What is a Scenographer? What is Scenography?

For many years there have been heated discussions at the United States Institute for Theatre Technology's conference sessions regarding the definition of scenography and the scenographer.

In countries other than the United States, a Scenographer is a theatrical designer who specializes in designing all the visual elements of a performance, using a holistic universe approach to conceptualization. The controversies expressed at USITT sessions reflected the fact that, in the USA, most productions are realized by a team of designers.

The scenographic method of conceptualization was comfortably adapted in other countries of the world where it is not unusal for a single designer to be responsible all of the design elements in a performance piece. The time span of the pre-production process is usually more generous due to state subsidized production funding. Designers and technical staff often work on a fixed salary year round, thus eliminating their cost from the budgeting for a specific production. As a result there is sufficient time for one individual to research, design and supervise the implementation of all the elements that make up a production.

In the USA, the commercial production pre-production time is kept to a painful minimum because investors' money is limited and a fast return is needed. In regional theatre, audiences are limited and new productions are needed on a regular basis to keep them coming back. The shorter pre-production period results in the design responsibilities being divided up between "specialists" to ensure that each area is given the full attention required. As a result, designers who successfully work within the scenographic method of conceptualization develop exceptional skill in the collaborative process in order to be able to create a cohesive finished design.

Time has passed and the term scenography is becoming widely accepted by newer generations who have "grown up" with it. To those of us, who, in the "early days" endeavored to establish this (then new) way of approaching the design for a performance environment, it was an exhilarating battle of words and ideas. We scenographers who specialized in the visualization of the characters, found it difficult to convince the many who believed that scenography comprised of the sets, lights, sound and props, that costume designers were also scenographers.

Now, published in 2002, there is a wonderful "little book" written by British Scenographer Pamela Howard, that explains what a Scenographer is: What is Scenography? (published by Routledge, 29 West 35th St., NY, NY 10001 and Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London, EC4P, 4EE - ISBN 0-415-10085-2 (pbk) ISBN 0-415-10084-4 (hbk).

She says it very well for all of us. I quote here some of her text:

"The scenographer visually liberates the text and the story behind it, by creating a world in which the eyes see what the ears do not hear."

"A scenographer is by nature a cultural magpie, delighting in the search for the ephemera of history and sociology. The variety of work that presents itself is part of the fascination of the subject, and satisfies an inherent and insatiable curiosity that wants to know not only the great events of history by the precise details of how people lived, ate, dressed, washed, and earned their livelihood."

"Scenography - the creation of a stage space - does not exist as a self-contained art work. .......(snip)....... Scenography is always incomplete until the performer steps into the playing space and engages the audience. Moreover, scenography is the joint statement of the director and the visual artist of their view of the play, opera or dance that is being presented to the audience as a united piece of work."

"The scenographer has to be an artist who can understand how to work with and incorporate the ideas of the director, understand text as a writer, be sensitive to the needs of a performer exposed to an audience, and create imaginative and appropriate spaces for productions........."

(also understand music and sound as a musician and composer, movement as a dancer and choreogapher, and the effects of light and shadow as a fine arts painter and a photographer)

"......I especially listen out for the sound of the words, the "musicality" of the text, the timbre and texture of the speech, trying to decide for myself what makes this play difference from any other – for example, the difference in sound between an Ibsen play and one by Beckett. This sense of sound is very near to the sense of colour......."