Privacy and Senses
by Paul Leonard
March, 1991. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. DNA Theatre is midway through a performance of Sick. The entire room is silent and in darkness. Sitting alone, almost under a scaffold, I become acutely conscious that an actor has perched herself on a chair behind me and is now breathing in a peculiar manner. I hear her labour, her respiration louder, more rhythmical than normal breath. I wonder idly whether or not what I am hearing is part of the show. Is this a character's breath I hear, or simply that of the actor? I can't quite describe the sound she makes as she draws in air, releases it; it is hyper-naturalistic, stylized. Perversely, I begin to imagine that the director has caused the entire room to fall silent only so that I can listen to someone breathing. No other members of the audience are seated near enough to hear.
If this use of breathing had been intentional, then it was a private communication between the production - I don't know whether to say director, designer, actor - and whoever happened to sit in my particular seat. Moreover, the stylization of the actor's breathing was so slight, so subtle, that it easily could have remained unperceived.
I begin by describing this brief element - no more than a few seconds in a 90-minute show - because it introduces the several themes that emerge when I consider the nature of Hillar Liitoja's work as a designer: the impossibility of fully distinguishing between the role of the director and the role of the designer; Liitoja's meticulous attention to detail, even when such detail is unlikely to be appreciated by the whole audience; and the centrality of sound and light (and their absence) to the overall impact of any DNA production.
Hillar Liitoja has won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Direction, in 1989 for Hamlet and in 1991 for Sick. Although pleased with this recognition, Liitoja wants to be appreciated as a theatrical designer, too. He chafes at being classified solely as a director, because so much of his artistic vision is directed toward the way his shows look and sound, and because he conceives of the environment - both visual and aural - as an essential component of his work. For Liitoja and DNA, line readings and blocking cannot exist outside the total environment of the show. There is no outside. Even when the company tackles an established text, as they did with Hamlet, it is fair to suggest that there is no anterior essence to the production. The performance event is a complete experience, not an interpretation of some other text. Part of the problem that Liitoja faces is that this lack of compartmentalization in production mitigates against audiences perceiving the work as a union of essentially autonomous components: script, direction, acting, and design.
This does not mean, however, that one cannot discuss Liitoja as a designer. Some parts of his work can readily be understood in terms of a conventional designer's role. The set for DNA Theatre's production of Hamlet, for example, featured an immense ramp, reaching from one end of the theatre to the other, along with various platforms on which scenes were presented. There was clearly a design concept - Liitoja could even have produced a tiny model of the set in advance of rehearsals, just as a set designer might do at a regional theatre - that could be distinguished from the interpretation of the script.
Similarly, one could analyze the lighting plots of DNA shows, or the soundscapes that invariably contribute to Liitoja's work. But I would create a false impression for readers who have never seen a DNA production if I tried to isolate individual elements; inevitably, I fear, readers would posit a "play" or even just an "idea" that is somehow enhanced or illustrated by Liitoja's imaginative use of space, light, and sound. In fact, audience members who attempt to privilege the text are frequently disappointed. The DNA Hamlet, for example, received mixed reviews when it was produced at The Theatre Centre in Toronto in 1989. The negative responses focused almost exclusively on the production's putative failure to "deliver an enhanced understanding of the text" (The Entertainer), complaining that the show was "short on text and interpretation" (Toronto Star). The critics who applauded the production, on the other hand, tended to celebrate the use of music and sound, insisting that "this Hamlet is really a symphonic score" (Metropolis), or to praise the style of the production, enthusiastically noting for example, "d'anachronismes dans le vêtement et les accessories” (Le Soleil).
Reviews of DNA productions, whether positive or negative in their assessments, give a clear indication of what is at stake in the work. In a review of Pound-o-Rama in 1985, Globe and Mail theatre critic Ray Conlogue observed, "It is as if a large symbolist painting had come to life." About Hamlet, the Toronto Star complained, "It is as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to a Ming vase and then tried to glue it back together, discarding the many pieces that don't fit and substituting others." In both cases, critics move to metaphors from visual art in order to talk about the theatre productions they have seen.
