I started thinking more consciously about how objects work onstage after I co-created a show with Lisa Channer and Annie Enneking called Rehearsing Failure. The show was about Bertolt Brecht and his female collaborators Elisabeth Hauptmann, Ruth Berlau and Helene Weigel. Lisa, Annie, and I had done a lot of research (for over a year) before getting into a room with actors. When we did finally get into a rehearsal room, we began by improvising around a number of objects—a typewriter, a woman’s high heel shoe, a bull whip, a gun, etc. Many of these objects made it into the final show. None of the objects were extraneous. Everything was used and everything mattered. Objects transformed and they were used in multiple, different, varied ways. A cigar was never just a cigar, but also a suggestive sexual object, something used to seduce. A typewriter wasn’t just a machine to put words in ink, but a tangible symbol of the connection between Brecht and his collaborators.
To me, a general rule of objects on stage is that the more sparse the scene (the less stuff there is) the more potentially symbolic and meaningful the objects become. Ibsen reduces his plays to single rooms; the objects within those rooms become even more meaningful. In A Doll’s House, a letter is not just a letter, but also a symbol of the weight of the past crushing Nora in the present. In a film, there are so many objects within the frame that it’s more like real life—objects are useful and have purpose. But in the theater, objects are not only useful; they immediately carry weight and meaning.
In the past, I also had the pleasure of creating shows with Dominique Serrand and the artists at the Moving Company. Because those artists come from a Jacques Lecoq clowning background, they are in the business of making the familiar strange. When a clown comes onstage, the clown makes the familiar unfamiliar—the clown doesn’t know how to use any of the appliances or technologies of everyday life. They always use them wrong and the audience suddenly sees the things (the objects) of our lives in a new and different way. In this way, objects can be downright strange and beautiful: the way that Sarah Ruhl defamiliarizes a book in Eurydice, or the way that Pinter uses objects to create mystery—the drum in The Birthday Party or the notes coming through the dumbwaiter. In Beckett, objects are so elemental that they seem almost mythical.
Here’s an exercise I’ve given my students: write a short play that has a single object used in three different ways. I thought of this exercise after reading Mamet’s The Three Uses of the Knife. Mamet outlines the idea of the power of an object in a drama. He talks about how in a Leadbelly song the protagonist of the song uses a knife to cut his bread. He uses the same knife to shave so he can look good for his girlfriend. Finally, he uses the knife to kill her when he finds out that she is cheating. In Mamet’s description, the knife carries the drama. Without the knife, the man can’t bring about his own downfall, but it’s also a symbol of his daily life and survival. This is the power of an object onstage. It has a practical use, but it also carries meaning and story. As playwrights, when we’re conscious of it, objects can be a useful way of making our plays more theatrical and rich. Objects can also make our plots more grounded in the world in which our characters live and breathe.