World Scenography Book Reviews

Eric Fielding and Peter McKinnon will receive USITT's 2014 Golden Pen Award for their book World Scenography 1975-1990, the impressive pilot in a planned series documenting world stage design since 1975. They have been invited to sign copies of the book as part of the 2014 Annual Conference where the book will also be sold in the USITT Marketplace.

The two design professors teamed up on the ambitious project to continue the work of the late René Hainaux of Belgium, whose four-volume series World Stage Design Throughout the World documented theatrical design from 1935 to 1975.

Mr. Fielding, professor emeritus and resident set designer at Brigham Young University in Utah, and Mr. McKinnon, theatre professor and lighting designer at York University in Toronto, both treasured Hainaux's books and worried that contemporary stage designs would be lost.

"Once the curtain comes down on the final night of a performance, most of the scenery ends up in a landfill," Mr. McKinnon told YorkU magazine. At a scenography forum at PQ 2007, he heard Mr. Fielding remark that someone should preserve a record of influential world stage design work picking up where Hainaux left off in 1975. Mr. McKinnon offered to help him do just that.

World ScenographyThe resulting volume, published by OISTAT last year, is 432 pages filled with 1,300 photos of 430 stage and lighting designs from 60 countries. It took a team of researchers and five associate editors around the world four years to assemble the collection of ground-breaking work in theatre, dance, opera, and "spectacle" from 23 to 38 years ago.

The featured designs are too many to list but include Maria Björnson's 1988 work on Phantom of the Opera (France/UK), the designs of Brian Thomson (Australia) and Sue Blane (UK) for the original Rocky Horror Show (1974), German designer Achim Freyer's 1982 The Magic Flute designs, Ming Cho Lee's K2 set (1982), and Brazilian puppet designer Alvaro Apocalypse's work for Group Giramundo's Chalk (1979).

The Golden Pen winner was chosen by a Publications subcommittee led by Mike Monsos. The five panelists were wowed by World Scenography. "This book is an astonishing example of research and presentation of work… that fills a gaping hole in the documentation of live performance," one wrote.

The editors plan two more volumes: World Scenography 1990-2005 is in the works and is to be followed by World Scenography 2005-2015. After that, OISTAT hopes to produce a new volume every 10 years.

Besides this important work, Eric Fielding and Peter McKinnon boast impressive credentials. Mr. Fielding -- a 30-year member of USITT, OISTAT, and United Scenic Artists -- has designed for the Utah Opera, Denver Center Theatre Company, and the Hill Cumorah Pageant. He won a 1991 PQ Gold Medal for his design of the exhibition Mozart in America and was creator and director of the first World Stage Design exhibit in Toronto in 2005. Mr. McKinnon's lighting design work includes the ballets of William Forsyth, John Butler, and Brian MacDonald; modern dance by Paul Taylor, Judy Jarvis, and James Kudelka; and many opera productions. He is founder/director of two production companies and recently served as production manager of Evil Dead: The Musical in Toronto. He currently sits on the executive board of OISTAT and several theatre companies.

The editors will receive the 2014 Golden Pen Award at the 54th Annual Conference & Stage Expo March 26 to29 in Fort Worth, Texas. This will include a book-signing event.

The Golden Pen Award recognizes outstanding books on performing arts design and production. Previous winners include Richard Pilbrow's A Theatre Project (2013), Deborah Nadoolman Landis' Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design (2009), and Max Keller's Light Fantastic (2001).

"Congratulations on this astonishing volume. It completely knocked me out. I am so proud to be a tiny part of it. I'm ordering a couple more copies as I hadn't completely finished devouring the book before wrapping it up as a birthday gift for my oldest chum."
--Tony Walton, Tony, Oscar & Emmy Award-winning designer

"I spent several hours this past weekend indulging in one of the most beautiful, interesting, and fulfilling books in scenography---ever! Rene Hainaux would be very proud of this successor to his own extraordinary volumes. A mighty and extraordinary contribution to the literature of world theatre design."
-- Dr. Joel E. Rubin, co-founder of OISTAT & USITT

"Rupert Recommends: World Scenography 1975-1990...A sumptuously illustrated coffee-table volume, chronicling fifteen years of stage design. Spellbinding images for all theatre fans."
-- Stage Directions Magazine

"It’s easy to revel in the wealth of material provided by World Scenography 1975-1990 − a lavishly illustrated collection of 430 significant theatrical set, costume and lighting designs from those years, from 61 countries around the globe. The 1300 photographs represent work that editors Peter McKinnon and Eric Fielding feel ‘made a difference: designs that mattered, designs of influence.’"
--Rupert Christiansen, Daily Telegraph, London.

