Theater as a Sensitive Experience


The following paper establishes a theoretical bases in order to approach the practical research of the agents proposed (light, music and body) and investigate how it is possible to alter the basic conceptions of space/time/presence in theatre; and by doing so create a narrative based on a sensitive experience with out the use of words. In order to due so, certain studies of visual artists from the abstract movement (Piet Mondrian and Vassily Kandinsky), have been linked with studies of Adolphe Appia, and some notions of the concept “The Sublime”.

Key words: abstract movement, Adolphe Appia, the sublime, light/music/body, and space/time/presence.


My political aim:

My difficulty of listening to the words spoken in a play, my low interest in writing dramatic texts, combined with my high interest in directing, has lead me to explore different forms of expression in theatre and reject what I do not care for. Through out my artistic experience and studies I have seen how, over the years, many artists have searched for different ways of relating theatre and dramatic text. The dramatic text has been used in order to communicate a story through out the actions of characters in a situation; it has also been used as an equal element of theatre, altering its expressive form and relationship with the scenic; and, in some cases, there has been no dramatic text used at all. Although the use of the dramatic text has shifted between agreement and opposition through out the years, I can observe how the use of words (either originated from a dramatic text or not) is still of utmost importance as a form of expression in theatre. That is why I believe that this shift between theatre and dramatic text must be realized in a far more radical way. I do not use a dramatic text, nor do I use words at all, words are to complicated, they have to many meanings, they encase and rationalize our thoughts and feelings without ever really achieving its true expression. There are other agents of theatre, more subjective and sensitive, that can create a theatrical experience (light, music and body). Although they have become more important over the years, they are not considered the backbone of theatre, they are not considered the essence and core of communication, they constantly fall under the importance of the spoken word and are never truly focused on as part of the creative process. I research deep into these agents of theatre; I seek to understand their artistic language, because they are the way of achieving a more sensitive experience in theatre.

These agents are the basis of my research and theatrical creation. Communication comes forward through the subjectivity of these agents and not the rationalization nor alteration of the spoken word. I submerge myself in them, understand their possibilities, how they create communication, and their relation with theatre as an art form. I am not interested in a theatrical discourse, where the “social” and “political” content is the basis of communication; nor am I interested in any type of use of the “spoken word”. The term “theatrical discourse” must be broadened. Theatre has been blinded by this idea that words are what unify the political and artistic discourse and has considered less important how light can alter the perception of space or how music can alter the perception of time. There lies the true political act of art, shifting the balance of communication, creating different perspectives of life and theatre. We must broaden our minds to the possibilities of theatre; we must look past the words, past the “political” and “social” content, in order to better understand and manipulate theatres different material forms.

Important considerations:

As you will see further along, this investigation begins by relating two artistic views in order to explore new notions of theatre. Abstractionism is one (specifically Piet Mondrian, and Vassily Kandinsky): studying their points of views and objectives in regard to their art form, allows a better understanding of how they re-considered the essential elements of nature and art, amplifying the conceptions of representation and comprehension. When studying the abstract artists, the intentions are, in no way, to copy their mechanisms of creation and apply them in theater; but instead, to focus on their thoughts concerning the visual arts 1 and how, through certain observations, they were able to open the gaps of creation towards new ways of perceiving art. Second, are the studies of Adolphe Appia and how the use of light, music and body are able to unify the different art forms contained in theatre, under one great art. Which helps establish a technical understanding of the agents proposed, and how they are related to the space/time/presence of the theatre. Although Adolphe Appia is an important part of this investigation, he is only a footstone for certain theoretical decisions that help strengthen the approach towards the scenic investigation, and relate theory with practice. Third, is a point of reference, which crosses the line between philosophy and art: the concept of “the sublime”. I approach this concept lightly, knowing the depth of its meaning and the wide range of studies that have been made over the years, without any real intentions of studying said concept and debating its various definitions. This first approximation is based on the studies of Baldine Saint Girons, in her book “Lo Sublime”, and her view of how the sublime can arise in the arts. Understanding the magnitude of the sublime experience, Is to consider it as a non- tangible presence in ones work as an artist, regardless of his intentions. Therefore, it is simply a point of orientation for understanding the sensitive experience that can appear between art, spectator and creator.

Lastly, it is important to comprehend that this paper is the beginning of a much larger theoretical and practical research; For that reason, many of the observations and statements realized, have suffered modifications: where new questions have risen, new theoretical standings have been reached, and certain conclusions have been made. Never the less, it is important to grasp the initial bearings of these theories, as the impulse to a much wider investigation which will be soon included in the last section of this paper (Applied research: in search of an artistic form); in which new authors will also be included such as: the works of Mark Rothko and his thoughts on the artistic experience, certain observations of Hans-Thies Lehmann regarding space/time/body in “Post-dramatic theatre”, Peter Zumthor and his methods on creating atmospheres in architecture, the concept of time developed by Henri Bergson, studies on space composition by Rudolf Arnheim, among others.


