Scenography and Stage Costumes in twentieth-century European Theatre: A Selective Overview

Whether seated on stone tiers or in comfortable armchairs, curious members of the audience have in every era no doubt wondered what is concealed behind that curtain, on the other side of which actors disappear from our view when they leave the stage. Behind those wings is another world, hidden and multi-faceted, the submerged base of an iceberg. This world is formed by the coming together of a number of operators, whose hard work, passion and synergy from one performance to the next produce that magic necessary to enchant and convince audiences. A play is indeed founded on teamwork, in which different skills join up to set a very delicate and complex machine into motion. This machine is ultimately driven by the creativity and expertise of those behind the stage, as they provide support for the talents of the persons who present themselves to the spectators. All live performances and all forms of entertainment necessarily require the presence and collaboration of a variety of professional skills. These collective abilities of often anonymous agents is indispensable in realizing a quality artistic product, one that is able to gain the approval of the audience through the creation of persuasive illusions and emotions. A host of qualified talents must work cooperatively to build the scenery for a play, an endeavour certainly requiring technical and organizational skills, but also experience and artistic sensibility. Successful scenography, costume design, makeup and hair dressing, prop creation, mechanics, and motion technique are based on knowledge and experience gained over time, usually passed down from master to apprentice informally through practice. These are crafts in the original sense of the term, in which the artisan’s hands each time produce a different result, a unique piece. As we well know today, since the end of the last century globalization has had an impact on cultural and productive contexts, giving rise to a certain homogenization of lifestyles, fashions and habits. The tendency has been to follow the American model of standardized, ‘branded’ production, while in its wake has followed a general neglect of artisanal culture. In Europe, artistic craftsmanship was rediscovered as a strategic resource at the beginning of the new millennium, achieving a central position in international debate. Scientific contributions and collaborative enterprises coordinated by public entities have given rise to a vast literature and to great media attention on the subject, establishing an important international network of specialists in the field and promoting an interdisciplinary exchange of experiences among different countries. In spite of the worldwide economic crisis, the complex of artistic trades, together with the necessary reassessment of the topic from cultural, social and economic points of view, has stimulated fresh interest in recent years. Young people have once again been drawn to artisanal professions, having rediscovered in manual work a phenomenon that is in keeping with the times and which provides opportunities for improving their quality of life. This attraction is in part due to the application of modern technologies to these trades, which enables them to discover and pursue creative productive channels within today’s economic context. These considerations form the background to the emergence of the project T.H.E.A.T.E.R. – Technics Handicraft Exchange around the European Regions – winner of the 2016 European Erasmus+ Call (Key Action 2 – Strategic Partnerships for innovation): the project involves 30 months of international cooperation aimed at developing an innovative system of non-formal training for young persons interested in the world of theatre, both as an opportunity for growth and as a career path, in particular in the sector of scenography construction and costume design. For nearly 30 years, the European Union has funded the Erasmus program, enabling more than three million young Europeans to spend a part of their years as students at a different school or university, or with an organization in Europe. Since 2014, the new program Erasmus Plus has funded not only universities and other educational institutions, but also innovative partnerships, the so-called ‘Knowledge Alliances’ and ‘Sector Skills Alliances’. The latter aim to promote conjoined educational activities that overcome the barrier between academics and the world of work, encouraging transnational collaboration between schools and companies. Thus was created the five-way partnership of the T.H.E.A.T.E.R. project, whose chief promoter is the Osservatorio Mestieri d’Arte, an association that brings to gether 14 foundations created by banks at the national level; for over a decade, it has coordinated and realised initiatives aiming at safeguarding and promoting artistic craftsmanship through the collaborative development of projects connected to the legacy of artistic trades and Italian know-how. The other partners are the Fondazione Teatro della Toscana, with its artistic laboratory in the historic Teatro della Pergola in Florence; the Ensaama school of Paris, the only institution in France that offers the Diplôme des Métiers d’Art in sculpture in the context of scenography and theatre; the European network Eyncrin, based in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which aims to promote entrepreneurship among the young in cultural and artistic fields; and