The next several posts will be devoted to this year’s Prague Quadrennial (PQ15).
What is the PQ, you may ask? According to the website,
“The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space is the largest scenography event in the world that explores a wide range of scenographic practices – from stage design and costume design to lighting design, sound design and new scenographic practices such as site-specific, applied scenography, urban performance, costume as performance, and much more.”
The event this year brought together over 5,000 theater professionals from 60 countries around the world to showcase examples of design, share performances and installations, present and attend workshops and lectures, and network in what is arguably one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. And thanks to generous support from the CMU School of Drama, the CMU Berkmann faculty research fund, the CMU GUSH and SURG grant programs, and a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, around fifty of us from the Carnegie Mellon University community (including faculty, students, alumnae, and family members) were able to go, too.
That’s many of us at the opening ceremony on June 17.
The PQ is absolutely overwhelmingly huge – this year, the event is taking place all over the city of Prague, with installations in fourteen different spaces, and performances and events taking place in an additional twenty-four spaces – and it’s literally impossible for one person to take in the whole thing. So I’ll be assisted in the next few days by Rachel Abrams, a recent grad of the CMU dramaturgy program, and Dani Kling-Joseph, a current student.
This was my first time at the PQ, and I didn’t really know what to expect before going. So for those of my dear readers who have also never been, here’s a brief rundown. Things to see and do at the PQ fall into several categories. There are exhibitions and installations, which are put together by each of the countries and either showcase designs from the past four years or present a unified scenographic concept or theme. There are similar exhibitions or installations put together by students from each country. These exhibitions each occupy a room or space in one of many buildings around the city, and you move from space to space (or, in some cases, through several exhibitions in one large room) looking at – and in many cases, interacting with – the various scenographic elements on display. These might include model boxes of designs, or mannequins with costumes, or objects crafted in response to a theatrical prompt, or innovative sound producing mechanisms, or videos, or lighting design, or an interactive moment with a live performer or a scenic element…or any combination of these. In addition to the exhibitions, there are also a number of performances, both on the street (by what the PQ called “Tribes”) and in various studio and theatre spaces sprinkled throughout the city. One space in the PQ has been designated a “Makers” space, for performances involving food (I attended a fun one on slow vs. fast food that ended with the distribution of bread smeared with pesto – yum!). There is a whole section devoted to “Objects.” In addition, the ten-day event includes several workshops (I did not attend any of these) and lectures.
So, where to begin? The breaking news from yesterday was the announcement of the awards, so why not start there?
The winner of the big prize, the prestigious PQ15 Golden Triga for Best Exposition, went to the Estonian project “Unified Estonia.” This exhibition also received the Gold Medal PQ 2015 for Innovative Approach to Performance Design. These two awards to Estonia, IMHO, are well deserved – if you’ve ever wondered whether or not theater can have real-world effects, Estonia’s Theater NO99 has your answer.
“Unified Estonia” was a project dreamed up by directors Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper in which they started out trying to make theater out of politics and ended up forming a new political party. The company interviewed political operatives in Estonia to learn how best to manipulate information and win votes in a political election, and then used those techniques to form a new (fake) party, “Unified Estonia.” The performance project – which took place over forty-four days – culminated in a spectacular party convention that, to the theater’s surprise, led to the official registration of their party and eventually garnered the party 25 seats in the Estonian parliament (the actor/parliamentarian who described the project confessed to me that they didn’t actually have 25 people in the theater company to take those seats – they had to recruit additional parliamentarians from the theater’s administrative staff). Their theatrical exposé of the political system was both brilliantly incisive and breathtakingly cynical – at their exhibition, which was fitted out like a slick campaign headquarters, they distributed copies of a little brochure entitled “How to Take Power” that contained, among other gems, the advice to “Be a Man.” The exhibition also showcased the documentary of the project, Ashes and Money, as well as a series of short, blackly comical instructional videos from their “election school” – all of which is freely available online (follow the links).
The Gold Medal PQ 2015 for the Best Exhibition Design went to the Belgian national exposition, MovingLab.be. The Belgian exhibit was stunning – miniature models of scenes, in white, traveled on an all-white conveyer belt which stopped at intervals for a display of light, media, and sound that transformed the set design into a small multimedia performance. Photos here will do better justice than words:
The Gold Medal PQ 2015 for Curatorial Concept of an Exhibition went to the Netherlands, which made use of scenic design as a tool for understanding the city: members of the Netherlands contingent engaged in various performative interventions in the city and then sent the results back to the exhibition space, where the data was categorized, printed, and mapped onto a grid representing the city.
The Gold Medal PQ 2015 for Performance Design was awarded to Chinese artist Gao Guangjian for his design for the performance of Throughout the Empire All Hearts Turned to Him; and the Honorary PQ 2015 Award for Performance Design went to Liu Xinglin.
The Gold Medal PQ 2015 for Sound Design went to the Polish exhibition for its project Post-Apocalypsis. This was one of the few exhibitions at PQ15 that focused specifically on ecological issues – the exhibition space featured logs suspended in space in the room, and ipads in one corner allowed the viewer to change the soundscape to hear real time weather from areas of the world that have suffered major ecological catastrophes (i.e., Chernobyl). Pressing your forehead to speakers attached to the logs added an eerie layer of human voice to the soundscape.
Finland also received two very well-deserved awards – the Finnish national section won the Gold Medal PQ 2015 for the Use of Media in Scenography for an exhibit called “Weather Station” that highlighted the role of sound as a scenographic agent. Their exhibition space featured two sound installations: “The Sound of Music (in a Box),” which presented the sounds recorded by a gramophone left outdoors for a year, and “Melting Point,” which used hydrophones to record the “music” as blocks of ice melted into a shallow pool below.
The Gold Medal PQ 2015 for the Best Exposition in the Student Section also went to Finland, for a space bisected by an enormous sheet of rubber that visitors could press against from either side (and encounter the unknown “other” by touch and pressure).
Among the student work presented, one of my favorite exhibitions was from Latvia. Student work there responded to a prompt to execute a “small task” – for example, to distill into an image “The Sea” or “Hamlet’s Chair” or “A Draft”. The results of these scenographic exercises were theatrical and stunning, and I was really pleased to hear that this exhibition won the Promising Student Talent Award. I’ll close this post with a few photos of their work:
More on the student exhibitions at PQ15 tomorrow!