General: Develop a theatrical form where narrative is based on a sensitive experience without the use of words.

Specific: Alter the basic notions of space/time/presence in the theatre through the use of light, music and body.


The Sublime:

In order to evoke a sensitive experience in the spectator through the use of light, music and body, it is important to have a specific concept in mind: “the sublime”. Many artists and thinkers have used said concept to refer to a state of great sensitivity that man can experience in life situations. And as art is a part of life, it has also been used to refer to the power that art has of evoking a sublime state in the spectator. Due to its similarity with the objective of this paper, “the sublime” becomes an important concept for understanding the artist’s own sensitive relation with theatre.

Theater, as an art form, when separated from its rational comprehension and given a sense of sensitivity, allows the spectator to experience his most elevated feelings in regards to the play. In order to achieve that, there are certain factors of the theatrical form that need to be reanalyzed. The spectator, when forced to forget what he or she thinks are the elements of the theatre, by effect, has a more free and open approach to its possibilities. This is the only way that the spectator can truly abandon its need for comprehension and elevate the importance of the sensitive. Rejecting the use of words and the narration through them, allows to break ones own conventions of theatre and to explore other aspects.

¿The possibility for the sublime to arise would be, there for, proportional to the magnitude of the risks taken by the artist? From the moment the paroxísticas forms do not have to be necessarily convincing, you can say that nothing is less safe (…) The problem resides in the experience of the “aesthetic act”. Or, which is the same, the decision of letting the “thing” echo inside our selves, and in the decision of acknowledging its presence and allowing it to prevail over any predetermined signification, al least for a moment. (Saint Girons, 2008, pg. 291)

The sublime is considered as incomprehensive, non-tangible, ephemeral and volatile; the play is not thought as mere esthetics or beauty, but as an experience that crosses between the esthetic and the sublime, the life form and the art form. Artists, both as creators and spectators, are able to change the way theater is conceived, by directing the attention towards ones self; by deeply comprehending how one perceives the theatre, how one relates with it, what one expects and dose not expect from it. It is through intuition that one is able to understand the daily connections with ones personal sensitivity and its effects on the inner self. “What functions do the worldly perception and its more or less endofásica2 creation respectively play?”(Saint Girons, 2008, pg. 284)

When have you felt the sublime? What do you feel when you see a sunset, or sit at night to look at the stars? In what way can that experience relate to theatre? While asking those questions one is able to catch sight of the mechanisms needed in theatre, in order to convey the natural aspects of life and it’s sensitive form. However, it is important to grasp this idea without the intention of recreating life events, or human emotions, for there is no mechanism or art form that can represent life as well as life itself. A sunset represented on stage is in no way capable of achieving what a real sunset achieves, and any attempts to due so will only bring forward its rational, and not sensitive connection. For this reason, it becomes necessary to think beyond the representation, it is the disarticulation of the aspects of theatre, which alter the experience and create a new connection with the sensitive. “The sublime, therefore, appears like a principal of sublimación3 of the aesthetics: a sublimación who’s exercise modifies, at the same time, our relationship with the sensitive.”(Saint Girons, 2008, pg. 289)

The artist must no longer seek to evoke a specific emotion or discourse, but instead to provide a wide amount of esthetic stimulus and let each individual spectator elevate it to his or her own sentiments and feelings. In order to achieve that and modify the state of the spectators, they are disconcerted in regard to the theatrical experience, pulling them out of there own conventions and making them feel as empty and perplexed in the theatre as they do in life. By doing so, theatre becomes life itself, a self-vivid space with its own laws, and where the laws themselves become as mysterious and incomprehensive as the laws of life.

The fact is that “the night’s peace” does not simply enounce the world but interprets it and makes it be born for a second time, not as something ineffable and contingent, instead as something that is thinkable and expressible in its specific enigmatic character. (…) For the sublime to arise it is necessary that the sensitive become independent and that it recompose itself in a way that the event can emerge in a new world, rescued from the utilitarian constrictions and liberated towards eternity. Parallel to this, it is also necessary that the subject feel disoriented in regards to its being and its imaginative bindings, and, in that disorientation, become aware of an intense desire for self-presence. A presence felt as something evident and at the same time unreachable. Between feeling and formulation, experience and poetic construction, the sublime can arise from the circumstantial unity of a worldly state and a signification. (Saint Girons, 2008, pg. 285)

Further along, certain decisions are stated concerning the three agents4 (light, music and body) and how they can be manipulated in order to alter the basic notions of space/time/presence in theatre; disconcerting the spectator’s perception and in return creating a sensitive experience with the aesthetic.

