Six weeks ago, I was standing in the Lapidarium of the National Museum of the Czech Republic. Seven weeks ago, I didn’t know what a Lapidarium was. I mean, Wikipedia told me it was “a place where stone (Latin: lapis) monuments and fragments of archaeological interest are exhibited” but, while factually accurate, this wasn’t too useful.
Humanity has been carving memories into solid objects for as long as we’ve been homo habilis (“handymen.”) We choose the most durable object that our handy tools can alter because we crave eternity. We want our creations to outlast our bodies, and so we started creating our memorials out of stone – marble, jade, terracotta… In English, when we say, “It’s written in stone,” we mean that it’s locked forever.
But this practice doesn’t reckon with the power of wind, water, and humanity. Set something in stone, and put it outside? It’ll look great for your lifetime, and maybe a few more. But eventually, it wears down, just like a body. The slow sandblast of dust, the relentlessness of the rains, or the sudden hammers of a newly politicized people are going to wear fingers, noses, features, and words smooth. First, details disappear, then any sense of sculpture itself. (If you really want something to last forever, write a play about it, right Sophocles?)
Well, in 19th Century Prague, a city known for the stunning variety of its outdoor art, Count Kolovrat-Libštejnský and František Palacký decided to do something about this memory leak. They created a building on the Prague exhibition grounds designed to hold the fading stones of their city, and eventually, a vast number of statues, sculptures and tiny stone objects were relocated into the newly christened Lapidarium, where they could be shielded from the effects of nature and time.
And this is where I found myself staring, jet-lagged and wide-eyed, at eight rooms representing ten centuries of Bohemian life.
I wasn’t there as a tourist. Five colleagues and I (four lighting designers and a projections designer) have been commissioned to bring these statues, these memories, to life. Not in a cheesy, wax-museum animatronics way, but in a deeper way. We must delve into these objects, into the visions of their makers, and into the idea of the museum itself. Understand and illuminate the motion inside the stillness. Animate the visions behind the stones, both as we imagine existed at the time of their creation, and as we see them now in their suspended decay. Further elevate the artistry of this museum, and to create a time-based experience of it – to add another dimension to this venue. We’re there partially because not enough people come to visit, and we want to change that. Without physically touching these great works of art (that have, indeed, been brought here to protect them from being touched), we are going to reinterpret and reinvigorate this Lapidarium.
But we’ve also been hired to prove a point.
Sound and light are unique media. Light gives us new access to so much of what we take for granted right in front of us – it can accentuate a single aspect of a creation, or tell an entire story. Light can create motion within stillness, change the perspective of the viewer, reveal or hide some aspect of the work, and paint a wide variety of emotional lives into a single object. And sound? By simply vibrating the air, it summons other places, times, environments and emotions into being. A single room can become a waterfall, then the inner world of a character, then a mythic plane, then a nightclub, then a nightmare – all with the simple action of a designer’s sounds that are moving the air in time. Together, lighting and sound are far more than tools used to simply reveal and inform – these intangible media transform, create, condense and expand time, change the density of each moment, and even dictate the heart rate of the viewer.
It’s a funny thing, the art of theater. It is fundamentally an untouchable creation – each performance is a singular event, unfolding in real time only once. It cannot be re-examined from another angle, watched at the viewer’s pace or moved to a new location. Even a long-running play is a new work of art every single performance. Because theater is so ephemeral, the rest of the art world often has a hard time celebrating, memorializing and even selling it. The rest of the arts (what one might call the static arts) are focused on artifacts. Paint is applied to surfaces. Words are put to paper. Images are burned forever on film. Sculptures stand on bridges for centuries before they begin to show signs of wear. Even music, which was once exclusively a live medium, is now most often consumed as a recording. Live performance, on the other hand, cannot be repeated within its own medium – it can be captured on film, but, then, instantly, it has become a fixed object, rather than a performance.
One odd result of this is that the fixed aspects of theater, which are more directly connected to the rest of the arts, are sometimes treated as more primary within the theater world. Not because they are more deeply representative of performance as an artform, but, ironically, because they are the representative of other artforms within theater. And unfortunately, in some communities, that focus on the value of the touchable arts has lead to an hierarchical approach to design. The set and costume designers (or scenographers, in an Eastern European parlance) are the visionaries who work with the director, and the lighting and sound designers are hired in service to that vision, if they’re hired at all. And, mind you, this approach is not unique to cultures with scenography – I’ve encountered my fair share of set designers who are startled by my assumption that I am their equal collaborator in the room here in the States.
And I do offer a value judgment when I say “unfortunately” – I understand that my perceptions are biased. I am a sound designer after all. I truly believe that one of the most immense values of performance is that it is created not by singular visionaries but by teams of expert artists. Writers, actors, directors, designers, choreographers, musicians – all working together to make something that connects more truly to the world at large. And every artist who comes to the table brings their own life experience. Those experiences shape what we make as artists. And increasing the number of artists increases the number of paths to connection between the artwork and the audience.
Also – performance = time + events in space. The static arts combined with the ephemeral arts create something that is utterly unique. Why prioritize one aspect of that equation over another?
These stones are unmoving in this moment. They are static works – works of art understood by the art world, by the cultural world. At the Lapidarium, they live in a non-performative space. Their stories are muted, and cannot change dynamically from moment to moment.
We have been hired to add dimensions to these works. To add the aspect of time, and to add new and multiple perspectives – we are six new artists collaborating with the original sculptors, as well as the curators of the museum. We have been hired to convey and reinterpret the stories these stones were created to tell, and to share new stories they inspire. We will do all of this without altering the physical structure, without touching these precious objects. We will do it purely in the air, and for a deeply limited span of time. We will convey both the weight and the lightness of these objects, and, hopefully, shed a new light on both the space we’re in, and the roles we are playing.
We don’t know yet exactly what we’ll be creating – like any other theatre collaboration between equal artists, we are meeting on common ground to create together. We have ideas we’ve discussed, we’ve spent days talking in person in Prague and online since. We have a notion of the way the work will flow, amongst all of the rooms, and in each individual space. We’ve done the technical work – we’ve put the tools in place to begin working (thanks, in massive part, to sponsorship by d&b Audiotechnik and Robe Lighting.) But, until we’re working together in our highly temporal media, we won’t know for sure what the actual work will look like. We don’t know what we are going to make together in November, just how, where, and why. And that? That is the beginning of something great.