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The Visual in Performance Practice

Interdisciplinary Perspectives

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Inter-Disciplinary Press
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Inter-Disciplinary Press 2012

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A Space within a Space: Contemporary Scenographic

Approaches in Historical Theatrical Spaces
Sofia Pantouvaki
This study investigates the performativity of space by researching the relations
between existing architectural theatrical space and the scenographic space designed
for a specific performance. A comparative review of different scenographic
propositions designed for the famous Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens
over the past 15 years was drawn up. Some of these performances were originally
designed for the specific venue, while others were only hosted in it. The set designs
of various theatre, dance and musical performances are analysed from the
perspective of space within a space. Scenography is thus presented as dramatic
space within a r eal space. A critical presentation and thorough study of the
architectural dynamics and the aesthetic elements developed in the examples
presented in this study result in conclusions with respect to the spatial and dramatic
connection between theatre, viewed as the hosting space, and scenography,
perceived as ephemeral architecture.
Key Words: Space, theatre, scenography, architecture, Herod Atticus Odeon.
1. Introduction
This chapter explores the relationship between the hosting architectural space
of a g iven theatrical venue and the scenic space designed for a s pecific
performance. Given the temporary nature of a s cenographic construction,
scenography is analysed as a t ype of ephemeral architecture. The aim is to
understand the multiple aspects of the dynamic liaison between the constructed
architectural space and the different scenographic approaches related to
contemporary performance.
The case studies analysed in this chapter are performances staged in the
framework of the Athens Festival, the major international festival in Greece,
traditionally taking place in the Roman Herod Atticus Odeon at the foot of the
Acropolis hill in Athens. 1 The approach adopted for the analysis of the research
results is a combination of: a) the experience of the author as a designer who has
collaborated on a series of new designs in this space, b) the researchers theoretical
research on and academic exploration of the subject, as well as c) the researchers
experience, gleaned from years of attending performances at the Herod Atticus


A Space within a Space

2. Space and Theatre: Scenographic Space as Dramatic Space
A theatrical space includes both the place where the theatrical action takes
place, that is, the stage, whether architecturally defined or not, as well as the space
where the audience gathers to watch the performance, while there are also
secondary theatrical areas intended for the preparation of the performance, the
According to Rudolf Arnheim, space is a self-contained entity, infinite or
finite, an empty vehicle, ready and having the capacity to be filled with things; 2
Arnheim also claims that the experience of space is generated only through the
interrelation of objects. 3 In performance, the space and everything that it may
comprise is interrelated to the human presence, and this includes both the
performers and the audience. Therefore, space in performance is not a co mplete
whole on its own; it only comes to life when the dynamism of the human body
penetrates the space. 4
In theatre, the notion of space includes the scenic space, meaning the dramatic
space where the performance takes place on the stage. Therefore, the theatrical
stage has a dual aspect: the actions take place on stage, and thus the real space is
where the action takes place. The same space, however, is where the apparent, the
story, takes place. Scenography contributes to the creation of the world where
this story takes place. In this sense, the scenographic design creates a space within
a (given) space. Scenography is hence conceived as dramatic space within real,
architectural space.
The design of the dramatic space is characterised by the interpretation of the
story or theme by the creators of the performance, led by the director. Pamela
Howard remarks that space is part of the scenographic vocabulary. 5 Designing
the performance space relates the elements of composition to the given story and
action, creating a new spatial synthesis, whilst lighting is the most important
compositional medium for the creation of atmosphere. 6 The design of the dramatic
space embodies symbolisms based both on visual semiology and on common
experience. Moreover, the scenographic design creates the visual character of the
action, which is also identified by the spatial characteristics of the given space.
Hence, when investigating the dramatic space within a certain architectural space,
all the aforementioned elements are examined.
3. Contemporary Performance in a Historical Architectural Space
This study is based on on-site observation and active collaboration in a number
of performances and also on personal interviews conducted with several persons
who have collaborated with the specific venue. 7 Scenographic designs staged at
Herod Atticus Odeon within the framework of Athens Festival were investigated in
detail. 8

