Interview with Randy Gener, Part II: Active Searching & The Value of the Prague Quadrennial

Here is the second installment of my interview with Randy Gener, former Senior Editor of American Theatre Magazine, about the Prague Quadrennial.  I’ve included some of Randy’s photos of the US Exhibit throughout.  Tune in Friday for Randy’s final insights for Postcards From the Inge!

          The USITT team outside the USA exhibit

(Cont.)

AW: The PQ is also a design competition; the US competed with From The Edge, in addition to entering the Student Section competition, the Architecture competition, and the Extreme Costume exhibition. How’d we do?

RG: Brazil was the major winner of this year’s Prague Quadrennial for Performance Design and Space. Other awards went to Croatia, Latvia, Hungary, New Zealand, Mexico, Greece, the UK and Norway. Brazil grabbed the coveted Golden Triga for the Best Exposition. Greece and Mexico shared commendations for Best Work in Theatre Architecture and Performance Space, with each country winning gold medals. In the student section, Latvia won a gold medal for the Best Exposition in the Student Section. In the Extreme Costume Exhibition, Emma Ransley is the gold medalist for Best Theatre Costume for her work in Inhabiting Dress, produced in 2008 in Wellington, New Zealand. What I found strange was that this year’s PQ jury did not choose to hand out any silver or bronze medals. The winners reflect the opinions of the jury. Our exhibit was one of the great favorites in Prague, I am proud to say.


AW:  I think there was such a feeling of immediacy to the exhibit—design highly contextualized in place and time.  I explored obsessively in my time at the PQ, and I think I would say the most inspiring part for me came as a surprise. It was the Student Section—I was excited to see what wild creativity and innovation the world has to look forward to in emerging theatre designers. What were you most surprised, impressed or moved by at this quadrennial?

 RG: I agree with you. The Student Section is blissfully unencumbered by the politics of prizes, the demand for aesthetic formality, the pressures to fully represent, or the necessity to offer a vivid sense of national identity. Something about the double imperative of creating a national exhibition that also opens up new scenographic or architectural horizons inhibits both the Architecture and National Sections of PQ from cutting loose.

 I spent most of my time exploring how the new edict of performance manifested itself at PQ.  2007 was the last year PQ billed itself as an exhibition of “World Scenography and Architecture.”  PQ 2011 has now evolved to become an exhibition of “Performance Design and Space.”  To put an even finer point to it, PQ wants to be seen as “not exactly a festival” and “more than an exhibition.”  So I embedded myself inside PQ 2011 to critically investigate the full meaning, breadth and substance of this re-alignment and re-positioning.  Scenography remains at the center, but the actual practice and critical discourses flow outward to foreground the visual composition of performance.  At the quadrennial, I was most moved by my discovery that a majority of performance-design proponents I had met were refugees from their original disciplines.  They did not want to be confined to well-defined fields, such as music, theater, literature, linguistics, gastronomy, fashion, media or choreography.  They were striving for something else.  I felt a real kinship with these active searchers.


 AW: What was your favorite part of PQ 2011?

 RG: My favorite part of PQ 2011 was being part of the USITT team that curated and created From the Edge.  I sat beside costume designer Linda Cho at the LaMaMa Annex to take in Ping Chong’s The Devil You Know; we knew we wanted to include Ping but weren’t clear which show would best represent him.  I got to work with Allen Hahn, whose lighting design work for the Builders Association I frequently discuss in my lectures.  Don Tindall, the sound curator, surprised me by his ability to make sound emanate from the installation. Jason Lindahl is a wizard media designer.  Lighting designer Chris Akerlind was on the committee until he got too busy, and he rightly pushed us all to look for good work without a lot of preconceptions.  Chris Barreca, the scenic design curator, challenged our thinking over and over.  For example, Chris stated that he personally does not believe that you can separate the work of the director from that of the designer.  He also felt that the exhibit should focus on the American social and political experience. That doesn’t mean the work needs to written by an American but be in some way uniquely about our experience in our culture.  I think he is a genius.

 William Bloodgood has a strong architectural eye.  When I covered PQ 2007, his flowing scenic design of Nilo Cruz’s Lorca in a Green Dress graced the cover of American Theatre magazine for a good reason.  His stage designs are among the most lyrical in the U.S. theater.  This time, I had the unique vantage point of seeing Bill create a pavilion from initial conception to full realization.  He took the wild ideas that came from the curators.  He observed our painstaking deliberations.  Then he summed up From the Edge in one powerful architectural gesture.  Brilliant.

 I am greatly indebted to Susan Tsu’s artistic leadership from the beginning to the end.   She was a curator of the PQ 2007, and she served on the TCG board of directors.  Without her, there would have been no foreign media relationship forged between PQ and American Theatre in 2007. Without her, I would not be involved in 2011.  In the winter and spring, we were running around New York filming video interviews of directors and designers.  Having seen her patiently conduct the entire process, I see that I have much to learn.  She is the reason I have twice been involved in the PQ.

 AW: What’s the inherent value in the PQ? Is it about fostering a sense of community in the field on an international level, an opportunity for artists to influence each other’s work?