"This book satisfies the cravings of beginning designers who seek for “springs” for their design concepts as it offers them options from the rich collection of products of professional designers who had handled similar productions in the past. The book helps the audience members to reconnect with previous productions they had watched as well as further establish how scenery, lighting and costumes heighten creative stage engagement by supporting and enriching the interaction between the actor and his dramatic character and ultimately, between the actor and his audience.

I strongly recommend it to theatre scholars, patrons, students, fashion designers, art collectors, historians, architects, entertainment entrepreneurs and all those interested in understanding the world of the now gainful and highly sought-after theatre production designers."
--Emmanuel Dandaura, Leadership, Abuja, Nigeria

"The publication of World Scenography 1975 - 1990, edited by Peter McKinnon and Eric Fielding is a sumptuous publication, showing an international cross-section of stage designs and some costume work as well. It has been four years in the preparation and has hundreds of full colour illustrations from over 70 different countries. It would be a must, not only for students or theatre designers but the depth and spread of the work is itself an education and an entertainment. There were six contributing researchers from Ireland, Lian Bell, Louisa Carroll, Jane Daly, Mairead Delaney, Aoife McGrane and Joe Vanek (he has designed for the Theatre Royal and is currently designing Orfeo for Opera Theatre, to be directed by Ben Barnes). Despite this level of involvement, only one Irish based show is included--Una Pooka, by Michael Harding, designed by Monica Frawley (who has designed for Red Kettle).

If I had received this book as a Christmas gift, I would have been like a child in a toy or sweet shop. as it is, I don't know which page to settle on or whether to go from page to page or open it at random and just drink in the fabulous opera designs and the more austere play designs, showing such a variety of imagination and technique.

Looking at Maria Bjonson's design for The Phantom Of The Opera is to marvel and in a strange way to hear the music in the inner ear. Another buzz is to look at the original designs of shows that have come to the Opera Festival, over the years and to see what the originals achieved. You might think, that stage design is a modular, restrictive process, but it involves the use of light, shade, colour and perspective. Perspective is so important to creative visual illusions and allusions. Some of our memories of shows are linked to aspects of set design, and while I would have a certain familiarity, with UK and Irish design, it is the Japanese, Chinese and South American designs that amaze in a different way.

At nearly 400 pages of photographs and images, this a heavy volume, and is obviously aimed at libraries and colleges, rather than a supporter or theatregoer. This book might be an expensive , acquired taste, but I must say it is a treasury of memorable images, that I will visit and revisit and marvel at, again and again. "
--Liam Murphy, The Munster Express, Waterford City, Ireland

"Take it from me, it’s not easy to make an encyclopedia. And trying to make an international encyclopedia is even tougher. If one knew the problems in advance − or believed the horror stories of their editorial predecessors − they would never, I am sure, begin such undertakings. But such is the arrogance of the human species that normally sane people do get involved in such mad undertakings for a variety of reasons, most of them, no doubt, noble. So given my concerns for their joint health, let me say right off: bravo to McKinnon and Fielding for getting it out and bravo for surviving the first series of organizational pitfalls. And bravo to OISTAT for supporting this expensive publication. Though it does not claim to be an encyclopedia as such it certainly has an encyclopedic feel to it. It is huge and though not comprehensively international (it has a clear anglophone bent and quite a euro-american feel to it) it nevertheless includes a lot of countries and some several hundred visual images.

And this is certainly a beautiful volume, one that designers and many other theatre people world-wide will want to own. I must also add that it is also quite under-priced at the moment so if this is a book for you, I urge you to buy it sooner rather than later. The published price right now also includes postage. A lot of postage.

On the other hand, Hainaux’ volumes reveal a clear eurocentric bias. In this comparison, the new series is superior in that it includes at least some Asian and African material. We are given basic information on what each is but all connections are missing. Reasons for inclusion are missing. Yes, the pictures are beautiful but they only tell part of the story and no one − neither editors nor researchers − seem willing to tell the rest, the real story of world theatre and world theatre design during the years under examination.

