It may seem odd for me to blog about this day-long workshop, as it wasn’t a theatrical performance. However, I’m starting to look at performances more generally in the hope of uncovering a universal ‘grammar of performance’ that applies whenever someone gets up in front of someone else and presents something.
Edward Tufte (website: http://www.edwardtufte.com) is an information-visualisation and design guru who has written four marvellous books, and in this workshop he presented his ideas. Most interesting for our purposes might be his six ‘principles of analytic design’ from ‘Beautiful Evidence’. The principles are:
Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure.
Show multivariate data; that is, show more than one or two variables.
Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.
Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.
In addition to these, we might add that Tufte, throughout his workshop, stressed the removal from data displays of any unnecessary ‘chartjunk’, which included colours that don’t add anything, pointless boxes around stuff etc. Essentially there was a kind of ‘design minimalism’ being stressed.
What I find most interesting about these six and the ‘design minimalism’ just described is that some of them can apply directly to performances, and some of them clearly don’t. A central difference between a visual display provided on paper and a live performance is that, while the display is fixed over time and can be looked at whenever one desires, the performance provides a succession of moments which will never come again. Therefore we might expect the idea of ‘design minimalism’ to be relaxed somewhat.
And, indeed, in Tufte’s performance this is precisely what we did see. In stark contrast to the ‘remove all unnecessary stuff’ approach he sticks to for his visual designs, Tufte repeated his key points many times during his performance, lightening the load with anecdotes and other ‘unnecessary’ information. These differences speaks to this key divide between data presented visually and data presented through speech, movement etc.
It is further interesting that Tufte’s first design principle, “Show comparisons, contrasts, differences”, was not followed uniformly in his own presentation. For example, I can think of no time at which he contrasted a piece of good design with a piece of poor design by placing one on each of the large screens that were projecting his presentation. This should be possible, and may well have been useful.
As for principles that might translate better, it seems to me that principle two, “Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure”, is a key concept in teaching, while principle four (“Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.”) might be extremely valuable in performances of all kinds.
In Tufte’s work, the purpose of this ‘complete integration’ is to use ‘whatever it takes’ to unlock the important information you are trying to present. The same principle might be applied, with little modification, to theatrical and other performances. The difference is in the symbolic languages we have at our disposal: instead of completely integrating “words, numbers, images, diagrams” we might look to “language, movement, lighting, costume” or somesuch. The principle would remain unchanged, however: use all the symbolic languages at your disposal (‘whatever it takes’) to create the effect you’re after, whether it’s helping your audience understand a set of quantitative data or a new interpretation of a play.