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Divine design display

Prague Quadrennial puts spotlight on stagecraft

PRAGUE — Until you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to imagine the scope of the Prague Quadrennial. And unless you were one of the visitors to its first edition, back in 1967, it’s hard to grasp the global impact this exhibition of theater design has had.

For the uninitiated, the Prague Quadrennial is an international gathering of theater designers from around the world working in the fields of set design, costume design, theater architecture and (more recently) lighting and sound. This year, the 10th Prague Quadrennial — it takes place once every four years, as the name suggests — hosted exhibits and performances from 53 countries and drew 3,400 accredited foreign guests. OISTAT (Intl. Organization of Scenographers, Theater Architects & Technicians), the international umbrella organization, organizes a competition that adds an edge to the 17-day event, which concluded June 29.

The primary venue is the Industrial Palace, a magnificent art deco building built especially for expositions. The first of three huge halls was packed with student exhibits (organized by each country) along with architectural exhibits, international discussion panels and a thematic display, which this year was dedicated to varying approaches to “King Lear.”

A central hall held the “Heart of PQ,” a large wooden structure where experimental theater groups from eight countries offered a nearly nonstop selection of interactive perfs on the theme “the five senses.”

The third hall contains the prestigious national exhibits, where the arrangement of the exhibit often was as imaginative as the designers’ works displayed within them. Organizers from the producing Czech Theater Institute were unable to estimate how many thousands of theater artists were represented.

But there’s no doubt the popularity and reputation of this multipronged event is growing. To put it in perspective, consider that the number of accreditations is roughly equivalent with those at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, which takes place a week later. Even with fallout from the SARS scare, which kept out nearly 400 Asian guests, there were 1,000 more design students and professionals than the last time around.

“There are more students coming from around the world, to show their work and to participate in workshops and listen to discussion panels of well-known designers,” said Petr Oukropec, who produces the PQ for the Czech Theater Institute. “They come to discover the wave of the future while seeing what has happened over the past four years.”

Organizers plan to continue building on the growing interest. PQ already includes spinoff events, including experimental theater performances, held in a specially constructed temporary theater, and exhibits in Prague galleries devoted to the works of prominent theater figures, such as the one on Tadeusz Kantor this year. “It’s not only going to be exhibitions in the future,” Oukropec said. “For the public and the professionals, it’s important to be together. This isn’t exactly a festival, but it is a celebration.”

When the first presentation was held in 1967, Czech designers were beginning to be recognized as the world’s outstanding practitioners. In fact, the event’s original statutes prevented the Czechs from winning prizes, in part due to the dominance of their designers. With the freedom offered by the short-lived period in the late 1960s known as the Prague Spring, Westerners were able to see, many of them for the first time, what their colleagues in Eastern Europe were doing. One U.S. visitor recalled the influence Czech designer Josef Svoboda had on the visiting Americans, who discovered his conceptualist stage designs at the 1967 Prague gathering.

A tour of this year’s U.S. exhibit proved how far designers had moved from the “American realism” that once was scorned by their European counterparts. Examples ranged from Laura Crow’s sumptuous costumes for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Co. to the mesmerizing elegance of Daniel S. Ostling’s set for “Metamorphoses” at Circle in the Square. While national and historical influences were still to be found in many of the country exhibits, the U.S. collection contained works that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some of Europe’s more avant-garde theaters.

PQ 2003 awarded its grand prize to the national exhibit from Great Britain. The sleek presentation of two- and three-dimensional images was organized in sections designated as Illumination, Symbolic Statements, Performance Environment and Come Into My World, which provided insight into conception of the designs. The Brits eloquently showed the impact designers have on reinventing classics that address contemporary auds rather that for the sake of reinvention itself. One stunning example had “A Masked Ball” set on the page of a giant open book that was perched at the edge of a lake for the Bregenzer Festival in Austria.

PQ 2003 even provided a minor scandal. China, unable to attend due to the SARS threat, sent along a token exhibit that was installed by the Prague organizers. But when the local Chinese embassy rep turned up and found his country overshadowed by the impressive Taiwan exhibit, he pulled the Chinese display, objecting to signage that neglected to designate Taiwan as part of China. PQ organizers said the foreign ministries were working out differences and the Chinese had already agreed to return for PQ 2007.

But they may have an earlier opportunity to show up those pesky break-away rivals. Back on the western side of the Atlantic, plans are under way for a North American version in Toronto in 2005. It will be a challenge to mount such an extensive expo for the $1 million budget that the Czech government, UNESCO and the EU provided for the Prague undertaking.

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