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Sound design: the scenography of engagement and distraction: Ross Brown
“standing up” of circumstantial cultural conditions as a meta-text, which can be read in the
manner of the mise-en-scène – in its design and material choices, gestures and ways of
moving, accents, voice and so on. Within, but also without, the mise-en-scène, theatre
sound design shows things about aural culture, about the ways in which we relate to the
world around us through the skin/air interface of hearing (which engages not merely
auditory apparatus of the ears and brain, but the whole body, in the world around it). The
manner in which hearing and sounding are practised in the theatre is also a performance:
while making performance on stages out of words, actions, designs and conceits, the technê
of our scenographic practice also performs us.
One can ﬂick through theatre history and see that the conjuring tricks and massive
gesture of Victorian spectacular, the ﬁnely detailed living-room interior, the framed starkly
empty space, the caricutured kitchen or bedsit, or the graﬃti and ruin of the urban exterior
are more than apt or symbolic dramatic settings. In their level of ﬁnish, in the materiality of
the way they are framed in time and space and in the craft that they represent, they perform
cultural conditions that also speak to their dramatic signiﬁcance within the programme.
Each of these examples is characteristic of a moment in cultural history and I suggest the
technologically crafted theatre soundscape will be remembered as the emblematic scenography of turn-of-the-millennium theatre. I believe that this is because the designed theatre
soundscape has become more than an eﬀect to assist the legibility of text lifted oﬀ the page.
As the ﬁeld of communications that we inhabit becomes ever more complex and immersive,
and as modes of communicating become less singularly linear (like two tin cans connected
by a taut string) and more complex (like a game of cat’s cradle), theatre sound design has
become an apt process of technê through which we might better understand omnidirectionally
encountered time/space as it is experienced in the live, ﬂeshbound moment.
The maxim is true that to notice the sound design is to be distracted, but at this cultural
moment, perhaps, it is appropriate to subject audiences to distracting circumstances. Since
sound is a phenomenon of surrounding atmosphere, one might think of noise as a meteorological condition. As the ether within which the communications of daily life are transacted
becomes more opaque, as the weather of noise and competing sign-systems becomes
more energised, we cope with and derive meaning from distraction and obfuscation.
In evolutionary terms, hearing might be characterised as the sense of distraction. The
psychoacoustic brain has evolved a multi-tasking capacity to listen attentively to a stream of
words, while apparently “zoning-out” the ambient noise of circumstance. Other surrounding
conversations and sounds amalgamate and recede into a distant background atmosphere
(again, like weather). But in fact, this is an eﬀect only of the conscious perception. Even
when one is rapt in conversation the brain continues to hear all, in detail, at a subconscious
level. This is known as the psychoacoustic “cocktail party eﬀect.”
There are Darwinian reasons for it. When standing in a busy street or a dangerous
jungle, one cannot aﬀord to be too lost in conversation, too exclusively devoted in one’s
attention to one programme, so the psychoacoustic brain has developed the capacity to
listen and engage in verbal communication in noisy environments while remaining receptively (if not perceptively) alert to sudden, signiﬁcant or out of place sounds. This is one of
the reasons mobile phones, sweet rustling or talking in the theatre are so particularly
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annoying: these sounds break convention and are therefore signiﬁcant, and are almost
impossible to zone out.
Hearing constitutes a continuous cultural dialectic between focused perception and
omnidirectional awareness, or between signal and noise, and the fully determined meaning
of a signal, especially in a socially (air-present as opposed to virtual) live situation, ought
properly to take into account the circumstantial noise which has been negotiated in order to
hear it. This circumstantial noise might be the noisy energy of the auditorium materiality of
the performance, or of the street outside, or it might be of a smaller, more personal scale
(one’s own bodily sound-ﬁeld; the tension one experiences constraining one’s bodily noises;
one’s breathing and swallowing, or even remembered or imagined phonomnetic sounds in
one’s head or onomatopoeic, anamnetic sensations such as itching).2
So if one takes a more subject-centred and less object-orientated view of theatre, circumstantial and even random noise is meaningful. Theatre audience, as a process, seems better
understood not as a simple binary attentiveness to a programmatic ﬁgure set against a
ground of background noise or circumstance of assumed insigniﬁcance, but as the negotiation
between conventional expectation of where meaning is to be found in any given moment of
audience, and a constantly dynamic matrix of circumstantial distraction. If sound design is
to be considered a branch of scenography, then this complex matrix of distraction is the
skena upon which its designs are drawn, the arena into which its shapes are thrown.
