23. Space as a Determinant (Proxemics)

The way a person uses the surrounding space and his/her distance to objects and other people is not accidental or merely functional but is a result of conscious or subconscious decisions.

The person who came up with this idea in 1963 was anthropologist Edward T. Hall. He proposed that the way a person uses the space around him/her should also be taken into account in studies of behavior and communication and he called this field of study “proxemics.” In proxemics it is maintained that people use the space according to the related social codes in their culture and those codes become more and more accepted and established as the usage is repeated.

Hall stated that people “locate” their bodies according to three types of space:

1. Fixed-feature space (immobile things, such as walls, stairs, windows, sidewalks, etc.).

2. Semifixed-feature space (movable furniture and objects).

3. Informal (personal) space (space around the body and the distance to others).

The theater semiologist Keir Elam applies this classification to performance spaces:

1. The building, lobby, auditorium, ceiling, stage, fixed seats, etc. constitute the fixed-feature space.

2. Set, curtain, lights belong to semifixed-feature space.

3. Spaces around and between the actors and spectators form the personal space. (Elam, 62-63)

The architecture and design of performance spaces are built and designed to serve specific purposes, according to specific rules. Once built, those structures embody, protect and impose those rules.

Let us look at the theater auditoriums where most performances take place: even now, in the 21st century, they are being built in the bourgeois “playhouse” style developed about two centuries ago, consisting of a stage facing or surrounded by fixed rows of seats. The “stage” (elevated or not) connotes status, hierarchy and immunity as inherited from temples, churches and courts.

The Levoy Theatre, Millville, New Jersey

The center of the stage (altar) is the focal point, it forms the core of the symmetrical architecture of the auditorium. That is the spot where the orchestra’s conductor, the lecturer, the soloist stands. During the curtain call of a theater performance the lead actor stands there, the others line up on two sides in a hierarchy determined by the importance of their roles in the play. The ticket prices are set according to the distance to this center spot: those who pay more (usually dressed elegantly) sit closer and those who pay less end up sitting at a distance. Economical and demographic characteristics reflect the architectural symmetry. Performers enter the stage from some invisible spaces and they basically “disappear” when they exit. In short, the fixed space supremely dominates and controls the semifixed and informal spaces.

Those who build these spaces are not the ones who perform there: they are either investors who want to make a profit or organizations that have to or want to provide cultural services to society. Naturally, the major concern of these individuals and organizations is to fit in as many spectators as possible. They don’t have any reason to build flexible spaces that can be arranged in different ways for different works or to utilize existing structures to offer alternative spaces. Indeed, most of these builders tend to be unaware of the existence of such ideas.

One doesn’t hear demands from the performing arts audiences for different, alternative spaces because they tend to prioritize the comfort and untouchableness of their personal spaces (comfort zone) and, therefore, are content with the existing design and decorum. There seems to be an ongoing reciprocal cause-effect relationship between the builders and the audiences: builders give what the audiences demand and the audiences demand what they were given.

Those who produce and present the works of art are usually left out of this vicious supply-demand circle. The work is evaluated and accepted for presentation in a given space according to its suitability for the architectural and operational features – basically, its “salability.” If we accept that search for the new is the most essential motive in the arts, we can say that fixed-feature spaces and the relationships stemming from them do not comply with the nature of the arts.

Odin Teatret, “Kaspariana” (1967)

We can notice the importance of proxemics when we look at the history of modern theater. Proxemic arrangements may have been the most discussed topic since the beginnings of the 20th century: some didn’t use the backstage, some asked the audience to watch standing and walking, some placed the audience on stage, some made the actors meet the audience at the entrance, some invited the audience to touch the actors, etc. These experiments can be summarized, using two somewhat technical terms, as efforts to move from “sociofugal” to “sociopetal” space arragements.

