinette Roux

Reinette is a Master of Architecture student at The University of Western Australia. She enjoys doing the set and graphic design for The University Dramatic Society and has an ever so slightly concerning obsession with Instagram.

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