Features Guest Column Published 11 November 2012

What is Not a Metaphor

Recognising and applying theatrical metaphor.

Selma Dimitrijevic

For the last few months I have been working with about 120 young designers – or, to be more precise, students of design and performance. Some of them are happy to call themselves designers and some are not, because other titles describe them much better.

I am also currently working with a group of young directors and writers. We work on very different projects, through very different processes and with diverse partners, but recently I realised that besides supporting them in whatever they do, there is one thing I’m trying to teach them all, and that is: what is not a metaphor.

In my own work as a director, I am not able to fully describe and label the elements of the production that I help to create, but I can recognise when I have miscreated something while attempting a metaphor. This ability, I believe, has transformed me from someone who is directing shows into an actual theatre director.

The realisation that this is one of the most useful tools I have as a director came from working with a designer – and a fantastic collaborator – Oliver Townsend.

Our first collaboration was a production of my own play Gods Are Fallen And All Safety Gone at the Almeida Festival earlier this year. After weeks of experimenting and talking about different possible options, we ended up with absolutely no set and the actors dressed in their rehearsal room clothes – and still that design feels like the most successful design of any of the productions I ever worked on.

I often argue for time and money to be spent on ideas and relationships instead of on objects and the mechanics of objects existing on stage. At the moment (and I suspect this will pass with time) I feel that the fewer “things” I actually see on stage, the more successful I feel the production is.  I understand that “things” is not very precise term, but that’s just how I feel about it at the moment.

I was very excited to see Oliver posting photos from Gods on his website as an example of his design work and I have already have many conversations along the lines of: “Yes, but eventually you will have an actual set, no?” (Just in case you are wondering the same, we won’t.)

I feel we have jointly created a map of flexible tensions that need to exist between the two actors, between the actors and the space, between the actors and the audience, and between the space and the audience. And that became our design. It’s impossible to see it without actors and audience present, but it demanded as much work and thought as a built structure might have. (The get in was much easier though.)

It felt as though, for the first time in my work, I could tell very clearly if a production element was a metaphor or not, and most importantly if it fell between the two. Being able to get rid of everything that was “a little bit of a metaphor” or “maybe a metaphor” made for a cleaner and sharper production and a much happier team.

The next step is learning how to recognise and apply this as a writer, which – at least at the moment – seems incredibly difficult.

As a writer, setting the metaphor somewhere that is not the text or character or object seems like a job I can’t do on my own. Of course, setting it in any of the mentioned positions is something I probably do anyway, but it’s that indescribable and unreachable other place that I’m in search of.

Learning from the experience of Gods, I think the person who might help me place things in that indescribable place is a designer, in this case again Oliver Townsend.

Recently, we have started working on a new project, me again as a writer/director and Oliver as a designer. The difference this time is that we are staggering our creating time and building separate elements of the production independently but almost in parallel.

After having a few pages of the script and a few days with actors/dancers working on it, Oliver has gone and designed a set for me. It’s not finished, it doesn’t come in a box model shape, but it’s on my desk and I can imagine my words being spoken in it.

I am now working on the first full draft of the play and having the set in front of me allows me to at least imagine a location where I can place things, and that exists between what I write and what is on stage.

I find this feeling very similar to writing a libretto, where neither I, as the librettist, or the composer I’m working with, are taking the full responsibility for communicating the story, but instead count on the story being communicated by what happens in between our two works when they are placed together.

I’m not sure if this way of writing and creating will work or if I will abandon the whole idea and try and find another way. But at the moment, it’s very exciting searching for this place and introducing young theatremakers to the skill of recognising the metaphor. It helps them identify what they are creating, and it helps me to look at the place where I might put things I create.

As long as they realise that some ropes, a wooden box and a mast are not a metaphor for a ship, I think we are going in the right direction.

Selma Dimitrijevic is a playwright and director and is the co-artistic director of Greyscale Theatre Company.

Photo: Mark Fisher.

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Selma Dimitrijevic is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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