RG: The values you mention are inherent when we participate in any international event.  They are part of the ethics of international exchange.  Time and time again, we have seen how artistic modes, playwriting styles and acting practices have advanced light years ahead in the crucible of the international encounter.  The Peking Opera had a great influence on Brecht’s concept of the epic theater.  Eugene O’Neill expanded his vision as a dramatist by drawing his plots and structures from ancient Greek stories.  The British director Peter Brook consistently drew from Persian, Afghan and African forms of theater to achieve his major Shakespeare breakthroughs.  Where would Hollywood film acting be today if Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg never encountered the work of the Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre?  In the hothouse of an international encounter, you never know what might result in a revolution or a life-changing event. Ellen Stewart’s directing changed because of her encounters with Croatian and Romanian theater (specifically, the stage/opera director Andre Serban).

 None of these values, however, are intrinsic to PQ or similar design exhibitions. (World Stage Design, for example, exhibits the work of individuals rather than of countries or regions.)  Biennial- or quadrennial-type exhibitions enhance the inherent value of theater design, architecture and performance design in an environment where designers and architects in the field of theater often take a backseat to the writers, directors and actors who dominate the mainstream narrative. These events, on a practical level, raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of good creative design.  They affirm the professionalism and creativity of outstanding designers and theater architects.  And these events have demonstrated an economic impact to the countries that host them.

Those core values lead me to bring up a powerful value one that might not be apparent to a person who goes to PQ for the first time. Mega-exhibitions perform a process of legitimation.  That process engages with issues of cultural ownership, the politics of commissioning, and the nature of what the Obama administration has called “smart power.”  The visual art world thrives in a silo that is isolated from theater design and architecture.  Perhaps it is a standoff.  Whatever the case, it has been impossibly difficult to find museums and galleries that would be agree to tour USITT exhibitions of theater design in cities around the U.S.  Our art institutions and curators have closed themselves off from the possibility of seeing theater design as equivalent to artworks.  Ironically, more and more artists are turning to live performance and site-specific exploration, as can be witnessed in the Venice Biennale, to execute their ideas.  PQ works to break that stalemate through a process of providing legitimacy to design as a practice (a doing), a production (a thing done, a thing that performs), and as a performance (a thing that acts).

 I see the process as very dramatic.  Compare the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011 (which did not win the coveted Golden Lion), and the USITT-sponsored US pavilion at PQ.  The U.S. exhibit in Venice, by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, is comprised of five installations, collectively called “Gloria” (which translates to “glory” in English).  When you approach Bloodgood’s USA pavilion of theater design in Prague, the first thing you confront is a huge graffiti of Obama’s face painted on the side of a performing garage.  In Venice, the first thing you encounter is an overturned 60-ton tank with an exercise treadmill on top of the tank’s right track — where a real U.S. Olympic athlete jogs in 30-minute stretches.  The overturned tank can easily be interpreted as a symbol of America’s faded glory, whereas the Obama wall offers an ambiguous message.  Inside the US performing garage, you see a welter of theater designs that express complicated viewpoints about America: shows about healing and obsessions with death and loss after 9/11 and hurricane Katrina; the pull of conscience inevitable when a country is engaged in war; the rising political polarities in reaction to the first African-American U.S. president to be elected.

 You can obviously see the relationship between politics and art in both pavilions. You also register other relationships; you can think about assemblage, sculpture, communication, sound, performance design, theater.  In both pavilions, theatricality is ubiquitous.  The U.S. State Department ultimately chooses who will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, whereas the American pavilion in Prague is organized by an independent team of designers and sponsored by a U.S. nonprofit membership organization.  That difference sends out clear messages about what kind of U.S. art is being legitimized internationally and by whom, how this process of legitimation is being conducted and why.  In Venice, the pavilion is an example of “soft diplomacy,” a U.S. government tool of foreign policy.  At PQ, the ability to fund design exhibitions in countries, which have a long history of government support of art and culture, becomes a political act.  For two PQs in a row, the French government did not fund an exhibit of French designs at PQ.  This year China made a strong showing, whereas in 2007 the Chinese recalled its artists in protest and left its pavilion empty when Taiwan refused to merge “China” to Taiwan’s title.  Governmental decisions to support or not support culture frequently become the theme of the pavilion itself, as in the case of the Lithuania whose designers created a monument plaque re-printing the letter they received from the Lithuanian government declining to give them funds for an exhibition. 

In Prague, teams of U.S. designers and technicians annually realize their own exhibition projects on an international scale.  I think that’s pretty significant — a pox on the house of U.S. news media for failing to recognize that.  The USITT-USA National Pavilion is both a formal experiment and an expensive public commission.  It is an opportunity to experience abstract concepts — theater design, performance design or architecture (depending on which sections we’re talking about) — as visual objects that both project and perform.  Design elements extend the performing body.  If displayed with artistic intention, design elements can also perform without and in spite of the human body.  I would go so far to say that, after post-structuralism, communication is now the dominant force in design innovations.  What’s less understood in art-world discourses is that theater and live performance re-stage the material world and re-frame the virtual world.

 Mega-exhibitions like the PQ raise the status and intrinsic worth of theatrical performances within the context of these global developments. At PQ, stage design is being exhibited on a pedestal of contemplation.  We all know that artworks are objects that have no inherent worth beyond what society agrees to invest in them.  Yet every night in the theater, we collectively invest design artifacts (propos, costumes, objects) with narrative or symbolic values through our willing suspension of disbelief.  PQ helps to level the playing field.  It provides designers (by extension, all theater artists) with an international art-based platform where they can wrest back the centrality of time-based performance modes, which visual artists have ruthlessly co-opted for their own ends.


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