This year as part of Articulture’s Go See outdoor arts bursary scheme, Alison Neighbour, a theatre designer and scenographer, took part in the Prague Quadrennial Scenography event, a unique live exhibition of world theatre and scenography in June.
Below is a detailed account of her visit, including inspiring workshops and lectures by international artists, and performances she visited.
Alison has a primary interest in outdoor, site specific, and landscape based work, and is excited by the theatrical and scenographic possibilities offered by outdoor settings and found spaces. She founded a company called Bread & Goose in 2009 to pursue this type of work. You can find out more about her work at www.alisonneighbourdesign.com and www.breadandgoose.co.uk.
Once again I planned to write an on-going blog, or create a series of postcards, about my experiences at PQ, but in the midst of such a busy festival (and with poor internet connection in all the venues), it proved impossible, so rather than bite sized chunks, here is my report in all it’s full length glory (you might want to grab a cup of tea before you embark on reading further).
To sum up PQ in a few pages of words and pictures seems an impossible task – I have half a notebook filled with inspired scribblings that only scratch the surface of the multitude of experiences the festival has to offer.
PQ is a quadrennial event celebrating scenography across the world, it includes performances, discussions, lectures by industry leaders, meeting places, and a huge exhibition of work submitted by countries from across the world, both students and professionals. It always takes place in Prague, and for the first time, it was this year held in a number of different venues around the city, including two glamorous palaces, a chapel undercroft, art galleries, Kafka’s House, and a number of art and theatre spaces. There were also performances on the streets of Prague, popping up in every corner of the city. A key concern this year seemed to be about how theatre and scenography respond to architecture and the city- many activities were walks around Prague, asking the participants to consider the space and how it functioned as a stage. More on that in a bit! The themes of the event were Music, Weather, Politics, and many of the exhibitions had a strong political tone – if not overtly, then it was clear from the artwork on display what the concerns of that country are at present, so it was a brilliant social-cultural learning experience as well as an artistically challenging one. You can find out more about what PQ is all about on the PQ website.
Talks & Discussions
I started PQ with a breakfast event hosted by Reija Hirvikoski (Finland). It was a great introduction to some of the companies present at the festival, including Theatre 099, a company from Estonia who talked about their project which saw them elected into government. What began as a theatre production about the political situation in the country ended up with the company forming a political party (with themselves, the press, and the voting public not quite sure if it was for real or just an act). They ran a spectacular campaign, aimed at exposing the populism and lack of depth that is present in their countries political campaigning, and employing all of the tricksy tactics of the politicians they interviewed for their research. The campaign came to a climax with an epic rally, selling out a 7500 seater venue, and the new party won 25% of the vote (more seats than they have members of the theatre company apparently…) Quite where they will take their power now, I’m not sure, but they say the theatre company is doing much better now, and if you want to find out more (and maybe give the idea a go), there’s a film of what they did here.
Sophie Jump and Susanne Thomas from Seven Sisters Group talked about their show Fish Out of Water and their continuing experiments with guiding an audience – for this production the audience were guided by a film on an ipod, moving through the location as the film moved through, with the film both mirroring and expanding what was happening live.
Day 2 began with a seminar about Cloud Gazing, led by Simon Banham, Commissioner for the Weather section of events, and a scenographer based at Aberystwyth University.
Simon talked about how he’d intended to construct a cloud as an installation in the courtyard of one of the venues, but the art was foiled by the actual weather, and had to be taken down. Despite rigorous testing, the series of balloons that were the cloud, failed on the first day of the festival and were replaced by a series of white flags, which also reflected and refracted the weather conditions in the courtyard, through their ability to move with the wind, cast shadows, and move sunlight across the space. The lessons learnt are ones I’ve experienced often when making site specific work: you might rehearse for weeks on a site and never see a soul, but when it comes to the day of your first performance, a van drives straight onto the “stage” and begins unloading crates of produce. At Bread & Goose we call it “accidental atmosphere”, and sometimes it adds to the performance, and sometimes it detracts, but you always have to just run with it and be adaptable to the changing nature of the space and the weather.
