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Ondřej Hrab and his Archa Theatre

20.2.2008

THEATRE AND CULTURAL POLICY IN CZECH REPUBLIC. Interview with Ondřej Hrab, Director of Archa Theatre, published in the magazine Xantypa

The atmosphere of Archa Theatre is friendly and unique, just like the experience of talking to the thoughtful and contemplative Ondřej Hrab, who has been Director of Archa Theatre for thirteen years. He has managed to make a name for Archa on a European level. Theatre is his passion and he devotes himself to it constantly. Even though he has achieved great success in the Czech Republic, he doesn’t in any way show it to those around him.  I thought about how to briefly characterise Ondřej Hrab. “A humble person with great inner strength” came to me. Meeting such people is becoming is more and more rare, which makes it all the more valuable.

What does theatre mean for you, in the broadest sense of the word?
For me, theatre is the laboratory of society. It has the huge advantage in that it takes place here and now. The Japanese dancer Min Tanaka replied to the question “what is dance?” with the following answer: “dance is something between you and me”. I am convinced that this also applies to theatre. Theatre is “something” between the artists on stage and the audience. It is a mutual exchange of ideas and energy. During a good theatre performance, we not only find out a great deal about what is happening on stage, but also most of all a lot about the audience. Theatre is a great indicator of the state of society and how it will develop. Of course it is also an indicator of those blind alleys.

How do you view our political situation? To a certain extent it is reflected in the financing of cultural events in Prague, therefore also at Archa?
The situation is so confused, that it is impossible to make a pertinent assessment of it. I see the fact the government has allocated one percent of the state budget to culture as a positive thing, it is at least hopeful. We are the only advanced country, as we define them, to currently give only 0.47 percent of the stage budget to culture (In eastern-European states culture is given around 2 percent of the state budget – authors note). A very long journey to standard cultural policy awaits us.

How happy are you with distribution of financial grants for culture in Prague?
There has certainly been a step forward in grant policy. In comparison with other European cities, however, we are thirty years behind. I don’t mean that in the sense of the amount of money distributed, but the methods of consideration of applications. It is almost unbelievably primitive. This not only applies to politicians, who are incapable of distinguishing show business from art, but also on the side of the artists, who are incapable of clearly defining their role. There should be debate about how the cultural life of the city will develop in the future. This is a matter for sociologists, town planners, psychologists, cultural theorists, and economists. In other European cities they have understood this for a long time now.

In the parliamentary elections you publicly supported the green party. What led you to do this?
The reason was primarily that I firmly believe that it is a good thing to participate in elections. And when you go to elections, you have to vote. For me ecology is a very broad notion. We have become disaccustomed to living in nature and we no longer know how to live with nature. For this reason I find thought founded on a sort of self control of the individual appealing. At the theatre we aim for an “ecological soul”.

You teach the subject Alternative World Theatre of the 20th and 21st Centuries at the DAMU theatre academy (Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre). How do you view the notion of alternative theatre?
The subject has quite a strange title. I would say more that theatre has many alternatives, and I try to deepen students’ knowledge of creators of contemporary theatre without regard to distinctions between genres (drama, dance or puppetry). There are generally the profiles of artists who break down the barriers of theatrical creation and influence the development of contemporary theatre. I think, however, that it doesn’t even make sense to define the notion of alternative theatre. We always have to ask: alternative to what? Just as we ask: avant-garde of what? I try to explain to students that each avant-garde, if it wants to be an avant-garde in the true sense of the word, must have its roots in tradition.

How have you managed to bring such respected artists as Min Tanaka, Robert Wilson, John Cale and Philip Glass to Archa?
There is a more than twenty year history now with Min Tanaka. At that time, Tanaka came to Prague secretly as a tourist in between performances in Paris and Vienna. I’m sure you can imagine how likely it was in the year 1984 that some Bolshevik committee would approve a performance from a Japanese dancer, who performs a strange slow dance, naked, with his private parts swathed in some kind of bandage. The conspiratorial performance took place in the Na Chmelnici club and we invited an audience saying “come and don’t tell anyone”. A lot of people came, but they had no idea what to expect. When Tanaka started to dance it was a shock, which gradually turned into a hugely emotional experience. It was actually the ideal situation for an artistic meeting. No one at that time knew what butó dancing, of which Tanaka is one of the most famous performers, was. This lack of preparation enabled people to view his dance naturally, without any preconceptions or rational judgments. It was an experience not only for the audience but also for Tanaka himself, who afterwards started to come to Prague regularly. In the following years we found a way to allow him to perform legally, even though he only received a fee for the first time in 1992, for his famous SVĚCENÍ JARA at the National Theatre in 1992. Therefore it was natural that we asked him to create the opening performance for Archa in 1994. I called him and wanted to suggest that John Cale created the music for the performance. Without even mentioning his name, Min said that he was also thinking of Cale. The same thing happened when I called Cale in New York. It was simply in the air. Tanaka and Cale had never met in person beforehand. Only then, on the stage of Archa. It was symbolic: one from the west and one from the east, meeting half way in Prague.