the Fondazione Spazio Reale in Campi Bisenzio (Florence), a qualified training agency which specializes in accreditation and certification. The partners are therefore quality institutions that represent various sectors in forming a European network which – beyond the plurality of circumstances and contexts – feels the shared urgent need of recreating the appeal of certain formative and professional career paths in the field of applied arts. Before this network embarked on new projects, it was of course necessary to draw up an assessment of those already underway by means of comparative research carried out by all the partners, each in its own country. The aim here was to define the broad and multi-faceted panorama of existing training opportunities as well as the portfolio of skills deemed indispensable for performing the professions of scenographer and costume designer in the world of theatre. This study led to the creation of a professional profile focused on conceptualisation, creation and realisation, one that was built on the mastery of both theoretical and practical knowledge. The foundation of such training is, inevitably, direct experience. For this reason, the project envisioned – among other things – the drafting of guidelines that would serve as a model for establishing new opportunities for non-formal training for aspiring costume designers and scenographers; this phase was followed by one-week pilot workshops, one in each of the countries represented by the partners, attended by Italian, French and Bulgarian students. The Teatro della Pergola in Florence hosted the first workshop on the tailor and seamstress trades in 19th-century Italy, while the following autumn a hands-on experience in theatre scenography was organized in Paris; in 2018, finally, a third workshop took place in Bulgaria, in collaboration with the Drama Theatre of Plovdiv: here a masterclass was held on the creation of costumes using non-traditional, recycled materials. The course further focused on entrepreneurship, treated not only as an economic action of creating a business, but also as a means of setting projects into motion, through the construction of narratives and skills. The results of these international masterclasses, technical innovations and experimental practices will come together in physical form in a month-long exhibition scheduled for spring 2019 at the premises of the Nuova Officina Toscana Artigianato (NOTA), as well as virtually on the European Electronic Platform and Resource Centre ( The aim is to promote and innovate professions and applied arts that pertain to theatre; the results will be accessible beyond the duration of the project as a true international network for the transfer of non-formal training opportunities and skills in the field of stage and costume design, to which we hope will be added the contributions of other operators in the field. The project is therefore conceived not only in terms of mobility, but also as a great opportunity for international exchange in professions related to theatre, in line with the objectives of innovation in educational and training systems envisioned by the Europe 2020 strategy: this agenda aims at the sharing of traditional artisanal practices rooted in a legacy of authenticity and experience preserved over time, but whose continuation and enrichment is to be realised by means of modern approaches. The theme of innovation as ‘the motor of growth and employment’ – with immediate repercussions for the knowledge economy – was launched by the European Union, first with the Lisbon Strategy and then with the Gothenburg Agenda. Yet efficient innovation would never be possible without a study of the roots and traditions of the past, which must be redeployed to create new knowledge, applicable to different contexts and for different aims. New knowledge cannot be gained without the preservation and dissemination of the wisdom of the past: this is indeed the underlying message of the volume Scenography and Stage Costumes in twentieth-century European Theatre: A Selective Overview, a superb compilation by Dr. Adela Gjata: this clearly written and well-documented work is intended for those who approach the topic for the first time, while also representing an knowledgeable summary for persons already passionate about the subject. With the aid of a rich selection of photographs, this text can be equally enjoyed by the specialist and the ‘curious’ reader, as it presents a dynamic historical overview, within a European context, of the most important experiments, protagonists, theoretical developments and technological innovations that took place ‘behind the scenes’. With particular emphasis on the elements of stagecraft and costume design, this work examines the theatre of the 20th century, an era of avant-gardes and turbulent social changes as well as an epoch that marked the crisis of that conception of the stage which demanded the separation between actors and audience as the necessary condition for achieving the fiction of the theatre.

Martina Antoniucci

Coordinator of the Erasmus+ T.H.E.A.T.E.R. Project


 Scenography and Stage Costumes in twentieth-century European Theatre: A Selective Overview is an open access publication (text in Italian and English). It can be downloaded free of charge here


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Erasmus + T.H.E.A.T.E.R - Technics Handicraft Exchange Around The European Regions - T.H.E.A.T.E.R. Project 2016-1-IT01-KA202-005358 - CUP G16J16000550006