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The Use Of Semiotics In The Theatre Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5021 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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For the French postmodern theorist, Lacan, each sign in a language is given a meaning by other signs in the language – there is no essential meaning to signs, only in chains of significance. For example, Robert Wilson often uses colour to create symbolic meaning in performance through its use, while the Theatre du Complicite may transform objects into signifiers of meaning separate from their every day meaning (i.e. in Mnemonic a chair becomes the Iceman).

Address in this essay, how contemporary theatre practitioners use this understanding of the signifier/signified to push the boundaries of the theatre. Through an examination of at least TWO theatre companies, or practitioners either from the reading, or from your own experience, show how they use signifiers in their work and to what purpose.

“The reason for creating and presenting theatre is to communicate meanings…. Understanding how meanings are communicated to and assembled by spectators can be of enormous help to the director as he works to translate his individual vision of the theatre production into a living, three-dimensional work of arts “

The late twentieth century saw a great of interest in semiotics, the science of the signs. The semiotics in theatre is composed of a representative actions implemented in a certain moment with the emphasis on things and objects to be observed. This sign system has important characteristics which are the relation between signs and themselves as well as the multifunctional and mobility of the signs in the theatrical context.

Some theatre artists find out that the spoken word does not need to be the central force of the performance. Therefore they developed performance through experimentation with objects, visual images, sound, improvisation, or pieces of disjointed language or information (Whitemore, 1994).

In this essay I will explore and examine the importance of using Semiotics in the work of two important post-modern theatre directors which are Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson as well as I will address how these contemporary theatre practitioners uses the signifier/signified in particular the visual semiotics such as the setting, costumes, lighting, colours and properties to push the boundaries of the theatre and to what purpose.

We can begin to explore the sign system of the contemporary theatre by looking at the work of Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson who are considered examples of western directors, Both Their work contributed to the development of the postmodern theatre through their experimentation with theatre and its various communication systems.

Foreman’s work is almost about his life and a reflex on himself and his thoughts; his theatrical wok always commenting on itself which makes the spectators alert and aware while seeing it. The deficiency to communicate with language is one of the main elements that Foreman’s theatrical pieces focus on. He developed theatrical techniques that relied on visual images. In his works he uses a number of repeated theatrical devices such as using recorded or live voice to comment on the stage action, using exaggerated physical and vocal techniques as well as other visual elements. The use of visual images has become one of his unique theatrical contributions that differentiate his theatre from other contemporary theatres (Hugo, 2009).

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Also, Robert Wilson has been altering the way of seeing language, staging, lighting, colour, set design, dance and direction. Robert Wilson has been considered as being one of the most significant visionary artists of the 20th century. His work, often called a ‘theatre of visuals’ or ‘theatre of images’ presents an artistic field of theatre where precise choreographed gestures, movements, shapes of objects, textures of sound, and lighting aim to create a heightened experience for the viewer. Robert Wilson is known for his creations of extremely big and long epic productions which focus on the theatrical images and are frequently accompanied by music. His productions cut across the boundaries that traditionally have defined theatre, dance, opera and the visual arts to create a total work of art. Wilson began his exploration of slow motion and visual theatre in workshops he ran for autistic and brain-damaged children. In his work, he used essential non-linguistic montage and displaces any univocal signification. He is also a landscape artist who believes that the pioneering of the theatre depend on visual images (Holmberg 1996).

“Semiotics can best be defined as a science dedicated to the study of the production of meaning in society. As such it is equally concerned with processes of signification and with those of communication, i.e. the means whereby meanings are both generated and exchanged. Its objects are thus at once the different sign-systems and codes at work in society and the actual messages and texts produced thereby.”

