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česky / english

June 2019


Interview with Ondřej Hrab


The director of Archa Theatre talks with Hospodářské noviny.

Ondřej Hrab: This was one of my worst years
This year Archa Theatre’s artistic director presented Vaclav Havel’s new play Leaving using private money and withstood a financial crisis in Prague’s cultural scene. As the new season gets underway, however, he does not feel as though he has won. "Our problem was partly solved, but there are other problems," said Ondřej Hrab.

The passage leading into your theatre is closed, as is the Archa café, which so many people came to for its ambience and wireless internet. What’s going on?
The new owner of the old Legiopojišťovny building on Na Poříčí Street, where we rent our space, is the Orco development company, who are completely refurbishing the entire complex. Fortunately they are willing to adapt their plans to our needs and have assured us that everything will be ready by the start of the season. Orco plans to divide up the complex and rent it to various tenants. The reconstruction also affects the theatre’s operations. For half a year now we haven’t been able to use the basement backstage area. We should get it back within a few months. We lost the café and with it our only access to the street. It was also a place that pulled our theatre out from underground. But I’m certain that we will compensate for the loss in some other way.

The historic Gočár building and the newer, functionalist part of the complex designed by the architect Mark, where you are located, is called Palác Archa. This will make you more visible.
Orco’s owner, Mr. Jean-Francois Ott, and his wife Corinne, who now live in Paris, in the 1990s lived in Prague and often came to our theatre. They told me that one of their greatest cultural experiences was seeing Japanese dancer Min Tanaka perform at Archa. The new name of the building is proof that one can see Prague from as far away as Paris. Orco is not only Archa’s general partner, but also the company that sponsored Havel’s Leaving.

You bravely staged banned performances during the Communist era, for example, the first secret performance of Mina Tanaka at the Na Chmelnici club. Would Archa be different today were it not for your personal experiences?
Absolutely. I don’t have a classical theatre education and I didn’t want to do something like in today’s official theatres. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but I mean it seriously when I say that what we understand as theatre at Archa is also a kind of community activity, like a laboratory for society. That’s why even today we pay attention to how the work of art functions in society. Either it provokes ideas or it is engaged with the work of a minority or marginalized social group. We have been working with refugees for several years now. We also run the Archa.lab projects with young artists. Our aim is to provide a space for new works without people feeling like they’ve stepped into some kind of institution that demands that they adapt their own imagination to the established order.

What were your examples when you began creating Archa at the beginning of the 1990s?
In Prague in those days there was no modern and versatile theatre space for meetings between artists and audiences. There was also no space for modern dance. All we had here were traditional theatres that we know from the 19th century. At the same time, there was a community of people who in the 70s and 80s travelled to clubs in the outskirts of Prague, where things were staged that were forbidden in the centre. These audiences were accustomed to a kind of art that wasn’t shown in the traditional theatres. So when Ivan Plicka, Mirek Melena and I conceived of the space, we also thought not only about what would happen there, but also who would be going there. We studied theatres in other countries. We got a lot of help from the Flemish theatre institute, which invited us to Flanders to see how a modern theatre works and then sent three experts for a week to Prague. We had many discussions with them and even disagreements. We talked a lot, for example, about the balcony, which seemed to them to limit the stage space. But then we attended a concert together at Lucerna and they saw how the balcony could be used and understood why we wanted it. There were many discussions of this kind.

Where did you get the name Archa?
From the start we knew what kind of artists we wanted to invite to our theatre and what kind of productions we wanted to stage. We didn’t want to limit them in any way. The architects working on the space talked about a kind of ship, which evoked in me the image of an arch. I saw it as a place for all the animals, for all kinds of art.

Are you disappointed that Archa is so far the only one of its kind?
That’s no longer completely true. New art is taking place in more places. For now, we have the biggest international profile. To a certain extent, even the repertory theatres are changing. I had hoped that one day a new Archa would be created, but I’m happy that we are part of a community.

You have been working at this theatre for seventeen years. What would it take for you to leave Archa and pursue something else?
Originally I wanted to stay five years, then ten. But it always seemed to me too little; there were always too many unexploited opportunities. After 2000 I said to myself that I now probably have the last chance to start something completely different. But then the floods came, which completely submerged the theatre, and it was a call to rebuild it. With this came new content, which gave us the opportunity to head in a different direction. My colleagues in the theatre thought that some of the ideas wouldn’t work, but finally they stuck with it and shared in them.

Like what?
Working with refugees, for example, which they considered a little crazy. They imagined Archa as primarily a space, so in that sense working in refugee camps was a departure. But it worked out, because since the theatre had been flooded we were accustomed to working outside of it. New people brought new inspiration. Today our work with refugees is a crucial part of what we do.

