Professors and students travel to Prague for major design event

The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design & Space – or PQ, as insiders call it – is the world’s largest and most anticipated international performance design event. Held every four years in the capital of the Czech Republic, it brings together emerging and established talent from around the globe for professional development, to network and share their work with peers.

With more than 70 countries represented in displays, competitions, interactive art exhibitions, outdoor site-specific spectacles, performances and talks, PQ is a showcase of “the best of the best” in theatre production design, including set, lighting, sound and costumes. This year, more than 40,000 visitors attended the 10-day event, which ran June 16 to 26.

From left, Peter McKinnon,  Elizabeth Asselstine, John Mayberry, Teresa Przybylski and James McKernanLeft: From left, Peter McKinnon,  Elizabeth Asselstine, John Mayberry, Teresa Przybylski and James McKernan

Professors and students from York’s Faculty of Fine Arts were among the participants, making important contributions to the success of the event and showcasing the strengths of the Department of Theatre’s production and design program, as well as the talent of its students.

York’s active involvement in PQ goes back to 1999, when theatre Professor Phillip Silver, then dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, served as commissioner-general for the Canadian exhibition. That year, five York students were involved and a handful of faculty members attended.

This year, a significant number of professors and more than 40 York students participated – the largest contingent of any Canadian school. A number of York’s theatre design professors are active members of the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects & Technicians (OISTAT), which opened the doors for them to play a significant organizational role in PQ.

James McKernan, specialist in stage technology, stepped up to the role of technical director for Scenofest, the educational component of the quadrennial produced jointly by PQ and OISTAT. Work by students from more than 200 schools from around the world, including York, was put on display for viewing by potential employers and collaborators and over 2,000 fellow students.

 From left, York students Elizabeth Goodman, Michelle Galuszka, Fraser Stevens, Starleana Scott, Tracie BurgessRight: From left, York students Elizabeth Goodman, Michelle Galuszka, Fraser Stevens, Starleana Scott, Tracie Burgess

McKernan’s responsibilities as technical director included ensuring that all equipment needs from lighting to amplification for the 50 Scenofest workshops and 60 performances and presentations were met, available on schedule and working smoothly. To assist him in his work he recruited 25 York theatre student volunteers, some of whom worked full time for weeks to prepare before the event.

“It’s an incredible experience for these students, many of whom are about to launch their professional careers,” said McKernan. “Otherwise, it might be years before they have the chance to work on a project of this size and scope. PQ exposes them to an amazing range of work and to ways of working that you wouldn’t see in North America. It’s the sort of experience they’ll talk about for years afterwards.”

Theatre student Michelle Galuszka, who will be entering her fourth year of studies this fall, started work on PQ at York last November, managing updates to the master schedule and coordinating volunteers. In Prague, her duties expanded to include overseeing the festival information desk and “front of house” or patron-welcoming services for the scheduled events.

Phillip SilverRight: Phillip Silver

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of the Scenofest production team, with the opportunity to work so closely with such a hardworking group of people,” said Galuszka. “It’s so great to be in a place where you meet people from around the world who share your passion for theatre and to learn how theatre practices differ from those in your own country. It’s impressive to watch people overcome language barriers and cultural differences and exchange ideas, create art and inspire each other.”

Galuszka’s career focus is on stage management, a vital behind-the-scenes function dedicated to ensuring that the director’s artistic choices are realized. The multi-tasking and complex scheduling she did, and her role as a liaison for detailed information about PQ, gave her hands-on experience directly applicable to her chosen field.

These responsibilities kept her fully busy most of the time, but she was able to experience some of the installations at the fest.

“I really enjoyed the national and student exhibits,” said Galuszka. “Another highlight for me was the INTERsection exhibition – a maze of 30 white cubes, each put together by different international groups or individuals. Some were very interesting, like the one which was set up like a club where you got your hand stamped at the entrance and then joined a smiling group of people bopping about to loud dance music in the tiny box.

“All in all, I made wonderful international connections and amazing friends at PQ,” she said. “That was the most exciting part of this experience.”

 William MackwoodLeft: William Mackwood

As president of Associated Designers of Canada, Professor Phillip Silver, a set, lighting and costume designer with more than 300 productions to his credit, started preparing for PQ two years ago. He worked on securing funding, curating and coordinating Canada’s national exhibition, comprising displays of professional as well as student work, including arranging materials from the 15 post secondary schools in Canada that teach production and/or stage design.

To showcase York in the student exhibition, Professor Teresa Przybylski curated a digital presentation of images from departmental productions of the past four years. Dozens of photos depict the design process for Theatre @ York mainstage shows, including set design models or maquettes, costume concept sketches and action shots of students at work applying their research and creativity to translate their ideas into the physical world. Przybylski, a veteran designer for opera, theatre, dance and film, also assisted in preparing students to be volunteer Scenofest hosts.

Professor Elizabeth Asselstine, chair of York’s Department of Theatre and a well-known lighting designer for theatre and opera, collaborated with Przybylski to organize the Canadian student exhibit. As Canadian commissioner of scenography for OISTAT, she also participated in numerous meeting and discussions with her peers within the organization and the wider professional community.

Dance Professor William Mackwood attended to chair and presented a roundtable on “Considering Sustainable Design: Expanding the Possible by Rethinking the Way We Create.” Theatre Professor John Mayberry attended in his role of co-chair of the Technology Commission of OISTAT.

Professor Peter McKinnon, a designer, producer and principal English editor of Theatre Words, served on the executive committee for OISTAT for 16 years and is currently the co-chair of the Publications & Communications Commission. In addition to attending meetings, he used his time at PQ as a vital research opportunity for his ongoing work on World Scenography, a multi-volume publication project supported by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“Theatre design work is as ephemeral as the work of the actor,” said McKinnon. “Once the show is over, it disappears. If we don’t photograph, catalogue and preserve our design work, we run the risk of losing it forever.”

Leading an international team of researchers and associate editors, McKinnon and his co-editor, Eric Fielding of Brigham Young University, Utah, are documenting influential theatrical design work produced worldwide from 1975 to 2015. The series, to be published in print and online, is an official project of OISTAT. The first volume will be launched at the United States Institute for Theatre Technology annual conference in Long Beach, California, in March of 2012.