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PQ > AN INTERVIEW WITH DORITA HANNAH, COMMISSIONER OF THE ARCHITECTURE SECTION

AN INTERVIEW WITH DORITA HANNAH, COMMISSIONER OF THE ARCHITECTURE SECTION

23. 5. 2011, 19:35

How important is the role of an architect in contemporary theatre?
There tends to be a tension between the professions of architecture and theatre, where each is wary of the other and their understanding of skills particular to each creative practice.  For example theatre-makers maintain that architects don’t always understand or serve the dynamics of performance and architects believe that performers are not interested in the role architecture can play. This tension can be extremely productive, so long as there is dialogue and conflict is accepted as a creative element, just as it is critical to dramatic action.

In his manifesto for an Impossible Theatre, Herbert Blau wrote “we must take the risk of letting the architect’s dreams infect our dreams so that something really new may indeed come to it,” and that new spaces, like any new art form, must turn on those who utilize them: “the question remains whether our theatre artists can break out at the challenge were it to materialize.”

Conventional belief is that architecture should and does disappear once the lights are lowered and a performance begins. Yet even in the dark there are dynamic spatial forces at play that contribute to the production and reception of performance. This reinforces architecture as not only an aesthetic practice but also the means to harness energies encourage communities and challenge preconceptions about performance space.

One of the principle issues that stops architects from playing a positive artistic role in contemporary performance is the relationship between building, finances and power. This often renders architects as handmaidens to institutionalized bureaucracy and the limitations imposed by regulations around construction, health and safety. Yet audiences and the performance professions have shown that they themselves do not wish to be spatially regulated and have left the theatre building in order to find ‘other’ sites. Architects now need to look at the qualities of these ‘found’ sites and how they can re-inform performance space. Money, power or issues of security, which limit rather than enhance communal celebration, should not dictate creative expression, and, at the very least, should be challenged.

How important is the space where the performance/dramatic action takes place?
Space is a performer that precedes action – as action. Its inherent materiality, geometry and sensorial qualities lie in wait for live occupation and play an active role in performance, supporting, enhancing, resisting, and even thwarting the dynamics of live communication. This acknowledgement of spatial qualities can be seen in the recent move away from the perceived neutrality of the shrouded stage and black box theatre into sites that possess strong character, harbor many histories and have their own language. As Antonin Artaud wrote: “The challenge is to make space speak”… our challenge is to listen and understand the dialogue that space sets up between built form and artistic action. Also as architect Daniel Libeskind has stated: “space is not one, but space is many”. This spatial multiplicity confronts the conventional perception of architecture as a static monolithic object, and opens it up to unpredictable forces. For me, architecture is “slow performance”: heating up and cooling down, flexing and decaying; affected by fluctuations in light, temperature and weather; accruing and shedding over time. Temporality is therefore key to recasting architecture as a performative entity. We need no longer regard architecture as fixed and timeless but can now approach it as an assemblage of manifold spaces of and in time.

Can the identical theatre piece have a different meaning in different physical environment?
Of course! Just as an identical theatre production has a different meaning with each new audience. The building is both witness and player, so each environment performs differently within the greater performance. The problem with the black box model is that it attempts to resist time and difference… however architecture has to also accommodate the imagination by allowing difference to play within, around and through it. Like an intelligent performer, architecture should be able to advance or recede in the action. However, we cannot ignore a specific site’s textures, smells and acoustics, or even its buried histories.

Does the non-traditional space ensure a new perspective to a historical drama?
It’s always important to ask of historical drama (or indeed of any theatre) “why make this here and now?” Live performance, which gathers a community together to tell stories and experience ideas in action, has to resonate with the hear-and-now, even if it is based in the there-and-then. The active nature of a non-traditional space can ensure we do not passively consume performance within the assumed neutrality of the darkened auditorium (and, of course, NO space is neutral). However, in the end it is about the affect and effectiveness of good design: traditional spaces can be more successful than non-traditional ones when architecture is collaborative and energizing. We should also be careful not to dismiss traditional space, which can also give a new perspective on contemporary drama. An example of this is the Schiffbauerdamm Theatre that houses Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. As a neo-baroque auditorium (built in 1892), it highlighted the radicality of the avant-garde work performed within it.

