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Prague Quadrennial 2019: Behind the scenes at theatre design's global festival

Opening ceremony of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space 2019. Photo: Alžběta Jungrová
Opening ceremony of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space 2019. Photo: Alžběta Jungrová

Transformation and imagination were the themes at this year’s Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. Nick Awde reports on the highlights and award winners at the event, which showcases the best of theatre design around the world, from bouncing carpets and sci-fi landscapes to immersive virtual-reality displays

Design has become an increasingly high-profile aspect of theatre thanks to new technologies and the blurring between design and performance. And there is nowhere better to catch the latest developments in the art form than the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.

Taking place every four years, the world’s biggest performance design festival draws together professional and student designers to share their work and talk shop.

The 2019 edition brought together artists from 79 countries and took place in the Prague Exhibition Grounds. The venue is an oddly impressive site of contrasting architecture: cobbles lead up to a cavernous art nouveau industrial palace that vies for attention with examples of Communist-era brutalism, a burnt-out replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a pyramid music hall billing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Fantom Opery’ and a disused ‘light fountain’ with 3,000 nozzles.

Locally they call this the graveyard of exhibition architecture, but for the Quadrennial it’s the stage of possibilities.

This, after all, is the historical home for the festival, now making its return after a couple of editions’ absence with the linked themes of imagination, transformation and memory.

Switzerland’s exhibit Artificial Arcadia: Measured and Adjustable Landscapes

Prague Quadrennial’s artistic director Markéta Fantová recalls the first meetings of the teams that produced the underlying concept for the 2019 themes.

“We all met in London – it was the easiest place to go to – and there we discussed the meaning of the idea of ‘national’. From that came a conversation with Kate Bailey, senior curator and producer at the V&A.

“We came to the idea of porous, non-political borders – the borders we cross and everything that’s holding us apart. It then became political with Brexit and similar processes that are happening in the world.”

Bringing together the legacy of each nation, another exhibition, Fragments, offered the most classically exhibited work. “These are essentially leftovers after the meal’s been eaten,” says Fantová, “because scenography’s dead once you’ve experienced it. It becomes just something that maps out the process of how you get to where you were during the performance. So we let people in each country decide how they wanted to celebrate work from a single perspective.”

Much of it, jostling for space amid the architectural relics of the Lapidarium Museum, did feel like leftovers, but this was more than made up for by discoveries such as the set model and video record of the uber-stage pit for The Mission by Belgium’s Jean-Claude De Bemels, and A Few Small Nips, exquisite yet edgy costumes by Mexico’s Maria and Tolita Figueroa.

At the other end of the spectrum was the cavern of 36Q°, a light, sound and virtual-reality assemblage of installations (with workgroups revealing a high proportion of UK practitioners) that enveloped the visitor as soon as they entered.

“This was an experiment asking: what do we do with technology? Where do we still want art to lead? Where can we collaborate? This was all about the viewer,” says Fantová, who curated the project with Jan Rolník.

“The funny thing is that while young people liked Fragments, they said it was more like archaeology, but they saw 36Q° as a playground. But the older generations who came to 36Q° felt it was a dehumanised, post-apocalyptic landscape.”


Profile: Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space

Artistic director: Markéta Fantová
Organisers: Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, Arts and Theatre Institute, Prague
Founded: 1967
Location: Prague Exhibition Grounds
Participants: 800
Events: 600
Countries represented: 79
Visitors (2015): 180,000 visits, including 6,000 accredited professionals and more than 1,300 students from all over the world actively taking part.
Supported by: funded by City of Prague, co-financed by Creative Europe; under the auspices of the City of Prague, Prague 7 municipal district, Czech UNESCO Office; general partner: Robe Lighting

That cross-generational approach was central to Prague Quadrennial 2019’s success. “We wanted something that was not just for students but for young designers as well as anybody wanting to be educated about anything from performance to design. So we took over DAMU, Prague’s Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Art, with workshops.

“We wanted to show that even within the workshop the audience is there and these are the people that we do what we do for. It’s not just for the sake of process, it’s not just for the fun,” says Fantová.

Sessions covered 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, sustainable methods of textile dyeing, and sound for scenographers. There were also standing-room-only talks given by illustrator Olivia Lomenech Gill, Italian opera director and scenographer Stefano Poda, and audio-visual artist Romain Tardy.

Practice was to the fore at Emergence, which featured eight partner organisations exploring specific places, spaces and local legends, sometimes traumatic, that inspire artists today. Meanwhile, PQ Youth and Family featured walk-through interactive installations and workshops for young audiences.