Sofia Pantouvaki


A. The Given Space: Herod Atticus Odeon
Herod Atticus Odeon was built in ancient Athens between 160 and 174 AD,
and it is the only odeon that survives today in good condition. It is shaped as a
semicircular amphitheatre and was originally covered with a roof. During Roman
times, the Odeon primarily hosted musical festivals and could seat up to 5000
spectators. The skene (stage) was a long rectangle, built of quarried stone, 9 and the
scenic wall extended over three levels, up to 28m high and was lavishly decorated
with architectural elements such as niches for the placement of statues. 10 Both wall
surfaces were covered by porous stone blocks, while the interior was filled with
quarry faced stones. 11 The Odeon was destroyed during the invasion of the Heruli
in 267 AD and never reconstructed. In later years, it was gradually covered by
embankments, until when excavations at the monument began in the midnineteenth century. 12 The monument was restored by the Hellenic Archaeological
Service during 1952-1953; today, Herod Atticus Odeon can seat 4680 spectators.
B. The Context: The Athens Festival
The Herod Atticus Odeon has hosted productions almost continuously since its
excavation in the mid-nineteenth century. 13 The Athens Festival was founded in
1955. The policy that triggered the foundation of the festival was to develop Greek
cultural activity, bringing local and international artists and audiences together, to
promote Greek culture worldwide and to further tourism through culture. The
Athens Festival has been, from the very beginning, an international festival for
performances of music and theatre, and later on also for dance and ballet
C. Performance in Herod Atticus Odeon
The performances which are hosted in the space of Herod Atticus Odeon can be
divided into the two following categories:
Firstly, there are performances which were originally designed and presented in
other spaces, and then invited by Athens Festival. In these cases, the scenographic
designs were initially created for a d ifferent space. Thus, the designer is called
upon to suggest an adaptation of the original scenographic design, in collaboration
with the Festivals technical supervisors.
Secondly, there are also productions commissioned specifically for the Herod
Atticus Odeon. These cases are far fewer in numerical terms in the history of the
venue, given that Athens Festival is primarily a hosting institution. In these cases it
is possible to examine in what ways the actual architectural space has inspired the


A Space within a Space

4. The Architectural Dynamics of the Hosting Space
The observation of the given space for the needs of this study focuses mainly
on the area of the stage (skene and orchestra) and its relationship with the audience
area. 14

Figure 1: The Herod Atticus Odeon in performance; Sofia Pantouvaki

The architectural characteristics of the Herod Atticus Odeon are as follows:
The space has no roof; it is an open-air theatre. Therefore, the
stage does not have traditional theatrical mechanisms or
The shape of the stage is defined by the surrounding walls.
Its a l ong rectangle, very wide (width: 32m.) and shallow
(depth: 6m.).
The orchestra is semi-circular, in the typical Roman theatre
The main wall of the building is the dominant architectural
and aesthetic element at the back of the stage. It has a strictly
defined symmetrical architectural form.
The wall, although solid, is not a massive construction; it is
not permitted, therefore, to use the wall to support anything.
Specific openings give access to the stage, defined by the
scenic wall.
The spectators are seated amphitheatrically at a considerable
distance from the stage, while the orchestra is between the
elevated stage area and the audience.