Sociofugal arrangements are aimed at allowing people to preserve their personal and private spaces in solitude, without having to communicate with each other. The waiting rooms of hospitals, government offices, airports are typical examples of sociofugal spaces (usually arranged in grids). On the other hand, sociopetal spaces allow people to see and hear each other, to communicate and interact with each other. They aim for setups where personal spaces can be mobile. Cafes, cabaret theaters where spectators sit at tables, plazas of small Italian towns are often given as examples to sociopetal space arrangements (usually circular or radial). (Elam, 64-65)

The spatial experiments in modern theater gave way to new ideas in performer-spectator relationship but they were not effective enough to start radical changes in fixed-feature spaces. Smaller performance spaces called “black box,” where all walls are painted in black, appeared in the 1960s and became popular. At first glance, these look like a reaction to the limits of the playhouse but in reality they serve the purpose of quick and inexpensive accommodation of smaller productions in the same, traditional manner.

In both traditional spaces and black boxes the audience is often seated in sociofugal arrangements, where personal spaces remain separate. Interestingly, the need to look and be seen, to watch and to show, to talk and to listen tend to be satisfied at the sociopetal environment of the lobby. This may be one reason why the sizes of the lobbies have been expanding in recent years, almost reaching the size of the auditorium, particularly in buildings where opera, ballet, orchestral concerts and large theatrical productions take place (Bennett, 130-131).

Socializing at the sociopetal lobby ends when the spectators enter the sociofugal auditorium: they go quiet, find their seats and sit and wait, as determined by the architecture and the traditional codes generated from it. When the performance begins, every person watches from his/her personal space, as an individual, with minimal interaction with each other despite the fact that they sit elbow to elbow. That is, the event that is supposed to be a collective experience turns into an individual one.

Nicholas Dance Studios, Rutgers University

Modern dance may be a good field to look at to understand proxemics. Generally modern dance groups are born at dance studios which do not have fixed seats for an audience. As a result, the choreography does not target one direction, there is no “exit” area for the dancers who step out of the dance, the dancer can enter the action from any point in the space, etc. Dance groups usually present their initial performances in such studios to a small number of spectators who can be seated anywhere in the space which often allows them to see the dancers and each other up-close.

If the dance group establishes itself and becomes known, then they will want to perform to more people and will move to a standard building. This will mean that they will be dancing in a three-sided box with entrances and exits mostly from two sides and that they will get viewed from one direction only. That is, the number of choices in the open dance studio will get reduced significantly. As the group “develops,” they move to bigger and more institutional spaces where they get viewed by more people from further distances. In other words, the work and its presenters become “cinematized” and the “human-to-human” aspect diminishes. Standard architecture forces the performance to standardize itself. As the number of viewing eyes increases, the number of choices and the possibilities of doing something new or antithetical decreases.

In order to change the space from being “the location of presentation” into “one of the components of the performance” and to enable the practitioners to control the space, I personally think that the artists have to compromise on the number of viewing eyes (therefore, income). When this can be done, then the alternative space choices increase notably.

The experiments in the past proved the unavoidability of certain physical requirements by the spectators: they get tired if they stand for a while, they feel uncomfortable if it is cold or hot, they sometimes need to go to the restroom, they don’t like to be touched, they don’t like tiring travels to reach the performance space, etc. As long as these requirements are met, I think every space can accommodate a performance.

In the current century all societies have been experiencing the ever increasing dependency on electronic devices. The process of “dehumanization” in communications had begun to devalue the significance of human-to-human interaction. Then, almost like a punishment from the heavens, humans were obliged to physically disconnect from each other as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic of 2020. The performing arts, inevitably, began “going online.” 

It is still impossible to predict what the world will go through in the near future (as of May 2021, in New York), but I personally believe that the necessity of live interaction among humans has been clearly understood and appreciated. Witnessing the absurd demand for “live” streamings as opposed to recordings, I think the performing arts will go back to live performances as soon as they can and proxemics, sociopetal arrangements and interaction between personal spaces will be considered anew in the light of the lessons learned during the pandemic.