In Search of the essence:

“The artist lives a complex, subtle life, and the work of art created by him will necessarily provoke in the spectator capable of feeling it, a range of emotions that our words aren’t able to express” (Kandinsky, 1996, pg. 22)

Why the abstract arts? In what way can this artistic gesture be related with theatre? Once again, it is important to understand the following, without the intention of copying the abstract mechanisms (operations that have already been realized in a different time and art form) and applying them to the theatrical form; Instead, analyzing the intentions, questions and objectives that some artists had in regard to the visual arts. What is the essence or nucleus of our art form? Which are the laws that bind us and what can we do to alter them? With the intention, similar to certain abstract artists, of grasping the essence of the theatrical form and exploring its expressive possibilities, the laws of theatre are challenged; not by reproducing the abstract mechanisms, but instead, by reflecting upon there theories and artistic gestures. “I came to feel that the colors of nature could not be reproduced on canvas. Instinctively I understood that the painting should find a new way of expressing natures beauty.”(Mondrian, 1961, pg. 27)

How to capture the spectator’s inner self? It is no longer enough to tell a story, nor to create a political act through literal discourse, or even the use of symbols as a perceptive action; it is necessary to go even further: Sensitivity comes forward by altering the basic forms of theatre, as a way of creation and not imitation. Vassily Kandinsky said it best: “Every art can reproduce any ambience, but not by imitating nature externally but instead by reproducing artistically that ambience in its true internal value.”(1996, pg. 47) Piet Mondrian also said: “(…) in the painting, the three-dimensional space must be reduced to a two-dimensional appearance. This is necessary, not only to adapt to the canvas, but also to destroy the natural expression of shape and space.”(1961, pg. 41) The laws of life are one way and the laws of the theatre are another, therefore the following question arises: Which are the elements5 of theater? And what are their characteristics in relation with the visual arts?6 If the visual artist observed his space as two dimensional, theatre’s space is three-dimensional, if he observed time and found it absent, in theatre it is very present, if he perceived his art to be static, theater is filled with movement. So then, different from the two-dimensional canvas of the visual arts, theater’s canvas is that of space/time, that is what contains everything that happens in the theatre: actions, sounds, movements etc.

Space/time is understood through the parameters that theatre itself establishes, because although it seems to be the same as the space/time of life, it is not; that is the reason why this investigation seeks to understand through theory and practice, its technical characteristics and how they relate to one another in theatre. “Only through a technical understanding can one achieve a true comprehension of the plastic arts.”(Mondrian, 1961, pg. 64) How to take advantage of theater’s technical aspects?


After having considered some abstract notions, it has become imperative to make some decisions in regard to the theatrical form: therefore establishing the elements that theater is built on, its essential agents, and how to alter or emphasize its technical aspects. With that in mind, let’s consider the opinions and visions of a man who’s thoughts and reflections where similar to those of this research, but who was only able to develop them under the limitations of his time; as Piet Mondrian said: “What the art of the past carried out in a more or less invisible way due to the oppression of its time, the modern art executes it in a more visible way.”(1961, pg. 69) That man was Adolphe Appia, and as today is another time in history where there are different rules and notions of the world; his observations and theories regarding the theatre of his era, are related to the theater of our era, while taking into consideration all of the theoretical/practical differences and similarities.

Strongly influenced by abstract art, music and architecture, Adolphe Appia had the same concerns about the theatre and its forms of expression. He searched for a way to unite the art forms of space (architecture, painting and sculpture) with the arts of time (music and poetry). How to unite these art forms under one great art? His investigation revolved around the essential characteristics of each art and how they had to be modified or emphasized in order to coexist on stage.

Lets establish some of Appia’s principals:

1) “Music corresponds to the durations of our inner life (…)”(Appia, 2000, pg. 344), it is the most faithful art form of time and of our emotions, due to the fact that it has

2) The most faithful art form of space is, according to Appia, architecture because it modifies natures materials for day-to-day life and “is destined for the presence and different evolutions of the living body”(Appia, 2000, pg. 338)

3) “Movement, mobility, this is the conciliatory principal which will unite our different art forms (…)” (Appia, 2000, pg. 332), and it ́s the body who contains movement; its this movement that is modified by the temporality of music and is capable of expressing itself through out space.

