“Design Driven performance, also know as design-led performance, occurs when the performance impulse manifests itself through technology and design expression. The tools: space, light, sound, props, projection, scenery, visual and aural elements drive a theatrical presentation. There may be no script to follow, but words may inspire. A moment, a feeling, a mood, a sensation, a conflict, but instead of urging/massaging the response through words, one improvises or experiments with design elements.” –P.K.

In 2007 I began a series of design/performance experiments, referred to as Mysteries. Strategically limiting these design driven pieces to a five-day schedule has allowed me to develop work in collaboration with students. Together we experiment with non-textual based work that emanates from a design idea or response. The process pursues the conjoining of several design disciplines, but does not eliminate performers. The story of a traumatic incident, a 1943 wedding night photograph, levels of control and magnification, and the phrase, “…by a thread” have all served as sources of inspiration.

Mystery I. Using only design elements (light, sound, scenery, props, etc), I wondered how to respond to a specific story of trauma and heartbreak. Determining that I could not do this alone, I invited two students to help me. It quickly grew into a collaboration that involved three more students. These particular students and several of those who saw the presentation of our work, seemed to be hungry to work side-by-side with a faculty member, produce work in an intense and quick manner, and use design elements to initiate and develop a narrative without a prewritten script. It was a new and exciting process for them… and me. It became OK to experiment in our theatre. Just as directors, actors, and playwrights have the safety of the rehearsal room to explore and tweak, designers need to step away from their tables and laptops, get on their feet, and get their hands full of paint and goo. Why not use costumes as scenery? Why not use table lamps and floor lamps to light the space? Why not project a video on the floor or a pile of lumber instead of a rectangular screen? These are some of my questions that I explore in my own work, and I bring that exploration to my classes.

This work inspired a new upper-level course that I taught for the first time in the spring semester 2011, Design Driven Performance-works. Meeting six hours per week students work individually and in groups to explore design ideas that may evolve into short performance pieces. We explore how design can develop narrative, tension, and conflict: tell stories. Each student must present two major projects requiring the involvement of three other students. The students are free to choose how that involvement will manifest. This is a class meant to explore what can happen when designers initiate performance work. No published guidelines or textbooks exist. We do flounder at times, and the boundaries dividing traditional theatrical positions become blurred. Yet extraordinary possibilities have become evident as designers evolved into playwrights, directors, and performers.

I recently began to think about how design driven performance processes could be used to introduce the different disciplines in theatre design. In the fall of 2014 I taught Design Driven Performance to a class of 13 first-year students (Hampshire College’s first year tutorial program). I chose to use an add-on model. Each design area (scenery/props, costumes, lighting, sound, projections) was melded into a “performed project” that also included the previously learned design disciplines. Students worked from prompts that I provided such as, “Using a mix of only scenery and costumes present four related scenes/tableaux that indicate a transformation.” The class worked individually as well as in small groups as they devised their designed performances. I was pleased with this class and felt that most students demonstrated tremendous growth, facility, and creativity in their subsequent projects.