Interview from A&B issue 10|2022
On unconventional theater spaces, forgotten archives, what it helps to make a mock-up, and whether set design has to be expensive.
Robert RUMAS - visual artist, curator, theater set designer. Graduated in 1991 from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk at the Faculty of Painting and the Multimedia Studio. Interested in the issue of society as an object of manipulation in the context of notions of economics, religion, nation or race. He is considered, along with Katarzyna Kozyra, Artur Żmijewski, Paweł Althamer and Zbigniew Libera, as one of the most important representatives of the critical art trend in Poland of the 1990s. He has presented his works in significant Polish galleries and participated in many important international exhibitions, including Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, Kunsthalle in Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg. His works are in contemporary art collections in Poland and abroad. He is the author of the arrangement and organization of contemporary art presentation spaces. He has collaborated with Polish and foreign curators, including Dorota Monkiewicz, Anda Rottenberg, Daniel Muzyczuk, Joanna Zielinska and Bojana Pejić. Since 2004, she has been organizing space and stage design in multimedia, theater and opera performances. He permanently cooperates with director Michał Zadara and director Marta Górnicka. He has produced stage designs and organization of theatrical spaces according to his projects, among others at the National Theater and National Opera in Warsaw, Powszechny Theater inWarsaw, the Old Theater in Krakow, the Polish Theater in Wroclaw, the Wybrzeze Theater in Gdansk, as well as the Maxim Gorki Theater and Komische Oper in Berlin and the Staatstheater Braunschweig. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Katarzyna Kobro Prize for lifetime achievement by the artists at the Museum of Art in Lodz. In 2020, he curated the exhibition "Changing Setting. Polish theatrical and social scenography of the 20th and 21st centuries" at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw.
Agata Schweiger: In the note about you published on the website of the Jerzy Grotowski Institute, we can read that you deal with stage design, but also with the arrangement of theater space. Does this mean that you make a distinction between these concepts? And if so, in what way?
Robert Rumas: In principle, they are identical. We can say, using the language of visual arts, that stage design is an installation that is directly subordinate to the drama and what is happening on stage. I use the term "arrangement of theatrical spaces" when, as a stage designer, I arrange the layout of the stage or audience. It is of great importance when the stage is used unconventionally. That's why I distinguish between these two specific names.
Agata: What do you mean by unconventional use of a theater stage?
Robert: It is such a use when I do not treat the box stage in a traditional way. I demolish the basic layout of the stage and audience. I let the viewer experience the stage space or interact with it directly.
"The Runners," directed by Michal Zadara, Powszechny Theater in Warsaw.
photo: Krzysztof Bielinski
Agata: As a visual artist, how do you perceive the role and function of stage design or space arrangement in theater productions?
Robert: I showed up in the theater quite by accident more than fifteen years ago. To make it funnier, my invitation to work in the theater stemmed precisely from the fact that I had not studied stage design, and I was a young rebellious, interdisciplinary artist who graduated from painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk. Many prominent theater artists studied or graduated in painting... So some people say that, to be a good set designer in Poland, you need to study painting....
As a student I was engrossed in avant-garde spatial solutions. I believed that contemporary art, although it is largely an individual experience, happens in social space. Unlike the process of creating a theatrical performance, the process of creating a work of art is more individual, in my case it was the result of personal experience and observation. My artistic realizations, installations and interventions of a critical nature happened in many cases in an open public space, which paradoxically has a lot in common with theater. As a stage designer, I am to some extent self-taught, and what I know how to do is the result of my own experience, which is based on the direct experience of an active visual artist.
Stage design or arrangement of stage space is part of a larger whole, part of a staging, an event, a performance. It is therefore not an autonomous art. The very creation of scenography is subject to processes that are specific to the theater stage, or, more broadly, the performance stage. Scenography primarily organizes space, so its primary role and function is to create a space shared by creators and spectators.
In designing scenography and arranging theater spaces, I use many different, often contradictory, styles. I think that a contemporary set designer should be able to consciously use various theatrical conventions. He should hint, but also listen to his colleagues, and the better he knows the history of art and theater, the easier it is for him not only to draw from, but also to experiment.
My thinking about space in art and theater stems from my interest in pre-war Constructivism in Poland, but also from what was happening at the beginning of the 20th century in Soviet Russia and Germany. Hence, in many cases, the thoughts and solutions of Zbigniew Pronaszko and the entire pre-war avant-garde are present in stage design. This period in history is the only time when theater and art had common goals and inspired each other.
However, the most important moment and the role of the stage designer himself in the creation of theatrical staging is the co-creation of the performance space before the production, before the essential design.
Agata: Could you explain the term "pre-production space"?
Robert: Practicing scenography is shaping space through participation. Shaping different spaces of consciousness. Theater practice makes me, unlike other branches of art, look for what is supposed to happen in the space of the stage and what organizes this stage. This is an experience shared by all artists who participate in the process. The creative process is the moment when there is an exchange of ideas, a community. The conversation between the director, set designer, producer, playwright and actors is already a kind of performance happening in the space of meaning before the production. The set designer is also responsible for noticing this space, discovering it, because it gives him the basis for later design. So I'm talking about the pre-production moment, where the staging process begins. It is then necessary to determine what kind of spaces we need in the play, what kind of composition the scenery is to have, what and if it is to create dominants, spatial and color tensions, and finally what all this is to mean for the whole staging.
So the first conversations define the space, which I later have to specify and design in detail. This process can be compared to stones thrown into water, at some point these wheels stop and we know what this space of ours is. A lot also depends on what the design process looks like, what model of work the director or director will assume. Many times we close together, sometimes also with the playwright, and having the text in front of us, we start talking. Sometimes the space is defined only during the first rehearsals, when the director hardly knows anything and I don't know anything. Over the course of the conversations and the actors' reading of the text that precedes them, this space becomes more and more defined. Sometimes it's also the case that the director doesn't know anything, except what text he has in front of his eyes. We have an inspiration, some more or less concrete image, association or sound, and this is that first stone.
"The Runners," directed by Michal Zadara, Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw.
photo: Krzysztof Bielinski
Agata: Which type of work suits you better? One in which you know everything from the beginning, or one in which everything happens during rehearsals?
Robert: There is no way that I prefer. I most like to do things that are somehow non-obvious and experimental for me. But there is something interesting in each type of performance work. It would seem that some ideas come out of the blue, but the truth is that they are just a consequence of properly asked questions. Then it turns out that even working on a box stage, with traditional stage assumptions, can bring discoveries. It is only necessary to skillfully use the technical specifics of the stage. However, it is the open, non-theatrical spaces, because of my previous experience with art, that have always inspired me a lot. I used to think that art going out into public space was important and causal. Now this has changed a bit, but if I had to choose, however, I would choose one more performance in a non-obvious adopted space.
Of course, there are many practices and models of directing work, and consequently of stage design. From working with a master who knows almost everything, to working in a close production team (director/director, playwright/dramaturg, set designer/scene designer), to the so-called workshop work, in which, in addition to the director's close circle of collaborators, the actors are also involved - in this case, the director does not know everything at the beginning, but ultimately he makes the decisions. Finally, the last model of working in democratic teams: decisions are shared, but they are preceded by a long creative process in accordance with the earlier idea of the team or the director himself. Each of these situations is about ideas and the search for a meeting space, the goal of which for me is the materialization of the scenographic space.
continued conversation on next page