4) “Light is to space the same as sound is to time: the perfect expression of life.”(Appia, 2000, pg. 351) Light is capable of altering space by manipulating the perception of its three-dimensional body and shadow, even being able to create the illusion of movement.

Considering these principals, three connections can be established:

1) Music has some control over time, being able to alter its perception through the manipulation of different sound rhythms, therefore:

Music    –     Time

2) Our space is three-dimensional and can be altered perceptually by light, therefore:

 Light     –     Space

3) The third and last connection should be that of body and movement, but first, a conceptual difference shall be clarified. Going back to the principal of space according to Appia: space is that of the architecture, and in theatre the three-dimensional scenery reflects this. It is that scenery which can be altered by light and contain the presence of a living body. The living body contains the state of movement, and it’s by said movement that he or she is capable of uniting space and time. Now, according to Appia, the body is as much alive (mobile) as plastic (three-dimensional); thus, its relationship with space must not be achieved only through movement (such as Appia establishes) but also through light. On the other hand, Appia fails to mention a larger architectural space that contains both living body and scenery; that space is the theatre itself7. Having said that, unlike what Appia states, the scenery must not be considered as space but as a “plastic body”; it’s the theatre itself that should be considered as space, and it is said space that contains both living body (actor) and plastic body (scenery). Due to the fact that the “living body” is mobile and that “plastic body” only contains the illusion of movement, it cant be the movement that unites both body’s to the space, but instead its presence in it. Therefor:

Living Body (actor) = Plastic Body (scenery)


      Body            –          Presence


After understanding the search for an art of essence and relating it with the basic concepts of space, time and presence, the following hypothesis arises: Through out the use of light, music, and body, I will be able to alter the perception of space/time/presence in theatre; and by doing so, achieve a narrative based on a sensitive experience without the use of words.


An insight into the ongoing process:


In this stage of the research various concepts and methodologies have been developed, together with artists from different disciplines, regarding the sensitive perception of this agents and how they act upon the elements; resulting in many exercises, artistic productions, video registrations and written material. Although the practical research is connected to a wide range of concepts, and theoretical standings, it is important to grasp them as a bases for discovery, and what it means to develop a methodology based on perceptive factors, while considering rational notions. Therefore, the exploration/creative process exists in a thin line between practice and theory, reason and perception.

The continuation of this paper will explain the different creative processes and how, through them, the initial questions and standings lead to further questions and various discoveries. Such as: Perceptual methodology, Interdisciplinary creation and format, Sensitive narrative, Scenic installations: a bubble of space and time, among others.


-Saint Girons, Naldine. Lo Sublime. Madrid: Machado Libros, 2008. Medium Press. Translated quote by Nicolás Russi.

– Kandinsky, Vassily. De lo espiritual en el arte. Barcelona: Ediciones Paídos Ibérica, 1996. Medium Press. Translated quote by Nicolás Russi.

-Mondrian, Piet. Arte plástico y arte plástico puro. Buenos Aires: Editorial Víctor Leru S.R.L, 1961. Medium Press. Translated quote by Nicolás Russi.

-Appia, Adolphe. La obra de arte viviente. Madrid: Asociación de directores de Escena de España, 2000. Medium Press. Translated quote by Nicolás Russi.

_ Agent. (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary, The definite record of the English language. Retrieved from

_ Element. (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary, The definite record of the English language. Retrieved from

_ Endophasia. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster, An encyclopedia Britannica company. Retrieved from


1_ When referring to the visual arts and artists, through out this paper, it refers specifically to the art of painting and the abstract movement that went with it.

2_ Derived from the word endophasia which in English means: “speech that is not audible or visible: implicit speech —contrasted with exophasia.” (“Endophasia”, n.d., para. 1). A literal translation would be an “endophasic” creation (the adjective quality of endophasia).

3_ A literal translation would be “sublimation” (the result of the action “to sublime”).

4_ “A person who or thing which acts upon someone or something; one who or that which exerts power; the doer of an action.“ (“Agent”, n.d., para.1). Therefore, considered as the main actors of the theatrical form.

5_ “In wider sense: One of the relatively simple substances of which a complex substance is composed.” (“Element”, n.d. para. 2). Therefore, considered to be the main substances on which the theatrical form is composed.

6_ The visual arts (abstract movement) is the first artistic form related to theater, in this investigation; which later on will influence the addition of other art forms such as: architecture, film, dance, installation, etc. the ability to create different illusions of time in the spectator through the use of rhythm created by the artist.

7_ Here, the word theater, indicates the entire three-dimensional structure that contains the stage, booths, audience, performers, technical equipment’s etc. Questioning this space, will later on lead to doubt the entire architectural structure in itself, as an established “necessity” for the theatrical form.