Sofia Pantouvaki



The porous stone blocks covering the wall surfaces have a

light ochre colour, which give the space a soft but distinct

A few examples are critically presented in this study and summarize some
observations about the spatial and dramatic connection between the theatrical space
and the scenography of the productions presented in it.
5. Space within a Space: Scenography as Ephemeral Architecture
At the Herod Atticus Odeon, there is a dual function of the given space: on one
hand its identity as a monument of cultural heritage and on the other its function as
a performance space operated by a co ntemporary cultural institution. These two
aspects of the site are both operative, both relate to the architecture of the space in
different ways, and need to be combined. There are three collaborating sides which
are called upon to work together: the archaeologists, who are in charge of the
preservation and restoration of the site; the artists, whose creative works are
presented in this historical theatrical space; and the managing institution, which
selects and administrates the performances. Their successful collaboration can be
summarized in three basic key-words: 15 cohabitation, metamorphosis and
compromise. 16
In a certain sense, performance design for the Herod Atticus Odeon is very site
specific. The principal architectural elements of the space are so precisely defined
that few alterations can be made. 17
As observed previously, the dominant element in both the architectural and the
aesthetical sense is the stages back wall. This wall has an everlasting presence,
whatever the architectural design of the ephemeral scenography may be. Only in
very rare cases have scenographers attempted to hide the back wall with an
enormous scenographic construction. 18 Such was the case of the design for La
Forza del Destino, produced by Greek National Opera and designed by the
architect-scenographer Nicolas Petropoulos in 1998. Petropoulos, who had
designed in the Herod Atticus Odeon several times in the past, decided to guide his
spectators into a different variation of this well-known theatrical space, purposely
covering the famous wall (Fig. 2.a-b). 19


A Space within a Space


Figure 2: a and b. La Forza del Destino, Greek National Opera, 1998, designer
Nicolas Petropoulos; Stefanos (collage by Konstantinos Theofanis)
Given the enormous size of the sets in question, having this design approved by
the Archaeological Service was a lengthy procedure, despite the autonomy and
firm support provided by the scaffolding.
On the other hand, most designers have tried to include the architectural and
aesthetic characteristics of this venue into their design and thus let themselves be
inspired by the space rather than go against its qualities. One such example has
been the ballet Raymonda, designed for the GNO ballet company by the author,
Sofia Pantouvaki, in the summer of 2001. The concept was not only to incorporate
the openings of the theatre into the scenography by using light scenographic
elements (i.e. door frames), but to actually involve the whole of the back wall into
the dramatic action by virtue of lighting (Fig. 3.a). Moreover, this scenographic
solution facilitated the choreography by leaving much of the stage space available
for the dancers movement. The interaction between this and the choreography
design was so successful that when the production was revived in GNOs regular
venue, a new set had to be created, reproducing the main architectural form of the
Odeon! (Fig. 3.b)

Figure 3: a. Raymonda at the Herod Atticus Odeon, 2001; b. Raymonda at the

Olympia Theatre, 2002, Greek National Opera, both versions designed by Sofia
Pantouvaki; Stefanos

Sofia Pantouvaki


On some occasions, scenographic design can provide a space with a new look
by lending visual emphasis to specific elements of the spatial composition. Such
was the case with the scenography for Turandot, produced by Greek National
Opera in 2008 based on a new design for Herod Atticus Odeon by Italian
scenographer Carlo Diappi. This Turandot set was conceived with a h orizontal
emphasis, underlined by the golden line, which visually cut the back wall to
two sections (Fig. 4.a-b).

Figure 4: a and b Turandot, Greek National Opera, 2008, designer Carlo Diappi;
The aforementioned designs are examples of scenography especially designed
for the Herod Atticus Odeon. Things are very different when productions created
elsewhere are hosted in the venue. Some touring productions are obliged to use
very limited sets, for technical and financial reasons. The following examples
illustrate the effect of such small-scale sets when they are placed on the Odeon
stage (Fig. 5.a-b): the disparity in proportion between the dimensions of the theatre
and the visiting sets is huge, and thus the enormous venue is much more imposing
than the dramatic space.