A brief history of sound eﬀect
“Yes, but what exactly is theatre sound design?” an eminent theatre historian asked me –
embarrassed not to know. “A crafting of the aural experience of the theatre audience” was my
well-rehearsed reply. It is a question I get asked less frequently these days, but one that
continues to speak to a lack of discourse around an area that is now a ﬁxture of theatre practice.
The auditory experience of theatre can be inﬂuenced by design in two ways. The ﬁrst is
the aural attention focused on the organisation of noises within mise-en-scène according to the
dramaturgy. This organisation might be made in a semiologically functional way (the doorbell
or the birdsong that denotes “outside in the country”) or in a more melodramatic way:
sound (maybe music) that underscores or oﬀers ironic counterpoint to the emotional vectors of the performance. The second is the organisation of the audience’s hearing: the subtle
modiﬁcation of the auditorium acoustic or ambient presence using artiﬁcial reverberation,
the subliminal use of ambient eﬀects or subtle electroacoustic reinforcement of certain
elements of the performance, all of which subtly changes the audience’s psychoacoustic
disposition towards the mise-en-scène.
Then there is the interplay between these two areas of sound design, and the area of
uncertainty at the intersection between dramaturgically organised noise and the theatrically
organised hearing. By this, I mean the sound eﬀect that might not be, or the noise that might
(particularly in the “surround” sound ﬁeld). This seems to be the area that contemporary
surround-sound design wants to exploit in order to speak almost directly to the part of
the brain that remembers the aura of place and time, rather than verbal allusions. Here
It’s the sounds one remembers most. The clink of a spoon on a wine glass. The
laughter of a child. The gush of running water. All these reverberate through Festen,
the Dogme ﬁlm famously made into a play and running at the Lyric Shaftesbury in
London. And, at the year’s end, I ﬁnd Paul Arditti’s remarkable soundscape still
echoes in my brain and unlocks memories of an event that signiﬁes a major shift in
the development of modern theatre: the rebirth of tragedy.
(Guardian: 22 December 2004)
This mainstream critical engagement with the notion of “soundscape” seems to reﬂect an
advance in critical engagement with theatre sound design. Sound has, until recently, been
scarcely mentioned in critical reviews, other than vaguely, in relation to its atmospheric
eﬀect (as though it were some kind of scent). But then, theatre sound design, per se, has a
short history. David Collison was the ﬁrst to be credited as sound designer, at the Lyric
Hammersmith as long ago as 1959 (although in the 1970s and 80s the term applied more to
technical system design than to what is now sometimes known as “soundscape composition”,
“conceptual sound design” or “sound scoring”).
Prior to the invention of these terms, stage noises and audience hearing were organised
by writing, composition, acting, architecture and the skilled craft of providing noises oﬀ
(fairly standard conventional repertoires of mainly elemental sounds that relate thematically,
to classical dramatic theses). While the term is a twentieth-century one, it would be a
mistake to think that theatre sound was not designed before, in terms of both the dramaturgical organisation of noise and the theatrical arrangement of hearing. One might point to
the Vitruvian ideology of Renaissance auditorium design, the soniferous allusions and
musical codiﬁcations of Elizabethan dramaturgy,3 the co-authorship of drama by playwright
and musical director during the era of melodrama,4 the vast orchestrated sonic mise-enscène of the Meininger Players. In the twentieth century, one might identify as a form of
sound design the foregrounding of silence and the scripting of dramatic moment with
sparse, haunting, quiet and often dreamlike sound eﬀects by authors such as Maeterlinck,
Chekhov and Ibsen, whose musicality as poets lay as much in pauses and stage direction as it
did in the words themselves.
The ﬁrst use of recorded sound in theatre seems to have been the sound of a baby crying
in Arthur Law’s The Judge in 1890. The phonograph seems to have made little impact at
ﬁrst, but by 1927, the year of Metropolis and the Jazz Singer, electroacoustic sonic eﬀect had
become part of the cultural radio-age zeitgeist. In Paris, Rusollo applied his intonarumari –
the machines of his Futurist Art of Noise – to theatre and silent ﬁlm, and in Hollywood the
term sound eﬀect was coined as part of the hype for the late silent-era blockbuster Wings,
which had no recorded dialogue but used the primitive Kinegraphone to synchronise the
noises of battles to the screen images and a live orchestral score.