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, semiotics is the methodical study of signs, more precisely; it is the production of meanings from linguistic or non linguistic sign systems. Semiotics began to become a major approach to cultural studies in the late 1960s. The modern theory of semiotics was founded and developed by two important philosophers, Charles Sanders Peirce who defined semiotics as the relationship among sign, an object and a meaning as the sign represents the object or referent in the mind of the interpreter. The system Pierce devised allows for a simple technique for reading and understanding signs through three categories: symbol, index and icon. A symbol has an arbitrary relationship to the audience. As by adding a vocalisation or gesture such as pointing, the meaning is easily understood by an audience. In pointing we have added a depth to the word, given it meaning, and thereby forced an interpretation onto the audience. Indexes are easier sign systems to read. They take the form of pictures/illustrations. We understand an icon as the resemblance of something – it is a representation and not a reality. And the second, Ferdinand de Saussure who proposed that linguistics would form one part of a more general science of signs: ‘semiology’. His definition was that semiotics is a science capable of understanding all possible systems of signs, from language to music and, of course, the visual arts. Semiology therefore aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification. (Chandler, 2007)

Semiotics is concerned and focuses on the interrelationships between signs themselves. The semiotic approach to literary works stresses the production of literary meanings from shared conventions and codes; but the scope of semiotics goes beyond spoken or written language to other kinds of communicative systems such as cinema, advertising, gesture and others. In other words, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols of all kinds, what they mean, and how they relate to the things or ideas they refer to. It is concerned with the process of signification and communication. Semiotics is well known for calling attention to the formal structures of significance and meanings in the culture.

Semiotics can be seen as an important factor that points to structural differences found in each system of signification as well as it is seen as a unifying approach to sign systems in the theatrical performance. A sign is usually represented by different type of physical image, object or person, which is then placed within some specific setting or social framework. Due to this framework, this physical image, person or object becomes representative of the social signs system and the audience become responsible of determining whether or not the sign being placed before them is genuine (Leaman, 2007).

Moreover, it can be visualized as an approach to a wide variety of systems of signification and communication or it can be visualized as a description of those various systems focusing on their mutual differences or their specific structural properties such as the transformation from verbal language to gestures or from visual images to body positions. It can investigate those various systems either at the elementary level of their sequential units such as words, colour spots, sounds or at the more complex level of the texts which is, narrative structures or figures of speech (Eco, 1977).

Semiotics is important because it can help us not to take ‘reality’ for granted as something having a purely objective existence which is independent of human interpretation. It teaches us that reality is a system of signs. Art historian Keith Mosley comments that: “Semiotics makes us aware that the cultural values with which we make sense of the world are a tissue of conventions that have been handed down from generation to generation by the members of the culture of which we are a part. It reminds us that there is nothing ‘natural’ about our values; they are social constructs that not only vary enormously in the course of time but differ radically from culture to culture”(Schroeder, 1998). Studying semiotics can assist us to become more aware of reality as a construction and of the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing it. To decline such a study is to leave to others the control of the world of meanings which we inhabit.


Signifier and signified together, they constitute a sign, the basic object studied by the science of semiotics.

The signifier is any material thing that signifies. It may be a meaningful sound, a facial expression, a picture, or a more complex unit such as a word or phrase. The signified is the concept that a signifier refers to. Each sign thus gains its value by being placed in the context of other signs. The relationship between signifier and signified is traditional, there is no existence of similarities or physical connection. (Dor, 2005).

According to Erika Fischer-lichte- theatre professor- (1992) “Theatre does not make use of these signs in their original function, i.e., does not put them to the purpose for which they are/were generated by the respective cultural systems. Rather, it deploys them as signs of the signs produced by the cultural systems. Consequently, theatrical sign must, at least at the level of the system they form, be classified exclusively as iconic signs ¹”

. We make meanings through our creation and interpretation of signs. As according to Peirce “we think only in signs” (Peirce, 1931). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, acts or objects, but such things have no essential meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” (Peirce, 1931). We interpret things as signs by relating them to familiar systems that we understand and agreed on. A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure, 1983). The same signifier could stand for a different signified and thus be a different sign (Chandler, 2007).

¹ Signs where the signifier resembles the signified

Elaine Aston and George Savona (1991) argue that “

Everything which is presented to the spectator within the theatrical frame is a sign as the Prague school ² were the first to recognise…The process of signification is directed and controlled even is something has arbitrarily entered into the frame it is read as significant”.

Several semioticians have recognised the role of the systems of signs that are used during a theatrical performance as it to communicate with an audience as was mention before everything that is presented to an audience in a theatrical context is consider to be a sign. The value of semiotics for the theatre practitioners is that it can provide a framework for structuring “experimentation” during the preparation, and rehearsal stage of creating the production. Theatre directors coordinates signifiers and make thousands of choice; they select individual signs and blend them into sequences of signs which lead to large pattern of signs which eventually produce a performance. They also highlighting and emphasizing on different signs to bring the spectator’s attention to the most important signifiers at a specific moment in the performance (Whitemore, 1994).

