Design Pedagogy for a Place for Performance

This program carries a dual ambition made acute by the circumstances triggered by the pandemic:

1. Designing a place for performance
2. Facilitating the design process through multidisciplinary engagements

The realisation of both ambitions demands attention to the common constituent ecology of emotions and their embodiment within the self as well as with others.

The process began with the application itself: preparing the participants for the program by making innate aspects tangible. Section-1 of the application sought responses to apparently simple emotive questions about the applicants – aspects about oneself that we presume to know but don’t usually reflect upon, such as:

What makes me angry, sad or happy?
How do I respond when I get emotionally overwhelmed?
What are my preferred modes of work & leisure – alone or in company?

In section-2 of the application, candidates were required to submit a recollection of their earliest experience of performance, a note on a performance form unique to their region or community and a couple of sites chosen either for their vibrancy or dereliction as public spaces, but with the potential of becoming  a place for performance.

For logistical reasons the program was structured into two phases. The four-week long Phase-1 was online and was dedicated to preparation through sharing of personal recollections, discussions on contextual references, short case-studies, daily studies through drawing, emotive expressions in graphics and collage and inhabitation analyses of the site. Phase-2, also four-week long, was the residency in New Delhi, exploring design and performative trajectories. 


Performance Studies

The personal recollections and the short studies on performances unique to one’s region or community were intended to make us aware of the diverse range of performative traditions and improvisations in terms of context, scale, form etc. We discussed opportunity-driven street performances of monkeys & their handlers and Dhol-Tasha & Lezim (Pune & Nagpur) – the disenfranchised informality of one and the martial formality of the latter; the dynamism in the religious performance of Durga Puja (Kolkata) and Gondhal (Solapur) and their social transformations over time – the commercial propagation of one and the struggling stuttering survival of the latter; the transgressive performances of Bhat Noyotna (Haryana) within the domestic realm and Lavni (Maharashtra) in the public domain, deal with intimacies of disparate nature & scale – while the transgressions of the former as perhaps accepted across most cultures of the sub-continent as part of wedding preparations, the social status of the latter is enigmatic at best and a stigma at its worst.

Context Studies

There were three references that the participants engaged with:

Dr. Rustum Bharucha’s 9-episode speech act Theatre & The Coronavirus (2021) is structured in three parts. The first part begins with an introduction – locating “the threat of the coronavirus within the confines of theatre spaces at structural and phenomenological levels”, followed by a comparison between the Elizabethan era plague and the Spanish flu which had contrasting responses to the pandemic in particular relation to theatre places, followed by a revisit to “one of the most incendiary essays on the performativity of disease—Antonin Artaud’s ‘The Theatre and the Plague’ (1933)…” In the second part the focus is expanded to performances in daily life. In the three successive episodes, Dr. Barucha raises sociological, philosophical and political comparisons with respect to ‘social distancing’, “the benefits and tyranny of the lockdown” and the Black Lives Matter movement across USA  & the Shaheenbagh Movement in New Delhi. The third part focuses on the “here and now of theatre artists” starting with a questioning of the definitions of ‘live’ and the ‘mediatized’, moving on to the need for an ecological architecture for theatre and finally culminating in personal learnings on living with ourselves and living with the virus through “the ethos of waiting.”

Conversations @ The Vessel (2020 & 2021) are videos of online interviews conducted by Siddharth Singh (along with Sukhmani Brar in Vol.1) with diverse creative practitioners around the questions of their practice, the pandemic and the future prospects. The five sessions of Volume-3 of the series, A Place for Performance, deal specifically with the issues concerning this program; engaging with fifteen practitioners and creatives involved in dance, theatre, performance-art, space management, dramaturgy, pedagogy and applied-theatre.

The third reference was the IFA published book, Beyond The Proscenium (2010). This volume, edited by Anmol Vellani, carries interviews with and profiles on Astad Debu & Bansi Kaul along with essays from other practitioners of performance and theatre whose pursuit has been to create space outside the mainstream. Debu’s insistence on seeking challenge in a space and Kaul’s advice to love a space to be able to intervene in it are principles that even spatial designers should follow. Besides Kaul’s creative versatility, I am also moved by his frugal grassroots engagement, his condition of making friends before making an audience and his sensibility of measuring space through sound. This book is an invaluable resource for processes such as ours that intend to imagine “ecological architecture” for performance. 
A fourth reference was Himanshu Burte’s IFA funded 2008 research publication Space for Engagement. Excerpts of the book summarising the state of public visual & performing art spaces and Burte’s proposed analytical framework for design were shared with the participants to help them in their design processes. However, the participants were not able to incorporate this component in the available time.

