The Stage is Materializing: Material and materiality in theatre

What do tea cups, salt shakers, Dame Judi Dench, and bits of PVC tubes all have in common? They have all played prominent roles in critically acclaimed and thought-provoking theatre around the world.

Material has always been part of the general world of theatrical performance, serving as props, sets, costumes, make up, lights and sound. Everything we see when we watch a play which isn’t a human body is technically “material” of course. Yet, when we speak of “Material Theatre”, we’re talking about instances in which material is used in such a way that it steps out of these usual submissive roles, discontented with always playing second fiddle to the performers. Material – everything from found scraps, bundles of fabric, windows and walls of a site or a venue, to common household objects, beloved childhood toys, and recycled trash – stepping into the spotlight to speak for themselves. The texture, age, size and shape all become important tools in telling stories.
To crumble down, to shrivel away, to burst at the seams with joy, to have one’s bubble burst, to iron out the wrinkles in a new system, to whisper; for even the walls have ears – our language already allows for the personification of things. Material theatre plays with this natural tendency to create a drama that hits all the senses.

What ‘things’ mean to us

Seeds of Memory by Julia Varley
Image Courtesy: The Magdalena Project

To understand the potential of using materials, we begin by dissecting the role of things in our lives. While material theatre as a term has only been around for a few decades, objects and materials have been telling stories to us for as far back as history records go. Ancient Greek society had the tale of Pandora’s Box of death and sickness, and hope at the very bottom, and Christian folklore spoke of the passing of Christ’s last used chalice or the Holy Grail.
The society of the 2000s is a veritable era of “things” – iconic mobile phones that inspire overnight queues, a travelling way of life based on waterproof cameras, toilet seats in the shape of our favourite celebrities, 3D printed prosthetics, ethically grown coffee, blow up dolls – these outlandish objects are now found in most Amazon delivery packages in cities and small towns alike. We see, touch and feel more materials than ever before.
You may know of friends who will apologize to tables and chairs that they bump into (or you do it yourself!). I noticed recently that I treat older bits of crockery in my kitchen, armless coffee pots, coasters stolen from fond world travels, with some greater form of reverence than the newer, trendier lot could ever garner. We naturally assign ghosts of life to the non-living realm of physical, tangible things, through the basic human need to imagine. And we start young.
Chidiya Udd by Gillo Theatre Repertory
Image Courtesy: The Hans India

“Children don’t have to ‘make-believe’. When they hold a piece of cardboard to mime a telephone, it is easy for them to make it real, to imagine the shape of the receiver, the wires coming out of it, plugged into a box on a wall somewhere” says Shaili Sathyu, founder of Gillo Repertory Theatre, a troupe that begins the rehearsal process of each play by having observing play sessions of children of the age group of the intended audience.
For their production “The Mountain Who Loved a Bird”, they decided to use a bundle of newspapers laid over a four foot ladder as the cold, harsh mountain and a ball of wool attached to fish wire as the soft and gentle bird. “We try to work with the core quality of the object. We need to leave space for the children’s imagination to fill.” Observing the children create worlds with objects and toys during their play time continues to serve as a source of inspiration for Shaili’s choice of material.

How can dead objects speak?

Balloons in Stage Fright
Image Courtesy: Theatre Machines PhD Development

So how do we go about bringing a materiality into our theatre? “There is no one way to do it that I can recommend besides exploration. When we see a new object we begin by inspecting it, wondering what it could be, how it could be useful. We can begin to explore familiar objects in this way, as though we knew nothing about them.” says Dhanendra Kavde of Swangvale theatre, who is currently working on Jal Nal, an upcoming solo performance for kids that concerns itself with the dynamics and politics of water. On asked if the rehearsal process is very different from those where he has worked with co-actors, he says “The approach to creating the work is not very different from any other production. The material is my co-actors in this case. It is more stubborn, more independent minded. It reacts the way it does. You cannot expect a cupful of water to behave in the same way as it did in rehearsal. It forces one to be more alert than usual.” In the future, he hopes to work with each of the remaining four of five natural elements as well.
Rang Rangila Gittu Girgit (2014) Written, Designed and Directed by: Dhanendra Kawade
Image Courtesy: Swangvale

While his approach concerns itself with a sense of political and ecological responsibility, many other possibilities of engagement have developed new sub-genres over the years.
The categories of Object theatre, Puppetry, Shadow Play, Immersive and Site-sensitive theatre, stand as proof of material’s multifarious possibilities. While folk and traditional forms of puppetry such as Bunraku of Japan, South East Asian Wayang, Kathputli of Rajasthan, Vietnamese Water Puppetry and Togalu Gombeyaata of Karnataka, have been around for centuries, works by contemporary companies like Complicité’s A Dog’s Heart and Handspring Puppet Company’s Warhorse have given puppet on stage a hip revival. Closer home, Anurupa Roy has been reviving the style for modern theatregoers and as a teacher to young theatre-makers with her Katkatha Theatre Trust since the late 90s.
In India, material theatre is still somewhat underrepresented in the usual festival and proscenium circuit, but individuals and companies all over the country are bringing new attempts to the public. Material is always speaking to us and many theatre-makers are listening rather keenly.
Object Theatre with Choiti Ghosh
Image Courtesy: Gillo Theatre Repertory

“In the puppetry circles, one could hear murmurs of Object theatre eight years ago” Choiti Ghosh remembers. In 2010, after some years of working on stage already under her belt, she attended a short intensive workshop on object theatre by the Institut International de la Marionnette, and a year later founded the Tram Theatre Trust, dedicating to making engaging work with everyday objects. “In this form, the nuts-&-bolts-reality of the object lives side by side with the ideational,” she adds. “Working with objects or materials or puppets as co-actors requires a de-centring of the human performer which I enjoy very much.”
Most theatre-makers agreed that material is chosen not based on any criteria, but only through humble discoveries on the floor. Studying different things, structures, shapes, texture to find their natural movement, to follow their organic directions, may lead to spectacular images and ideas. Forcing character and meaning onto the use of materials is not likely to bring forth any real drama.

One Man’s Treasure

Sapientia by Mia van Leeuwen at Canoe Theatre Festival, 2014. Photo credit: John Battye

As they poke at multiple senses and liberate the imagination from the confines of realism, objects, puppets, grounds of action, and all other forms of material interventions into the stage bring something special to the audience’s relationship with what they are witness to. Choiti adds “The reality of the object is inherent in the physical presence of the object – a lock is always a lock. Sometimes a performance may leave the suggestion wide enough to allow each member of the audience to endow their associations and meanings on to object. You can laugh or cry depending on whether the lock finds its key or is forever broken beyond repair. And the intensity with which you resound to the lock’s situation may depend directly on how deeply you have felt a connection, how successful the play has been in this evocation.”
A material does not speak the language of body and mind that actors and audiences share in common, it is something of the other-world. The spectator meets the world of materials through the threads of memory and experience, while partially obscured from this world which is not quite theirs. In this meeting, material succeeds in using its untransformed power, combined with the choreography of voices, bodies, and movement through space, to evoke nuanced, poetic, and non-literal dimensions of the work.

Written by Saudamini Kalra
DSM Alumnus 2013-14
Co-Founder Meat Puppet Company
L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq