The following interview originally appeared in Postcards from the Inge, a blog. It is re-posted here with the kind permission of the author.
Interview by AMANDA WHITE THIETJE
Well, here it is, friends—the final installment of the Randy Gener trilogy. Thank you for tuning in this week to read Randy’s words, and many thanks to Mr. Gener for his insight, commitment and generosity. This last section of our chat focuses on how the PQ and its design inspirations affect Prague and the rest of the world.
AMANDA WHITE THIETJE: Some people might take a cursory glance at the PQ’s promo materials and website and think this gathering is all about “high art”—inaccessible design work and invite-only conversations between artists. What is your goal as the Editor-In-Chief of Prague Quadrennial Newspaper — to make what happens there of interest to the general public, or to the attendees?
GENER: My goal is to transform something as esoteric as scenography and as magpie a discipline as performance design into a pop-culture conversation. The articles need to have depth and substance so that it piques the interest of the attendees, but you also have to mix in lively materials, accessible language and entertaining items. You need to achieve that balance through the right mix of editorial content, critical commentary and splashy graphic design. I think in pictures. I write in pictures. I edit in pictures as well. The work is not that different from publishing American Theatre magazine. Every issue of American Theatre offers a picture of what’s crucial and lively and contemporary in the U.S. theater. Necessarily, that picture changes from month to month, depending on the geographical focus or cultural makeup or class issues (small theater versus flagship theater). I promoted American Theatre and Theatre Communications Group at the PQ; I worked to extend the magazine’s brand internationally.
This is the second consecutive time I have worked as an editor of a PQ publication. The first time around, I collaborated with a British theater designer, Martin Paling, to realize the publication within the framework of the Scenofest section. We had a team of 12-14 writers, all of whom were young designers. We had an online division, Sceno.org, which we did not have in 2011. I was the only professional editor and writer in the team, so I found myself spending much of my time teaching these young designers how to write, or showing them how to reconstruct their musings and interviews into publishable articles. In 2011, our editorial team was smaller, so I had to double as a reporter (once again, similar to the American Theatre paradigm). Since I do not speak Czech, I co-edited the publication in collaboration with Mariana Hola, a tough-ass Czech writer. Both experiences have taught me that there is a great need to train the new generation of critics, arts writers, editors, even young designers, on how cover and write about scenography and performance design.
AMANDA WHITE THIETJE: So, if this is an international conference and competition…how do you make the people of Prague feel welcome while they serve as hosts? On a much smaller level, this is an issue we face each year in Independence during the William Inge Theatre Festival. What is a lesson or two we theatre administrators could learn about community outreach from the PQ?
GENER: Your question sets up an interesting comparison. I did once attend the William Inge Theatre Festival; as an independent scholar from New York, I gave a paper on Lanford Wilson. Coming from the big city, I suppose local Kansans and Missourians feel that we, New Yorkers, are basically invading their spaces. And what’s being celebrated every year in Kansas are the lifetime achievements of playwrights who are also outsiders. A similar dynamic happens in Prague. In the summer the Czechs are very leery of the arrogant foreigners and Western tourists who run riot all over the city center to party and play. Regular Czechs stay away from the city center, unless they have to work or shop there. The difference is that PQ by design is a meeting place for the world. Expectations at PQ are different from an annual festival that, during other parts of the year, functions as a non-profit play development center.
One lesson I find empowering at PQ is its solid investment in scholarship and research. The event visibly touts authors, scholars, design teachers and theorists who have something major to say about design and architecture. In the U.S., we segregate these geeks in a classroom where they are left to read an obscure paper to an elite few. PQ wears its intellectualism proudly on its populist sleeve. At PQ, thinkers and theorists are offered prime venues, museum spaces and large auditoriums to give their presentations. They are accorded a place in the jury or in the planning committees. When I attended the architecture lectures at the former St. Anne’s Church in the center of Prague, I loved having to walk up the steep stairs to attend a serious talk that took place at a gorgeous promontory that overlooked the Architectural Exhibits down below. The aura of it mattered very much.