Drawing Studies

The first hour of every day was to be dedicated to Visual & Spatial representation (VSR): drawing mostly from direct observation of the subject in presence. This exercise has a threefold objective: 

1. Centring the body & mind, building hand & eye coordination and beginning the day in quietude
2. Building patience & perseverance in addition to developing visual & spatial representation skills
3. Developing a nuanced understanding of the inhabitants and protagonists of spaces

Selected drawings displayed at The Vessel, New Delhi
photo: Siddharth SIngh

Each of the four weeks of the first phase had a distinct subject for studying through drawing: Week-1 was for drawing performers which each participant had selected to study for being unique to their region or community; Week-2 was for studying one’s cohabitants in their daily chores or relaxing; Week-3 was for studying vegetation, preferably from the site of one’s intervention; Week-4 was to create profiles of the drawings which have already been created over the first three weeks. If the earlier drawings are already an abstract representation of people and vegetation through lines and shading, the profiles are further extractions of the essence of these abstractions.

Mapping Inhabitation

Prachi’s combined analyses of spaces for solitude, intimacy & congregation

A significant part of understanding the site and context of a design intervention is the mapping of one’s emotional association with various parts of the site. To carry out such a mapping we need to look beyond the transactional aspects of the site and design such as entrance, toilets, offices, cafe and so on. Ascribing only functions to the various areas and locations disregards the human dimension of inhabitation. I categorise inhabitation into the following kinds, which perhaps encompass all states of our being in a space:

Solitude: being alone (not necessarily lonely)
Intimacy: being with another or in a small group
Congregation: being in a large group

The fourth state of being, of course, is transaction – our activities and engagements –  which is what normally gets paid attention to. These categories, however, are not watertight compartments – there is the intimacy of self-care in solitude, while one can remain solitary even in a congregation. Nevertheless, this filter of the states of inhabitation, I believe, brings the inhabitant – the person – into focus, rather than their profession or role as in the case of ascribing functions.

Emotive Collage

Participants were asked to list down five emotions – preferably feelings evoked in them by their site and the prospects of creating a place of performance in it. They then had to successively translate each of these emotions into a graphical or sculptural form within seconds, using colours, paper and whatever other resources available at hand. Each translation was then sequentially placed on a blank canvas to eventually create a collage. We discussed how each act takes into consideration and responds to the preceding condition, so much so that even the first element on blank canvas responds to emptiness and the locations of centre, sides and edges. We always already have a relationship with empty space. This realisation is a significant step in the breaking of our obsession with the blank slate. The process of adding each successive element followed two primary methods or a combination of the two: 

1. association by meaning – where the participant held on to the meaning of the preceding element and placed the next accordingly
2. association by composition – where the participant followed the suggestion of the previous form and placed the next in a compositional relationship

    A composed placement of the four collages displayed at The Vessel, New Delhi
    photo: Siddharth SIngh

    The individual collages at present are at the half-way stage of the process where each participant has added more elements to the initial five emotions to complete their collage. We did not complete the second half of dynamically suturing the four collages to make them one work.

    Phase-2 Introduction

    The primary focus of the residency part of the program was the design of a place of performance. To support the design process, the participants started every morning with embodied work, and, in addition,  explored the process of developing a very small performance. 

    Morning Routine of Embodied Work

    The initiation ritual every morning consisted of the following three parts: 

    1. Warm-up, stretching, breathing and relaxation exercises
    2. The Ball Game
    3. Dance & Movement

      Together, these exercises help the participants centre their physical, emotional and mental states and, in addition to becoming aware of the self, also become sensitive to others and the spaces that they inhabit.

      Building a Performance

      With the intention of making the participants acutely aware of the nature and needs of a place of performance as well as the multisensorial and collaborative process of a performance, we created a minute long performance which evolved by integrating many smaller steps.

      1. Narrating an episode from as far back in memory as possible
      2. Extracting five emotions from the narration to present them in corresponding Mudras/ gestures/ postures
      3. Performing different iterations of the mudras & their sequences in diverse spaces
      4. Creating rhythms as an ensemble to discover the individual & the collective
      5. Integrating the individual performance strands into a theatrical string through a conversation process in duos, trios and ensemble


        Following the preparatory first phase, the participants had to draw parameters from their performance & contextual studies and derive a program for a place for performance corresponding to their site. The inhabitation mapping carried out earlier was intended to make participants aware of the existing conditions of the site and acknowledge their potential contribution to the intended place for performance. This process is explicitly evident in Prachi & Mugdha’s designs, particularly so because of the earnestness of their mappings.

        Following this, participants were encouraged to engage back & forth near-simultaneously with both the spatial organisation as well as the constructional aspects of their designs. This would have perhaps helped them push through the deadlock that either of the trajectories would encounter when pursued independently. However, the participants, except Mugdha to some degree, failed to use the material and constructional parameters to enhance their design process.