In this theatre era of sound eﬀects, sounds became acousmatic (disembodied, separated
from original source) and re-embodied in a loudspeaker. The theatre soundscape became
intermedial – a dialectic between the “live” acoustic world of the air-ﬁlled theatre and the
electroacoustic, acousmatic acoustic world that brought an exotic frisson of the radio age to
the theatrical congregation of ﬂeshly presence. Theatre sound practitioners now worked
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increasingly with knobs, wires and loudspeakers, less with their bodies and soniferous
materials: theatre sound went from craft to technical art.
In America, theatre sound pioneer Harold Burris-Meyer, author of the ﬁrst textbook
of the electroacoustic era, embraced the modern technology but was cautious about this
transition. He understood that in taking the production of sound eﬀects away from the
performing company and propmakers, and in giving it to audio technicians, much accumulated stage sense, dramaturgical understanding, and most of all perhaps, musicality handed
down through apprenticeship, would need to be articulated for the ﬁrst time so that it
could be learned anew. He also understood that the modernist fetishisation of the “realistic”
in sound reproduction might be of limited applicability in theatre:
Sound eﬀects are important to the production in that they create, reinforce, or
counterpoint the atmosphere or mood; reveal character; or contribute to the
advancement of the plot. In a sense they fulﬁl the function of music as illustrated by
the fact that musical ﬁgures can often be substituted for eﬀects and serve as background music. In conformity with the principle that music is a way of handling
sound, eﬀects treated according to the principles of music composition can achieve
emotional response as does music. Sound eﬀects need not be faithful reproductions
of the subject concerned.
(Burris-Meyer and Mallory 1959: 20)
Burris-Meyer adheres to a traditional approach, wherein sound design is a component
of an overall programmatic design upon which the audience trains a detached gaze (both visual
and aural). However, in the following quotations we get a sense of how sound went on to
make a further transition from component to “total programme” of engagement between
audience and theatre:
We are beyond the era of sound eﬀects. Sound is no longer an eﬀect, an extra, a
garni, supplied from time to time to mask a scene change or ease a transition. We
are beyond an era of door buzzers and thunderclaps. Or rather, door buzzers and
thunderclaps are no longer isolated eﬀects, but part of a total program of sound that
speaks to theatre as ontology . . . Sound is the holistic process and the program that
binds our multifarious experience of the world. Sound is our own inner continuity
track. It is also our primary outward gesture to the world, our ﬁrst and best chance
to communicate with others, to become part of a larger rhythm.
(Sellars in Kaye and Lebrecht 1994: vii)
Then, ten years later, Susannah Clapp, in her overview of the theatrical year for the
Observer on 26 December 2004:
There have always been sounds in the theatre, but they’ve been thought of as
eﬀects: isolated illustrations of events – thunder-rolls or the swoosh of breaking
waves at the beginning of The Tempest, an occasional outburst of birdsong to signal
spring. The idea that there might be continuous thought and purpose behind
this, rather than a boy in the wings with a whistle and a couple of coconut shells,
has been slow to take hold. For most theatre audiences and critics, “design” has
meant a visual plan.
Sound eﬀects now seem to link not just to a particular moment or function in relation to
the mise-en-scène, but to each other and to a continual plenum of sound. This coincides to
an extent with the concept of the soundscape (remember Billington using the word in the
earlier quotation) which R. Murray Shafer, who coined the term, deﬁnes as:
The sonic environment. Technically, any portion of the sonic environment regarded
as a ﬁeld for study. The term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract
constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when
considered as an environment.
(Schafer 1994: 274)
Rick Thomas, in his application for the discipline of Theatre Sound Design to be
recognised by OISTAT’s5 Scenography Commission in Bregenz, 2000, likens the use of a
composed or designed soundscape in theatre to a musical setting, which he proposes has
an ontological link to dramatic form itself (drawing on Appia and Schopenhauer):
Theatre springs from the inner life that music provides, and theatre associates that
inner life with an intellectual discourse that brings profound enlightenment to
humanity’s most fundamental questions. The moment we accept the primal role
that music in its broadest sense plays in instigating the drama, we open ourselves to
the approach that music in its more audible manifestation must play in the drama.