Archa Theatre specifically links dance, music, theatre and film. Was this already the intention of the project in 1994, or has the concept of the theatre somehow radically changed?
I entered the competition for the directorship of the E.F. Burian theatre with a project to transform this traditional repertory theatre into a production house without a permanent ensemble. Prague at the start of the 1990’s lacked a space for contemporary art. Genre distinctions in theatre were the fault fifty years of terribly strict totalitarian control. Elsewhere in the world it ceased to be like that a long time ago.  Even from the start we declared that we wouldn’t take heed of the boundaries between individual artistic genres, nor the boundaries between individual cultures and states. For me the important thing is how the artist communicates with our public. Not where he or she comes from.

You give a lot of space to contemporary artistic projects from Brno, for example Arnošt Goldflam, Vladimír Morávek, J. A. Pitínský. Is this because you worked at the HaDivadlo in Brno?
I left for Brno twenty years ago because the best theatre in the country was there. Even today, the Brno theatre scene is original and interesting. A few years ago HaDivadlo was very interesting. Today it is once again Divadlo Husa na Provázku, which gained new impetuous with the arrival of director Vladimír Morávek. It focuses on big themes and is successful, which the series of Dostoevsky adaptations, also presented regularly at Archa, shows.

In 2005 you joined in the international project to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. What led you to collaborate on this project?
It was Lars Seberg, former director of the Aarhus festival, who led me to the rediscovery of H. Ch. Andersen. Lars comes from Odense, just like Andersen. He thought of organising world wide celebrations for the bicentenary of Andersen’s birth, and we joined in the project. For us, Andersen was more the inspiration, the springboard for contemplation of today’s world. The main question for us was what Andersen could mean for the contemporary person. On the basis of this aim we created several projects – DANCE OF THE TOYS (directed by Petr Nikl), UNDERSTAND (directed by Skutr) and DREAMING.ANDERSEN (directed by Jana Svobodová).  

Do you plan for Archa to have a permanent ensemble in the future?
No. Not having a permanent ensemble is actually inspiring. The content of individual performances is more authentic. Archa doesn’t have a permanent ensemble, but there is a group of artists which has formed around Archa with whom we collaborate regularly. Three years ago we founded a laboratory for contemporary theatre, Archa.lab. It is a programme of residency, led by Artistic Director Jana Svobodová. Projects are created on the basis of given themes. At the moment the members of Archa.lab are, alongside graduates from art academies, for example Lukáš Trpišovský and Martin Kukučka, who together form the directing duo SKUTR, actors Rosťa Novak, Josef Rosen and Dora Kršková and the dancer Adela Lastovková, also artists “from the street” – for example Jaroslav Vanický, known in the hip-hop community as Cossiga, or the Chinese singer Jing Lu. The performances CHAT – DANGEROUSLY EASY LIAISONS, NICKNAME, UNDERSTAND, DREAMING.ANDERSEN and 8 – BIRDS BLACK, TITS GREAT have all been created as part of Archa.lab, and have also, within a short space of time, been presented internationally, from Tokio to New York.

How do you see, in the year 2007, the position of Archa Theatre in the context of Prague theatres and other cultural organisations?
Because we don’t distinguish between individual artistic genres, we don’t want to see Archa just as one point in what is known as the theatre network. Galleries, artistic centres and festivals which devote themselves to contemporary dance or physical theatre are all equally important partners for us. We don’t want Archa to be a place where people go to relax after work. We are not here to provide gratification. If we limit ourselves in any way, then it is in terms of the boundary between art and entertainment. Art must look for new directions, entertainment gratifies. Our aim is exactly the first. We leave the gratification to others.

What does contemporary Czech theatre mean to you and how do you see it in the context of world theatre?
The Czech theatre scene is actually a kind of concrete bunker, which we built to protect our national culture in the nineteenth century and after communism we have fortified it even more. Its walls are solid and we don’t look out from it very much and so we don’t see that the world is already different. It is necessary for the whole system to become a lot freer. To enable natural creation and resolution of artistic projects, so that what is really new can be put across. The grant system implemented by the City of Prague and the Ministry of Culture, gives “independent” culture a disproportionately smaller amount than to grant maintained organisations.  I think that Czech theatre has huge potential. Nonetheless, in a world context, we constantly have something to catch up with. These days, repertory theatres only still exist in Germany. Elsewhere in Europe, it is most common to find independent production houses. Theatre and dance groups are not constrained to one stage. The whole system can be characterised by a much bigger dynamic and wider distribution.

