When one thinks of theatrical production, it is typically in terms of three things: The ‘who’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’. Directors must figure out how portray a story so that it feels real, not only to the audience but everyone else involved. How the story is physically set, the way movement occurs on stage, how seamlessly one scene flows into the next, is all vitally important to the production of a good play.
These aspects, however, all rely on the existence of one thing: the linear nature of time. Theater is bound by time in a way that no other art forms are because it happens exclusively in the present moment, even though it is a product of the past. The story the director chooses to portray must make linear sense because unlike painting or movie making (whose goal is to show either the story of a specific moment or a series of interlinked yet independent moments that exist in time but are not reliant on it), it is subject to the structure imposed on it by time.
A play must be able to show how every individual scene contributes to the content as a whole, so the scenes themselves cannot typically be portrayed non-linearly or as independent of one another. However, I propose that Ivo Van Hove, with his refreshing and unconventional directorial approach, has redefined the role of time in theatrical production.
Through several different mediums, including but not limited to: the use of cameras, video screens and portrayal of individual scenes simultaneously, Van Hove has been able to generate a kind of theater that is no longer a slave to time. In this brief commentary, the focus will be centered on two specific plays directed by Van Hove: Scenes from a Marriage and Network.
A series of isolated moments in time
Scenes from a Marriage serves as a particularly striking example of how Van Hove has redefined the use of time in theater. He splits the play up into four separate scenes all of which begin and end simultaneously. The set is constructed in such a way that the audience can see the actors from other scenes backstage, while not being able to view any other scene than the one directly in front of them. Additionally, the order in which the scenes are viewed is dependent on which scene a given audience begins with, so the chronology of the play is distorted. For this particular play, Van Hove presents a series of isolated moments in time where each one exists independently of the other. Each moment, however, is still undeniably connected thus constituting a coherent story which structure is driven by time.
A better way to think of this might be to try and understand each of the four scenes as a ‘frame’ of a particular moment. This ‘frame’ not only isolates the moment as individual but also highlights the space around it, effectively increasing the contrast with which we view it. The primary reason Van Hove is able to abandon chronology and maintain strong structural significance is because he takes each individual frame and metaphorically stacks it on top of another.
Think of it this way, each frame represents a floor in a building, and we as the audience have the ability to travel from one floor to the next using the elevator. Each floor is different, and it doesn’t matter where we start because we know that we will ultimately see all of them. The floors constitute and define the building, and by starting within the framework of the building itself, we do not subject ourselves to the perceptual distortion the image of the building may create before we view the floors.
In simpler terms, by isolating individual scenes in time, Van Hove allows the audience to develop an intimate understanding of a particular moment that is not rooted in what’s supposed to happen, but instead in what is happening. As the audience, we no longer view the play as a series of scenes ranging from past to present, but rather a conjunction of instances that occur simultaneously. This simultaneity enables a newfound intimacy where the audience can form a raw and unmonitored connection with the events occurring on stage. The scenes become universally applicable to every individual while also magnifying the meaning of the play as a whole. Time loses its structural relevance because everything occurs in the present, much like everyday life.
In Network, Van Hove further undermines the structural relevance of time, though he does so in a different way. It could be argued that his directorial approach to Network falls within more conventional lines as an effect of the set construction and chronological sequencing of the play, that is, when one decides to contrast it with Scenes from a Marriage. However, he still manages to produce an equally intense intimacy while maintaining an experience for the audience that occurs exclusively in the present moment.
Keeping in mind the elevator metaphor previously mentioned, Van Hove, in this production, uses screens and live filming on stage to replicate the idea. As the audience, we are constantly seeing two depictions of the same event, though one is centered on the actor’s face so that we may see every nuance of his expression, while the other is the scene itself. In essence, Van Hove is able to manipulate the perspective with which the scene is viewed, so it does not fall exclusively on the audience member as it would in typical theater. The audience views the scene as a whole, but when they see the screen, another perspective is added, perhaps that of the main actor or even of what is occurring off stage.
The point is that he is able to frame an identical event so that it appears entirely different without distorting the present moment. In doing so, he increases the amount of information the audience perceives when regarding the specific moment, effectively increasing the richness and profundity of that moment. Van Hove recognizes that there is disparity between how every audience member may interpret a given moment in a play, and as a director with a vision, he has figured out how to isolate time such that it may benefit his vision and clarify his message.
Time is a social construct that every person is constantly at the mercy of, or at least that’s what most people think. The way Van Hove has restructured how time is perceived is perhaps what makes his plays so electrifying. By allowing the audience to abandon the notion of past and future and focus on an ensemble of the present moment, Van Hove has created a new genre of theater whose center falls on what it means to be human. He shows that in order to understand the human condition, one must look at the individual parts that constitute it without attributing the meaning of those parts to something outside their individuality.
It is possible to develop an understanding of the human condition as a whole only if one is willing to dissect it into individual instances, and to build those instances on top of one another until a defined picture comes into existence, that takes into account the multiplicity of everyday life and the present moment.