chapter  9
Sensing realism: illusionism, actuality, and the theatrical sensorium
ByStanton B. Garner Jr
Pages 8

In the fall of 1991, the New York Theatre Workshop presented the American premiere of Mad Forest, Caryl Churchill’s 1990 play about the Romanian Revolution, at the Greenwich Village Perry Street Theatre. The production, directed by Mark WingDavey, was provocative in its strategies of audience address. Denied the comfort and invisibility of conventional modern spectatorship, the audience was made to share the physical demands to which the play’s characters are subject. Wing-Davey and his set designer made resourceful use of the intimate seating of the Perry Street Theatre: uncomfortable chairs and benches comprised the front row, and these were extended into the rubble that surrounded the edge of the stage (by the end of the play, several spectators were sitting on the floor amid this rubble). The radio music in the first scene was turned up to a painfully high decibel level, and the continual lighting of cheap cigarettes subjected the audience to a cloud of acrid smoke. As Wing-Davey explained in a discussion following the performance, Mad Forest deals with the physical and cognitive discomforts involved in encountering a society as removed as that of Romania. These strategies for physicalizing reception paralleled the text’s concern with the linguistic barriers to this kind of intercultural contact: Churchill specifies that each scene in Acts 1 and 3 opens with a subtitle spoken in Romanian, then English, then Romanian again, as if even the drama itself must contend with the cumbersome mediation of language texts and phrase books. The accentuation of Churchill’s audience address in terms of the sights, sounds, smells, and environmental tactility of performance reflects the modern theatre’s expanding preoccupation with the theatrical sensorium and its multiple experiential channels. One thinks of Marinetti’s Futurist theatre, which sought to transform the theatrical auditorium into a space of sensory dynamism and exchange. Seeking the precursors of this theatre, Marinetti celebrated the Variety Theatre for its reliance on “swift actuality” (Marinetti 1971: 116) and for its generation of what he termed the “Futurist marvelous” (117). The marvelous is characterized by sensory invasion, the subversion of intellect by “body-madness” (120). Marinetti proclaimed “the new significations of light, sound, noise, and language, with their mysterious and inexplicable extensions into the least-explored part of our sensibility” (117). At every turn,

in other words, the Futurist theatre should activate the spectator’s sensory reflexes. In words that anticipate the expanded mise en scène of Wing-Davey’s Mad Forest, Marinetti writes:

The Variety Theatre uses the smoke of cigars and cigarettes to join the atmosphere of the theatre to that of the stage. And because the audience cooperates in this way with the actors’ fantasy, the action develops simultaneously on the stage, in the boxes, and in the orchestra.