The aim of the morning was to explore inspiration and where ideas come from. Passing out the last remaining string of flags, we were invited to write our responses on one of them, and then we discussed the ones we found most interesting. Discussion entered up centering on the blank flags, and the desire to reach the “blank page of the mind” to find inspiration, and also the fear of emptiness and lack of inspiration. We talked about being comfortable in the fear, and how it’s important to leave space to let things happen, and not try to control and find the answers too soon.
We also talked about the three C’s: collaboration, conversation, and communication – all vital to us as makers of performance.
Another place where scenography had to adapt to a changing environment was the No Man’s Land exhibition by Politics curator Aby Cohen (Brazil), where a planned installation around a church had to be altered at the last minute to accommodate the hoardings that had been constructed for building works. The designer’s response to the site had to evolve as the site did.
Mike Pearson gave a talk entitled “It’s no joke in petticoats”, very much a truism in the world of site specific theatre! He talked about the polar expeditions and how they had theatres on the ships to stop the explorers going mad during the long arctic winters – they would fashion the costumes and scenery from what they had available, and put on full performances, complete with printed programmes, for their shipmates. The occupation the work provided stopped them going crazy for lack of things to do and outdoor pursuits, although the skimpy costumes required for the female characters entailed a high element of risk in such low temperatures.
Mike talked about his own work with Brith Gof and with National Theatre Wales, and his belief that scenography should combine with the space rather than overwhelming it, where the site becomes an active element in the creation of scenographic meaning, with all its atmosphere and environmental conditions that affect both performers and audience. He discussed the necessity of the environment being active and impacting (that accidental atmosphere again!) and how it is performers who bring the place and the scenography into being, a place where without a fourth wall, we (the audience and the performers) are all in it together.
Robert Le Page has been one of my heroes for a while, so it was a privilege to hear him speak later the same day. He talked a lot about the need to think outside the frame, pointing out that traditional theatre architecture is all very similar, and that theatres are built in the same way now that they have been for centuries, despite the use of in-the-round and catwalk stages, the norm is still end on, in a box. He believes that to create a new form of theatre, we need to find new ways of framing, to think outside of our traditional box – something that I think site specific theatre is beginning to do, where audiences are often placed in unusual settings with diverse or multiple perspectives on the action.
Robert showed images from his production in Las Vegas where he collaborated with Cirque du Soleil to play with gravity and experiment with new frames of reference – the stage has no floor, no left and right, but is a gigantic floating rectangle that twists and turns and falls away, leaving a space that can only be accessed by trained acrobats.
He told us about his working process at his Incubator space where Ex Machina are based. They are lucky to have 8 week development periods for each production, which are split over a 2 year period to allow for creative thinking time in between sessions. Everybody, even the technicians, are present from day 1, and they work by devising and improvising in the morning, building or buying the things they need to realise these ideas in the afternoon, and then coming back together to try things out in the evening. The work is ultimately tested in performance, with audiences invited early in the process to shape the development. The work is whittled away until only what is important remains.
He advised that it is better to come in at the beginning and not know where you’re going, but to have faith in the process, and that your audience might be elsewhere – that it’s important to go out and show work in new places and look for national and international collaborations, allies, and resources.
Sean Patten from Gob Squad spoke about his work with ordinary people playing a major part in the action, what he called inviting them to become a producer, and allowing space for people to get involved within very set perameters, whilst accepting that there is a high element of risk in this kind of work. Whilst I’m not sure of how much the people involved knew what they were signing up for, and therefore how morally correct it is (although Sean did talk about the need to take people seriously and to care for their participants), it was interesting to hear him talk about their show Super Night Shot, which is a live film, created on the night it will be shown to an audience, in 60 minutes on old-skool cassettes. There are four main roles taken by the company, including a “hero”, and the aim of the film is for the hero to find someone in the street to kiss as the finale to the film. Each professional cast member has a camera with them for an hour as they travel the streets looking for a location for the finale and the lucky heroine. The end results are projected simultaneously to a live audience, immediately after the camera has stopped rolling.
There was so much to explore in the exhibition spaces, experiencing the different ways in which each country chose to represent their scenographers. Some sent a group show, others sent just one representative. Some exhibits were very performative whilst others were films and models depicting past performances. Some truly inhabited the site and were performance and scenography in themselves. How we represent the live art of stage design (especially when it doesn’t take place on a stage) in an exhibition setting is an ongoing question – the challenge being to maintain the liveness and the audience experience.
