How Czech theatre is going global while staying intimate
In 1970s Czechoslovakia, it was illegal to hold public cultural events, so artists began performing in their living rooms. Now that model is being brought to London by the Czech Centre. Eleanor Turney finds out more.
In 1977, a group of Czechoslovakian human rights activists published Charter 77 in newspapers around Europe, criticising the government for its human rights failings. One of the 240 signatories was playwright and political dissident Vaclav Havel, who went on to become the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic.
Thirty years on from the Charter’s publication, the Czech Centre in London is supporting Oneohone Theatre Company’s interactive production, inspired by Havel’s absurdist comedy The Vanek Trilogy.
Tereza Porybna, director of the Czech Centre, explains: “One of the things that triggered Charter 77 was the regime preventing people from gathering and organising cultural events. The 1970s in the Czech Republic were an era of deep, oppressive socialism – it was quite a dark time.
“Charter 77 has deep symbolic value and of course is closely connected to Havel. The people around Charter 77 used to stage festivals and plays in their homes. It was like the ultimate opposition, that you create your space yourself. We liked that, and we thought it would be interesting to somehow experiment with this idea in London.”
The result, which describes itself as “reviving the living-room phenomenon, established by Czech intellectuals and artists”, will be performed at five domestic addresses across London.
Porybna explains: “Havel’s plays were originally staged this way rather than at a theatre. At the Czech Centre, it’s important for us to engage with the local scene as well, not just to export things, so we approached the people at Oneohone Theatre in the UK, and they liked the idea.”
Havel, of course, was hugely influential: “Everybody knows Havel in the Czech Republic,” emphasises Porybna. “He is an iconic figure. His writing is very clever, very structured, almost minimalist. The reason we’re staging it in London is to find new audiences for this amazing Czech cultural figure.”
The Czech Centre has also supported a showcase of Czech work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since 2008. “It’s one of our flagship projects,” says Porybna. “We focus on physical theatre, dance and circus. The Czech showcase is an opportunity to show our work to the whole world.
“I think there is amazing talent not just in the shows but on the individual level of exceptionally talented performers. There are programmers from all over the world coming to look for shows at the fringe, so you hopefully multiply your investment. It’s always a risk, but we have been lucky in terms of our shows getting booked in Asia, Latin America and Australia as a direct result of the fringe.”
5 things you need to know about Czech theatre
1. The Czech Centres exist to promote and support Czech culture and artists around the world, and to promote Czech research at universities and institutions of education, science, research and innovation. They also run Czech language courses for approximately 2,000 students each year.
2. The first Czech Centres were opened in 1949, in Sofia and Warsaw. Further offices were opened in Budapest (1953), Berlin (1955) and Bucharest (1981). There are now Czech Centres in 22 countries around the world, including Austria, Belgium, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, UK, Ukraine and the US.
3. Vaclav Havel was a Czech playwright, essayist and political dissdent, who served as the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic, from 1993 to 2003. He died in 2011.
4. Havel’s Vanek plays, in which the character Ferdinand Vanek is a stand-in for Havel himself, are Audience, Protest and Private View (also translated as Unveiling), and the 2010 addition Dozens of Cousins. The character was also used by Czech writers Pavel Landovsky, Pavel Kohout and Jiri Dienstbier, and by Tom Stoppard (who is Czech-born) in Rock ’n’ Roll.
5. The living-room phenomenon was established by Czech artists and intellectuals in the 1970s. When they were forbidden from accessing public spaces such as theatres, they instead used their homes as performance spaces and continued to share and perform their work.
It’s a risk, Porybna explains, for the same reason it’s always difficult to take a show to the fringe – money. The Czech arts scene is run differently to the UK’s, without an arm’s-length arts council.
“The main donor for the arts is our ministry of culture,” explains Porybna. “We don’t have an equivalent of your Arts Council, but you can apply for grants from the ministry. These can be individual grants for artists, or a grant for a particular project or a festival. There are also longer-term, three or four-year periods of being supported. So if you run a venue, you are aiming for these long-term grants, which allow you to function for a little while.
“Then there is also the Arts and Theatre Institute, which is government-funded but independent, and they specifically support performing arts. They encourage residencies, they host events and their mission is to be a networking agency, so they have incredible contacts all over the world.