How do you think audiences in Plzen will respond to Dance Through the Fence when they see it at Jižní nádraží (South Station) as part of the theatre festival?
This project has been positively received everywhere. Thanks to it, the All Star Refugee Band has taken on a life of its own. They’ve had enormous success at summer festivals, including Colours of Ostrava. We initially had no idea that this would have such longevity. Today the band’s repertoire is three times larger than when it started and it’s still growing.

Who plays in the band?
The members of the band are refugees and asylum seekers who live here and are professional musicians. Accordionist Gugar Manukjan is an Armenian from Georgia. Singer and lute player Abdulrahman Kasem is a Kurd from Syria. He left Syria because he sang in Kurdish at a music festival, which is forbidden there. Friends smuggled from Damascus to Beirut in a bag under a bus seat and then sent his lute after him. We found him here in the refugee camp. Another member of the band is a Chinese violinist and singer named Jing Lu and a phenomenal guitarist, Slovak Hungarian Marian Leczó. Some of the actors, such as Philipp Schenker, who sings and plays the clarinet, are excellent musicians. The others are actors first and musicians second. And since the band is based on mutual communication and common energy, it’s really versatile. Director Jana Svobodová entrusted the formation of the band to Michael Romanyshyn, who has a lot of experience from The Bread and Puppet theatre, where he put together a band of excellent American jazzmen and farmers. He has a highly evolved method of bringing together professional musicians with musicians who can’t even read notes.

What do they play? When they sing a cover version of our national anthem (Where Is My Home) with their raw voices and that boisterous rhythm it’s a powerful experience.
The band has a cosmopolitan character. At times its sounds like a Balkan brass band and at other times like klezmer mixed with Chinese opera, Armenian melodies and Kurdish political songs. But it’s all integrated and some of the arrangements are worthy of a Leoš Janáček. Michael has a real gift for working with the material available to him and creating something new out of it. It’s the same when Jana Svobodová creates the performance. The combination of material, stories and people’s circumstances electrifies their acting abilities and from this – together with writer Hana Andronikova – the script of the performance and its form is created.

For many years you have been working in an international context. Has it empowered you with respect to the current situation in Czech culture or do you find it frustrating?
Both. At first it was empowering, because one had something to lean on. But I also feel that ten years ago Czechs weren’t as conceited as they are today. It surprised me that upon joining the European Union it was as though we withdrew into ourselves and didn’t want to communicate with anybody. We handicap ourselves in this way. We can’t flatter ourselves by assuming that the world is overly interested in us.
I read an ethnographic study about certain nations in the Pacific Ocean. On one island there were people who always complained that the world knows nothing about them, that their artists are world-class but nobody has discovered them yet. They didn’t pay attention to the rest of the world. They just tried as hard as possible to communicate and move outwards. I feel as though we are doing the same. It’s typical that we’ve only now realised that we can’t stage an Olympic Games like in China. Our attitude has its source in the feeling that Prague is like New York, Paris or Rome, only the foolish world has not noticed yet.

In the early 1990s you worked at the theatre board. Were those days still the spring of hope or had you already come up against harsh reality?
Emotionally this was an extremely exciting time. But many things should have been done more radically. I think that we are now going through such a huge crisis in culture because in the 1990s a fundamental change wasn’t made. When today I read what I write and said in those days, it surprises me that it’s not passé. This is a sad realization. There were very few people who grasped that the change had to be structural. I remember the indignation this gave rise to in the theatre community when we began creating Archa. The theatres felt somehow threatened. And yet today they are much more threatened than before.

What lessons have been learned from the recent crisis in Prague culture?
I think that the financing of culture cannot be resolved by an administrative decision alone. Words are not enough – there has to be a culture policy. The state and the city have to understand what they really want to achieve. Our politicians think only about the product and not about the creative process. They don’t see how the process itself is important for the city and society. They respond only to results – how much was produced, how many votes they’ll get. But this process can influence the appearance of a city and the character of life in it. When they talk about theatre, they only talk about the performances, and not about how they were created, what public they interest. They only take into account how many people go to see the Joan of Arc musical and how many people go to an experimental dance performance at the Alfred ve dvoře theatre.

Did Milan Richter, the Prague municipal councilman responsible for culture, really tell you that he’s not interested in the arts? Jiří Suchý claims that he did.
He really did say that, yes.

