PHILADELPHIA: The travel narratives below track impact and chronicle artistic learning. A costume designer encounters a Czech fashion designer in a workshop and suddenly can’t stop creating garments out of paper. A composer/sound designer records raw audio heard in the streets of Prague (music, lectures, everyday sounds) and decides to incorporate them in an upcoming production of Angels in America.
Influenced by what he saw at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, a lighting designer literally alters his process and techniques, applying what he learned in a show at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. A sound designer, after coming upon theater groups from Poland which create environmental installations on the streets of their neighborhoods, openly wonders if American theater has become bound up by the “strict, linear processes” with which most U.S. works are created.
In June 2011, the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (PTI) took eight theater designers and practitioners to the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (“the PQ”). Held every four years, the PQ puts forwards expositions of juried theater design from over 60 countries. Lectures, performances and workshops in sound, light, costume, architecture and performance design accompany the visual programming.
Several of these Philadelphia designers are exhibited in “From the Edge,” the USA national pavilion debuting in North America, March 28 to 31, 2012, in Long Beach, Calif., as part of the USITT’s annual National Conference & Stage Expo.
After the trip to Prague, several of these theater-makers posted illustrated blog posts, documenting their experiences. These posts are collected under the umbrella title, “Theater Makers at the PQ,” and they can be accessed here: http://www.pcah.us/the-center/blog/labels/tag/theater-makers-at-the-pq/
These posts are:
- Christopher Colucci Gathers Sights and Sounds
- Rob Kaplowitz on Audience Engagement
- Rosemarie McKelvey Delves into Fashion Art
- Thom Weaver Reflects on OUR CLASS
I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a little time with this gang from Philadelphia, and I’d like to quote my favorite parts of their blog posts below. I encourage you to click on the subheadings below and read their full posts.
I gathered over 30 hours of raw audio—music, lectures, soundscapes—in the course of our trip to the PQ. On the basis of these recordings, I have already begun constructing sketches of textural ideas that will almost certainly be utilized in the upcoming production of Angels in America at The Wilma Theater. The recordings that I made have also provided the source material for a number of interesting experiments in the expressive use of the everyday sounds of a place—palace soldiers in step on cobblestone or the distinctive click of the Prague street-crossing indicators—used as the inspiration to develop sounds that can have a unique expressive power in the theater.
A composer and sound designer, Rob Kaplowitz spent a great deal of his time seeing performances. In his post, he describes the mind-bending variety of work he saw and samples them with video excerpts.
I learned about works in Poland, where theater groups are creating environmental installations that are encountered by the audience on the streets of their neighborhoods, outside of any theatrical bounds or even scheduled performance times. I watched a couple, first up close, and then from an observation point where I could listen to a broadcast of their dialogue, as they spent an entire day fighting and wandering through the grounds of the Quadrennial….
I ask myself—is this strict, linear process [by which American theater is often made] the reason we create works of theater that dictate and display to our audience, rather than engaging them as an essential part of the theatrical event? In creating works that are so well unified and so supportive, these plays and musicals have been workshopped until all questions are answered, and all focus is pointed to the goal. But have we left any room for the audience to explore on their own? Is it not possible that, by being so dedicated to a singular vision, we’ve created a form of theater that asks nothing of the audience but that they laugh and cry at the moments we’ve designed to so move them.
A costume designer, Rosemarie McKelvey took a workshop, entitled “Fashion Art,” taught by Libena Rochova, reputed to be the Czech Republic’s leading fashion designer. The workshop required that McKelvey create garments out of paper and plastic, while listening to music. In her post. she writes:
It was challenging for me to work in a way that was so free of text and character, but it was very good to respond to the music and materials with no expectation of the garment needing to function, last, or be judged. My work with paper in Prague inspired me to create a paper dress for Extremely Public Displays of Privacy, a Philadelphia Fringe Festival show that I later worked on, with New Paradise Laboratories.
Here is a picture of that paper garment she created:
McKelvey also says she designed a wedding dress for another show that was in tune with the many “Extreme Costumes” displayed in Prague. You’ll have to visit her blog post here to see that wedding dress.
A lighting designer, Thom Weaver writes that the lighting displays that he saw at the PQ directly influenced his work on Our Class at The Wilma Theater. In his post, he writes that he found himself lighting the storytelling event, rather than simply illuminating actors.
I’m a technique-based lighting designer. A lot of my techniques come from my academic training and my years of designing all over the place. What the PQ helped me to do was break free from technique. The international pavilions showed me the kind of thinking going on in other countries that has different starting points. Normally I’d approach a show by thinking about what it needs in the way of front light or side light to get a certain effect or environment. The PQ opened my process to a more abstract way of thinking—a more symbolic way of thinking. This way is not descriptive or depictive but holistic.
A personal note: It thrills me to see and hear that U.S. artists have found inspiration from the new modes of performance design and space exhibited at the Prague Quadrennial. I myself can attest to how the expositions have stirred inside me the desire to create installation works that vibrate in the same frequency. After participating in the PQ in 2007, I was moved to create my own visual-art installations in New York City.
Moreover I had the great opportunity to interact with these Philadelphia designer and theatermakers whom the Philadelphia Theatre Institute brought to Prague. They were a smart, engaged lot. I hope to someday see all of their productions in Philadelphia or elsewhere, and perhaps we will all someday discover that the impact of the PQ will have been deeper and longer-lasting than we might have originally thought. --RG
- Essay: Exhibiting a country on the edge, a U.S. approach to performance design (theaterofoneworld.org)
- American theater under the sign of Obama: “From the Edge,” USA pavilion at Prague Quadrennial, makes American debut (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Curators speak out about the thrills, challenges of staging national exhibitions of design in Prague (theaterofoneworld.org)
- 2011 – My year in review (theaterofoneworld.org)