What is Object Theatre?


 Toy Car from UCL Pathology collection see Object Retrieval

Five propositions:

1. Puppetry

Object Theatre is a term that we might argue has been ghettoised as a sub-category of puppetry, often used to describe a performance style that contains the animation of utilitarian, or pre-existing ‘found’ objects rather than those constructed for theatrical effect (such as the puppet). As a result, practitioners of ‘object theatre’ commonly share what I consider to be the key principle of puppetry: the anthropomorphic transformation of an object into a subjectified character (a box of spoons becomes a village, a sieve the head of a girl). Puppeteers often claim that it is precisely the puppet/object’s lack of a programme of acting or conscious ego (it’s very object-ness) that makes it such a potent tool for the theatre, yet paradoxically, the process of puppetry often imposes it’s own programme of acting propelled by the will of the performer.This has great theatrical and dramatic potential as many puppet practitioners have proved, but it also leads away from the potential of the objects being allowed to act for themselves; the subject is forcibly imposed onto them, as they become a medium for the performers and audiences subjectifcation. The object adopts the role that character performs conventionally  for the actor.  I would argue that this might restrict what thinking about a theatre of ‘objects’ might mean.

2. Visual Art

The history of  art could be read as a grand narrative of the object in relation – The object constructed and manipulated through the agency of the artist: the grandest of object theatres.   Luigi Russolo’s Noise Intoners, Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-mades and Joseph Cornell’s boxes for example  propose a unique set of questions and implications about how objects perform.

3. Material Culture

The emergence of Material culture studies has exposed a dynamic line of thinking about how the world of objects are interacted with and what the significance of this interaction might be. In particular the notion of object biographies and the performativity of nonhuman networks.


3.  Automatons

Man’s fascination with theatrical automaton can be traced back to the 1st Century AD. Heron of Alexandria invented the first automatic theatre that presented a five-act tragedy of the Legend of Nauplius. It featured changeable scenery and a number of ‘robot actors’ who could enter, gesticulate and exit all through remote control. As Joseph Roach states, “The entire mise en scene, including the actors, was kept in motion by a slowly sinking counterweight clutched into interlocking systems of pulleys, levers, reels, strings, and cogs”. He also invented of achieving sthe first automatic door that would have achieved a startling theatrical effect with his steam powered temple entrance. Using a system of pistons the door would open when a fire is lit outside. This must have had a profound effect on the revellers outside – they must have considered it the work of the gods. Heron‘s inventions are the precursor to diverse history of mechanical theatres and stage effects, from baroque scenography to the Victorian automated stage illusions.

4.  Anti-Humanism

To argue towards a theatre of objects is to argue towards a theatre of objectification, a theatre without subjects. A theatre without subjects is totalised, it’s participants (both performer and spectator) and the objects (costumes, props, puppets etc.) are collectively acting as one in the event. This notion of theatre is typified in forms of ritualised performance. The Italian Fascist spectacle of 18BL (1933) a “theatre of the masses for the masses” is a terrifying example of how such a ‘theatre of objects’ can be realised with an audience of over 20,000 participating in the event. At the centre of this state controlled spectacle was an object, the 18BL (fiat truck) that served as a symbol of fascist military power forming a unifying centrepiece, a focus for all the participants. The truck is treated in such a way that it is appears to have a personality within the performance. The 18BL is a secular object that through a complex process of transformation becomes a reconfigured ‘sacred’ object, or at least an object with quasi-sacred significance to the participants of the event. This in turn initiates and transforms the event into a form of sacred-secular ceremony, the fascist state using the potency of the ‘sacred’ as a tool for control. A ‘theatre of objects’ therefore goes beyond being a theatre that just predominantly contains objects but can moves towards a total conception of how theatre might operate. The ritualised performance of 18BL contains all the dilemmas and paradoxes that a notional theatre of objects might contain, most importantly: how the subject-object relationship operates in opposition to conventional ‘models’ of theatre.

5. The Machine

It is the mechanical (or specifically the encrustation of the mechainical) that I am prinicply concerned with. I have attempted to construct a theatre where the objects can act for themselves, in which the box of spoons is much more interesting as a box of spoons, a theatre where the spectator is unsure if the performer is leading the object or the object is leading the performer – where the object appears to be acting by itself.

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