In making the case for the soundscape as music in this way, Thomas is clearly advocating, in
Appia’s tradition, a unity and cohesion of design purpose and concept that harmonises in a
quasi-musical way with original authorial intent. This, in my view, implies, somewhat
romantically, that the designer must “tune in” or “get on the same wavelength” as the writer
as well as attending, dramaturgically, to the meaning of their words; it is also soundscape
being used in a melodramatic way (I mean this in the strict sense of the word, and without
any pejorative intent or stylistic implications: literally melodrama as hybrid music/drama).
I am not sure how, consistently, to achieve or assess design that relies on a kind of emotive
empathy, or shared muse (although I am sure there are times when it does happen). More to
the point, perhaps, I am not sure that audiences sit back and appreciatively gaze at (or listen to)
theatre as a holistic artwork from a critically detached position. I suspect that theatre, as
Sellars suggests, is ontologically a place of engagement; of subjectivity; of the individual
negotiation of meaning within a noisy ﬁeld.
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Theatres of audience engagement
I return then, to the concept of the matrix of distraction; of the contemporary theatre
soundscape as an environment that immerses its audience in uncertainties, conventional
annoyances and in a dialectic between staged melodrama over there and personal circumstances over here. As I have said, I see this process of technê, of thinking through creative
practice, as a manifestation of changing culture. I also see the surround soundscape as a
synecdoche for new, formal theatres of immersivity or engagement, based maybe on game
worlds or intermedial aleatory strategies, which I regard as aural theatre forms.
Designing sound, making theatre, making any art perhaps, begins in the synthesis of one’s
perceptual experience of the world with one’s original ideas (which might perhaps be
considered noisy thoughts although I’ll concede the phrase is less glamorous). Some call this
process inspiration: an aerobic trope implying some kind of spiritual possession. I prefer to
think of it as a more circular exchange with surrounding atmosphere: in auditory terms,
a process of listening/hearing → thinking → sounding. As Bruce R. Smith notes when
formulating his concept of the “O factor” in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England
(1999), performers and audiences alike engage with their environment in a circular way
(both phenomenologically, and culturally). The cultured body, the cultured mind and the
potential of the audient to be sounder all have an eﬀect on what is heard, and what is heard,
and the ways in which it is heard, has an eﬀect on what is sounded. Audience, when
understood according to aurally “historical” (or culturally nuanced) phenomenology, is a
productive practice, an engagement in art as a process rather than the detached observation
of it as an object or detached environment. R. Murray Schafer deﬁned the soundscape
as an environment, and Einstein once deﬁned the environment as “everything that isn’t me.”
With sound and with theatre, as it becomes more aural, one is never sure where the
1 The air is important, not simply because it keeps performers and audience alive, but because it is
the immersive, tactile medium of both audible and inaudible sound as well as smell and heat. Air is
the medium of theatrical presence, of shared phenomenological experience (see Ihde 1976, passim).
2 Augoyard and Torgue (2005, p. 85) describe a phenomenon they call anamnesis: the physical
recollection – literally the re-membering – of sound through the body. This might be triggered
empathetically by sensual perception or through imagined or remembered sound. One might
remember music in one’s head (phonomnesis) and also experience its eﬀect in the body
(anamnesis). Anamnesis is produced either by sound or by memory; indeed, one might view it as a
form of memory or imagination experienced in the aural body.
3 Much of its meaning lost to modern audiences – see Lindley 2006.
4 See Mayer 1980.
5 Organisation Internationale des Scénographes, Techniciens et Architectes de Théâtre.
Augoyard, J. and Torgue, H. (2005) Sonic Experience: A guide to everyday sounds, trans. A. McCartney
and D. Paquette (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press).
Billington, M. (2004) “The horror, the horror,” Guardian, 22 December.
Burris-Meyer, H. and Mallory, V. (and Goodfriend, L.) (1959) Sound in the Theatre (Mineola,
NY: Radio Magazines).
Clapp, S. (1998) “Theatre,” Observer, 15 March.
Clapp, S. (2004) “Noises on and oﬀ,” Observer, 26 December.