According to Tadeusz Kowzan (1968) -who is Theatre and literature historian- classification of sign systems, there are two main signs systems, the auditive signs which include the spoken text as words, tones and the inarticulate sounds as music and sound effects and the visual signs which include the expression of the actor’s body as gesture, movement and actors external appearance as the makeup, costumes and the appearance of the stage as the props, setting, lighting.

² It was an influential group of literary critics and linguists in Prague. Its proponents developed methods of structuralism literary analysis during the years 1928-1939. It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics. After World War II, the circle was disbanded but the Prague School continued as a major force in linguistic functionalism.

Contemporary theatre practitioners push the boundaries of the theatre

Semiotics in theatre formulated from a complex relationship between images and their meanings to the theatre practitioners and the spectators. The contemporary theatre practitioners find semiotics to be an important science as it considers being an aid of communication between the director or the scene designer and the audience, this communication relies on understanding the image and its context in order to bring out meanings. Then by emphasising on any element of this image “the sign” will be created and that will lead to the creation of new meanings, All this helped the theatre practitioners to find new ways to open up new prospects of representation through work on the theatre’s systems of signification such as the representations in acting style, costumes, properties, music, lights, visual design and other elements which is treated as a signifying elements (Finter I983).

Emphasis is defined as the subject of audience interest at any given moment of the performance. In other words, the element of the theatrical scene that receives the attention of the audience is the one that is emphasis on. Theatre directors pay close attention to the use of emphasise in the theatre in order to focus the attention of the audience on selected characters, places, or effect (Whitemore, 1994).

According to Elaine Aston and George Savona (1991) “The director nowadays has control over the theatrical shape and is faced with the task of organising the signifying system of theatre at her/his disposal (lighting, scenery, props and so on) into a codified process appropriate to the production of a text. If the director fails in this task, then the performance will not make scenes to the spectator”. Visual sign systems are used by theatre directors in a wide range of configuration to produce signification and meanings. And may be the most remarkable feature of postmodernist directing is the concentrated use of visual signification as “pivotal signifier” (Aston E & G Savona, 1991).

Richard Foreman

Visual aspects are considering an essential aspect in Richard Foreman theatre. His theatrical ideas created from the influence of images conception as well as the visual elements. With the help of those visual elements, he tried to frame and break up space. His use of lines and objects has a role as important in his theatrical space as the role of the performers. Such objects are reflections of Foreman’s consciousness as well as reflections of the structure of thought. In the traditional theatre, the impact of the visual elements on performers is different than its impact in performances that filled with different visual elements and objects. Foreman focuses in his work on building multiple layers in the performance. He used visual images that represented the writer’s view while, in the same time the performers and objects expressed another level of this view (Lee, 2001).

The uses of setting and props in Foreman’s theatre

The important aspect in Richard Foreman’s theatre is how he uses properties as signifiers. His sets are littered on his stage without clear explanation as well as he always uses a variety of props of all sizes, styles, and shapes. For example, in some of Foreman performances, he has placed television monitors onstage to provide multiple images. He also uses projected images for the text of the performance as a way to use written words with spoken words in order to contradicting, questioning, or strengthen other visual or aural signifiers (Whitemore, 1994).

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Foreman designed his stage with the use of vertical and horizontal lines. The use of ropes and strings stretched across the stage to create special effects that frame his performance to help him to provide multiple visual paths that allow each spectator to achieve a unique perception of the stage. “Because of the strings, each member of the audience is able to perceive varying degrees of stage depth” (Lee, 2001). The uses of strings functioned to increase an awareness of the “reverberation chamber” aspect of the stage space, to create a certain amount of ambiguity through suggested superimposition, and to remind you of the limits of the geometric space. I was using the strings to contradict a unitary reading of the stage space (Foreman, 1992)

Another important aspect of his stage objects comes from his usual attempt to distort the shapes of the objects. “By using distorted stage objects, Foreman creates new phenomena out of once familiar objects” (Lee, 2001). Foreman exaggerates his theatrical objects in various scales. His designs to many of the objects is to be either smaller or larger than life-size for example, the big rock in his performance Hotel China and the 6-foot-tall potatoes in Rhoda in Potato land.

