Carnegie Mellon University
June 09, 2015

An Earful in Prague

Nicholas Erikson

The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space is the veritable Olympics of theater. You might say the SXSW for scenographers, costumers and technicians, who create spectacle, onstage or off.

At this year's festival in June, 27 students from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama and eight School of Drama faculty will participate.

"The Prague Quadrennial is the pre-eminent scenographic exhibition in the world, and one of the theater design community's most important international competitions and events," said Susan Tsu, the Bessie F. Anthan Professor of Costume Design at CMU. "The PQ celebrates innovations in theater design by exhibiting thousands of creations from as many as 70 countries around the world … and has been a major factor in shaping the direction of international theater for the past 30 years."

One of the events at PQ is Sound Kitchen, a curated selection of performances by nearly 50 international sound artists. The event is billed as "a place of presentations and exchange in the field of sound design for performance."

Just four sound artists were chosen to represent the United States at Sound Kitchen, three of whom are affiliated with CMU's School of Drama.

"It's pretty remarkable that three of the four U.S. sound artists that were selected are connected to Carnegie Mellon," said Joseph Pino, associate professor of Sound Design and one of the three representatives chosen to perform. "It means that roughly 10 percent of the Sound Kitchen — 10 percent of the sound work being showcased from sound designers around the globe — will be from Carnegie Mellon artists."

Pino's project "Room Temperature" evaluates the eternal subject of time. He's taken a high/low approach to creating the design by using gear he built that feeds and processes into Kyma, an extremely high-end audio design environment.

"It's a sound piece about the perception of time, particularly the phenomenon of elastic time — for instance, when you're excited time flies, when you're bored time crawls — and about how sound affects memory," Pino said.

Alumnus Erik T. Lawson (A'12) will also present at Sound Kitchen. "The Mercury Survey" uses climate change data and harp phrases and textures to illustrate the effects of climate change such as destabilized marine environments and deteriorating polar ice. Additionally, his work for the production "Victor Frange Presents Gas!" will represent the United States in the exhibit "SharedSpace: Music Weather Politics."

"The Prague Quadrennial is a wonderful opportunity for theater artists to explore contemporary theater and performance design from around the globe," said Lawson, who attended the previous PQ. "I am most interested in experiencing the diverse and imaginative storytelling, as well as the camaraderie among fellow artists and designers. The 2011 Prague Quadrennial was absolutely inspirational; I'm looking forward to exploring the creativity again this summer."

Nicholas Erikson, an incoming graduate student at the School of Drama, was taken off guard when his proposal to perform a semi-improvised sound design created out of field recordings from PQ was accepted for Sound Kitchen.

"If you'd asked me anytime before this past December, I never thought I'd be participating," Erikson said. "I thought my odds of getting selected were slim. The whole thing is still a little surreal to me, but I'm thrilled to go perform sound art on an international stage. Who wouldn't be?"

This is Erikson's first time at Prague Quadrennial, and he won't be alone. Many of the students traveling from Carnegie Mellon to the Czech Republic will be newcomers to the festival experience.

The Road to Prague
To help make the experience happen, School of Drama students used Carnegie Mellon's new propriety fundraising site CMU Crowdfunding to raise money for the trip.

The participating students sought to raise $10,000 to help cover travel expenses, including airfare and accommodations. They created a video describing the significance of the festival and worked to get the word out via personal and social media channels. The campaign raised $17,854.

"Seeing the best work being done around the world and meeting their international peers is life-altering for the students," Pino said of PQ. "In a few days they are exposed to more ideas and exceptional art than we could ever hope for them to absorb in a class or three we offer here. That's why we've made it such a huge priority to help make it accessible to as many students as we can."

Ultimately the Prague Quadrennial will be an eye-opening experience for students and faculty who will learn about new applications of their talents as well as witness innovative collaborations in the world of theater art.

"I'm fascinated with how theater makers discuss design, and I want to see firsthand where we are in that conversation," Erikson said. "The opportunity to be immersed in new ideas is really exciting."  

Additional PQ performances by School of Drama students and alumni include:

  • "The Lady in Red," with scenic design by Bryce Cutler (A'13);
  • Daniel T. Mathews (A'15), DeLisle Merrill (A'15), Hannah Prochaska (A'16) and Jamie Gross (A'15) will showcase costume designs in the festival Maker space;
  • Joe Hill (A'17), Michael James (A'17) and Molly Griggs (A'16) will perform a piece called "Surrounded"; and
  • Zoe Clayton (A'17), Olivia Hern (A'18) and Dani Kling-Joseph (A'18) will perform a piece called "Enfantine."