Ihde, D. (1976) Listening and Voice: A phenomenology of sound (Athens: Ohio University Press)
Kaye, D. and Lebrecht, J. (1992) Sound and Music for Theatre (New York: Back Stage Books).
Lindley, D. (2006) Shakespeare and Music (London: Thomson Learning/Arden Shakespeare).
Mayer, D. (1980) “The music of melodrama” in D. Bradby, L. James and B. Sharratt, eds, Performance
and Politics in Popular Drama (Cambridge University Press).
Schafer, R. Murray (1994) The Soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world (Vermont:
Smith, B. R. (1999) The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: attending to the o-factor (London:
University of Chicago Press).
Thomas, R. K. (2001) “The function of the soundscape,” Theatre Design and Technology Journal,
Brown, R. (2001). “The art of sound design: real and imaginary soundscapes,” TD & T – Theatre
Design & Technology 37(4), pp. 38–43.
Brown, R. (2005). “The theatre soundscape and the end of noise,” Performance Research – A Journal
of Performing Arts 10(4), pp. 105–19.
Brown, R. (2009). Sound: a reader in theatre practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Smith, K. (2007). “Beyond the black box,” Studies in Theatre and Performance 27(2), pp. 185–93.
Sally Banes introduces the concept of “aroma design” and offers a “taxonomy” of olfactory
functions. She uses Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol (see Tyson, extract 43) to analyse
the different ways in which “olfactory effects” contribute to meaning in performance. Banes
“anatomizes” the wide variety of ways in which odours and smells have been employed in the
past and are currently being used in performance in conjunction with the flow of images and
sounds being processed by the other senses. She proposes a “poetics of theatrical aroma design”
which recognises the complexity of these olfactory sensations and their capacity to reinforce
or undermine the meanings being produced through “other sensory channels.”
The smells of Western culture attenuated for much of the 20th century; modern sanitation
reduced “bad” odors in daily life, while changing values diminished the rich use of scents for
special occasions, such as religious rituals and theatrical events (see Classen et al. 1994).
The beginnings of Western theatre in ancient Greek festivals like the Eleusinian mysteries
(in modern times considered the prototype of the modern gesamtkunstwerk) were suﬀused
with intense aromas of all kinds – including fruit, ﬂoral, grain, and animal oﬀerings; blood
and burning animal ﬂesh; wine, honey, and oil libations; and the burning of incense and
other materials in sacred ﬁres (see Burkert 1985). In our times, the use of incense in
Catholic churches constitutes a diminished survival of the ritual use of smell in religious
performances. Scented theatre programs and perfume fountains were only two of the
19th-century olfactory devices in Western theatres (see Haill 1987), but during most of the
20th century, the “fourth wall” conventions of realism generally divided the spectator from
the mainstream stage and permitted only sight and sound to cross its divide.1
Historically, the cultural uses of aromas in the West diminished with the hygiene campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since the spread of disease was linked to
foul odors. Perhaps the deodorization of the theatre was in some ways connected to the
scientiﬁc ambitions of naturalism, to an idea of the theatre as a sanitized laboratory (whereas
odor could be precisely described in the pages of a naturalistic novel, safely distanced from
the body of the reader).2 The deodorization of the modern theatre may also be one facet of
a conscious move away from – even an antagonism toward – religious ritual. In that context,
it’s not surprising that the Symbolists, hostile to naturalism and fascinated by religious
mysteries, restored aroma to performance in the late 19th century.
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Over the course of the 20th century, various artists (both mainstream and avant-garde)
repeatedly attempted to renew the sense of smell as part of the theatrical experience
(including plays, dances, operas, and performance art) – using aroma both to challenge and
to expand the realist aesthetic. In the 1990s, olfactory eﬀects in performance became
particularly pronounced. And yet, the use of aroma onstage has received surprisingly little
critical or scholarly attention; there is no published history of olfactory performances, nor
have most theatre semioticians included smells in their analyses of theatrical signs. Thus
there exists a largely unexplored rhetoric of what I will call the “olfactory eﬀect” in theatrical events – that is, the deliberate use of “aroma design” to create meaning in performance.3
Perhaps this is because so often the use of smell seems merely iconic and illustrative, a weak
link in a chain of redundancy across sensory channels that does nothing more than repeat
what is already available visually and aurally. However, I contend that smell has been used
and may be used in a wide variety of ways; that on closer analysis even the seemingly
elementary use of smell as illustration proves more complex than at ﬁrst glance; and that it
is useful to the history and criticism of both theatre and aroma to anatomize these distinctions. (Although throughout the history of Western performance there have been all sorts of
accidental and/or unintended smells in the theatre, from the food spectators eat to the odor
emanating from urine troughs, in this article I am concerned only with olfactory eﬀects
through aroma design.)
