Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper and the Panopticon

by Alyson Cummins, designer of The Yellow Wallpaper

I first came across The Yellow Wallpaper at college, where I briefly studied it as part of a module on consciousness. I was delighted when Aoife, our director, approached me last year about her idea to do a stage adaptation.  
The text is such a finely crafted, economical piece of work that it has been a very real challenge from the beginning. I think this challenge comes mainly from the fact that the language is so descriptive; she paints such a vivid picture, not only of her state of mind but also of her surroundings, which are so closely linked to her mental state. Trying to retain this for an audience member, as opposed to a reader, is one of the main things I have been striving to achieve. 
In the earlier stages of the design process I became very preoccupied with a building designed in the 18th Century called the Panopticon. It is as much a political and architectural thesis around space and power as it is a design for a building. The original design was for a prison, but its designer Jeremy Bentham thought it could be adapted for any kind of institutional building. It is most succinctly described on Wikipedia:

“The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. The design comprises a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. 

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.””

I was drawn to the idea of power and control being exercised through a person’s environment in light of and with regard to the heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper. I became more interested in the relationship between the protagonist and the individual audience member rather than trying to create a naturalistic environment for the action to take place in. 
The Panopticon model is also rather like a theatre in the round, except that the relationship is in reverse, because the person in the centre of the circular space is lit and is the focus of attention for those around the perimeter who are in darkness. Our production will be are staged in the Boys School at Smock Alley, which gives us the opportunity to place an audience on at least three sides of the space with the stage in the centre, and so this idea of the Panopticon and the power structure--as well as the opportunity to subvert it--really intruiged me. 

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