"A new place cries out for a new ceremony, but of course it is the new ceremony that should have come first – it is the ceremony of all meanings that should have dictated the shape of the place, as it did when all the great mosques and cathedrals and temples were built. Goodwill, sincerity, reference, belief in culture are not quite enough: the outer form can only take on real authority if the ceremony has equal authority – and who today can possibly call the tune? Of course, today as at all times, we need to stage true rituals, but for rituals that could make theatre – going to an experience that feeds our lives—true forms are needed. These are not at our disposal, and conferences and resolutions will not bring them our way.
In other forms of architecture there is a relationship between conscious, articulate design and good functioning: a well-designed hospital may be more efficacious than a higgledy-piggledy one: but as for theatres, the problem of design cannot start logically. It is not a matter of saying analytically what are the requirements, how best they can be organized – this will usually bring into existence a tame, conventional, often cold hall. The science of theatre-building must come from studying what it is that brings about the most vivid relationship between people – and it is best served by asymmetry, even by disorder? An architect is better off if he works like a scene designer, moving scraps of cardboard by intuition, than if he builds his model from a plan, prepared with a compass and a ruler.
If the theatre seems to need a certain crude element, this must be accepted as part of its natural soil. Most architects remain blind to this principle – and era after era the most vital theatrical experiences occur outside the legitimate places constructed for the purpose."
/ Peter Brook on new buildings for performance in a wider sense, The Empty Space
PK: For me the most important sentence in Peter Brook’s text is that an architect should be studying what it is that brings about the most vivid relationship between people. This leads directly to the Haduwa Apata*, the performance building we constructed in Apam. We started with a workshop for students of the performing arts and architecture on “staging space and staging stage”. The architectural students observed the performing arts students and their behaviour. Dancers were dancing blindfolded and the architectural students evaluated their movements: ‘How did they react to the sunlight? How did the wind influence them?’ This was active research on performance specifics. To work in this crossdisciplinary way is important when it comes to spaces for the arts or the performing arts.
AMA: We are saying that the performer’s body or the performer’s movements should suggest the kind of space he could perform in, which for me is really new. If you think of the fact that often performances take place within a space and the performers make use of that space, this thinking is rather the other way round. The architecture should consider the shape of the performance and then create a space to fit the performance. In a lot of senses I guess there is truth in that, in the sense that if you look at traditional African performance for example, which engenders a lot of performer-audience interaction. Therefore it can never be on a proscenium stage. You want the audiences around the performance so the actors can interact freely with them. In a certain sense, that is why traditionally a lot of performances take place in the round. If you have drummers and dancers in any community in Ghana, traditional drumming and dancing is always in the round. So I think it makes a lot of sense that the performance should determine the space. But somehow for a long time we have worked the opposite way. I wonder if that affects the kind of performances that are created, because then the performers are not free to move out of the space.
PK: This is Peter Brook’s opinion – he is demanding it and it is also my opinion. If you look at new buildings or structures that are going to be built in the future, it is crucial. But on the other hand, disregarding buildings and architecture, no matter where you perform, it is always about the interaction between the audience and the performers. So wherever you are as a performer, you have to take this into account, be it the sound, the light, or the weather conditions if you are outside, or where the audience is seated. When you talked about traditional African theatre, this was actually what Peter Brook did.
AMA: It is about performance as ritual. He is looking at performance as ritual. He refers to temples, cathedrals, and mosques.
PK: If we talk about the contemporary performing arts, what does it need?
AMA: Who was it that said, “All you need for performance is the performer and the audience.” Was it Grotowsky? Where we are now, there could be a performance here. We have had a performance here before in this space. So in a certain sense performance could happen practically anywhere.
PK: So it should be a people’s place, suitable for people and performers.
AMA: This also introduces the whole notion of flexibility. It can change. It should be a space that can adapt to different kinds of performances. But having said that, performances should also be able to adapt to different kinds of spaces.
