RANDY GENER and I met in Prague this summer, where we were both attending the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ). I was wandering through the exhibits, soaking up the inspiration and the beauty of the city; he was serving as both curatorial advisor of From the Edge (USITT’s USA National Pavilion) and Editor-In-Chief of this year’s PQ daily newspaper. When he is not in Prague, Randy is an editor, writer, critic and conceptual artist living in New York City. He is a 2003 New York Times critic fellow and former senior editor of American Theatre magazine, where he received many awards, among them the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism and NLGJA Journalist of the Year. Randy has created, been a part of and accomplished more than I can post here; please visit his website for more information on his work.
IT’S PRAGUE QUADRENNIAL WEEK on Postcards from the Inge! Randy agreed to talk with me about the PQ, and there’s so much in this interview I want to share with you that I’m going to post it in three parts, so look for the second installment on Wednesday and the third this Friday.
AW: Randy, you were on the committee to curate the US exhibit, From The Edge. Because work from all over the world was represented at the Prague Quadrennial (PQ), it must be a daunting task to select representative pieces of theatre for the United States. How does that process work? Do you choose successful productions from the past four years? Companies that best represent the PQ’s themes or aesthetic?
RG: USITT has organized and sponsored every single American exhibit to the Prague Quadrennial (PQ) since the U.S. began its participation in 1975. The USA did not participate in 1967, the year PQ was established. From the Edge is the 10th time the USA has participated in this world arts event, one of the theatre design community’s most important international competitions and events.
In terms of form and content, From the Edge is an audacious departure — compared to previous exhibits, it is a trip to Mars. The 1999 exhibit was swamped by academic works. The 2003 exhibit had over 300 items from more than 200 designers, and the curatorial choices were deemed as mostly safe. Because of the size of our country, USITT-USA PQ exhibits tend to be behemoth affairs. The 2007 exhibit, designed by Nic Ularu and the late Ursula Belden, had 120 Broadway, not-for-profit and university productions, representing some 95 designers of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Surprisingly, the 2007 exhibit succeeded in presenting innovative and ingenious U.S. designs that were in the same league as that of European countries.
From the very start, From the Edge was conceived imagistically. The curators immediately embarked on a search for a metaphor. We also purposefully focused on fewer productions in greater depth. Susan Tsu was the artistic director. The field-discipline curators were Chris Barreca (scenery), Linda Cho (costumes), Allen Hahn (lighting) and Don Tindall (sound). William Bloodgood, the designer/architect of the pavilion, went to Prague in 2007, and he felt compelled to return with an environmentally styled space, as opposed to a traditional assembly format. USITT officials had agreed that this time around Susan Tsu’s stronger curatorial concept would dominate. It was okay not to be democratic. This decision liberated the curators. We were free to take risks.
Susan’s new curatorial imperative was also an extremely tall order. Exactly what kind of work pushes traditional boundaries and redefines the field? How are they bold and cutting edge within the context of the present state of U.S. theater? Productions from the past four years were chosen based on an open-submission process. The team paid special attention to work that came from young companies that have not been exhibited at the PQ before. It took a tougher stance when it came to big-budget productions from commercial producers and large nonprofit companies, except in those very special cases where the designs clearly redefined the edge or pushed beyond that boundary. We sent emails to individual designers and directors, especially freelancers and interdisciplinary artists who worked outside the main stem of U.S. theatre production (including dance and opera), to submit works for our consideration.
From the Edge was limited to productions that opened between June 2006 and April 2010. All entries needed to be received before March 1, 2010 so that we could actually have the materials in hand to create a pavilion. Between March 29 and April 2, the curators were holed up in a hotel conference room in Kansas City, going through submission after submission. It was intense and strangely exhilarating. We looked at slides, pictures of models, images of sketches. We watched videos. We listened to audio samples. We read out loud project narratives and visited company websites. We waded through a huge number of site-specific productions and technology-driven projects. From the Edge was three years in the making. About 360 submissions were whittled down to 37 pieces for inclusion. That number includes six well-known avant-garde companies that the curators wish to give special recognition: Builder’s Association, Cornerstone Theater, Ping Chong and Company, SITI Company, Theatre de la Jeune Lune and The Wooster Group. Additionally, August Wilson and Ellen Stewart were paid tribute for their life’s work and inestimable contributions to the American theatre.
Of course, the team had met and argued (and enjoyed each other’s company) many times prior to Kansas City. Also, it is important to point out that the team did continue to deliberate on the inclusion of shows that premiered after April 2010, except that by then the curators had juried themselves into a mature concept for From the Edge. The choices that were made in Kansas City had fully developed both the theme and aesthetic. Susan Tsu sums it up perfectly: “From the Edge not only refers to the brave and dangerous edge of creation but also refers to our country on edge.”
