SAN DIEGO — Why did Ladislav Vychodil, one of Czechoslovakia's "national treasures," come to the San Diego Repertory Theatre to design his first professional U.S. production?
It seemed an unlikely connection: the artistic director of the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava working with a young, medium-sized California theater company. But there was Vychodil, an internationally acclaimed opera and theater designer, in a sun-drenched Southern California cafe. The two-time gold medal winner of the biennial Arts Plastique international competition in Brazil was huddled over his designs for "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" with Rep artistic director Douglas Jacobs, who has adapted the Robert Louis Stevenson classic for the stage. (The world premiere is Oct. 15 at the Lyceum Stage in Horton Plaza.)
Here was the 66-year-old educator and set designer, one of only three people ever honored as a State Artist by his nation's government, conferring with a man of the theater half his age. Art, not ideology, was the subject.
So how, Professor Vychodil--he also heads the Slovak Academy of Music and Art in Bratislava--did you and the Rep get together? Simple, he said--through a friendship, one whose warmth apparently transcends politics and the fee Vychodil would be paid, which the Rep could hardly afford. (The cost of airline tickets from Frankfurt, West Germany, to California for Vychodil and his wife, Vera, was picked up by TWA at the Rep's request.)
The friendship began in 1972 in Czechoslovakia when Vychodil met Don Childs, who has been a university professor and a lighting and scene designer. Childs now lives in San Diego and has designed several plays for the Rep.
"He is my manager," Vychodil joked, glancing at Childs, who with his wife, Jane, sat at the table with Vychodil. Jane Childs is also a designer and served as interpreter during an interview in which the avuncular Czechoslovakian spoke of trends in the arts and theater, the artistic influences on his career and the differences between theater in his homeland and in this country.
Vychodil began designing amateur productions at age 20 as a way to use his college training in painting, sculpture, architecture and geometry. Fifty years later, Vychodil feels that he is now "at the edge" of theater.
"Young people are coming up with new ideas," he said. "It's a question I have to answer: Do I study the young people or stay at the level I'm at? If I stay, I'll be old and the new ones will come. But if I absorb these ideas, I'll become a student myself. All my collaborators are dead now or not working in theater."
Vychodil, however, finds inspiration in working with young talents. "I teach students my system, but I do not impose it on them. They must find what works for them," he said. It's an attitude that reflects his own apprenticeship to the late Frantisek Troster, the first Czechoslovakian State Artist.
"It was as if you have a mirror in front of your face," he said. "In the beginning, the face in the picture was Professor Troster. As you work, you have to move the picture in the mirror. I was only following the work of my professor. I saw I was not doing anything of mine, and I began to find a way for myself."
In the late 1930s and 1940s, he studied and made his own translations of books by English design theorist Gordon Craig and the Swiss set designer Adolphe Appia. Appia's ideas about lighting and Craig's concepts of design and direction were at the center of a revolution in theater design as painted "flats" began to be replaced with three-dimensional concepts.
Troster, Craig and Appia formed Vychodil's foundation as an apprentice.
"Modern scenography is inclined toward a discipline of space and architecture," as well as painting, Vychodil said. "Most well-known designers today are inclined toward spatial design. Ming Cho Lee uses some painting, but he arranges scenery in terms of space and movement patterns."
Of the differences between the U.S. and Czechoslovakian way of producing plays, Vychodil said he prefers the American concept of previews. "In the States, the actors have the show going on for a week or two before the (formal) opening," he said. "That interaction is very important." The Slovak National Theatre has no such previews.
Vychodil is proud of one program he runs that he does not find in this country. "It is hard to find workers who are artistic as well," such as carpenters and painters, he said. To help overcome that, he directs a three-year apprenticeship program in Bratislava to train future stage technicians.