Passages: Source Material

Passages took as its theme and source material the work, ideas and – particularly – the death-story of the German-Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, who died in a hotel room on the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 while fleeing from the Gestapo.

The performance was developed through a devising process rather than based on an extant dramatic text, in order to maximise the potential input of the lighting artist in the creative development of the work. Specifically, the performance was developed through a devising process involving the director, actors, myself as lighting artist, and other members of the company, and this process would lead to the making of a performance ‘text’ that was fixed at the macro scale, while allowing for small, local variations of timing or expression from performance to performance.

Such fixing of the performance was important in research terms, since my project concerned the rehearsal and live performance of lighting, not its improvisation. My concern was with the subtleties of expression that can take place as audience, performers and light interact and respond to each other: a focus in the moment of performance not on ‘what happens’ (which has been pre-agreed) but on ‘how it happens’.

I also felt it was important that the material chosen as a starting point was sufficiently rich in the kind of dramatic possibilities that would lead towards a performance style not determined by an adherence to what we might loosely call ‘realism’. This avoidance of a purely representational style was intended to ensure scope for light to take on a full role as a major expressive element of the performance. Benjamin’s death story offers dramatic potential, not least because the exact circumstances are unclear and contested. In addition, his writings and ideas contain metaphors and allegories that are theatrically suggestive as well as offering significant challenges when attempting to use them as the basis for a theatre performance.

An influential book for the director Chris Goode and myself during the early development of the project (prior to the other company members becoming involved) was Walter Benjamin's Archive (Marx 2007), which contains facsimile pages of Benjamin’s writings. What seemed to be the potent visual qualities of the paper, along with Benjamin’s handwriting and use of page space, gave us confidence that we could together find ways of communicating aspects of Benjamin’s cerebral life and work through the material substance of a theatre performance (see image below). Some of the paper and writing textures were used very directly in the scenic design for Passages, as well as fuelling the devising process.

Pages from Walter Benjamin's notebooks

Image provided by a live link to ZKM, the Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe (