Theatre is a transient art. It exists entirely in the present moment. As the stage curtain falls, its boundaries are closed; the next time it rises, it is on a new reality. Its ephemeral nature has proved a challenge for posterity. As the ensemble is dispersed and the set dismantled, how can the full reality of a performance be preserved?
This is a challenge addressed by theatre artists every time a production comes to its end. However, it comes into particular focus at the Prague Quadrennial, an exhibition that brings together an international community of stage designers every four years to showcase their work.
This year, Ireland's entry was curated by theatre director and producer Jo Mangan, who was interested in pushing the boundaries of traditional presentational models and offering a virtual showcase of Irish stage work instead. The result was an expressionistic form-bending film called Design and Destroy, which provided an insight into both the process and product of stage design.
As well as illuminating the discrete projects of lighting designers Sarah Jane Sheils and John Comiskey, scenic artists Ciarán Bagnall, Katie Davenport and Niall Rea, sound artist Peter Power and costume designer Catherine Fay, the film probed the philosophical implications of theatre, as well.
How can the ephemerality of the art form be archived? Ciarán Bagnall muses, when “it is cheaper and more efficient to get rid of things” than to keep them.
Crucially, Design and Destroy worked as a standalone artistic experience. Stepping barefoot on to the plush speckled grey rug at the Prague Exhibition Grounds was like crossing the threshold of a theatre, the swivel chair your seat in the auditorium. Pulling the VR goggles tightly across your eyes was like the curtain being pulled back from the stage, the 360 degree immersion creating a digital theatrical experience without the fourth wall.
It was very beautiful and surprisingly moving. Witnessing John Comiskey burn lighting plans in the fireplace of his home studio offered an affecting sense of catharsis.
This year marks only the second time that Irish designers have had a physical presence at the Prague Quadrennial, which has been running since 1967. John Comiskey was curator and designer for the first showcase in 2007, and he was very clear about what he wanted to achieve by providing a platform for Irish artists to share their work on the international stage.
He remembers: "In 2007 we were at a stage where Irish theatre had a huge international appeal. The literary canon was very prolific, but no one really knew how that work was being presented in Ireland, which is something very different. I thought that should have a place in the conversation about Irish theatre too."
For that debut showcase, then, Comiskey selected designs for “two really different versions of The Playboy of the Western World, a play that was really well known all over the world”.
Placing artefacts from Francis O’Connor’s naturalistic design for Druid’s SyngeCycle alongside Aedín Cosgrove’s streamlined design for Pan Pan’s postdramatic Chinese transposition of the play, “let people see the different ways Irish theatre artists could approach a classic Irish text. It was an important statement about where we were as producers of theatre, rather than where our writers were coming from. And that helped to change the idea of what Irish theatre is about.”
Even though his curatorial vision was clear, he was less certain about how to present the work. “Everything we [stage designers] make is intended for performance,” he explains, “but you can’t bring an entire production with you to Prague, so the first question you have to ask yourself is how you can represent design outside of the context for which it has been made? You can’t obviously, so how do you give the best impression?”
That first year the exhibition was presented in a “museum-style format, with costumes on mannequins, photographs of productions, and a sound installation in a constructed pavilion”. The exhibition was a success, but Comiskey wasn’t quite sure he had solved the problem.
When Comiskey was first approached by Mangan about participating in the 2019 entry, he was intrigued by the prospect of a radical new approach to showcasing the theatrical material.
“One of the most interesting things about the Prague Quadrennial,” he says, “is the diversity of approaches, how the expression of design can change so radically.”
Indeed, across acres of exhibition stands this year there was a dynamic range of presentations: from a single object standing in for an entire show to a durational performance that ran throughout the week; from live links to a make-up room in a Chinese opera house to an interactive museum. Ireland was not the only country experimenting with virtual reality.
"Thailand's contribution combined an atmospheric physical set with a superimposed digital experience, accessed via mobile phones, while Hungary's exhibit involved visitors, literally, sticking their heads into the clouds, to experience a limitless landscape of sand dunes and sky. Ireland's student entry, meanwhile, a collaboration between scenographers Paul Reemy and Natasha Bohra, and computer coder Dan Roberts, all recent graduates of IADT (Dún Laoghaire Institute Of Art Design + Technology), generated real-time visuals through custom-built computer code.
Costume designer Catherine Fay was initially surprised by the boldness of Mangan’s virtual vision for the exhibition. However, as a designer who has grappled with the question of storing her own work for the future, the virtual format seemed pertinent.
“As a costume designer,” she explains, “I find it technically interesting to get up close to a garment and note the details of construction, but costumes are far less interesting when they are not alive. There’s an extra dimension to a costume when it is inhabited.”
In Design and Destroy, Fay's costumes are inhabited by dancer Justine Cooper, whose movements bring to life the fluidity of Fay's dresses. Clever editing allows Cooper to change outfits with a single gesture: we see her swathed in red, then blue, then white fabric, which slides from her statuesque figure to the floor.
Fay’s observations in the film about her own archival process add an extra poignancy to the sartorial showcase. Some of the dresses that Cooper wore were gifted to the opera singers and actors for whom they were made; others have “gone into the ether. They get so worn they are destroyed.”
Fay, Comiskey and the rest of the stage designers involved in the Prague Quadrennial are all members of the newly formed Irish Society for Stage and Screen Designers (ISSSD), which seeks to represent the needs, rights and working conditions of Irish designers, and to act as a network body that will represent designers both in Ireland and abroad.
As the driving force for Ireland’s entry to the 2019 Prague Quadrennial, meanwhile, it engages directly with the central conundrum of the theatrical art form. It is not just a question of presentation, but one of preservation. Stage design is part of our material cultural history. How can we make sure evidence of its diversity survives?
Design and Destroy will be showcased at Project Arts Centre, September 28th, October 5th and 12th. Lyric Theatre Belfast October 31st, November 1st and 2nd. Yeats Academy of Arts, Sligo, November 12th.