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Team USA goes for gold in Prague Quadrennial

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" set
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Eric Stone
Included in the exhibit is this production photo of UI theater professor R. Eric Stone's scenic design for the Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2005 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by UI theater professor Kathleen Conlin.

Released 5/3/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —  The next Olympic games won’t take place until 2008, but a team at the University of Illinois has been going the distance to ensure that the U.S. is well represented in another major international event and competition held every four years.

Under the direction of Thomas V. Korder, technical director at the U. of I.’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, several students and faculty and staff members from the center and the department of theater’s Division of Design, Technology and Management have been working long hours for the past year and a half coordinating, designing and building the USA exhibits that will be entered in the 2007 Prague Quadrennial, June 14-24.

Korder described the event as “the only exhibition of its kind and magnitude in the world that showcases the best examples of current practices in performing arts production design, technology and theater architecture.”
“It is widely viewed as ‘the Olympics of performing arts design,’ ” he said.

And while Olympic competitors have their sights set on one goal – bringing home the gold – Korder and crew are similarly focused on a shiny, gilded object. The U.S. team is hoping to win the coveted “Golden Triga,” a horsedrawn sleigh-shaped award, and the Quadrennial’s highest honor.

Exhibitors’ entries are presented in three distinct categories: the national section highlights the work of professional theater companies from throughout each country, the architecture and technology section focuses on innovations in architectural design, and “Scenofest” features the best work created by students.

This year, the multifaceted event, which has been held in the Czech capital every four years since 1967, will feature work created by theater professionals and students in 60 nations, including first-time exhibitors Belorussia, Bosnia, Cameroon, Georgia, Herzegovina, Ireland, Malaysia and Singapore. In addition to displays by participating nations, the event provides a networking opportunity for theater professionals from every continent, and includes lectures, panel discussions, installations and performances.

While much of the activity is focused on the exhibits displayed in Prague’s Industrial Palace, a historic exhibition hall built in 1891, Korder said performing arts activities are planned at venues throughout the city during the 10-day event.

The USA exhibit is sponsored by the United States Institute of Theater Technology, a non-profit membership association of design, production and technology professionals in the performing arts and entertainment industry.

In his role as vice commissioner and exhibits project manager for the U.S. entries, Korder has been responsible for coordinating and facilitating the entire project. That has included carrying out the wishes of a curatorial committee, comprising representatives of performing-arts professionals from throughout the United States. Korder participated in the committee discussions, but said the curators were largely responsible for selecting which productions would be represented in the USA exhibits.

Tom Korder
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Thomas V. Korder, technical director at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, is vice commissioner and exhibits project manager for the U.S. entries in the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.

“I’m the person to make sure the physical exhibits were realized and put together,” he said.

“It’s the same with my job here, or what we did with ‘End of Cinematics,’ he said, referring to Mikel Rouse’s multimedia production that premiered at Krannert Center, then traveled to other venues and is among the productions featured in the USA national exhibition. “The set designers have their dream. … They tell me what their dream is, and I try to figure out how to make it happen. In a good relationship you have input and they welcome your input.”

At the beginning of the process, he said, “I get sketches, and a lot of what I do is cost estimating, engineering … figuring out how it’s going to be built, how I can support spans, that kind of thing. Then I do construction drafting and manage the construction process.”

The latter, Korder said, includes a great deal of coordination – for example, making sure people charged with designing the lighting and painting sets do their part to meet the production deadline.

In the case of the Quadrennial exhibits, there have been more than a few extra coordination challenges. For starters, more than 140 entries – which included production photos, video displays, renderings, scenic models, costumes, puppets, designer statements and bios – were contributed by professional theater designers from dozens of producing organizations nationwide. Designers represented include Ming Cho Lee, John Conklin, Carrie Robins, Julie Taymor and Nic Ularu; producers range from the Metropolitan Opera and Juilliard School to the Builders Association, Steppenwolf Theater Company and the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

 Besides the sheer volume of materials needing to be presented, all three USA entries had to be built in off-campus rental space over several months, torn down, packed up, and loaded into a shipping container. Then it needs to be unpacked and rebuilt in Prague in four days.

 “It’s really very much like touring a show,” said Korder, who will travel to Prague with the rest of the production team in June to reassemble the exhibits and staff them during the event.

 And like good scouts, they have to be prepared for anything on the other end.

“For instance, when we took ‘Cinematics’ to California, we knew there would be stores there, but you don’t have time to go out to the hardware store necessarily, so you plan to take anything you will need with you. You take a full set of tools. And anything you use in the exhibit, you make sure you have extras … light bulbs, plugs, bolts, paint. You have to think, ‘If that breaks or gets torn, or whatever, do I have a way to fix it?’”

Exhibit w/puppet
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
One of the focal points of the USA national exhibit at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial is the kinetic, 4-foot model puppet, "Paper Ghost," designed by Michael Curry for Cirque du Soleis' production of "love." The two puppets used on stage are 27 feet tall.

If anything does go wrong, most of Korder’s supporting cast – which included U. of I. theater professors R. Eric Stone and F. Randy deCelle – will be there to pitch in.

Stone is the associate designer for the national exhibition, and also assisted with the architecture and student exhibits. His many contributions to the project included “taking the co-designers’ ideas and making them a reality in terms of drafting and models, serving as the liaison between the exhibition designers, the curators and sometimes directly with the designers whose work is being displayed.” He also served as on-site curator, examining all the original artwork as it was received, and making repairs, when needed. He also designed most of the graphics for the exhibit.

As the digital media and technology coordinator for the project, deCelle – who is chair of scenic technology in the theater department – said he was responsible for determining the best, most efficient methodologies used in the multimedia presentations in the national and student exhibits.

“The types of systems involved are video and audio playback, and interactive kiosks used to present the wealth of information cataloged for the exhibit,” deCelle said. “The design and editing of the video, audio and software was done by one of our students, Jason Lindahl.”

“We have a whole separate digital portion of the exhibit,” Korder said, “because America is so big … there are so many designers, so many shows that could be in it. One of the ways we’ve expanded the number of people included is by having computer stations so people can come up, sit down and look through this bigger catalog of work.”

Other U. of I. students who contributed to the overall project and will be traveling to Prague are Daniel Jacobs, Reuben Lucas, Cathi Romero-Molay, Tiffany Scribner, Matthew Stratton, Jennifer Zimmerman, Nicole Bromley and Christopher Woller. Their travel is being supported by USITT, Krannert Center and Bernhard Works, the center’s original technical director.

Additional assistance with the project was provided by Verda Beth Martell, professor of theater and Krannert Center’s assistant technical director; and U. of I. undergraduates Allyson Schroeder, Justin Parks and Scott Wolfson.

After the USA exhibit is displayed in Prague, Korder said plans call for displaying it at a couple of theater conferences in the United States as well as at the Mesa Arts Center, in Arizona. Work exhibited in the Quadrennial also will be documented for the first time this year in a catalog and DVD.