(Note: Charles Berliner, western regional representative of United Scenic Artists Local 829, exhibited his costume designs for An Italian Straw Hat, presented by the National Theatre of the Deaf (featured in TCI's March 1995 "Designer Sketchbook" and nominated for a 1996 American Theatre Wing Design Award) in the 1999 American Exhibit. As an American designer whose work was also part of the 1987 PQ, Berliner offers a personal view of both the city and event.)
This year, over 50 countries participated in the Prague Quadrennial, an exhibition of stage design, costume design, and theatre architecture that has been taking place since 1967 in the Czech Republic. The event this year included accompanying and associated events, such as design retrospectives, workshops, and "lightlab," an effort to provide a support for recognition of lighting design, which is still not included as a field of study for post-secondary education in the Czech Republic.
This year the prestigious Golden Triga went to, ironically enough, the Czechs themselves. Other winners included UK architects Michael Hopkins and Partners, who won a gold medal in the architectural section for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, German designer Achim Freyer, winner of the thematic gold medal, and Spanish costume designer Joan Guillen, who won a gold medal for The Book of Beasts.
I first attended the Prague Quadrennial (PQ) in 1987, two years before The Velvet Revolution and six years before the formation of the independent Czech Republic. Twelve years later, I find that personal memories are merged with current visual and philosophical changes both in the city of Prague and at PQ.
When I arrived in Prague in 1987, the beauty of the city and the event itself were an inseparable experience. Here was a city of visual and historical splendor, devoid of commercialism. There was no signage, no neon, not even a fast food restaurant, other than the vendors on the street near public gathering places, such as the grounds of the Industrial Palace, the site of the Quadrennial. The PQ was not only a visual feast, but also an awakening to the respect given to members of my profession working in other countries. Their approach made me feel, as an American designer, like I had been filling in the space between defined black lines while they were out beyond the lines, and, in some cases, off the drawing board. Devoid of everyday commercial media bombardment, the visual expression of a theatrical world seemed to be more easily explored by these countries, even though a cohesive focus in their national entries was strangely absent.
In contrast, the American exhibit, with its structured walk-through environment, was revolutionary. Visitors moving from room to room observed the process of creating design for all the performing arts, even television commercials. Design memorabilia was displayed in recreations of brightly lit studios and the corners of urban apartments. This installation evoked the spirit of a country where supply of theatrical design talent is greater than the demand, where designers, in name only, do not sell an audience member a ticket. The only exception seems to be if the designer is first and foremost an easel artist who "dabbles in theatrical design."
In 1987, the American exhibit won the Golden Triga, the main prize of the PQ. The entire exhibition was truly a celebration of theatrical design artists and their art created in the last five years. All of the embassies, including our own, gave receptions for those of us who came to Prague to view the exhibit. Theatrical designers from throughout the world were present at the Valdstejn Palace for the Prague Quadrennial Prize Ceremony. The Americans won the highest award bestowed at PQ 87, but when we came home, the publicity never happened. The New York Times wasn't interested. The Los Angeles Times buried it in a theatre column. The media simply did not care. A trade magazine asked me for a quote as to what would generate more publicity and interest should we enter a subsequent exhibition. I answered, "Send over a baseball team!"
Twelve years later, upon arriving at the airport, I was immediately aware of change. Coming out of the jetway, I was greeted by a large backlit advertisement of the Marlboro Man, prompting me to utter to an imaginary Toto, "I don't think we're in the same Prague anymore." On the way to the hotel, I saw familiar buildings from the past, now with billboards, graffiti, and neon. There was McDonald's and KFC; fast food street vendors had been replaced by fast food storefronts. Restoration of long neglected buildings was underway, and though the city was still magnificently beautiful, this Eastern European "Oz" had definitely changed.
Also changed was the Quadrennial itself. Design work from other countries was still fascinating to behold, and in some cases, wildly inventive. What type of drama is being written and how do foreign directors work with the costumes and scenery designed for these productions? One can only contemplate the professional relationship that would have to exist and/or evolve between the directors and designers of such performances.