Do you see any envy of Archa in the small Prague “enclave”, in terms of, for example, the delicate subject of grants and how they are drawn upon?
Envy exists everywhere. The disproportionality of the grant system makes it a given. We try not to take notice of these things, as long as they don’t directly affect the existence of the theatre and it isn’t a direct attack which could harm us. Since the theatre’s status has changed to that of an NGO organisation we have significantly less money from grants than during the time when we functioned as a grant maintained organisation. Our rent has gone up severalfold and so we only have a small proportion of our finances left for individual artistic projects. At the same time we don’t want to see a reduction in quality. Over 200 performances take place at Archa each year. This takes us up to not only the financial limit, but also that of staff resources. But perhaps I am most sorry about the fact that there aren’t any other theatres like Archa in Prague, because a competitive environment is always healthy.

Where is Archa heading in the coming few years? Will it continue in the established trends, or will the time come for further experimentation?
We want to continue to play the role of a place where unusual meetings take place. We want to promote a vision of theatre in which each element has an equally important role. We call this non-interpretive theatre. This means that the message doesn’t have to be conveyed just through text. It can be conveyed by gesture, movement, sound or lighting change. At the same time we want to further develop our educational activities. As part of the Archa.lab project we organise theatre workshops not only for professional artists, but also for children and young people. We will continue to approach and invite renowned world artists. The export and import of readymade theatre performances is ceasing to be current. We want to focus much more on joint projects and co production with our partners in Berlin, Hamburg, the Netherlands and Belgium. We are preparing joint work in Japan. We will continue with the projects which we started three years ago in refugee camps. We understand theatre as a socially responsible activity.

ARCHA THEATRE is located in the spaces of the original D34 theatre, later the E.F. Burian Theatre – originally a concert hall. It was built together with the new building of the functionalist banking palace in the years 1937 – 1939, according to the design of architect Frantisek Marek. The new design for the interior is the work of architect Ivan Plicka and the theatre technology was designed by Miroslav Melena. The theatre opened in June 1994. The joint project of the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka and the American musician John Cale symbolised a linking of cultures, genres and continents. Over thirteen years Archa has become an open space for opera, theatre, music, dance and multimedia projects. It has also presented the public with an opportunity to see personalities of world art such as the director Robert Wilson, the choreographers Wim Vandekeybus, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Jan Fabre, musicians David Byrne, Randy Newman, Philip Glass, Merideth Monk, Einstürzende Neubauten, Tindersticks, Levellers and many others. The groups Royal Shakespeare Company, Cheek By Jowl, Ultima Vez, DV8, Handspring Puppet Company and Dogtroep have all performed there and the American poet Allen Ginsberg had one of his last appearances there. Peter Schumann, Min Tanaka and Residents have created performances in the production of Archa Theatre. Michal Vícha and Jaroslav Dušek’s Opera LA SERRA and Goldflam’s SLADKÝ THERESIENSTADT, directed by Damien Gray, for example, were also created at Archa Theatre. A new and long term project of Archa Theatre is Archa.lab, whose aim is to create the conditions for continual creation and artistic exploration. The performances UNDERSTAND, SENANDERSEN, CHAT – DANGEROUSLY EASY LIAISONS, NICKNAME, 8 – BIRDS BLACK, TITS GREAT and STRANGE NEIGHBOUR, for example, have been created as part of Archa.lab.  

ONDŘEJ HRAB, Director of the Archa Theatre, was born on 26/07/1952 in Olomouc. He is married and has two children. In 1975 he graduated from University of Economics in Prague. In the following years he then worked as a sociologist. From the mid-nineteen seventies onwards he was active in non-conformist cultural activities. Among other things, he initiated conspiratorial appearances of foreign artists, for example The Living Theatre (1980) and the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka (1984). From 1985 – 1987 he was manager of the HaDivadlo in Brno. From 1990 – 1991 he was Executive Secretary of the Czech Theatre Community, where he focused primarily on Cultural Policy, Theatre Management and International Relations. In 1991 he became Director of the E.F. Burian theatre with the mission of transforming this repertory theatre into a production house without a stable ensemble. In 1994, after extensive reconstruction, the E.F. Burian theatre was re-opened under the new name Archa. In 1994 Ondřej Hrab was the first foreigner to receive the Achievement Award from the Foundation of Contemporary Performance Arts in the USA. From 1996 to 1999, Hrab was a member of the Advisory Board of the Open Society Institute’s Performing Arts Network Programme. Since 2000 he has been teaching Alternative World Theatre at DAMU in Prague.

Daniel Szabó (Translated from Czech)


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