It’s been almost a month since I landed in Prague to see the sites and attend the Prague Quadrennial, the international exhibit of scenography founded by Josef Svoboda in the 1960s now known as “the PQ.” International pavilions filled several exhibit halls adjacent to the National Gallery in the Veletrzni Palace, mysterious white boxes crowded the plaza outside the national theatre, and strange and unusual happenings were in the streets (not all of them affiliated with the PQ).
The main exhibits were, thankfully, not dominated by precious model boxes displayed next to costumed mannequins, although that certainly was the format of the USA National Exhibit at the last PQ in 2007. Instead, the predominant format of the exhibits – or at least what was most notable to me – was the “spectator-as-performer.” Many of the exhibits not only invited audience interaction but required it. The Portuguese pavilion, for example, required its audience to troop up and down a maze of steps in what became a performance of Escher’s ascending and descending stairs (and, if you paused at the top, you could listen to a site-specific performance dialogue by two English-speaking actors in the exhibit café). The Iceland pavilion, all in white, enticed the spectator into a small house where a tall woman occasionally recited poetry – poetry that resonated with the pavilion’s landscape of objects. Troop upstairs to the Brazil pavilion and – if you’re lucky – you can be the audience in a “theatre for one” puppet performance about longing and regret.
In aggregate, I found the student pavilions to be more daring (read “interesting”) than the official displays. My children spent a lot of time with the Danish students, who had constructed a James Turrell-like egg-shaped chamber that takes the participant (not spectator, not audience, but “particpant”) on a sensory journey. The ripped paper, forced perspective display by Korean students implied a level of action on their part that was missing from other displays (including that of the US students).
The installation of 32 white boxes outside the National Theatre was the most interesting to me. At the intersection of museum display, performance art, and theatre, these individual artist exhibits were where the audience-as-participant aesthetic was most obvious – and the most engaging. There was the mystery of not knowing from the outside what would go on on the inside, the wonderment as the event on the inside unfolded, the appreciation of having been part of something unusual and unique.
Some of the people who read this blog and whose blogs I read are concerned about developing not only the next generation of theatre artists, but the next generation of theatre audience. Consider, then, what my adolescent children said when I asked them, after spending two days seeing PQ exhibits, what they liked the best: “The boxes.” Why? “Because we actually were part of it; we weren’t just watching.” Out of the mouths of babes…