Above all, the designs selected had to be visually and aurally arresting and innovative. As Susan Tsu told me, “All in all, curating the PQ is a thrilling job. One of the hardest aspects of curating design in the USA is that we are such a large country. We tried to keep the focus clear and sharp; therefore, there is much good work that we had to pass by.” A lot of amazing productions were powerfully conceived and politically edgy, but if there weren’t actual designs or artifacts to exhibit in Prague or the available production images available were terrible, then those shows posed a real problem for us. Here’s an important lesson for all theater companies and ensembles: Invest in a good photographer who will take artful photographs of your show’s production values, and not just the actors. Make sure you post them on your website.
At PQ, the team succeeded in showing the world a perspective or an image of American theatre that is not typically shown. From the Edge is a buoyantly self-critical view from the ground. It delivers the hard news: this is who we are now as Americans, and this is how we irreverently created serious performances during the dramatic unraveling of the Aught Decade, which resulted in a worldwide economic recession. The period in consideration coincided with great socio-economic tumult and a political transition in the White House — a wrenching reevaluation of core American values that brought about the rise of an African-American as our country’s 44th president.
AW: It was impressive, and that tension—the sense of our country on edge—was a palpable part of my experience in the space. I really appreciated the gallery talks with US artists involved in the presented projects. Were the people who attended them mostly from the US, too? How did your team imagine these talks supplementing the exhibit?
RG: From the Edge, to our knowledge, is the first USA pavilion to present actual bodies (performance-makers Pat Olesko and Paul Zaloom) as part a live display. When they performed in the pavilion, their performances weren’t supplementary to the exhibit. They were the exhibit. In a similar vein, the daily gallery talks were opportunities for the live bodies of U.S. designers to be “on display.” In many cases, new theater collectives eschew the typical process of creating sketches or of model-making, with the result that the only tangible evidence left that a design process took place are the production photos, the snippets of video and the audio excerpts. Sometimes the design was the internal discussion in the midst of creation (such as Ping Chong & Company’s Inside Out, and Fatebook by New Paradise Laboratories of Philadelphia). Political ideas were often more paramount (as in the case of Bond Street Theatre’s Beyond the Mirror, the first-ever U.S.-Afghan theater collaboration). In presenting Bob Fall’s Desire Under the Elms, we were honored that the designers Walt Spangler and Ana Kuzmanic went to Prague, because we needed to hammer the message of why this startling re-invention of a Eugene O’Neill classic drama stood out among the literally hundreds of play revivals put on in U.S. nonprofit institutions.
The most effective, most immediate and most human way to recuperate all of that contextual complexity is to have the designers, directors, creators and artists in the room directly interacting with design professionals, regular Czech people and foreigners who have never seen the original productions. How do you exhibit the quality of the lighting design for Apollo without Justin Townsend and Nancy Keystone being present in the same room? You can watch the video or hear the audio samples for The Poor Itch, an unfinished play by John Beluso, but the presentation becomes an extremely different animal when you’ve got Robert Kaplowitz himself talking about how he created the original music and sound. Many people have never heard of the play being exhibited; after the discussion, they wanted to know how they could get hold of a copy of the script. After listening to Kevin Cunningham talk about Losing Something and Chuck Mee’s Fire Island, a lot of tech-heads, academics and artists expressed their desire to visit 3LD Arts & Technology Center in New York City. Visitors I talked to had a completely different view of the fresh innovations of hybrid theatre works that are presently emerging from Philadelphia, because the Philadelphia Theatre Institute of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, led by Fran Kumin and Murph Henderson, came out in full force by bringing a delegation of Philadelphia-based artists.
I am delighted to hear that, as a visible member of the TCG delegation, you appreciated the gallery talks. Thanks to Joan Channick and Emilya Cachapero, the U.S. Center of the International Theatre Institute, which is housed at TCG, has made a staunch point of bringing to PQ delegations of U.S. designers, leaders and artists. That commitment needs to be noted. At one point in time, Martha Coigney’s leadership of ITI/US played an even more critical role in U.S. participation at PQ. Back in 1975, which saw the USA’s first participation in the PQ, ITI/US published the catalog to the 1975 national exhibit, organized by Ming Cho Lee, Elden Elder, Howard Bay, Donald Oenslager and Joel Rubin.
AW: Thanks very much, Randy. Please stay tuned for Part II on Wednesday, when we’ll talk about the PQ’s implications for international theatre design.