Traversing Salon culture: between the past and the present

 21st century Salon guide

The Traverse Theatre, in collaboration with Untitled Projects and its artistic director Stewart Laing (currently a playwright in residence at the Edinburgh Writing theatre) are presenting a new music theatre event inspired by the rituals of the 19th century salon this week.
The show had been sold out long before the premiere and attracts a minimum of sixty audience members each night. The production spans over seven nights and the sumptuous wardrobe is the result of the generous lend of five major theatres in Scotland: the Scottish Opera, the Royal Lyceum, The Citizens, Dundee Rep, and Pilochtry.
In terms of influence, Laing has drawn largely from the work of Marcel Proust and the Golden age of French society before the outbreak of the First World War. At the centre of the event is the visual transformation of the audience in period costumes who are later directed to the Salon – a mirrored impression of a nineteenth century reception room.

Historians frequently describe salon culture as either: petty, pretentious and gossipy (it was introduced and governed by women from the French elite) or as the foundation for the emergence and flourishing of the Enlightenment ideas and debates. In any case, Salonnières and their ‘menus’ of cutting edge topics, played a vital role in the cultural, political and artistic life at that time.

21 century salon guide

The total immersion of the audience, aimed at by the hardworking team of the Salon Project, was supported by ‘random’ provocations thrown at the guests with the same uncertainty with which they were wearing their chosen garments.

 Upon entrance at the reception, after a jolly talk with the makeup artist and small hassle over the main problems around wearing a dress with a train and the limits of free movements in such clothing, a glass of champagne was offered to me and the other guests whose primary concern was to catch a camera image of themselves and the rest of the audience before the ‘start of the show’. Part of the uniqueness of the experience was in the costumes themselves which, according to Laing, should serve as masks and prompt easy conversation between the participants. My experience proved just the opposite. The inability to start and hold a conversation was rooted partly in the split of mind of the audience which had to be simultaneously the actor and the observer stretching between two distanced historical moments. Moreover, the mixture of 19th century visual images and the discussed 21st century issues in philosophy, physics and art brought further confusion. As did the innovative decision of the organisers to ‘throw in’ the sensations of tableau vivant performance, which was not traditionally a part of the salon but then applied individually as the new art collaboration between theatre and photography.

The virtually nude tableau vivant in the past was introduced for the sole erotic entertainment of its audiences, which was not the main goal of the Salon project as its Performance collaborator, Rose English, frequently reminded with her reflections on the after-image of the performed acts as the artifice nature of theatre thus raising the spectators’ consciousness to self-reflection as a work of art. The stark contrast between natural nudity and the worn high-tech pieces of communication (iPod, iPhone, laptop) by the performers became the foundation for further reflection on the nature of contemporary culture of conversation. The image was later developed into a more complex projection on a screen, where the initial tableau models were lifeless and covered in blood surrounded by a new generation of virtual game equipped children, tossing a rather dark warning about the future of communication.

The Salon is one of the UK biggest projects of immersive theatre, a new theatrical trend, which involves actively audiences in the performance. It also refers to one of the meanings of the word salon as ‘art exhibition’ and acts as such.