By Dennis C. Beck

 

More than any other theatre, the Archa [Ark] in Prague is responsible for shifting Czech theatre out of its communist-era practices and introducing innovation by opening borders in its homeland. Despite that historic role and its recent creation of only the third Czech production, Ordinary People, to be invited for the main program of the Avignon Festival (2019) in its seventy-year history, it still struggles for domestic acceptance. Shunning the insularity typical in Czechs’ traditional resident repertory model, Ondřej Hrab opened E. F. Burian’s reconstructed theatre in 1994 as an ark to carry all varieties of international, contemporary performance, disregarding barriers of genre. Robert Wilson’s production of Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights inaugurated the space, which has shown work by Min Tanaka, Forced Entertainment, DV8, Philip Glass, Diamanda Galas, Rimini Protokoll, Ultima Vez, the RSC, and many others. The unprecedented 2002 flood of the Vltava River destroyed many of Prague’s subterranean theatres, Archa among them. The period of reconstruction was also one of reflection, out of which Hrab and colleague-spouse Jana Svobodová expanded Archa’s programing beyond the introduction of foreign innovation to include the cultivation of young artists and audiences as well as the production of new work. Their school programs, documentary workshops, international summer school on theatre within social contexts, and Archa.lab residencies responsible for launching the careers of young performance artists have influenced the directions of twenty-first-century Czech theatre. Archa began developing its own work in the late 1990s, when Svobodová collaborated with South African artists. With the later formalization of a dramaturgical line of devised, documentary work, Svobodová began creating artistic social encounters with persons of differing cultures in pieces developed and performed in various places around the world (fig. 1). Their project Ordinary People, developed with pioneering Chinese choreographer and Living Dance Studio founder Wen Hui, explores life in their two communist environments, with 1989 as a key temporal hinge, when Czechs rejected communism with the Velvet Revolution on Wenceslas Square and the Chinese rose up on Tiananmen Square. The devised and documentary work, collaboratively created with trained and untrained Czech and Chinese performers with disparate backgrounds, uses floor and back-wall projected words, images, and sketched lines in an interactive way with a painterly aesthetic. Musicians and technicians share a stage space infused with theatre and dance poetics.

The Conversation

DB:

In your project Ordinary People, you explore the parallels between living in communist Czechoslovakia and in communist China. How did it begin?

OH:

The whole Ordinary People project started from an encounter, from a talk Jana had with Wen Hui in a bar in Beijing. They were just telling each other what their parents told them when they were in school: how to behave, how to deal with life in a totalitarian school system. What to say, what not to say, how to deal with the teachers and so on. And they realized that it was very similar in communist Czechoslovakia and communist China in the ’60s. From this started a dialogue. Actually, the whole piece was developed like this dialogue. When we decided to do the project together, we interviewed each other, the whole team, including the lighting designer. Everybody. The Chinese and the Czechs were interviewing each other.

JS:

Sometimes they did not understand each other because most of our Chinese colleagues did not understand English and we cannot speak Chinese. So it was a very physical and intuitive interview sometimes. If we needed the words, we got a translation later.

OH:

We started with a timeline, which is part of the show, but it was there from the very beginning. On the floor we wrote the years which were important for our lives. We also discussed [as Czechs] that we are now enjoying freedom and we fought for freedom, but now we have to respect that our colleagues, our friends from China, have to be very careful. So we have to be very sensitive to them, and if they say this is too much or that is not possible to say, we have to accept this.

At a certain point in fact Wen Hui came and said, “I have decided to speak about the personal trauma of my life,” and that’s the story from when she was a student. As in Prague at that time, students in Beijing went to the streets and called for change. She was one of them. One day, after weeks of stress, she was tired and went home to sleep. She missed a moment in history. She blames herself for betraying her friends, but she saved her life. I think it was out of the atmosphere of total trust with each other which we were building through the process of preparing the project that she at a certain point decided to speak openly about this.

Figure 1. Minny Deol Olson and Chad Willer, current residents of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the company of the original Czech settlers who came to Iowa a hundred years ago, in a performance of New Bohemia (2016). (Photo: Petr Salaba.)

 

JS:

When the production was invited to festivals in France, it gained international attention. We had to be even more discreet than in Prague. After Festival d’Avignon, we were invited to the Festival d’Automne in Paris and we couldn't risk the Chinese performers not being able to attend. We worked with the French producer to adjust the text.

So finally, instead of the final words of Wen’s story, we have silence. Suddenly the impact of the show was also about what we cannot say. In the end it worked very well, but we were really, concerned that we would lose the whole meaning of the show.