North Macedonia’s This Building Truly Talks. Photo: Jan Hromadko

Performances were mainly site-specific and often crossed over into pure art – like walking along a bouncing carpet in Red Crossing from the USA’s Assocreation and EverydayPlaces or Taiwan’s Lift Me Up, a live installation inspired by a sea-goddess pilgrimage. It often happened that talking about a spectacle proved more rewarding than watching it, but that was the point: what mattered was the exchange of ideas based on observation of practice, the audience learning from performers and vice versa.

In the competitive sections, a raft of awards were handed out and special mention must go the UK’s Donatella Barbieri, who won the best publication scenography award for her study on costume in performance, featuring contributions by Melissa Trimingham.

The best in show Golden Triga award went to North Macedonia for This Building Truly Talks, a multi-time archive performed in 1:100 scale. Meanwhile, in the Exhibition of Countries and Regions awards, there was a marked division between art installation and exhibition pieces, with much of it falling between two stools, neither exploring the ‘porous borders’ concept or the technical side.

Not everyone agreed with the results, including the judges awarding a best exhibition award to France for the baffling moving blobs of Microcosm, yet its co-winners were worthy. Prospective Actions, Catalonia’s sleek hands-on political multimedia table, was a crowd favourite, as was Hungary’s Infinite Dune, which places the viewer at the centre of a science-fiction landscape reflected by mirrors into infinity.

Meet the artists representing the UK at Prague Quadrennial design festival

The UK’s Staging Places Studio, curated by the Society of British Theatre Designers, took a determinedly exhibition tack. A beehive lattice, it used the space to its optimum to showcase designers from all stages, including David Farley, Ian McNeil, Laura Ann Price, Rajha Shakiry and Simon Kenny.

As curator Fiona Watt says: “From the outset we wanted to create a circular, open structure that allowed for live events to take place as well as displaying work and process. One of the key themes we were given was ‘porous borders’ and it was vital to us that our installation represented the UK as being open and welcoming to our colleagues from around the world.”


Golden Triga award

The best in show award at the Prague Quadrennial is the Golden Triga, which this year went to North Macedonia (the UK won in 1979, 1991 and 2003). The 2019 event takes its themes from the inspiration for the award: the statue of the Greek goddess of victory Nike atop the Czech Republic’s National Theatre. The three horses pulling her chariot symbolise the three stages of life: intuition of youth, experience of adulthood and wisdom of old age.

The high bar set by Countries and Regions was more than met by the Student Exhibition, which gleefully launched in all the directions offered by the field, with the art installation side dominating.

Linking with the UK’s students and their The Future Utopias Imaginarium exhibit was important for Watt. “I was very keen that the designed structure for the professional Countries and Regions installation and the student structure were exactly the same so that the professional space would feel familiar and welcoming to our student team, and that the student installation would use and explore that structure in a radically different and dynamic way.”

To communicate and exchange ideas on an international level, therefore, Prague was the place to be, and the event reinforced the big advantage, in terms of cultural communication, that theatre design has in the business. “It doesn’t need language,” says Fantová. “The playwright and the actor need language. We don’t, we create spaces, so people can feel in them without words.

“You learn how to balance the left and right sides of your brain, the calculating with the emotional because you need both. That’s what makes it internationally easier to communicate ideas, approaches and artistic inspiration across a much wider spectrum of fields and cultures.”

The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space 2019 took place from June 6-16: visit pq.cz for details

Staging Places Studio – the UK’s Prague Quadrennial theatre design entry

5 associated organisations

Otherwise known as the International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians, Oistat was founded in 1968 and is based in Taiwan’s capital Taipei. It serves anyone who facilitates and creates design for live performance, including practitioners, researchers, students, and associated partners.

WSD and Scenofest
Oistat is the driving force behind World Stage Design, an international juried exhibition celebrating the best international performance designs that includes Scenofest, Theatre Architecture Competition and Technical Invention Prize. The fifth edition takes place in Calgary, Canada, in August 2021.

International Theatre Institute
ITI is the world’s largest organisation for the performing arts, was founded in Prague and is now based in Shanghai. Oistat grew out of ITI and was initially based in Prague too, and the two continue to have close contacts. ITI organised the Africa stand for this year’s PQ. iti-worldwide.org

Society of British Theatre Designers
SBTD is run by designers for designers and supports work for performance based in the UK at every stage of a career – it is possible to join as a professional, graduate, student or retired member. Its Staging Places is a four-part initiative to showcase design work created between 2015 and 2019 at PQ 2019 and beyond. theatredesign.org.uk

The Association of British Theatre Technicians is a charity and membership organisation that campaigns on behalf of the theatre industry to ensure legislation is appropriate to the industry’s needs. Providing technical advice, consultations and training, ABTT has special interest groups such as Safety, IT, Theatre Planning, Design and Archaeology. It runs the ABTT Theatre Show and ITEAC conference. abtt.org.uk

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