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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

All the World’s a Stage
by Raymond Hardie

 
     

It had all the excitement of a rock concert. Swarms of exotically garbed and coifed young theater designers milled around the forecourt of Prague’s historical art-nouveau Industrial (Prumyslovy) Palace, chattering away in a babble of languages. Then a Sudeten Czech brass band, attired in traditional red shirts and gold waistcoats, struck up with beery blowhard determination and led them, like a bobbing stream of colored corks, through the towering iron and glass facade.

Prague’s 11th International Exhibition of Scenography and Theatre Architecture, the Prague Quadrennial, was open. Launched 40 years ago, the Prague Quadrennial (PQ) was inspired by the celebrated Czech designer Frantisek Tröster and has since become the Olympics of theater design, featuring the best sets, costumes, lights and sound from around the world.

Nineteen countries participated in that first exhibit and, in the years since, the PQ became a must-make pilgrimage for Eastern Bloc designers. After the fall of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe the PQ took on a new lease on life, with the number of participant countries almost doubling. And this year for the first time ever, the general commissioner was an American, Arnold Aronson, from Columbia University.

This year’s exhibits filled four enormous vaulted halls, half-hangar, half-cathedral, with rows of booths laid out under massive arched steel girders and soaring, painted windows. For 10 days from June 14 to June 24, over 23,000 visitors viewed the work of 95 professional theater designers and 420 students. And for the first time, UCSD students showed their stuff alongside the best and brightest design students from over 40 countries around the globe, as well as having the opportunity to view the work of professional designers from 52 countries.

“I felt so inspired by all the countries’ showings,” said Michele Hunt, M.F.A. ’07, one of nine UCSD students (out of a group of 40 from the United States), who were invited to attend the PQ to show their work. “I wish I still had a couple of years of grad school left,” said Hunt, “so I could use my experience for inspiration.” Hunt, a costume designer, was one of three UCSD theater graduates whose work had also qualified for the design competition based on Aristophenes The Birds. Maggie Whitaker, M.F.A. ’08, another costume design student and Nicole Black, M.F.A. ’08, a set design student also qualified for The Birds competition.

“The students were able to broaden their horizons and share their art and passion with their colleagues and peers in a very unique context,” said Shahrokh Yadegari, Ph.D. ’04, a professor of sound design in the theater department. Yadegari was invited to Prague to present “Laptop Connection,” a sound installation performance at Prague’s Masarykovo railway station, which linked six groups with collaborators in real time, around the world.

All in all there were over 170 different kinds of performances mounted over the ten-day period of the festival as well as lectures and workshops that ran all day, every day. “Seeing all that work from around the world was inspiring,” said Kim Ehler, M.F.A. ’07, who was invited to show her work on The Tempest, in the student exhibit. “It showed me that theater is not as dead as I had feared, but alive and kicking all over the place, for example, Estonia. Wow, I wish all theater was as refreshing and creative as their site-specific, crazy version of King Ubu.”

Caleb Levengood, M.F.A. ’07, felt similarly inspired. “I now have an inkling of how other theater artists are telling their stories in other places,” says Levengood, who was invited to show his set designs in the student exhibition. “Seeing how the U.K. is reinventing classics, or how Belarus is using Joseph Cornell-like imagery to design costumes and sets, or how Latvia is very influenced by middle class life really helps me sort out where I would like to go as a designer.”

Susan Tsu, a professor of costume design at Carnegie Mellon University has seen the student presence at Prague grow exponentially since her first visit in 1999. “Now we have our own entire building,” said Tsu, co-curator of both the U.S. student and national exhibits, “and this is the first time that the American students actually have an exhibition space with light and a performance space in it as well.”

The work of professional designers was displayed in distinctive national booths in another hall. The Japanese constructed a complete sushi bar with dishes of plastic sushi laid out along its counters, and theater sets displayed behind each succulent seafood setting. Brazil’s darkly imaginative flamboyance was summed up in the large quotation hung over the entrance: “The theater is really cruel, an abscess, it doesn’t have to be chocolate and cognac.”

Judith Dolan, a UCSD costume design professor, described the national exhibitions as essentially artistic installations. “Each somehow reflected some unique aesthetic of their country,” said Dolan, whose own designs for Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (produced at Houston’s Alley Theater) were selected to be shown at the U.S. professional exhibit. “These national exhibitions ranged from the startling simplicity of Iceland’s small glass house to the Czech aged-wood circular fairground to the wide-ranging variety of designs in the USA’s densely bannered, colorful marketplace to Israel’s gray concrete wall with theater designs embedded in it.”

This “unique aesthetic” was most obvious in the “dramatic” Russian exhibit, which celebrated the exquisite and stark work of the designer David Borovsky. Constructed on a waterproof floor, models were displayed on heaps of junk under a leaky ceiling. Visitors were provided with rubber galoshes to wade through the water, and an umbrella to protect them from the dripping roof. It was no surprise when the Russians won the golden Triga (the PQ’s highest award).

Celebrating its 40th birthday, the PQ’s official website rather whimsically says that it “is entering a midlife crisis—wanting too much and all at once.” But with a new generation of designers discovering the exhibition and the wider world community of theater, there may be no such thing as too much.

 

RELATED LINKS

Theater Design at UCSD

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Prague Quadrennial

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“The students were able to broaden their horizons and share their art and passion with their colleagues and peers in a very unique context,” said Shahrokh Yadegari, Ph.D. ’04