Freedom from “make-it-better”: what does the job of a stage designer give to an architect

19 November 2018
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On Sunday the Magic Flute for children premiered at Moscow theatre Helikon Opera. And on Monday, November 12, adults had an opportunity to enjoy the music of Mozart and staging by director Ilya Ilyin. This version of Magic Flute will be of particular interest for wide architectural public as well, as Chief Architect of Moscow Sergey Kuznetsov showed himself as its artistic director. His co-author, architect Agnia Sterligova in her column for RIA Nedvizhimost (Real Estate) talks about transit of responsibility from design engineer to art director and tells how the theatre, showing world of perfection saves the creativity from “adaptizing” of reality.

Context placed into context

Three years ago I opened my company – Planet 9. The manifesto of my bureau rests upon principle of work with projects having meaningful part, with projects in the field culture. This is my conscious choice, nominal “filter”, through which all proposals must pass.

I like story about narrow professional specificity: as it turned out, there are no restrictions in this niche, transit from temporary expositions to museum spaces, cultural centres, scenography, and programming of whole territories appeared to be surprisingly seamless. Participation in such projects which are not obvious for the architect is a great opportunity to see customary working practice from very different sides. Such exercises, as well as travelling, books reading, meeting interesting people, are basic material from which during the process of inner work new concepts and ideas emerge.

On a bigger scale every time I can create all-sufficient piece of art. All laws of the universe, such as budget, terms, physics, etc., are surely present, but the mechanism, principle of work in this area, differs from building design.

If we add to this formula an opportunity of continuous communication with the leading curators, artists, directors, then we get a fascinating adventure.

Approaching the “perfect world”

My first serious experience of work in the theatre happened in 2017, it was work on stage design of the play The Path of Light. 1917 at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre.

I remember that I realized all incredible opportunities offered by work of set designer only at the moment when the first run-throughs started. You are not just creating a set for action. An action itself, position of the actors and their interaction with the erected scenery becomes fixed in the image of the completed play. Approaching the “perfect world” is maximum, with all seemingly spontaneity of the theatre you obtain the most “programmed” of all your works.

Still there is one major remark: the main person in the theatre is the director, and one has to get used to this. You work in team, together, but he is the one who takes final decisions. It was kind of surprise that for me, the person who got used to be the main person on the construction site and take all decisions, such transit of responsibility passed smoothly.

One of my favorite works is designing the scene for the play Glory in April 2018. Mikhail Rakhlin, young theatre director, chose the play in verse by Viktor Gusev within the theme “After Revolution”. Minimum budget, limited time, complicated story – yet all these resulted, to my opinion, into really great production. As a major scenery we carved huge letters GLORY out of Styrofoam, found some white linoleum in the theatre and covered the scene with it, brought trucks from somewhere, cut out a carton girl with an oar and put it on the Styrofoam pedestal, lit the motto “Bright Future”, changed illumination and props in the scenes. It seems to me that it came out simply and beautifully.  

About co-authors with status

In collaboration with Chief Architect of Moscow Sergey Kuznetsov we were the artistic directors of the opera the Magic Flute, one of the most popular operas in the world, which surely added excitement to the work of the creative team. It seems that during the year we have discussed about three variants. It was an ongoing exchange of references, images, sketches and links to our favorite productions.

With Sergey we have already had experience of working together, having common ground and ability to keep creative dialogue. I can say that for me it’s also an opportunity to learn from the professional with whom I share a lot of views. Working together on the stage design is really exciting.

The director of the play – Ilya Ilyin – started preparation long before we joined the project and from the very beginning he highlighted the importance of the separation of two worlds – of women and men. The progressing conflict and further reconciliation takes place on the background of the scenery of amusement park – mirage. The chosen theme provides wide margin for maneuver between the imaginary world and the real one. The stage settings size is so huge, that when they were assembled in the scene it seemed to me that if we added some efforts this amusement park could have accepted visitors. This miracle of the theatre cannot be compared with anything else!

Architecture as an online-theatre

Architecture and theatre are two systems of values, principles, guidance, story about the same thing told by different words. The plots from the surrounding environment are transferred on the theatre stage and vice versa innovative approaches in scenography strike roots in architectural practice.

While working over production you know that after play rehearsal no one will glue an advertisement on A4 paper to the scenery, the sign “shop” won’t be nailed, air conditioner outdoor unit won’t be installed, it is far more likely that the production will be safe from spontaneous occurrences of “make-it-better” and “adaptizing” by potential users due to absence of such users. It’s a kind of a privilege, an option of existence in perfect world which is a prototype of the real world.

The bad news is that it is temporary, only several hours of existence within the list of production of the theatre. Design of spaces for living often, that is, all the time, clashes with the reality of this life and, unfortunately, loses in this unequal battle.  In this regard theatricalism of architecture is tapped into not only breathtaking view perspectives and openings, but also in scenarios of its use, ability to estimate, take into account, and put behind variety of possible stories. Looks like such a long-running, almost endless theatre, in which while the carcass of the scenery remains unchanged, the endless change of plays is rooted in by default – an online-theatre.

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