Can we do with text what Pantone does with colour?

I really like Pantone colour chips.

Image source:  Barber & Osgerby

Image source: Barber & Osgerby

There is something about the kind of brutal graphic minimalism that reduces something as organic, conceptual and emotive as colour into a mechanised system of blocks and codes that appeals to me. A few years ago I was in a second-hand bookshop with my mother, where I found a 1970s edition of the Methuen Handbook of Colour – essentially, a thesaurus for colour containing no text and 250 pages of meticulously-arranged swatches – which I found inexplicably delightful and purchased immediately. My mother could not fathom why I would spend my money on this (although this copy is going on Amazon for nearly £200, so I definitely got a good deal).

He Xiangyu, Lemon Project 6
Image source: Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art

He Xiangyu’s use of colour blocks here in Lemon Project 6, each accompanied by a handwritten number, bears more than a passing resemblance to a set of Pantone chips. At first glance, though, you could be forgiven for seeing 24 neatly-arranged post-it notes, waiting blankly on a surface for some kind of intervention.

It is easy to turn colours into swatches. Scenographic processes distill complex visual and aesthetic information down to its bare components all the time. But my 24 hypothetical blank post-its are waiting for a textual intervention, not a visual one: a dramaturgical intervention, not a scenographic one. What I really want is to treat text and language the way Pantone treats colour.

The relationship between colour and language is surprising. Research in the late 1960s by Paul Kay and Brent Berlin at the University of California revealed that the way we perceive and differentiate between colours is heavily influenced by the lexicon of the viewer. Shown the Pantone chips for numbers 3590 C, 269 C and 497 C, an English speaker is likely to categorise them as ‘blue’, ‘purple’ and ‘brown’ respectively. A Wobé speaker, however, would describe all of them as ‘kpe’.

English has eleven words to describe basic colour categories: ‘yellow’, ‘green’, ‘blue’, ‘purple’, ‘pink’, ‘red’, ‘orange’, ‘brown’, ‘black’, ‘grey’ and ‘white’. Russian has twelve – ‘goluboy’ categorises a light blue tone that we don’t have a separate word for. The Wobé language, which is spoken in Côte d'Ivoire, has only three colour categories: ‘kpe’, ‘pluu’ and ‘sain’; which, like almost every other language with only three or four colour words, correspond to dark, light and red tones respectively. In Wobé, blue, purple and brown are all simply ‘dark’.

(Ironically, and entirely tangentially, while its vocabulary for colour tones is among the world’s smallest, spoken Wobé is also claimed to have the largest number of inflective tones of any language.)

In the Odyssey as translated from ancient Greek, Homer uses the same word to describe the colour of blood, dark clouds, a sea wave and a rainbow, and described the ocean as “wine-looking”. In the nineteenth century, before he was prime minister, William Gladstone published several volumes about Homer and was struck by “the use of the same word to denote not only different hues or tints of the same colour, but colours which, according to us, are essentially different.” In almost every language they studied, Berlin and Kay demonstrated that colour words evolve in essentially the same order: black/dark and white/light, red, yellow or green, then blue, brown and on to pink and purple, orange and grey tones. In an interview with Vox, Paul Kay summarises that “most languages make cuts in the same place, [and] some languages make fewer cuts than others,” leading to languages with more colour words, further along the chain. This feeds directly into perception and experience, where an English speaker with a larger colour vocabulary sees blue, purple and brown, while the Wobé speaker having a phenomenologically-identical experience describes only kpe.

Colour words themselves, it seems, function in the same way as Pantone chips – reductive, incomplete avatars for complex aesthetic concepts, levered away from their real-world settings and all the cultural/emotional subjectivity that accompanies them. And I like that. Chip number 269 C might be wine, it might be the sea. It’s actually neither; just a potential shorthand for either, fizzing with potential energy.

Conventional dramaturgy resists this fundamentalist approach, since it tends towards the intellectual and the holistic. Where colour can be (re)contextualised as an artefact – a few swatches pinned to the rehearsal room wall – so can objects, materials, images and technologies. Texts put up more of a fight, since their form is language and language occupies the realm of the cerebral. Anglophone theatre holds the writer in the highest regard, and his writing as work in its own right. But if theatre is a live and conscious assemblage of artefacts for narrative or metaphorical purposes, what do we do with the components that we deem to be above the status of mere “artefact”?

One argument might be that these components, such as the text, carry the narrative and metaphorical weight while the other artefacts – costumes, colours, choreography – are arranged on top, in a similar relationship to that between a building’s foundations and its bricks. The counter-argument is that everything is an artefact: everything is a brick.

If we see the text of The Cherry Orchard as a set of pre-constructed foundations, then we can only really build one kind of building on top of it, with room for cosmetic, but not structural, customisation. But if, instead, The Cherry Orchard is a brick – a beautiful, distressed concrete breeze block, say – then we can see it as the cornerstone for a much freer construction project. To do so, we have to stop seeing The Cherry Orchard as a complete work in its own right, and more as a book of Pantone colour chips. But I’m mixing my metaphors now.

In 2013, while directing an adaptation of The Bell Jar, the company and I needed to find a dramaturgical solution for unpacking the dense material of the novel, so that we could interact with it in the rehearsal room. We were working in a heavily intermedial style, and the book needed to be made as tangible and tactile as the materials and technologies we were devising with.

The process we arrived at involved distilling the novel into a series of post-it notes, which we later transcribed onto cue cards. Each card bore a brief description of a single scene, sequence or moment in the book. We arranged these on the wall in the order that they occur in the novel, and then rearranged them into the order they occurred in the novel’s chronology. Then we removed the cards that seemed superfluous, and shuffled the remaining cards into a new journey through the story that suited us. While revising and refining this process throughout the production period, each card came to define a day’s work in the rehearsal room.

Image source:  Bruce Adams/Thrust

Image source: Bruce Adams/Thrust

Like colour swatches for a design scheme, each cue card became a token of a broader set of dramaturgical information, and through them we were able to convert a densely cerebral text into a concrete tool which served our process. We turned the book into a series of “colour chips”, which we used to design our new text.

In the programme notes for Port, revived at the National Theatre in 2013, Simon Stephens reflects on how his perception of his own role as writer has shifted over time. He mused that perhaps a more apt expression for the role he wanted to play in the rehearsal room was that of the “language designer”; a position that likely emerged from collaboration with auteur directors like Sebastian Nübling. The text-as-artefact treatment has been profoundly evident in resultant works such as Three Kingdoms (Lyric Hammersmith/Münchner Kammerspiele/Teater NO99, 2012), and is detectable in much of his recent writing and adaptation.

Here, language behaves not didactically but suggestively – just like colour: imbued with implications but not with answers. Pantone swatches show us what they might be. They never tell us what they are.