Prague Quadrennial 2011: An Overview
The New Stage of the Czech National Theatre is green. It is leather green, worn carpet green and veiny stone green. I was at the New Stage as a visitor to the Prague Quadrennial, watching Jakub Hejna christen a new documentary about Josef Svoboda, his grandfather, from my green chair in this massive Soviet space. The New Stage is Svoboda’s stage, and like the stage itself, Svoboda’s influence is grand but fraying at the edges.
Historically, the Prague Quadrennial (PQ) has been a unique event in the world of theater. Countries from all over the world would set up pavilions in Prague showcasing the spirit and methodology of their stage design. It began largely as a result of Svoboda’s work. In 1967, when the PQ began, he was redefining what it means to visually realize the landscape of a play onstage. Movement and projection played a key role in many of his designs, but he also developed new lights and materials to serve the text and his vision. A member of the Communist Party, he was allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union, working with theaters all over Europe and, indirectly, serving as proof of Soviet cultural might. So profound was his effect on the field that “If Svoboda had not existed we would have to invent him,” insists an Italian cultural worker in Hejna’s documentary, “Theatre Svoboda.”
Svoboda is also credited with perpetuating the modern use of the term “scenography,” a word commonly used outside the states. In the simplest of terms, it’s the visual element onstage, a kind of fellow performer. The word is associated with a redefinition of the craft of stage design, expanded beyond mere decoration, and highly influenced by the ideas of Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia. This year’s PQ, however, has abandoned the term “scenography,” instead calling itself an exhibition of “Performance Design and Space.”
The change has been creeping in for years. In 2003 the PQ create a dynamic architectural performance space called “The Heart of PQ.” Each section of the space’s layered platforms showcased events designed to attack a particular sense: sight, smell, touch. Workshop lectures took place on one level as butoh dancers slowly waggled past below. The student design competition required the use of a site-specific location—students submitted models for staging Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in tennis courts, abandoned buildings, and 9/11’s ground zero rubble.
The definition of scenography expands and changes as theater is taken out-of-the-theater. In 2007, PQ began hosting site-specific performances in earnest, directing visitors to happenings and moments throughout the old town, and using the central exhibition space to create even more crossover between design and performance.
But that crossover pales in comparison to the level of activity in this 2011 PQ: performances along the river, in the courtyards of museums, along bridges. Performances in the PQ cafe, in the pavilions themselves, performances so everywhere and underfoot you forget that the whole world is not simply staged for your convenience. Seriously. I saw a woman on the ground with a crowd around her and my first thought was not “How did she fall?” but “I wonder which country this performance is produced by?” It wasn’t a performance. A woman had fallen.
The national pavilions for each country still stand prominently, and some of them still exhibit the stage models, drawings and photographs we understand to be the archival materials of scenography. But more and more the pavilions represent a kind of art-space ethos, an assertion of what each country regards as the most pressing issue or methodology in scenographic thinking. New Zealand created a fly-space into which they drop projection surfaces, models and performances. Iceland made a cold-white house into which a mysterious blonde would occasionally wander and have tea. Latvia created an installation of self-playing traditional instruments inside a wooden cabin behind a series of traditional models—based on the scenography of a previous Latvian show.
Hejna‘s documentary of his grandfather’s work is not altogether glowing. We see interviews with his mistress, learn the nicknames he earned based on his egotistical personality, and hear the conditions under which he became a recognized “spy,” trading banal information in exchange for the opportunity to travel abroad. We hear about his unique level of material wealth—fancy cars, central heating, a nice house—in contrast to other struggling Czechs in his field. It hurts a little. It’s a little bit of an idol falling—especially since Hejna spends much of the film lugging around a bust of his grandfather, shoving it in people’s faces, touring it around Svoboda’s old places of prominence. But that pain is likely necessary, as the whole field is experiencing awkward growth. The lines between disciplines are blurring, and the Prague Quadrennial has embraced the fuzziness. It remains to be seen what work will be running underfoot in another four years.