Perhaps the most notable change was that the entries from many countries were more structured in their approach to the 1999 exhibition theme of "Our Common World." It was fascinating to observe the specificity of cultural overlay inherent to these exhibits and to realize the historical impact the 1987 American exhibit had on these entries. Now there were several walk-through environments focusing on a few major individual contributors to the field of theatrical design and work in the repertory of their national theatres. Costumes and set pieces were not only exhibited in sketch form but also in physical reality, not having been reworked or recycled for subsequent productions. Perhaps the assemblage of such material is easier when a country's ministry of culture is the sponsor.
The American exhibit was sponsored by The United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT) and probably would not happen without its lead support. The organization is to be commended for its continual effort to promote the exhibition of theatrical design nationally, as well as internationally. I would imagine that when USITT submits an entry to the PQ, a difficult decision must be made as to how to represent USITT membership, as well as the best in American design. Though our country's award-winning exhibits between 1987 and 1999 attempted to focus on fewer designers, they evidently received a mixed reaction from the USITT membership. The organization's choice this year was, again, to include the work of both members and non-members.
The 1999 entry from the United States, "The World of Design," was a literal expression of the exhibition theme. It demonstrated the diversity of venues in which 36 American designers practiced their craft with noteworthy creative work from theatre, theme parks, and television. Participating designers included John Lee Beatty, Robert Brill, Christine P. Duffield, Eric Fielding, Desmond Heeley, Tom McPhillips, Julie Taymor, and the team from Paramount Parks. The exhibit design was a representation of a world constructed of paneled wedges primarily featuring the sketches of one show from each individual. Models were displayed at the center of the exhibit. All of this was supported on a raised circular platform and ground cloth representing an abstracted world hemisphere.
While other countries exhibited a body of work from only a few individuals, the American exhibit was a sampling of everyone and everything! The American stance of representing many designers was intriguing in 1987, but it is not such an anomaly in the international environment of the approaching millennium. This year the United States did not win an award.
What of PQ itself? What has it become? One innovative addition was a series of side activities involving lectures by prominent designers and demonstrations of theatrical design techniques. The student exhibit portion of PQ had advanced from artwork pinned to the walls to full national exhibits that were often as imaginative as their nations' professional entries. The combination of these additional activities and the more sophisticated presentation of student design seemed to attract more people to the event.
Even though 1/3 of the American designers exhibited were present in Prague, there were no American or other Embassy receptions of which I was aware. These festivities had been a highlight of my previous experience at PQ, an elegant way for nations to recognize their own theatrical design artists and those of other countries who had made the journey. This time, the prize presentation at the Valdstejn Palace was strictly by invitation only; I don't know if the prize-winning designers were even present. The administrators from the various countries should be applauded for producing these theatrical design entries every four years. However, the entire reason for the event is to recognize theatrical design and the exhibiting artists. Certainly a city with a stadium that holds over 200,000 people could provide a venue where participants can celebrate the exhibition's award ceremony. Perhaps these observations will be addressed in the future.
Should one attend PQ? The answer is still a resounding yes! PQ is as much an expression about how and where we do our work as the work itself. Being at an international exhibition with other designers gives one the opportunity to visually absorb and discuss it from various cultural perspectives. An interaction with designers from around the world can also reveal unexpected facts about the profession of theatrical design. For instance, I learned that in some countries there are two union minimum design fees. A second higher minimum is for the designer who has been in the profession for over 15 years. Contractual financial recognition for an artist's longevity in the theatre? For American designers, this is a novel concept!
With almost 1,000 years of architectural history, Prague is a unique venue for a gathering of visual artists, offering a historical reality more imaginative than a studio backlot. Twelve years later, the experience of the city and exhibit are still inseparable. The Prague Quadrennial remains a singular opportunity for those of the theatrical design profession to celebrate their contribution, literally, to the world of the performing arts.