“These are the two main bodies, but there are also opportunities in different cities. For example, the city of Prague will support its theatre companies or theatre venues. In the cities outside Prague, it would be the region as a whole offering funding or supporting theatres. So there are opportunities. The scene is a little underfunded, but that is what you will hear everywhere.”
It sounds difficult, but Porybna is stoic: “There’s never enough money for culture. There are more and more festivals, more and more theatre festivals, more and more street performance festivals. So it is growing, and the nice thing is that it is spreading out of Prague. It’s quite vibrant for such a small country.”
If you speak to artists or arts professionals the world over, money will always come up, but the Edinburgh showcase of Czech work and the fact that the Czech Centre is soon to move to a new building suggest that Porybna’s optimism is not misplaced.
The centre has big plans for next year, the 50th anniversary of the revolutionary Prague Spring. “Belarus Free Theatre has a play that one of its directors showed me, which was written by four Belarusian female playwrights. I thought it would be nice to do an event with Belarus Free Theatre to tap into human rights issues,” says Porybna.
“We want to use art to start thinking about what we have done after the fall of the communist regime. What has changed and what hasn’t? I think that artists living [in Belarus] need support.”
Belarus Free Theatre, in exile from Belarus, has made its home in the UK, specifically at London’s Young Vic. “There are very limited ways of experiencing its art,” says Porybna, “so it’s good to use the Czech Centre to support them. We are a stable institution and we can afford to do something risky from time to time.”
In terms of approach to risk, are arts scenes are in the UK and in the Czech Republic similar? “Very,” Porybna says, “particularly in the more alternative, younger scene. In terms of what is different, we have much more of a tradition of permanent companies with theatres.
“So, for example, for 20 years a theatre is basically working with almost the same actors and the same directors. You become a part of a scene and stay there for a long time. Now there are companies that are just temporary for particular shows, but there is a big tradition of theatres having their ensemble so you always know this actor will be playing there, and he’s been playing there for 10 or 20 years. London and the UK doesn’t have many of these.”
Does this different way of working stem from the funding situation, too? Porybna says no: “I think it’s just cultural tradition. I don’t think it has that much to do with funding. For the actor, if a theatre hires you, you have a contract and you are on payroll, it’s a source of financial stability. A lot of actors aspire to having a contract because it’s a good thing to have.”
One can’t argue with that, especially compared to the precarious existence many actors have in this country. The Czech Centre is working to support Czech culture and performing arts in the UK, and is about to move into part of the Czech Embassy. As well as housing new offices, there will also be a cinema, a lecture hall, a small gallery and a studio theatre.
Porybna is excited: “It will allow us to stage readings or solo performances and not always be dependent on pitching to other programmes and venues. We will keep doing that, too – we don’t want to lose connections with other partners and venues, and we will keep supporting them if they decide to work with Czech artists.
“What I want to do is to deconstruct, through art, the idea of a cultural institute as something separate from the cultural scene. I think we are all on the same side, just doing different roles. I would also like the employees of the Czech Centre to be part of the creative process, not just as administrators but to be surrounded by things happening around their desks. So that’s something to look forward to.”
So what about the elephant in the room: Brexit. What does Porybna think its impact will be on the Czech Centre and on Czech artists? “Who knows? There are several Czech artists living and working here, and I know some of them are already considering leaving. Brexit is one reason, but also London is such an expensive, gentrified city with fewer opportunities to really work as an artist, without being compromised by working in a cafe or PR company or doing something else.
“In terms of our work, I actually feel the whole Brexit debate strengthened the international community working in the arts in London. I don’t know if people realise how much the European Union actually invests in international arts and culture here, and how it’s such an important player in festivals and productions. So there will definitely be some financial implications, but I also feel people are much more open and enthusiastic about talking to us and really keeping the partnership with us.”
Profile: Czech Centre
Director: Tereza Porybna
Founded: 1949 in Sofia and Warsaw, 1993 in London
Dates: Year-round exhibitions, concerts and performances
Number of performances and events: Approximately 100 per year
Audience numbers (2016): 46,000
Funding: £350,000 per year, 75% from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and 25% from grants and sponsorship for specific events
Key contact: Tereza Porybna, director, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vanek Trilogy: Living Room Soirees runs at domestic addresses across London on September 16 and 30, October 7 and November 25. The exact location for each show will be confirmed to ticket holders 24 hours before the performance