Moreover, he uses stage objects to lead him through the development of the dramatic action of the performance’s text. Foreman

said that “with Hotel China I began to write plays by imagining intricate, strange objects that would suggest ways that desire, working through the performer, might cause them to be manipulated. I stopped working from outlines, and instead let the complicated physical objects that I imagined lead me in whatever direction they suggested”. Properties and objects take on such a strong focus for Foreman that he even uses them as a starting point for creating the written text for his performances.

How Richard Foreman used costumes and colours in his performances

In his early years Richard Foreman chose to let chance dictate costuming as a sign system. In Foreman’s performances, the uses of costumes as a signifier is not a habit, he worked on creating visual dissonance and psychological tension in his performances which led him to contrast the setting and the text of his performances with the simplest costume in the world which is- from his perspective- nudity.”Foreman’s individual costume choices become part of rich grid of signifiers” (Whitemore, 1994). In his performance, Rhoda in Potato land he used a tangle setting, bright lights, performers in clothing, and a nude woman lying down on the floor. In spite of the conflicting signifiers in this theatrical scene, but it led to a formation of a connected unit of signifiers for the audience

The use of colours is very important in Foreman performances. As Whitemore (1994) argues,

“Colours are dynamic signifiers; when chosen carefully they bring coded messages to the spectators for their individual interpretation”.

Foreman uses simple lines and basic colours such as black, gray and white in order to create abstract images. He feels that simple and basic colours creating the unfocused kind of attention and promoting meditation which he is aiming for (Davy, 1981). In his theatre, he sense that individual objects will become isolated by individual colours rather than be seen as aesthetically unified (Whitemore, 1994).

In summary, Richard Foreman treats his stage objects as live performers. Part of the performer’s role in his performances has been shifted to the stage objects. Instead of the performers actions, visual images became signifiers which rose by these stage objects dominate the stage space. Foreman’s visual imagery is considering a principal element directly affecting the audience’s attention.

He extracts images from actors and from theatrical objects in his work by using different techniques such as, his uses of different size and shapes of objects as well as his uses of ropes and strings in performances in order to break the familiar concepts and provide multiple visual paths that allow each spectator to achieve a unique perception of performance, his uses of nudity costumes as a way to demolish and build new signifiers also the uses of monochrome colours in his work as a mean of creating unfocused attention and promoting meditation.

Robert Wilson

“My purpose in this method of working is to emphasize the importance of each separate element…. In many of my pieces, what you see and what you hear do not go together. The video and the audio are meant to stand on their own. If you closed your eyes you would still be able to appreciate the program, and the same would be true if you turned off the sound and just looked. What I am trying to do is give individual lives to both sound and picture.”

Robert Wilson

One of the most salient aspects of Wilson’s work is the broad and disparate range of material – visual and verbal – he weaves together. He scavenges from innumerable centers of culture: canonical literary texts; newspapers; opera; pop songs; advertisements; stock market reports; cinema; dance; historical documents; autistic poetry; paintings by old masters and new; architecture; industrial design; the drawings and body language of a deaf-mute boy; sculpture; postcards; and the banal conversations he overhears on the street. Leafing through one of the black notebooks in which Wilson sticks anything that tickles his fancy is to confront a higgledy-piggledy mass of incongruous images. For example, much of the language and many of the images in Einstein on the Beach are pillaged from the debris of mass culture. All of these heterogeneous materials create a centrifugal energy, but Wilson controls them through his monumental architectural sense of visual structure (Holmberg 1996).

The uses of props and objects in Robert Wilson’s theatre

Robert Wilson usually selects and designs properties with large-scale settings and with the uses of huge space to suit his characteristics of a highly selective method of visual communication. He not only designs the props himself but often takes part in their construction as well. Whether it is a piece of furniture or an object such as a giant crocodile, a large black crow sitting on a woman’s arm, long thin ladders reach high into the fly tower and many others (Holmberg 1996). He used different shapes, size, colours and style while designing his props and objects. He used the exaggeration technique in some of these objects as well as the realistic and abstract style and many other techniques. But when combined these objects with all the other visual elements of Wilson’s productions it present a unified network of dynamic optical that dazzled the audience (Whitemore, 1994).