Figure 5: a. Le Malade Imaginaire, Municipal Regional Theatre of Crete, designer

Nikos Saridakis, 2003; Stefanos; b. Medea by Bost, Stoa Theatre Company,
designer Bost, 2003; Stefanos


A Space within a Space

Another interesting example is a production entitled Songs of the Wanderers by
the Cloud Gate Dance Company of Taiwan, hosted at the Herod Atticus Odeon
during the Athens Festival in 2005. An enormous amount of wheat-grain was
required on stage for the scenography of this production (Fig. 6.a). The
choreography was based on the changing shapes of the wheat, so that this dance
performance could not be performed without it (Fig. 6.b). In this respect, the grains
were also active compositional elements for the design of the space. Still, any
material which cannot be removed after the performance (i.e. grains, rice or sand)
are prohibited by the Archaeology Board, since the orchestra of the Herod Atticus
Odeon is surrounded by ancient rain-water drainage systems. The grains could
block the drains, which are not only of historical value but are also, to this day, the
venues only drainage system. The solution found in this case was to build a small
container, closed on each side at a height of about 30 cm all around the stage, in
order to keep the grains of wheat within the area of the stage. The result was a
magical production of marvellous harmony of body, movement, lighting and space.

Figure 6: a and b Songs of the Wanderers, Cloud Gate Dance Company of Taiwan,
designer Austin Wang, Athens Festival 2005; Stefanos
There are also examples of performances which did not work well in this
particular venue. On May 1, 2004, the year of the Athens Olympic Games, a
concert of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra opened the 2004 Athens Festival.
Since the concert was internationally broadcast live at 1pm in the afternoon, it was
necessary to have a roof to provide shade and shelter to those on stage. Having
seen the preliminary design for a massive roof, the archaeologists were against its
installation, since it would have created problems in terms of weight and aesthetics.
The negotiations lasted three months, and finally a more appropriate solution was
found in the form of a smaller-scale and lightweight tent as opposed to a large roof,
so that all parties involved were satisfied. 20 Still, the aesthetic result of the
approved roof is very controversial (Fig. 7.a-b).

Sofia Pantouvaki



Figure 7: a and b Aspects of the setting for the concert of the Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra, Athens Festival 2004; Stefanos
The production of the opera Pagliacci, commissioned by the Athens Festival to
Franco Zeffirelli, who designed and directed it in September 2005, was probably
the most ambitious plan in the history of the Festival. Zeffirelli was inspired by the
actual architectural space of the Herod Atticus Odeon, and designed a scenographic
space extending across the entire scenic area of the monument. In particular, the
back wall of the stage became part of a scenographic composition, which seemed
to be extending around and behind the wall. The wall was incorporated in the
dramatic action by using scaffolding, thereby giving the impression that the sets
were inhabited by people, i.e. the performers, thus imbuing the architectural space
of the Odeon with life. In order to make the construction of a scaffolding which
could hold the weight of 20 persons walking on it possible, it proved necessary to
construct a second scaffolding at the rear of the stage wall, to provide support to
the front scaffolding by connecting both sides, since it is prohibited to affix
anything whatsoever to the theatres ancient walls.
This enormous construction had to be discussed at great length with the Central
Archaeological Council representatives and accompanied by a ci vil engineering
certificate before it could be approved.
Zeffirellis intention was to convey a sense of cinematographic realism to the
theatrical space of the venue. Therefore, the Pagliacci production also included a
series of real objects, realistic scenographic elements and a long list of props, many
of which were ultimately ruled out and not used in the end. 21 All in all, Pagliacci
was a p erformance of complex scenographic demands. The final outcome was a
lively performance, in which the dramatic space merged with the architectural
space of the theatre. The director-designers initial intention was fulfilled, in that
the performance brought the space in which it was taking place to life.


A Space within a Space


Figure 8: a through d Pagliacci, Athens Festival 2005, designer Franco Zeffirelli;

6. Conclusion
The case studies analysed highlight several parameters with respect to theatre
architecture and design for performance. These parameters interrelate and involve
the architectural dynamics and the aesthetic identity of a given space, the type and
style of the performance and the (desired) character of the scenographic design.
Special requirements and restrictions, such as those examined in connection with
the Herod Atticus Odeon, also contribute to the creation and/or adaptation of a
scenographic approach. In each individual phase, close and constant collaboration
must be ensured amongst all professionals involved.
In whatever size, shape and proportion, space has to be conquered, harnessed
and changed by its animateurs. 22


George Loukos, Athens Festival Chairman and Artistic Director since 2006,
broadened the festival programme to host more regularly experimental and avantgarde performances, introducing new venues in an industrial complex.
R. Arnheim, The Dynamics of Architectural Form, University of California Press,
Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 2009, p. 9.

