Published January 18, 2019
Jonathan Shimon, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, has been selected as the technical director by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) for the U.S. entry in the 2019 Prague Quadrennial (PQ), the global showcase for the best in performance design, scenography and theater architecture.
Shimon (BFA ’07) is leading a team of faculty, staff and students who will fabricate, build and transport two cutting-edge multimedia exhibits. Joining Shimon will be Dyan Burlingame (BA’ 04), clinical assistant professor and director of the Design and Technology Program; Eric Burlingame (MS ’18, BA ’03), theatrical technician from the Department of Theatre and Dance; Rick Haug (MA ’16), scene shop supervisor from the Department of Theatre and Dance; and John Rickus, head carpenter from the UB Production Group.
Their journey begins with a display this month in the Center for the Arts as part of the Upstate New York Regional USITT Frank Willard Winter Session Meeting and Jobs Fair, and will include a world premier reception on Jan. 28, also in the Center for the Arts.
From there, the exhibits will be taken down, packed up and transported to Louisville, Kentucky, for the USITT National Conference from March 20-23. Then it’s on to the international stage in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, for the PQ from June 6-16.
The voyage over land and sea from Kentucky to the Czech Republic requires tractor-trailers, shipping containers — and time. Shimon and his team will have about two days to reassemble the exhibits once they arrive for the PQ.
Is that enough time?
“There are 24 hours in day,” he says, in a voice familiar with deadlines. “We’ll be fine.”
The demands on participants and the PQ’s four-year cycle evoke Olympic comparisons, but to fully appreciate the analogy is to see those working in scenography as the theater community’s decathletes. These versatile and multitalented artists create the environment in which actors perform. They are responsible for the sights and sounds of the stage, and the accompanying lighting, rigging and electronics that create mood and establish the on-stage world in which actors perform.
For Shimon, the honor of representing the U.S. is “emotionally overwhelming,” and for the students who are participating, the opportunity to be involved with the exhibit is a testament to their talents and the education that has prepared them for the experience of working together on a project representing the entire country in what The New York Times called “the most important meeting of theater people in the world.”
“Our undergraduates are doing work that has historically fallen to grad students,” says Shimon. “Since the first PQ began in 1967, all the other AAU institutions selected as U.S. representatives have had master’s programs in theatre design. At UB our undergrads are equal to the task.
“That speaks volumes to the education they’re getting here.”
Shimon’s student team includes:
The interactive exhibits Shimon and company will build and transport — an emerging professional and professional entry — are sculptural homes for the collective abilities and imaginations of the UB team.
A Chicago-based collaborative created the emerging exhibit’s aesthetic, and the UB side was tasked with bringing it together.
Imagination, however, doesn’t always translate to physical reality, and the Chicago contributors originally gave Shimon the challenge of building a sculpture with a pump and water circulation system, as well as a digitally controlled rain system that created patterns and words in the falling water. Imagine the iconic solo dance scene from “Singin’ in the Rain,” with Gene Kelly moving along the street in rhythm as the shower above him spells out words.
“No. It’s not. We made it work,” Shimon says. “But we couldn’t get a definitive answer from Prague granting permission for all the water to be in the Palace of Industry, the event’s venue.”
But there was no wasted energy from the effort, and the mockup Shimon and team created spawned a mechanical engineering capstone project for one of the students on his team, who will also present the design as part of an engineering entertainment symposium this summer.
Just as many disciplines contribute to scenography, many people have contributed to making the PQ invitation a reality.
“This wouldn’t be happening without the support of the Department of Theatre and Dance and the College of Arts and Sciences,” says Shimon. “Dean [Robin] Schulze has been incredibly excited about this project. We’ve also had a great deal of help from the Center for the Arts and the UB Production Group.
“This is a collective effort.”