Writing in his model Stage Design Since 1960 volume, then editor Rene Hainaux − a Belgian designer, an academic and certainly a bibliophile − said that he hoped his series could be, “a bridge … between academic research and stage practice.” Each of his volumes were an important step closer toward becoming exactly that. Let me say again that McKinnon and Fielding and their team of research assistants and editors from around the world deserve the highest praise for resurrecting the Hainaux series and for publishing it so handsomely and so well in a time of tremendous economic pressure. Their efforts need to be supported by the theatre community at-large."
-- Don Rubin, Critical Stages, The IATC Webjournal

"The importance of the work cannot be denied; its challenges are daunting, almost Sisyphean.

One of the most attractive aspects of theatre is also the most melancholy: each time a production closes, a little bit of history vanishes. The editors make no secret of the task’s difficulty. “In an ideal world every design would be documented with multiple large images, some of the design creation (drawings, renderings, maquettes etc.) and some of the realised performance (production photographs).” As the editor of a publication devoted to such matters, I know how difficult it is to find adequate documentation of productions on stage right now; I can only imagine the challenge involved with shows that closed 35 years ago. Still, from the first entry - a series of production photos of Brian Thomson and Sue Blane’s design for the original Rocky Horror Show - to the last - a photo of a Croatian staging of A Month in the Country, with a set by Dinka Jeričević, the team has unearthed a treasure trove of visual materials that are sure to tantalise anyone with an interest in stage design. The book also serves as a kind of pantheon of notable design names. Among practitioners from the US and the UK, many of the era’s usual suspects are here. On the American side are Boris Aronson, Robin Wagner, Julie Taymor, Tharon Musser, William Ivey Long, Florence Klotz and Robert Wilson. Great and good names from the UK include John Napier, Bob Crowley, Eileen Diss, Jocelyn Herbert and Carl Toms. From the rest of the world, there are Achim Freyer, Jurgen Rose, and, of course, Josef Svoboda. Inevitably, there are many omissions. Why include Wagner and Musser, but not their frequent collaborator, the brilliant costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge? Is Ming Cho Lee best represented by the set for the flop musical Angel? (Happily, his astonishing design for the mountain-climbing drama K2 is also documented.) Others missing include the lighting designers Ken Billington and Richard Nelson and costume designer Carrie Robbins from the US and, from the UK, the lighting designers David Hersey and Chris Parry. The short texts that accompany each production are highly variable in quality.

At first, I was disappointed that many of the American entries relied almost entirely on quotes from Frank Rich, then the chief theatre critic of The New York Times; however, Rich’s prose is so vividly descriptive that I found myself grateful each time his name appeared.

Page after page offers the pure pleasure of seeing the work of brilliantly talented designers. Among my favourites are a close-up view of the remarkable horse’s heads, designed by John Napier and worn by some cast members of the original production of Equus; David Hockney’s artfully cartooned collages for a revival of Benjamin Britten’s The Rake’s Progress; Cameron Porteous’ stunning desert landscape for Oedipus Rex; Adrianne Lobel’s original design for Nixon in China, which draws on Communist Chinese iconography; and the eye-searing acid colour palette of Jurgen Rose’s vision of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

The book is also a fascinating compendium of daring, sometimes bizarre, staging concepts. An opera, Sinking of the Titanic, designed by Martin Rupprecht, turned the entire Deutsche Oper into that ill-fated vessel. Readers well-versed in today’s media servers will be startled by the text describing a Swiss production of Wozzeck, describing the work of projection designer Annelies Corrodi: “Drawing one of the main slides, which she does herself, takes about 30 to 35 hours. One production can demand from 80 to 120 slides, each measuring 18 x 18cm.”

I suppose it is to be expected that a book of designs is to be treasured more for its fascinating visuals than its words, but one certainly hopes that future volumes provide more incisive texts. Nevertheless, World Scenography 1975-1990 is a fascinating and thoroughly valuable record of design theory and practice during those years. It is impossible not to look forward to the next editions."
--David Barbour, Lighting and Sound International

"Preserving a record of the fantastic stage designs that are built each year and disappear is a Sisyphean task. I have always had a fondness for René Hainaux‘s Stage Design Throughout the World, 1935-1975, the volumes that inspired this collection, because they were the only places I could find pictures of so many designs together. They were my entry into the designer‘s imagination. They were the crucial reference points for beginning my journey to familiarize myself with the seminal designs and designers of the early twentieth century. This volume, the first of three, carries on where Hainaux‘s left off and attempts to document the works that continue to influence international design. It is enormous in scope, spanning fifteen years, with more than four hundred designs, dozens of countries represented, and works reflecting diverse design practices. To tackle these multiple challenges, the editors, Peter McKinnon, professor of design at York University in Toronto and a sixteen-year veteran of the OISTAT executive committee, and scenic designer Eric Fielding, a former editor of TD&T who organized OISTAT‘s first World Stage Design exhibition in Toronto in 2005, enlisted several associate editors and dozens of contributing researchers.