Sofia Pantouvaki



Ibid., p. 10.
See L. Damiani in P. Howard, op. cit., p. xv.
Howard, op. cit., p. 1.
See also S. Pantouvaki, Visualising Theatre: Scenography from Concept to
Design to Realisation, Mapping Minds, M. Raesch (ed), Inter-Disciplinary Press,
Oxford, UK, 2010, pp. 67-75.
Interviewees include: Athens Festival Chairman and General Manager Yannis
Karahissaridis (2001-2006), Athens Festival Technical Director Kostas
Charalambidis (2001-2008), and Theatre Manager for Herod Atticus Odeon, Keti
Vavalea (1999-currently).
Most of the research material for this research was collected during the authors
collaboration with Athens Festival as production manager (2002-2006).
See the History of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the official webpage of
Athens Festival, Viewed on 5 December 2010, Available at http://www.greekfesti
See also, M. Kosma, Herod Atticus Odeon, History, Odysseus Portal, Hellenic
Ministry of Culture & Tourism/Hellenic Culture Organization S.A., Viewed on 4
December 2010, Available at
Kosma, op. cit.
History of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the official webpage of Athens
Festival, op. cit.; Kosma, op. cit.
These were initially theatrical productions of ancient drama, in keeping with the
cultural policy of the Greek State, in need of bolstering its identity. See the
official webpage of Athens Festival, op. cit.
According to Howard, the characteristic of a s pace also has to be taken into
consideration from the first moment of planning. Its atmosphere and quality deeply
affect both audience and performers. P. Howard, op. cit., p. 2.
For the development of these ideas, the author is grateful to discussions held
with the former Chairman and General Manager of Athens Festival, Yannis
For more details see: S. Pantouvaki, Monuments - Theatres - Conflict &
Collaboration Concerning the Use of Archaeological Sites by Cultural Institutions
The Athens and Epidaurus Festivals (in Greek), Academic Lectures 2008-09,
Department of Theatre Studies, University of Peloponnese, Nafplion,
However, the added stage provides numerous possibilities to change shape and
dimensions, according to the needs of each type of event.
This is difficult to achieve, also due to the high cost of such a construction.
Petropoulos supported his views during the set up of the production in June
The Philharmonic, the archaeologists and the Athens Festival.


A Space within a Space


For example, Zeffirelli had requested the presence of live animals on stage, but
this was not allowed.
P. Howard, op. cit., p. 1.

Arnheim, R., The Dynamics of Architectural Form. University of California Press,
Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 2009.
Hellenic Festival S.A. Available at
Hellenic Society for Law and Archaeology. Available at
Howard, P., What is Scenography? Routledge, London and New York, 2002.
Pantouvaki, S., Visualising Theatre: Scenography from Concept to Design to
Realisation. Mapping Minds. Raesch, M. (ed), Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford,
UK, 2010.
Pantouvaki, S., Monuments - Theatres Conflict & Collaboration Concerning the
Use of Archaeological Sites by Cultural Institutions The Athens and Epidaurus
Festivals. (in Greek) Academic Lectures 2008-09. Department of Theatre Studies,
University of Peloponnese, Nafplion, (forthcoming).
Rose, G., Visual Methodologies. Sage, London, 2005.
Collins, J. and Nisbet, A. (eds), Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in
Scenography. Routledge, London and New York, 2010.
Sofia Pantouvaki, Ph.D., is a f reelance scenographer and researcher, currently
teaching at the Department of Theatre Studies, University of the Peloponnese in