Imagination. Transformation. Memory. These ideas fueled the exhibition design that’s taking four UH School of Theatre & Dance alumni and one current student to the world’s largest theatrical design competition this summer.
From June 6 – 16, performance designers, artists, directors and students from around the world will converge at the Prague Quadrennial (PQ). Held every four years, the event celebrates the history and advancements of design and technical theatre with exhibitions designed by interdisciplinary teams from across the globe. Each exhibit showcases theatrical design and the performing arts from the design team’s home country.
“It’s like the Olympics of theatrical design,” says Paige A. Willson, a UH alumna and associate professor at the UH School of Theatre & Dance. She serves as one of the exhibition space designers on the team she assembled that was selected to represent the United States at the 2019 PQ.
The winning design team, which is sponsored by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), includes four fellow UH Coogs — co-space designer Ellen Doyle Mizener, lighting and projection designer Clint Allen, draughtsperson Mark Krouskop and design team assistant Aaron Krohn — as well sound designer Erich Keil, Tulsa Opera’s resident designer and director of production, and sound design assistant Josh Brown, a graduate student at Columbia.
Inspired by sculpture and storytelling, the team responded to this year’s theme of “porous borders” with an evocative, dynamic exhibition that invites viewers to experience a sweeping history of the past four years of selected designers work from across the nation.
“It’s a very emotional space,” says Willson.
At the center of the exhibition stands a towering metal column made up of quotes from designers from our collective past. Willson says it was a way to weave the various perspectives, experiences and stories into the space, allowing viewers to engage with everyone’s stories in an unexpected way, as their words are, literally, illuminated.
As viewers explore the space, which is laid out as an altar comprised of five Vedic elements — air, water, earth, fire and aether—they are also awash in a song-like recording made entirely from voices speaking the words “imagination,” “transformation” and “memory” in different languages.
“It’s haunting — and gorgeous,” she says.
Ultimately, the team’s goal is to reflect the idea of art dissolving barriers, both tangible and intangible. “Natural elements like wind and water move indiscriminately, breaking down stone. Ideas don’t have borders, so we approached the underlying theme [of the exhibition] as art breaking down closed minds.”
The exhibition will span both figurative and literal borders. Before heading to the competition in the Czech Republic, the exhibition will head down from Buffalo, New York, where it was constructed by students and faculty at the University of Buffalo, to debut at the USITT’s national conference and stage expo in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s been so wonderful working with everyone involved,” says Willson, reflecting on the two-year process that brought this project to life. “Sometimes it feels like it’s not real, like it’s a dream, but seeing it come together has lifted any anxiety. It’s very exciting.”