Do the new and alternative spaces help attract new kinds of public?
Nothing is ever as simple as “if you build it they will come”… because the creative work performed in new venues must also be compelling. However, in my opinion, the best performance-makers understand the value of good design: as scenography and as architecture. Another critical factor is accessibility. The new audiences are neither the middle class, nor the middle aged, but those for whom art should have an urgency and significance. I am interested in the permeability and openness of performance space so that those passing by, or passing through, can unexpectedly discover the work it houses. Artistic practices are now sealed in galleries, concert halls, museums and theatres, which give them a false value. Such environments also control the public, playing into expectations of how audiences should behave. Preconceptions of the public’s performance can exclude true, spontaneous reception and reaction. My question is “how can architecture facilitate an environment that not only challenges performance traditions but also those prescribed actions of spectators?” Of course, in order to answer this, architects have to understand performance and audience dynamics.

Do the new spaces bring new themes for playwrights, directors and performers?
In English the word “theatre” is both the dramatic art form and the built form that houses it. Both should be in dialogue… one without the other limits the experience. I do believe that new spaces bring about new performance-makers and that new performance genres influence new spaces.  My task for this PQ is to create a bridge between architects and performance-makers/designers, so they can momentarily meet and understand each other. The Prague Quadrennial provides the ground for such gathering.

Is there a need to build new theatre buildings? Isn't it enough to use old ones or to expand them?
This is a good question. Perhaps we have to look to the need to create real spaces that accommodate and balance the technological spaces we now inhabit on a global scale. Omar Khan talks about the need to touch and be in-touch. So are we in fact requiring theatre buildings or something else: something that, as Libeskind says, “has neither been colonized by either planning, architecture nor by the history of theatrical production”? I am particularly interested in spaces created for people to share food together. As Arnold Aronson pointed out to me over lunch a few years ago: the restaurant is the new theatre, the celebrity chefs the new star performers, and architects wish to create themed food environments rather than design theatre events. The renaissance banquet was the last time music, scenography, theatre, painting, dance and the culinary arts came together, before splitting up and becoming confined to the concert hall, playhouse, opera, art gallery and restaurant. However I am more interested in community kitchens and public dining spaces, than fancy restaurants. Cooking and eating together is such a visceral act, capable of breaking down barriers, as is the act of dancing together. This physical and participatory means of contact is so much more interesting than being expected to sit quietly in rows of numbered seats in an auditorium.

What will the Architecture Section brings to its participants and to visitors?
Essentially PQ is about an international gathering in real time and real space to share work and the passion we have for making and housing performance. Having to design the Architecture Section as a site for national exhibitions presented the opportunity to play out some of my ideas around the potential of performance space. That it is located at the literal crossroads of Prague in an ancient building restored and set up by Vaclav Havel as a global meeting space was a gift. Rather than create a space for the public to enter, passively view objects and images and then leave, I centered it around the idea of active encounter and dialogue. Situated at the heart of Now/Next: Performance Space at the Crossroads is an Open Spatial Laboratory where public presentations will be made and where 18 selected scholars, designers and performance-makers will workshop ideas with leading thinkers in this area. The table becomes a critical architectural element in the section, offered to each participating nation as a site for displaying the contemporary state of their performance spaces. As an ‘open’ place for meeting, debating and making, St Annes becomes a performance space of sorts: a zone for live action, contestation and creation. I encourage all interested in the potential of theatre architecture specifically and performance space generally to join us at St Annes at the Prague Crossroads.

What is - for you - the main message of the PQ?
By changing its name to the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space PQ is opening up theatre into the new century and celebrating the interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of staging live events: providing the ground for new alliances and even new strategies for creating performances and the places that host them. The main message is therefore “connect”!

Interview was conducted by Markéta Horešovská, editor ČTK