In other countries there are politicians who wouldn’t know anything about culture if they were not surrounded by expert advisors. Isn’t that the main difference?
We have a long road ahead of us. You can also see it in the kinds of people who come to our theatre and what their expectations are. When we compare audiences at Archa and what is still considered avant-garde here compared to the same show in Brussels or Berlin, then we find that the people who go there are much older and consider it a part of their worldview and lifestyle. For them it’s already mainstream. All you have to do is compare the photos of our contemporary theatre with performances staged forty years ago and you can see that there has hardly been any development at all. Theatre in other countries is somewhere completely different.

The recent protests against the Prague city council’s plan to divide cultural grants and the buzz around Václav Havel’s new play Leaving, which is being staged at Archa after the author failed to come to an agreement with the National and Vinohrady Theatres, has made you into the darling of the media. How did you deal with it?
It was one of my worst years. I had to hope for a happy ending and at the same time present a brave face to other people. But the hope was very slim. We had one choice: to step into the unknown and keep going forward in the belief that in the end we wouldn’t be destroyed.
In January there should have been a decision about a grant for four years. But March and April came and went and we still didn’t know if we’d get the money. Then we learned that we’d receive two thirds of what we originally got and an even smaller share of what we requested. It’s hard to live under these kinds of circumstances. We borrowed more than a million crowns from friends. We got the first loan from two private people, secretly, so that their wives wouldn’t know. Our partner theatres also helped us, including the National Theatre. We received the first money from the city council at the end of May.

Do you still owe money?
No, we’ve paid our debts. By decision of the mayor, in the end our grant remained the same as last year’s.

So do you feel that you’ve won?
Absolutely not. It’s a run on a long track. The dispute ended with an administrative decision, which partly resolved our problem, but did not resolve other problems. For example, the existence of the Tanec Praha festival is really in jeopardy. Its director Marta Lajnerová resigned because she doesn’t see any alternative. But the festival itself is also to blame for being in debt.

The theatre’s board of directors includes the renowned manager Bessel Kok, who has worked in Czech companies and still lives in Prague. Has he been able to find you a patron?
If anyone is a patron, then it’s primarily him. Without him we would not exist today. He’s extremely well educated in the arts and has a lot of experience. In Belgium he worked on the board of directors of the Rosas group and on the board of the Brussels opera La Monnaie. Our situation is very different for him. The Czech environment is wilder and less cultivated. The awareness that culture ought to be supported is smaller here today than it was in the 1990s. Thanks to Bessel Kok, we managed to receive money for Havel’s Leaving. Not one crown went to it from public sources, and could not, because at that time we didn’t have any money.
It turned out that the managing directors and owners of large firms are very educated people. Most of them are of course foreigners or Czechs who have lived abroad for a long time. We probably have to wait until Czech businesspeople develop a culture of arts sponsorship.

Havel’s play marks the start of a new season at your theatre. Do you agree that Archa is a much more suitable venue for the play than the National Theatre?
As soon as I read the play I wondered why the National Theatre. I can honestly say that this play has found its own place by itself. I found a very intense common dialogue with the director, David Radok. He knew exactly what he wanted and we were able to provide it. I feel very satisfied with the result. Leaving is one of the three performances which we will stage this year at the theatre festival in Plzen. This is an achievement, because until now what we were staging there did not get a lot of attention. We are performing the play in series, because the lead actor, Jan Tříska, is commuting from America, as will Zuzana Stivínová, who is moving there. What’s more, the stage takes several days to set up, and once it’s set up it’s got to be performed. We have several interested parties who want to take the performance abroad, but it’s technically very demanding, so I don’t know how it will turn out.

You came to our interview straight from a rehearsal. What are you working on?
Jaroslav Rudiš and German writer Martin Becker have written an operetta about 1968. The music was composed by Michal Nejtek and the show is directed by Jiří Havelka. The premiere is on October 22nd. The operetta is part of a project about 1968 and 1989, which we created with Germans in Berlin and Hamburg and with the Centre for Experimental Theatre in Brno.

What urgent themes do you feel ought to be explored in the theatre?
One theme that we will continue to explore is our ability to live with people from other cultures. Another important problem is our lack of historical consciousness. People are losing the ability to live with the knowledge that they are part of some kind of progression, that they have their roots in the past. That’s why our projects about 1968 and 1989 are important. We will definitely keep on exploring this them in the future. Another big theme is violence, which is becoming more and more of a problem. I’m not just talking about domestic violence which you hear about in the media, but also violence which happens in a very subtle, intimate way. As artists we ought to react to this too.

This interview appeared in the September 5, 2008 issue of Hospodářské Noviny. Article by Nad’a Klevisová. Translated from Czech.



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