It’s impossible to talk about every single one of the exhibits here, but these are a few that I saw over the course of the few days that made an impact on me:
Greece – A film of a production called “Tea Time Europe”. Greece is an entry point for migrants to the EU from less fortunate countries, and this piece was a simple evolving image that looked at the impact of that. A group of well dressed people sit on chairs in the sea, the water is at calf height. They hold teacups, saucers, and spoons, and use these to make a chorus of sound . As the tide goes out and the water levels drop, we see that there are bodies floating, they are still and cling on to suitcases and other possessions. The final image is of one of the teacup women, a singer, standing in the water amongst the bodies.
Canada (Quebec) – There is no museum or archive in Quebec for the preservation and recording of theatre design. For the exhibition, designers re-built set models of well known productions that had been staged in the country, and burnt them in a special ceremony. The ashes were collected and put into glass frames with a small photograph of the original production, these were exhibited laid out on the floor with funeral flowers.
Netherlands – “Between Realities”. The Dutch group had transformed their exhibition space into a mapping workshop and documentary station. Each day some of their team were out on the streets performing interventions in the city, which were then documented and the results of their experiments pasted up in the room. They have made a websitehere.
Serbia – their space was a workshop when I visited. Each day a new artist would construct their exhibition, only for it to be torn down again the following morning to start over with another artist.
Latvia – an interactive piece by Vladislav Nastavshev, based on his set design for ‘Miss Julie’ – a see saw requiring continuous attention and adjustment by a lone performer, who piled it with glass jars, terracotta, clocks, kitchen implements, pink sherbet being poured and decanted, taking risks and making some frantic runs up and down the structure to keep its precarious balance, before finally settling down to read a book whilst hanging off one end of the see saw.
Uruguay – Chose to share their space with the audience. In one half of the room, a giant figure of Meyerhold reclined and slept, his enormous head pushing through the wall into the corridor, making the wall bulge out as he breathed. Inside, the other half of the room was filled with an enormous pile of plastic toys, from which visitors could choose one and make an installation of their own around the walls of the space.
Philippines – the exhibit had to fit into one mans suitcase, and this was one of the most evocative exhibits for me. From rolls of gum tape, the scenographer had constructed an installation that filled the whole room, depicting a boatman wearing a special mask to shield his face from the sun, amid reeds and bamboo. Around the walls were simple pasted up sheets of paper explaining the difficulties the country had faced since the last PQ, and the importance of recognising certain rituals as scenography in daily life. Several of the exhibitions used their space to raise awareness of what life in their country is like, and the particular struggles they face.
Czech students – half of their room was transformed into a design studio, complete with model boxes, drawing board, and all the ‘creative junk’ that designer like to hoard. The other half had a sign saying “All Day Party Here”, and a couple of students cooking up fresh pancakes and serving beer!
Finland students – At first glance, this appeared to be an empty room, with one diagonal wall painted gold. But encouraged by the curator, I pushed on the gold wall and was surprised to find that not only did it give way, but that someone on the other side pushed back!
Spain – Another multi-layered exhibit, and a disconcerting one – I wandered into a heavily decorated room to find a woman lying on what looked like a pyre, surrounded by glass boxes full of the accoutrements of life. Crawling over her body were flies and maggots, projected from above. I assumed she was part of the exhibition, but as she sat up, I realised that she was a visitor just like me, and had been brave enough to interact with the exhibit, which also featured a mirror on the ceiling, so the brave can see how they might look in death.
Swiss students – Reflection As Spatial Practice, an exercise led by two tutors from Zurich University of the Arts, and a warm-up practice for the creative mind. The exhibit looked like a basic workshop when I entered – ladders, workbench supports, some lengths of timber… but it soon transpired that there was a meaning behind these objects. Each day a group would go out into the city and find a space to explore, having spend some time there, they would come back and recreate the space with the items in the workshop, each proposing what was important to them through placing or taking away, until an agreement was reached or the time was up. I took part in a session and found it to be a great way of breaking down what is really important for a representation of a space to exist, and a quick and collaborative way to discover that. The important thing for the group was the process rather than the end product, and it was refreshing to be able to play after many fully polished exhibits.
