Ceri Townend

Embodied Object in Theatre

The Object in Drama

Ceri Townsend, Theatre Design

Big Brum Theatre in Education

Children use everyday objects – every day – to explore and understand their world. Pivotal objects – with physical and sensuous qualities that approximate the qualities of phenomena beyond their immediate scope – are invested, through imagination, with new meaning and value. Thus a broom becomes a horse, a sheet a stormy sea, and so on. They are imagining the real, improvising with the familiar to satisfy their urge to know the unfamiliar and its attendant myriad possible outcomes, concepts and lines of enquiry. Understanding and experience is deepened, activated by the evolutionary drive we know as Play.

The quality of children’s meaning-making is risked when the object is mediated by adult design interventions, as sensorial problems are solved, answers to useful questioning are given, and the possibilities for imaginative explorations grow narrower.

As a designer for learning through Drama my challenge is to design objects that widen the ‘gaps’ for exploration, and invite the child to immerse him/herself in the processes of making meaning to bridge them. Good design in drama requires a synthesis of not only form and function, but also what I call authenticity, and frame, to activate such open meaning-making processes.

By an authentic object I do not mean a genuine, historical artefact, nor that which faithfully reproduces its features: I mean an object of integrity, which is truthful in its resonance of the reality of human experience, specifically in three respects: universality – the site of all human culture and history of technology, realised in the identity of its function, or use value. eg. in the ‘shoe-ness’ of a shoe; particularity – the object’s specific design, materials, technique, that gives its production values, realised within its form; and individuality – the object’s ‘own’ unique condition and detail, the impact and reflection of the ‘other’ in its very substance – its narrative. It is this which gives it its human and dramatic value.

Interpretation of an art object:

It is on the forensic specificity of this last layer that the focus of design for Drama is trained. What opens up lines of fertile enquiry is not the shoe as such. Nor is it the particular kind of shoe – eg. a child’s simple play shoe, with a floral pattern embossed on red leather. Rather it is the unusually deep scuff on the toe of the shoe, the smoothness of the thinned sole, the improvised insole made from damp, folded newspaper dated two years ago and the lack of a companion shoe that initiates the search for meaning. The authenticity of the object resonates prior sensory experiences which deepen understanding and propels the enquiry forward. Gaps appear in comprehension, and an exploration of rational solutions begins instinctively.

These gaps widen and merge when an authentic object is framed and there is context – a more-or-less detailed world in which the object exists. Frame may be given visually eg. a theatre set, or verbally: “This single child’s shoe was found in a field near here this morning.” Or, verbally from a dramatic role: “After one of my guards reported missing food rations, I ordered a full inspection of the base. This was found by a hole in the perimeter fence. Somebody here knows something!” Now the object and the audience co-exist in the ‘gap’, an imagined world which they are compelled to explore, where meaning is actively and socially created, and the imagined is realised. The object is sensorially and consciously dramatized. Here is Drama.


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