The performance of various Kutiyattam
pieces at The State University of New York at Stony Brook presented many
unusual challenges to the scenic designer. Kutiyattam is
non-western, not part of the tradition of realism, primarily visual, and
not readily familiar to either American audiences, performers or
In mounting the production, we were to be
guided by two masters of the form imported from India to work with our
performers, and designers. Although the prospects for this
cross-cultural collaboration were exciting, the collaborative process
would introduce further unique challenges to the production.
At the very least, our standards had to be
maintained at the highest level. In the western tradition, theatre's
prime function is frequently to "entertain". If social
consciousness is raised in the process, so much the better.
Nevertheless, entertainment value seems to determine the success or
failure of many productions these days. Kutiyattam, on the other
hand, has its origins in Hindu ritual and liturgy and is still
considered to be an important part of religious practice in parts of
India. Its performers are in fact considered to be high priests!
With these priests in our midst, I felt it
important to approach this work with the utmost of respect - not only in
deference to our guest artists but to our students as well. The
experience of mounting this production provided the perfect opportunity
to expose students to religious and cultural values that few Americans
have the opportunity to explore. Furthermore the experience offered the
opportunity to explore theatre as something more than the mere
"doing of shows".
I was especially anxious to make our guest
artists feel at home in their new environment. The cultural world of
Long Island is so vastly different from that in Southern India, I felt
it important to help them (as well as the audience) make the transition
as easily as possible.
So...besides the traditional scenic tasks, my
work as a designer for Kutiyattam needed to include the following
A. The space had to help in the process of
preparing the audience, making them receptive to a most alien and
B. The space had to be true to the religious
traditions that are central to the development of the form. Furthermore,
the space had to meet with the approval of the guest artists so that
their work could proceed as smoothly as possible.
C. The space was intended to approximate the
intimate audience-stage relationship found in the actual Kutiyattam
theatres while allowing for our own spacial needs.
D. The space was intended to foster a spiritual
dimension. The entering audience member should immediately realize that
he or she was about to become a part of something special and important.
E. To succeed, the unique forms of
communication used in Kutiyattam ie. the hand and face gestures,
had to be clearly visible to the audience members.
F. To succeed in "transporting" the
audience into the world of India, it was necessary to hide the normal
nature of Theatre ie. to make the decor of the space unique to this one
G. It was hoped that a way would be found to
give the dramaturg and the production advisor a chance to be more active
in spacial decisions - an opportunity not often available in more
traditional theatre forms.
H. Technical considerations also had to be met,
from audience size, to costume support, to lighting, to budget.
Realizing the objectives:
Since we were being directed by masters of the
art of Kutiyattam, and since I decided to fully respect the
religious content of the form, research became even more important than
it is to the design of most productions. The first task was to gain a
familiarity with the art form. In the summer I was able to attend one of
our guest artists' performances in Islip, New York. Later I was able to
see videotapes of other productions of the Kutiyattam and related
theatre forms. I also had access to the comprehensive collection of
research materials owned by Professor, Farley Richmond.
The next task was to separate arbitrary decor
elements encountered in my research from those decor elements with
religious significance. To this end I was able to read through two
Doctoral Dissertations that Professor Richmond had in his research
collection. These were of immense help along with Professor Richmond's
enormous slide collection of Kutiyattam images. Since the religious
symbolism is actually quite complicated and the chance of making wrong
choices was always a factor, I decided to take most of the design forms
used in the set from the actual design of one of the major Kutiyattam
stages. In our design, for instance, both the columns and roof
structures were patterned directly from research into actual Kutiyattam
Research in hand, I then had to deal with
concerns unique to the specific performance space. In India, the
Kutiyattam space is in a double structure - one enclosed space within
another. Although the stage structure is small, the surrounding
structure is quite large. Since we were limited to building just the
inner structure, I chose the most interesting elements from both of the
original structures combining them into our version of a Kutiyattam
stage. The columns, for instance, were from the inner structure of the
original, while our roof design was patterned after the outside roof of
an actual Kutiyattam temple.
Bringing the outside roof "inside"
had an added advantage. Since we wanted to get some of the feeling of
the majesty of the walk up an Indian hillside to the temple complex, the
initial vista of the stage that our audiences were to see was designed
to help to create some of this feeling.
The actual spacing of the columns and
proportions of the stage space were relatively authentic. I felt that
these proportions would be quite important to our guest artists.
In this scheme of production, every choice was
an important one and had to be approached in a deliberate manner - Even
the choice to play towards the corner of the room. This choice allowed
us to meet a number of our objectives. While corner staging has
undoubtedly been a part of past production in this black-box space, it
was probably the most uncommon arrangement. By playing to the corner the
production would be immediately "set apart" from other recent
productions in the space. The arrangement also allowed the most easy
access for performers to the dressing rooms - an important consideration
in this production. Finally, the corner staging allowed us to carefully
plan for an exciting audience entrance experience.
Unlike most of our productions, the design of
this one started in its lobby. Much of our efforts went towards creating
a lobby space that would acclimate the audience to the events that were
about to unfold. To this end we were able to position various artifacts
of Hindu ritual while presenting scenes from life in Southern India. The
lobby was kept dark and lit very carefully in order to create an
atmosphere of reverence. The slides were designed to draw the audience
up our makeshift hill and to our "temple vista". The vista, if
properly planned was to be a wonderful final surprise of entry.