Jim Drobnick has noted the “ambiguous semiological status” of smell – the way it is
situated, as Alfred Gell puts it, “somewhere in between the stimulus and the sign” (in
Drobnick 1998: 14). Perhaps this ambiguity (and also the technical diﬃculty of controlling
scent in the theatre) has served as a deterrent to the elaboration of aroma design. Yet despite
its low aesthetic status,4 aroma is not simply part of nature, but does carry cultural meaning,
and certainly the conscious use of aroma design in the theatre – a place characterized,
as Roland Barthes has put it, by a “density of signs” ( 1972: 262) – is a mode of
communication that, like any other element in the mise-en-scène, can be used for artistic
eﬀects and thus analyzed and interpreted.
In his 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes analyzes how visual images (like
advertisements) communicate meaning (Barthes  1977). I ﬁnd Barthes’s “spectral
analysis” of the visual image useful for my project for a number of reasons, in particular
because he separates out the various components of images, according to their communicative channels (linguistic as well as visual). This can be useful by analogy for separating out
and then reassembling the various components of the theatrical mise-en-scène, including
My project of anatomizing a rhetoric of aroma in theatrical representations begins from
the premise that there is a total, integrated sensory image (or ﬂow of images) created in the
theatre, of which the olfactory eﬀect may be one component. Thus in analyzing meanings
conveyed by aroma design in the theatre, one needs to discuss the use of odors in relation
to the dominant sensory channels of theatre – the visual and the aural – and not simply as
isolated sensory events. The aroma may work in concert with the other sensory channels to
reinforce meaning, or it may complement or conﬂict with the other channels. Moreover,
keeping in mind C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad, icon-index-symbol (1991), will be useful in
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distinguishing among various representational strategies, especially in understanding how
aroma either enhances or departs from realism.
I begin my poetics of theatrical aroma design with a taxonomy that is structured according to the representational function the odors in the performance are intended to discharge.
I should point out that my categories in this taxonomy are not mutually exclusive, since
these olfactory eﬀects may perform more than one function (and the functions are not
all parallel in nature). There are six categories so far: to illustrate words, characters, places,
and actions; to evoke a mood or ambience; to complement or contrast with aural/visual
signs; to summon speciﬁc memories; to frame the performance as ritual; and to serve as
a distancing device. (There is also a seventh category, that of unrecognizable smells, which
remains to be explored further.)
The most common use of aroma onstage is to illustrate words, characters, places, or actions.
For instance, in The Governor’s Lady (1912), director David Belasco enhanced the realistic
eﬀect by creating an onstage replica of a Childs’ Restaurant, complete with the aroma of
actual pancakes, which were cooking during the play; in Tiger Rose (1917) he scattered pine
needles on the ﬂoor to create the proper scent for the forest setting; and in The First Born
(1897), set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, he burned Chinese incense (Marker 1974: 61–63).
Often (but not always), the mode of technological dissemination of odor in this category of
illustration involves cooking food, either onstage or oﬀstage – for instance (in various recent
productions): bread, toast, bacon and eggs, hamburgers, soup, spaghetti sauce, omelettes,
popcorn, onions, garlic, artichokes, mushrooms, panela (caramelized cane sugar), hazelnut
cookies, risotto, jasmine-scented rice, ﬁsh and chips, curry, sausages, sauerkraut and kielbasa,
kidneys, boiled beef, Cajun shrimp, and Australian barbequed meats of all kinds.5
But there are many other illustrative aromas besides those derived from food – for
example, the smells of manure, diesel, and citronella in Ivo van Hove’s 1999 production of
India Song (Wilson 1999: 8); of rose perfume in the Persian Garden scene of the 1952 Paris
Opéra revival of Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (Guest 1976: 201); of various
18th-century “unhygienic” smells in Mark Wing-Davey’s 1995 production of The Beaux’
Stratagem (Winn 1995: 35); of marijuana in various productions of Hair; and of cigarette
smoke in countless performances.