PQ is not afraid to commission and create artistic projects that fall outside of established disciplines. You can probably argue that much of the Intersection program of PQ 2011 was neither scenography, theater nor performance design, but there was no question that high culture was equated with adventurousness. Successful community outreach focuses on an issue’s relevance to the community and acknowledges the community’s challenges in addressing the issue. In this case, the issue is the relationship between theater design and everyday life. It is no accident that the quadrennial happens every four years in Prague. Scenography first attained full legitimacy in the former Czechoslovakia. In this climate, Josef Svoboda (1920-2002) became known internationally as the godfather of modern scenography. Svodoba was an important artistic export promoting the high culture of this former Soviet bloc. Although designers in Western Europe and America were slower to adapt, Czech design developments seeped out of Eastern Europe and gradually became known everywhere as a new vocabulary and lingua franca for contemporary scenography. In those days, the Soviet government’s active promotion and support of all kinds of cultural and artistic exchanges were justified as a kind of glory that reflected back onto an “enlightened” communist regime. Nevertheless, PQ cemented the Czech Republic’s reputation as a world leader of theatre design. PQ reinforces that unique image through wild commissions, European Union-funded artistic collaborations, and most especially in its strong advocacy of international scholarship and artistic research.
AMANDA WHITE THIETJE: What does the PQ mean for Kansas; that is, how do you feel this international symposium for theatre design can ripple out into the world from when/where it happened?
GENER: For me, the real question is: What does Kansas mean for PQ? If designers in Kansas, Missouri and other parts of the Midwest are not willing to play in an international art environment such as PQ, then they will be seriously left behind the curve. They might as well be mice trapped in someone else’s art experiment and running in circles. Exhibitions are a scene and marketplace for reinvention. The discussions and international projects at PQ raise new questions about the relationship between scenography and performance in dramatic activities, in the art world and in everyday life. They will impact, over the long haul, the look and feel of the theater productions Kansans see onstage. They will affect the design curriculums of colleges and universities everywhere. Because of rapid globalization, they will show up in the blockbuster art shows where Kansans like to party and network. At PQ, the designer is acknowledged as a creator of the spatial or theatrical event. The future is increasingly becoming hyper-local and immersive. The designers of the future will have to provide valuable insights into how, why and where we create new performance environments. They will determine the shape of theatre architecture to come. What’s the matter with Kansas if it cannot see that the techniques of illusion shape our reality, and not the other way around?
AMANDA WHITE THIETJE: What should we look out for in the US that came out of the PQ this year?
GENER: From the Edge will be re-mounted at the USITT National Conference in Long Beach, California, from March 29 to 31, 2012. In addition, USITT is creating a database on its official website that will document PQ 2011 and previous PQs. That database will be an invaluable guide to anyone who will create a US pavilion for future editions of PQ. From the Edge rocks the boat. It offers a high benchmark on how to install a U.S. pavilion that covers the sociopolitical themes and artistic risk-taking facing performance makers in the U.S. Future curatorial teams will really have to find the courage to contend with the challenge of displaying the U.S. anew — of re-envisioning U.S. design creativity within a competitive international design environment. I believe the future of U.S. participation in the PQ rests in the continuing advocacy of acts that delve into “designing performance” and “performing design.” We need to lay bare the wider potential of scenography and performance design to re-invent the way human minds create in virtual spaces, in theatrical spaces and in everyday life.
- Essay: Exhibiting a country on the edge, a U.S. approach to performance design (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)
- My picks for the world’s best theater of 2011 (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Journey into European Puppetry #7 (theanadromist.wordpress.com)
- American theater under the sign of Obama: “From the Edge,” USA pavilion at Prague Quadrennial, makes American debut (theaterofoneworld.org)
- Word of Mouth: Prague (coolhunting.com)
- Dramaturgy in Dialogue: Fernando Ocampo (outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com)
- Terezín and Prague (witchsjourney.wordpress.com)
- Roundabout announces three show titles for 2012-2013 season (boneaubryanbrown.com)