Watching other designers encounter the exhibitions was a treat in itself – we are people who like to touch things, to test them, to deeply discover them, to see if they might break…
I also ventured out of the city centre to visit the Golem Cube (Czech Republic), an installation representing a performance that took place in Prague earlier in the year. A special installation had been constructed, aiming to provide visitors with an experience akin to seeing the actual performance. I entered a darkened room with 4 screens, arranged in a square, and took my place standing in the centre of the cube. A beautiful piece of cinema played out which used all four screens to portray different perspectives, and a sound soundscape moving around the room with the image. In the first scene, in a car, one screen showed the view through the windscreen, one the rearview, and the other two the side windows. The film was projected at just over life-size, which helped with the immersion, and the installation was set up in the place where the original performance had happened, which all helped to tell the story, and it felt like a very effective way of communicating live performance after the event. You can see the Golem Cube here.
The first performance I saw was an outdoor piece in Ruldofinium Square, one of the main squares in the town centre. It was a delicate piece of work, involving beautiful quiet movements by two men in a huge tray of gravel – first raking it one way, then the next, making careful patterns and working against each other and together alternately. Unfortunately most of the audience were stag parties, and a few curious groups of tourists, so the backdrop was quite raucous, including a random chap who clapped every 5 minutes as if the show were over, even though it clearly wasn’t. There have to be some downsides to beer being less than a £ in Prague…
Flood, by a New Zealand based group avoided some of these problems by performing very early in the morning at 6.45am. The site specific piece took the audience on a walk over the famous Charles Bridge, along the river, and onto an island, all the while following “Dawn” in a beautiful red flowing dress which billowed out along the length of the bridge, and three other characters – a fisherman and his son, and a bride-like figure. The walk was punctuated by movement sequences, and we listened to a composed sound score on headphones as we traversed the route, trying to shut out the early morning tourist bustle.
5 Short Blasts was another early start, a boat trip and a piece of theatre in one, as it took place on the river, in tiny rowing boats – with just 3 of us in each of the ten boats. We were taken on a magical meditative journey by a silent boatman, as a gentle audio of music and stories from the river played out to us from speakers inside each boat. A trumpeter played 5 short blasts at intervals around the route. The set up was simple but it was a beautiful way to start the day, and just as I was completely blissed out by the journey, our boatman turned round with a smile and offered out tea and Anzac biscuits. The show was originally made for Sydney, and adapted to the Vltava with stories from Prague and using Czech boatmen.
Without really thinking about it I signed up to go to a 3 hour long show performed entirely in Czech with no subtitles. It turned out to be brilliant, and the journey to the venue was an adventure in itself – we ventured far out of town to the old exhibition halls (where PQ used to be held until a devastating fire). The exterior of the building still stands and is a beautiful deco glass structure. Our performance was in one of the newer halls, a cavernous concrete space. I have no idea what the story was actually about, but what unfolded onstage was a beautiful ballet between actors and film crew, with a merging of live action and cinema, the performances taking place live onstage in a series of small and perfectly formed stage sets, accompanied by a film crew of 3, collecting close ups and alternative perspectives, which were fed live to a screen above the stage. The staging featured a carefully thought out arrangement of lights and backdrops, with very clever minimalist scene setting at times: a beach was represented onstage with a pile of shale, a desk fan, and some brightly coloured fresnels pointing at the camera from a distance. Onscreen, this came across as the perfect stereotypical beach scene at night – the actresses hair blowing in the breeze as she looked out across the bay to a distant town. Seeing the dual creation of scenes in this way was fascinating, and a huge puddle of water on the floor gave three perspectives on the action: live performance, screen, and reflection. It’s impossible to explain such a complex performance fully, but there are some images from the production here.
Some final thoughts…
PQ hosts over 600 events in 10 days, and I feel like I barely touched the tip of the iceberg of what there was available to see and experience. There was such a fascinating breadth and diversity of what is considered to be theatre and scenography, and how we define a stage. It was not only a great space to be inspired by the possibilities of stage design, and to have many fascinating conversations with designers from all over the world, but also a space to consider the time and place we are currently living in and the multiple artistic reflections of that. In the week that I was in Prague I experienced the results of many different ways of thinking and practising, which have made me reflect on my own work and ask questions of myself. I’m very grateful to Articulture for giving me the opportunity to travel to PQ on a bursary, and I can’t wait for the next festival!