Part of the difficulty in drawing a clear distinction between Liitoja the Director and Liitoja the Designer comes about because of his attitude toward space. "Whatever [theatre] space I'm in," he explains, "I'm going to use 100% of it." At a DNA show, there is no demarcation between the audience's territory and that of the performers. There is no neutral space; no part of the room is bracketed or rendered extraneous to the performance. (This refusal of boundaries underpins one of DNA'S most disconcerting features: performers are sometimes "planted" in the audience, revealing themselves as performers only when they intervene in the action.) Immediately, therefore, "design" becomes a larger issue than it would be in a traditional theatre production. Everything that the audience sees, hears, or feels is susceptible to interpretation as "part of the show". Elements that are otiose in traditional theatre - the colour or shape of the auditorium chairs, for example, or the breathing of the actors - suddenly become interpretable.
Since DNA insists on working within a total environment, the attention to detail that Liitoja brings to his designs is crucial. The aesthetic project of DNA Theatre is diminished if the audience occludes any part of their experience from their “experience” of the show. Thus, in the last hours before the première of Sick, Hillar Liitoja and his associate William Holutiak laboriously wrapped the company's orange-coloured industrial extension cords in black gaffer's tape. As a result, individual audience members probably had one of two reactions: either they did not perceive the extension cords at all, did not "experience" them, or they perceived that the extension cords had been "designed" for the show, at least to the extent that their colour was altered.
For the design of a show to be successful, it is not necessary for anyone in the audience to appreciate any particular element. Rather, the individual audience members must be unable to perceive anything that is not "intentional". Liitoja may be hyperbolic when he insists 'I pay meticulous attention to every square inch of the space' but anyone who wishes to dispute this statement must discover an inch of the space that does not bear some mark of Liitoja's volition. Few theatre-goers, I suspect, would undertake the search.
If most of the audience is completely involved in some aspects of the production, such as the music, which is frequently loud and repetitive, there will remain numerous flourishes that are invisible except to one or two audience members. This “private experience” is central to the aesthetic of DNA Theatre. Indeed, in 1987, DNA produced Private Performances; selected individuals were invited to attend the show which was performed in Hillar Liitoja's Toronto apartment. As is the case with all of DNA'S work, no member of the audience was able to see the whole piece. As the DNA press kit explains, "... each performance begins before the spectator is admitted."
In a sense, each piece created by DNA Theatre is an articulation of Liitoja's own aesthetic, an aesthetic that is most concretely realized in the recurring design elements. The most obvious of these is the use of row lights. Although DNA uses conventional theatre lighting in a sophisticated manner, and has used lighting instruments themselves as a design element, Liitoja insists on including the company's strings of naked bulbs (a lighting concept more commonly found at automobile sales lots). The presence of these lights, or the appearance on the set of a row of empty tequila bottles, or the repetition of a particular piece of Benny Goodman's music, signifies DNA. Usually, such design elements in Liitoja's work serve as markers of the company's aesthetic, and they make no more specific contribution to the content of the specific production. Orangeville or Elsinore, an apartment or a chamber of horrors, the overall look (and sound) of the environment is essentially the same. Through the range of subject matter that DNA has dealt with - Ezra Pound, adolescent murderers, Hamlet, AIDS - the consistency of the idiosyncratic design has helped as much as the acting style to establish Liitoja as a distinctive theatre artist.
It would be impossible to discuss Hillar Liitoja's work as a designer without commenting on the role of music and other sound in DNA Theatre productions. When Liitoja creates the total environment of his pieces, that environment includes the aural dimension as well. From the moment the spectators are admitted into the performance, a fabric of music, noise, cacophony and silence wraps them. Alterations in volume, from barely perceptible whispers to near-deafening blasts, combine with a range of sound sources - human screams and human speech, taped music and mechanical crashes - to give the soundscape a material quality. Like the use of light, which frequently varies from total darkness to blinding brightness, the use of sound in DNA productions serves as a mechanism to bypass the audience's interpretive faculties, producing instead a purely sensory experience which may provoke a physical or emotional reaction, but which is devoid of intellectual content.
In keeping with DNA'S environmental staging, audience members are allowed, indeed encouraged, to wander around the playing area, changing seats whenever they wish. Moreover, because the performance is always already in progress when the audience enters, each individual audience member undergoes a unique experience. He or she may be the only person to hear a particular piece of text, or to see the repetitions of an action. In this context, the aural and visual environment help to foster a monadic world in which communication is not a social act but a private experience. Ultimately, perhaps, it could be asserted that row lights and Benny Goodman are Hillar Liitoja's way of talking to himself.
CANADIAN THEATRE REVIEW | spring 1992