Related to the illustrative function, but operating more generally, is the use of olfactory
eﬀects to evoke a mood or ambience, as in Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1910 production of Don
Juan, when “proscenium servants” sprayed perfume to create an aura of luxury (Leach 1989:
89–90). Similarly, but more recently, Graeme Murphy’s ballet Shéhérazade for the Sydney
Dance Company (1979) incorporated perfume smells wafting from the silken canopies of
the set (Cargher 1979: 47). In Valentine de St.-Point’s “métachorie” dance performances
in Paris in 1913, the dancer burned large pots of incense, according to her theory of
correspondences – no doubt derived from Baudelaire and also the Symbolist staging of The
Song of Songs at the Théâtre D’Art in 18916 – governing the scent, predominant color,
musical environment, and central poetic idea for each dance (Moore 1997). In Le Théâtre
La Rubrique’s 1993 production of Cendres de Cailloux by Daniel Danis, “the audience was put
in darkness during most of the two hours’ performance. During the course of the play, the
actors used . . . natural essences to recreate, through smell, the feeling of being in the forest
O L F A C T O RY P E R F O R M A N C E S
of Northern Quebec” (Lavoie 1999). A 1996 New York production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, directed by David Esbjornson, used strawberry-scented room spray to
create a tacky ambience (Brantley 1996).
By far the most frequent use of aroma design, where it does occur, seems to fall in these
ﬁrst two categories: to illustrate the dramatic or visual text speciﬁcally or, more generally,
to create a mood. But it is signiﬁcant to note that, more rarely but perhaps more pointedly,
directors, choreographers, and performance artists sometimes engage the use of odors for
exactly the opposite function than illustration: to complement or contrast with what is happening in the rest of the performance. That is, rather than creating redundancy along all the
channels of the message, in this category of our taxonomy, the odor introduces new or even
A striking example of the contrastive use of aroma took place during the British performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti’s performance Women’s Roll (1976), in which Tutti slashed
her clothing and created artiﬁcial wounds using both stage makeup and crushed berries.
Tutti has remarked that she wanted the spectators to get “an unpleasant visual stimulus but a
pleasant olfactory stimulus” (in MacGregor 1999b), thus perhaps unsettling their views of
how to interpret this display of a woman’s body (see also MacGregor 1999a; Goldberg
1998: 118). In another mode entirely, Shaun Lynch’s Clean Smell Opera (1980) used so
many cleaning products – as the performer showered, washed her hair, cleaned dishes, and
laundered and bleached clothes – that their smells became overpowering and repugnant,
thus commenting punningly as well as ironically on the soap opera and the advertisements
being broadcast by the television that was present onstage during the performance (see
Several theatre artists have used aroma design to focus particularly on what is often said
to be a unique, or at least striking, quality of the sense of smell – its power vividly to
summon up memories. The contemporary magician/performance artist Aladin has discussed the way he “[uses] his ‘magic’ abilities to create a very localized scent of jasmine in
various parts of the audience, using this device to conjure some sense of remembrance” (in
Hewitt 1999). In El Hilo de Ariadna (Ariadne’s Thread, 1992), by the group Imagen (Taller
de Investigación de La Imagen Dramática de la Universidad Nacional de Colombia), participants were led blindfolded through a labyrinth, entering rooms with distinctive scents (such
as those associated with a schoolroom or a child’s nursery) that were meant to evoke distant
memories (Nascimento 1999). And in Theresa May’s site-speciﬁc performance Dragon Island
(1993, produced by Theatre in the Wild), a priestess instructed the spectators to crush
herbs she passed to them. The scent of the potpourri was meant to take them back in time;
they were invited to narrate their memories, casting a “magic spell” that brought them into
the play’s events to help Arthur ﬁnd the dragon (May 1999).
Finally, my last two categories have to do less with aroma design as part of the work’s
representational strategies than with the framing and contextualization of those representations. First is the use of aroma to frame the performance as a ritual. Here odor functions not
strictly as a representation itself, but as a contextualizing condition for appreciating the
other representations the performance creates. The constant burning of incense throughout
Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1985) may on the one hand fall into the illustrative category as