PK: I do think if you build a theatre or a stage, performers have to be involved. It should be an interaction, a dialogue, a continuous communication about this future performance space. And a theatre should always be placed in or near an existing community, not an opera house in an artificially created opera village in the middle of nowhere. If you implement or build a new theatre, think of where you are, look around yourself. What kinds of people are living there? How do you actually get them involved? How can the building already help to establish a relationship with the outside, with the landscape as well as the going and coming and sharing? The building has this as an assignment. Whenever I refer to Apam, to the Haduwa Apata, it is about how to get the local community involved. One way is of course making our work as artists relevant to the community. In Apam we give workshops to the schools. The Haduwa Apata is situated on the coast, there are fishermen. Instead of shutting it off - the Apata - we want them to use it. Use it for shade…
AMA: That is a very broad view on performance. Because in a certain sense you are asking that the community should perform there, even thinking of the fishermen using it as shade. You are saying the space should be so connected with the community that the performance is not a sacred-once-in-a-while something, but an everyday something? Is that what you mean?
PK: Personally, I would be so happy if performance was a part of everyday life. Performing arts help us to reflect our lives, our societies, our politics. So why shouldn’t it be part of our everyday?
AMA: But in a certain sense you are asking that it is not only artists who should perform there and then you are bringing it down to the very lowest level, that every action that takes place within that space then becomes performance.
PK: Actually that’s what I’m saying. For me a performance space is a space where voices can emerge and be heard. Of course it is different if fishermen sit there.
AMA: Then there is no audience.
PK: Exactly, performers go there and perform for an audience. I already conducted or directed performances without an audience and it still was a performance. The performers were totally in sync with the environment. It was really magical. So not every performance necessarily needs to be in front of a zillion people. Coming back to the question, what is necessary for a performance space and does it work with the Haduwa Apata?
AMA: It certainly has a sense of flexibility and a multiple dimension of performing, performing towards the ocean, towards what I would call the main front. The larger opening. It certainly has a sense of flexibility, and therefore a certain sense of differences of audiences, audiences from different angles as well.
PK: You see for me what is so special about this place is that it’s a unique structure and that it really melts into the landscape. There are different possibilities and directions you can perform in. It is also in a rural or fishermen’s community. During the workshop “staging space and staging stage”, we had a performance in front of the main church in Apam. We wanted to see how the audience reacted as an audience. Where do they place themselves? Our backdrop was the church wall. What I observed being in Ghana and having taught at the School of Performing Arts at Legon is that there is a real interaction with the audience. There is always a co-performance in the audience. They comment, they react, they join in, they shout, they start dancing.
AMA: Yes! Some European group got angry because of that. “Let us perform for you!” they seemed to be saying! They did not like the audience joining in on the performance.
PK: It also depends of course on the performance.
AMA: Sometimes the intrusion doesn’t help the performance.
PK: In Apam the local performers have a percussion group, they have some traditional dancers. They perform when they have a local festival or event.
AMA: Would that space speak for people like that also? Would that space be useful? Say if the local troop or cultural dancers or even a festival wanted to shift venue and go to the Apata, would it work for them?
PK: I totally think so. The Apata, what I like so much about it, is flexible. It looks like a shell that is evolving but also protecting. It protects from sun, from rain, from wind, really suitable for a theatre in this climate zone, also in this cultural environment. The local performers wouldn’t have difficulties performing there.
AMA: But do they have the sense that they can use the space?
PK: Not yet because it’s not theirs and they haven’t been introduced to each other. Last week we had a workshop with schoolchildren and they loved it. They lived in it. We put carpets on the floor and they were working on the carpets. In the drama classes at the School of Performing Arts, if there is nothing going on, students sit there in the shade to study, to talk, to relax. The people are using the space, it’s not just used for performances. It is used for lectures. This is what we would like to achieve as well.