OH:

She just said: “And the next morning . . .” And she was silent for one minute. Because the audience understood, it was actually much stronger than the original version. We found that silence in the theater can have more power than words. (fig. 2).

JS:

We have our own experience in the former Czechoslovakia of life in a totalitarian regime thirty years ago. So, I asked Wen Hui several times what she would say back home. And she said: “Everything I say is a personal story. These are not political statements.” But anyhow, after our performances in France she decided to be silent for at least one year. We did not know at that time that there would be the coronavirus pandemic, of course. So, you know, the coronavirus maybe solved the problem because we could not travel at all. We had to postpone our plans for 2020-2021 anyhow. So yeah, our lives have changed, the lives of all of us.

Figure 2. In a scene of unfulfilled desires in the production Ordinary People, Wen Hui enters the light shadows of missing friends who protested on Tiananmen Square (2019). (Photo: Jakub Hrab.)

 

DB:

What methods do you use to build that trust?

JS:

Hmm. It’s about the very first contact with the people. I think there must be always a common understanding that stories won’t be misused. Always I’m stressing the point that whatever they tell me, it’s only in the room. It’s only between that person and me. Before the first interview, we have two weeks of workshops where we work with different kinds of questioning. And this big interview comes after two short workshops and one long workshop. The group can be mixed, non-trained and trained people. Already, we have drunk a glass of wine together. In the workshops, we are touching each other, hugging, singing, whatever, and getting to know each other, but not enough. And they know that this is the first step. So I talk with them and I ask them, “Do you agree? Don’t you mind? You will be interviewed. Your story will be in the show, etcetera.”

OH:

And during the interview, you actually offer your own [story].

JS:

Yes, it’s a dialogue. And these questions are not painful questions. I don’t want to make them cry. My experience is that for any simple question you ask, people will speak about many different things, will tell you much more than you asked. I then have a workshop for this project, and I will have the interviews transcribed. But you cannot just come and say, “OK, here is the text.” A major effort for me always is how to make steps in a way not to destroy this trust, because I have the trust of these people. I did not waste it yet. My experience is that if you interview a person and then ask the person to read it from the stage, it already creates huge nervousness, and the person will be very frightened that it won’t work. It’s simply impossible. So there are steps.

I create couples, two people. One is the author of the text and the other is a listener. I call him the visitor. And the author of the text will read the text to the visitor as if they were a recording machine or something. The visitor listens only. And then that person with her memory repeats the text, and the author only listens. And when the author hears something which is not correct, because the visitor only remembers the story, he or she can stop him and correct them or say, “No, this is not what I want you to talk about.” So this is the moment when you can create the trust in the very beginning.

This takes a long time of practice. It’s not like this [snapping fingers]. You know, I found it a couple of years ago when I was really thinking how not to fuck up the trust because you cannot just use it. You can only find the resonance in other people’s hearts and souls. Then it comes to be common property, and then you can work with it further. But the matter of exchange, listening and feeling and embracing the same thing, the story or gesture, when people embrace it together, then you can push it forward and you can structure, because then it comes to be in common. So, you know, it’s finding the moments when people are sharing through physical action, not through intellectual concept. I’m not preparing it. I let people do it. And once they find it by themselves, through the experience of embracing the same thing or the theme, they come to be owners of the story. And this is the goal. This is hard work. You know, it’s a problem. It’s a huge thing, you know, not to spoil it.

OH:

I think very simply, it’s if you want to receive something, you have to give something first.

JS:

First give. Not to ask people. It’s a lot about listening, observing, and reflecting [on] these [pieces of] information. And soon you find a way and suddenly the theme gets born in the group. It’s about the ability to understand or find out what it is and then to define it.

OH:

I think what is really important for this is to be patient, not to push things and shape the performance too much ahead. To wait until it comes to you.

JS:

It’s more about phases. You cannot underestimate the time in this kind of work. You cannot rush, because these guys you are working with, you want them to be in comfort and be happy and have joy and also to share whatever is possible to share. Sometimes when you push it in terms of time, you don’t see important things. You simply need time yourself. You need time to absorb and reflect.

DB:

You once mentioned that the Czech critics and professional journals did not seem to be valuing the devised and postdramatic work or having the vocabulary or set of understandings to really critique it. Do you feel that’s changing at all?