The importance of costume

Costume for Robert Wilson is considered to be one of the significant aspects in his theatre. He uses costumes for every kind of signification possible. Wilson constantly chose every costume for his performances very carefully in order to fulfil its visual impact. Many of the costumes he uses in his performances are realistic and many are satirical. For example, his epic performance, Death Destruction and Detroit II, are groups of costumes from unrelated periods with different styles, sizes, shapes, lines and colours. The audience see large dinosaurs, an huge round man in a white suit and a woman in a magical lights dress. In his other performances he used different kind of animals such as a giant cat that is so large that only his legs can be seen walking across the stage, dancing ostriches, a child in a diaper, a man in an oversized, padded-shouldered trench coat, soldiers in various uniforms, and many other costumes (Whitemore, 1994).

The costumes are made to reveal movement and style and to signify every kind of information: period, mood, style, and emotional state of the character. He always chooses his costumes, the sizes, shapes, colours, and styles almost randomly and instinctively but with taking into account the unification the total performance’s signifiers. The costume signifiers are mixed, compatible and contradictory at the same time as black and white, giant and tiny, rough and smooth but at the same time, when it all combined with the set, properties and lighting they present global signifiers of epic and spiritual consequence for the spectators to gather into meanings (Whitemore, 1994).

The uses of lighting

According to Wilson, the most important part of theatre is light as well as the “light is the most important actor on stage” (Holmberg 1996). He is also recognized by some as the greatest theatre lighting artist of our time. Wilson found a way to use light as the central signifier, replacing the performer, as in one of the scenes in Einstein on the beach when the light displaced the actor and became the action for nearly half an hour. Wilson is very concerned with how images are defined onstage, and this has practically everything to do with the light that is placed on a given object. He feels that the lighting design can really bring the production to life. Tom Kamm, The set designer for Wilson’s Civil Wars performance said “a set for Wilson is canvases for the light to hit like paint” (Holmberg 1996). This attention to detail certainly proves his devotion to the importance of lighting, In Death Destruction and Detroit, Wilson used light as a defining signifier of the theatrical scene. Through a constantly shifting black and white, shadow and bright this shifting served as a dominant unifying and controlling agent (Whitemore, 1994).

In summary, Robert Wilson has a massive contribution in the contemporary theatre practice. He is considering one of the most important directors and designer in the contemporary theatre. Wilson revolutionized the stage by making visual communication more important than words. His productions cut across the boundaries that traditionally have defined theatre, dance, opera and the visual arts to create a total work of art. Wilson’s performances concern not only for trespassing the boundaries that define artistic genres but also for erasing the distinction between high art and popular culture, forcing the audience to examine the assumptions behind these categories (Holmberg 1996).

Robert Wilson’s productions have decisively shaped the look of theatre. Through his use of light, costumes, props and setting as well as his exploration into the structure of his scenic and furniture design he was able to achieve his goal in changing the concepts and perceptions that related to the fixed culture. Wilson always uses the power and originality of his vision in order to create new meanings and perceptions for his theatre.


In summary, the theatrical system of signs consists of representative actions implemented in a situation with an emphasised function of objects to be observed. The power of sign systems depend on their role in generating and maintaining shared expectations as well as shared interpretive frameworks. Signs do not force us to have certain interpretations as much as they create the context for other people’s interpretations of us, and even more importantly, our own expectations of what others think. Contemporary theatre practitioners, in particular the two important directors Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson, emphasise on visual images and focus on size, shape, colour, costumes, light and other visual elements in order to create and develop a way to affect the audience’s way of seeing, thinking and understanding of actions and events.

Using semiotics in theatre helped the directors to see the various cultural and historical traditions as a vast source of signs. Representations in acting style, costumes, production design, music and other elements are taken from different contexts. Also it helped them to understand how performances communicate meanings by examining the signifiers that are decoded by each member of the audience. Semiotics gives the directors a frame work for making choices about which sign system should dominate the performance, how signifiers can create meaning which the spectators interpret differently. They are asked to read the visual diminutions of performance as a key language of the theatrical discourse.


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