AMA: I think it’s interesting. I am reflecting on how the architects would have designed this place at the SPA if they had started by observing performers in the space. The struggles we have had with this huge building they are building for us at the School is that the architects worked in total isolation from the people who are going to be using the space. It is taking so long to build it because there is no dialogue between the designers of the space and the people who are going to use it. It is frustrating. For me the space is almost useless even before it is finished because there was no consultation between the designer of the space and the performers. I think this is what Peter Brook is talking about.
PK: Right. Even if it is a hospital that is being designed, it won’t be as healing.
AMA: I guess that’s true. I think it’s a very deep, useful thought for building a theatre space that we unfortunately haven’t made much use of in this country. I am sorry to take it back to that. Even the National Theatre, this place is so sad; I don’t even want to go there. I am working with somebody else on a paper about the involvement of the Chinese in the Ghanaian arts and culture. They came and gave us this space; did they consider the Ghanaian context?
PK: They might not even know the Ghanaian context I’m afraid. For me a house or a building or a structure is something like a theatre play or a piece of dance. It is about the communication between the people. The architects in this case are the artists and the performers and the users of the place are the audience. If they don’t come together it is like dead theatre using Peter Brook’s terminology. I think architects are artists.
AMA: A lot of architects have artistic backgrounds. They are artists in their own rights. There is a working group of the International Federation of Theatre Research called Theatre and Architecture. It’s a theatre and architecture group and they consider spaces. They are really concerned with the architecture of theatre as art. Performance spaces are artistic spaces. I was serving on the University’s Building Committee once and there was an architect who was always concerned with the newer buildings coming up being out of sync with the older buildings. He was thinking of the artistic nature of the older buildings. He did not understand how they give permits for certain buildings to be built in certain places.
PK: There are so many different architects, but the ones who are designing buildings should take this into account. The designers alone might also not be able to take in all the needed information without the others.
When I look at the Apam workshop again “Staging space and staging stage”, there were 7 or 10 young architects and each one was researching a different field. One was researching shade, one was researching the wind, the other one the sun, the next one the vegetation, again others the sound. Stage performance buildings must always take care of the acoustics. Some were just watching the audience behaviour. So all these factors came into the design. It is a group design not only of the architects, but also of the performers involved. This is why for me it is such a unique place.
AMA: To summarize, one of the key things we were saying is that performance spaces shouldn’t just happen without considering what kind of performances would take place there or who the performers are even. That’s one thing. Another thing we talked about is the flexibility of a performance space; that it shouldn’t be there just for occasional performances. It should be a useful space for other kinds of performances that don’t necessarily have audiences. The need for collaboration when building the space, the need for the architect to work together with the performers--the ideas should come from both. They shouldn’t be in isolation from each other.
PK: Also it should be in sync with the local community, that they are also somehow involved so that they value the space and that they relate to it as well.
AMA: So that’s something that we need to work on for Haduwa, for the community to fuel the building.
PK: We also talked about establishing outdoor performance spaces and that in the future some kind of markets could be held there with many ways of drawing people there and using the space - isn’t it about energy and that energy fills the atmosphere for future performances?
* "Apata" is an Akan word which alludes to "shed" or "shelter" or "hut". It speaks to a space (communal or home) whose meaning is deepened by the relations inherent within it. It could also be a space intended for rest.
Awo Mana Asiedu has a BA and an MPhil from the University of Ghana and a PhD from the University of Birmingham. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts and the last former Acting Director of the School of Performing Arts at the University of Ghana.
Petra Kron works as a cultural anthropologist and performing artist and production manager for plays and programs. She designs and instantiates art platforms like Framewalk and Lab dc in collaboration with artists from varying countries. She has a Ph.D. (ABD) in Cultural Anthropology from Mainz University and a state board examination in Fine Arts and English from Düsseldorf University. She teaches, researches, and explores her concept of relational cultural works in the field of the performing arts mostly in cross cultural and cross disciplinary contexts.