JS:

I don’t. Critics are the same. But there was a fresh experience around Ordinary People in France. Everywhere we performed, we attracted huge interest. In Avignon, we performed eight times with full houses and [had] really great responses from theatre experts and from the general audience. Besides that, of course, it’s the Avignon Festival, so some critics from the Czech Republic saw the performance there. In the Czech Republic, there was nothing in the press, just maybe a note that Archa Theatre performed in Avignon. I mean, no interview with me or Ondřej. The [weekly] theatre magazine Divadelní Noviny [Theatre news] mentioned it, but did not pay any professional attention to it. One of the critics asked Ondřej, “Well, it’s so strange. What I don’t understand is why this piece was so successful in Avignon. Nobody paid any attention here in Czech Republic to it.” So this is the situation and it’s still the same. We were quite shocked. Suddenly I think we understood that we are more linked to world theatre rather than local. The success we had, contrary to the local situation, told us not to pay attention so much to the local scene but be aware of the international network we built through the years and simply keep going and open up more. This is the goal, rather than to be nervous that Czech critics don’t appreciate what we are doing. It probably won’t happen ever in our professional life.

DB:

In the early 2000s, about the time you began your dramaturgical line of devised, documentary theatre, a younger generation of Czech companies collectively known as “New Theatre” showed its very first work and broke out of tradition, although it took another ten or twelve years to be recognized as a movement. The New Theatre has used postdramatic methods, unconventional performance spaces, foreign performers, and the synthesis of influences such as circus, puppetry, dance, history, biography, Indigenous cultural practices, etcetera. Do you see connections between your work and that of the New Theatre?

OH:

I think it arose just because it was the time. It was the situation, social situation. I remember earlier, very shortly after the revolution, I was one of the theatre-makers who had a meeting with [then President] Václav Havel and he asked, “When will we see a new play which would be reflecting this new situation?” For me, it was the sign that he had become a politician, that he actually forgot that it’s a slow process. To write a play takes a year. Another one year to get to rehearsals and another six weeks to rehearse the play. It’s too long. It’s always a long process. And to change the understanding of the theatre also was a long process. It didn’t come with the revolution. You needed time. You needed maybe ten years to . . .

JS:

Or more, maybe thirty years.

OH:

. . . to change the whole reception of theatre. That was one thing. And the other thing was that we wanted to avoid this long traditional process and to be more attuned, to come with a reflection of the social political situation that would be actual at this moment. So that’s why we started to do documentary theatre. That’s why probably the others started to do theatre in a different way from the traditional repertory theatre (fig. 3). 

Figure 3. From the production vadí-nevadí.cz [itmatters-itdoesn’tmatter.cz], developed with Romani, Belarusian, and other refugees in the Czech town of Kostelec nad Orlicí. Romani children with their Czech peers and adults gather at one of the small town’s important meeting places, the cemetery (2014). From left: Richard Janša, Tomáš Jovnáš, Nikola Čonková, Vojtěch Rejchrt, Kevin Bundal, Yauhen Sumouski, Hanna Sharypa, Bára Konířová, Maruška Halušková, Pavlína Halušková, and Hana Charvátová. (Photo: Petr Salaba.)

 

JS:

It also [emerged from] the history of Ondřej’s interest and my interest in the theatre, why we do theatre, the two of us, why we are at Archa, why we push it so hard and why we follow this dramaturgical line. It’s about the history of Ondřej bringing the Living Theatre and Min Tanaka [clandestinely, without the authorities’ knowledge] in the 1980s. It was totally new. I started in puppetry, and when I was 13, I got training with Min Tanaka and with the Bread and Puppet Theatre. I grew up in the environment that you could call community-based theatre, because the Bread and Puppet Theatre, whatever it is, it’s a great art. Peter Schumann works with non-trained people the same way. So it also came from a very personal and physical experience with these artists.

What I can see now and what makes me happy is that there’s a younger generation, and they are somehow inspired by what we started doing during these years in terms of documentary theatre. Now it’s a big fashion everywhere. They work with real stories and real this and that, and they transform it into something decent with actors or with non-actors. And I am quite happy that they somehow try a different approach rather than always staging Shakespeare or Beckett or Chekhov. They look at their own theatre work through the eyes of international experiences. I think Archa introduced this to them because they are not traveling that much. Theatre people don’t travel much because it’s language-based. We are really far away from their experience. Still I feel we can inspire them. They have their own audiences, and there is immersive theatre and documentary theatre and community theatre, many kinds. And I’m happy about the diversity and new streams and new approaches to the theatre. I think it’s about five, six years ago when it became more visible that something is happening in this Czech theatre world. Looser borders. So it’s slightly better than it was before. Now something is happening. Vilem Dočolomanský of Farma v Jeskyni [Farm in the cave], Rostislav Novák of Cirk la Putyka, Tomáš Procházka of Handa Gote, Jiří Havelka of Vosto5, and others are using different approaches, working with different perspectives to the stories, using media in different ways. Something, something is happening.