After reading this installment, I went back to the original books to remember what they were about. How successful were they in their ambitious task? What I found was that, like this volume, while they were imperfect beasts, their value was their versatility as resources that could be exploited for a number of purposes. McKinnon and Fielding sought to present designs that their editorial committee deemed “influential in the world of stage design and production, designs that made a difference.” A mix of renderings, sketches, and photographs of models are accompanied by short statements that identify the event, the designer, and the nationality of production, and a description of the images or of the designer‘s importance. Definition of what constitutes a design is broad and encompasses performance design, stage design, and scenography. Examples are drawn from drama, musicals, opera, dance, street performance, and other performance events, such as Samoan fire knife dance or Olympic opening ceremonies. The chapters are divided by year, and the page opening each section lists key international events that shaped the year. For 1983, for example, it cites the bombing of the United States embassy in Beirut that killed sixty-three and the first release of Microsoft Word. These flashbacks create the context of time and place to contemplate the designs. They allow what the editors term the “the comparative assessments of stage designs from a plurality of perspectives, rather than . . . definitive statements of either specific designs, periods of designs, or social contexts of designs.” This device gives readers the responsibility to make their own connection as they compare designs. For my own part, while I looked at the images, I had a frightening observation that there was an absence in the designs of explicit connections between the productions and the social and political events of that year. That is not to say there are not implicit connections between techniques or styles in a time period, but rather that I was left to my own thoughts.

Designs are laid out one after the other as a collage. Next to each array of images are brief statements that sometimes recount a biography of the designer, other times describe the images or the production, or occasionally explain the importance of the design and the production. The Appendix gives more detailed descriptions of the design team. The descriptive content works differently for each region. South American material tends to promote a designer‘s importance in the context of the country‘s theatre, while descriptions of Northern European performances tend to summarize a designer‘s career. I found the most interesting commentaries were those that described why the design was exemplary. For example, the commentary with Zhao Yingmian‘s design of Orphan of Zhao Family describe how its components offered something new to traditional takes on the repertoire. Some designs are given the space to show the development of a sketch to a production, as with Robert Wilson‘s The Civil Wars (1984) or Annelies Corrodi‘s Wozzeck (1983). An inquisitive reader could search through the pages and find multiple interpretations of important plays, operas, and musicals. A number of images that are difficult to find were reproduced in useful ways here, such as the designs for Sunday in the Park with George by Tony Straiges, Patricia Zippodt, and Ann Hould-Ward (1984).

While the volume did not include a contextualizing essay suggesting trends, the placement of images allows readers to make their own connections between the productions and designs. It reminded me of the first time that I attended the Prague Quadrennial, when I ran from room to room at the industrial palace, giddy with excitement from seeing all these designs in one place, comparing the look of designs from Egypt to those of China. In World Scenography, 1975-1990, I took the most pleasure from the copious full-color drawings, models, and production photos that made an attractive representation of strange visions from far corners of the world. There are designs that I know well, even though I never got to see the companies or the productions, and there are unfamiliar designs from New Zealand and Tahiti showing tactics that are radically different from conventional Italianate traditions. The editors resist making explicit connections between the countries or periods and enable each of us to look at the material from our own perspective, whether as a designer, a historian, or an interested audience member who once saw these events in person. I have already started to use it to dig for designers working in a particular manner. It is a reservoir that can be used in a dozen ways.

As they continue on, I hope Fielding and McKinnon might be able to incorporate contextualizing introductory material that would draw more explicit connections between the events of each year and the designs. I hope they explain where the chosen designers fit in within the context of work from the countries they represent. And I hope they find a means to insure the content and tone of the explanatory statements are unified editorially. However, if one never tries to tackle the problem of preserving representative examples, huge gaps open and material is lost to the ages. This book may be just a sampling of the smorgasbord of world designs, but it plugs a hole that has been growing for years. Valiantly it carries on a tradition that can inspire others to provide more focused studies or to make nuanced arguments. The book exposes a range of international practices and endows them with a historical significance and weight.

Commemorating and preserving design is part of creating a legacy. It provides the means for a broad audience to understand the innovative work that goes on across the world. How else will future generations start to ask the important questions about what it means to make a design in a particular time and place?"

--Stephen Di Benedetto, TD&T