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Goodbye sex business and pop music, hello art

13.1.2009

Archa director Ondřej Hrab talks with A2 Magazine.

On November 14 and 15, 2008, Ondřej Hrab, the director of Prague’s Archa Theatre, was a guest at the Soul for Europe Conference in Berlin, which addressed the influence of culture on the European Union.
In a conversation with A2, he discussed developments in Czech alternative culture.

In what ways can the Berlin conference inspire us?

 First of all at the level of debate. I don’t only mean that the politicians and businessmen were quoting Meyrink, Camus, Aristotle, Yeats or Erasmus in their speeches off the top of their heads. José Manuel Barroso, in his panel called culture a strategic investment in Europe. Culture and art in his view can help us find solutions for the economic crisis. And there is something like this, if only symbolically. While this conference was taking place in a bank building, the G20 summit in Washington was being held in a cultural institute – in the Museum of Architecture.

Do you think that in the future there will be a change in the artistic environment?

 Without a doubt society suddenly changed over the course of half a year. The problems which a year ago seemed like the main ones have stopped being important. I recently saw several performances at which I said to myself: society is still trembling at this subject, but in half a year they won’t be trembling anymore. The topic of these performances, which was often formally avant-garde, revolved around critiques of consumer art and the consumption of entertainment. This critique will not be necessary in a natural way. For audiences it will no longer be important whether pop music oppresses them or not. People will start saving money for pop music like they would for any other consumer good.

The absurd thing is that consumer culture is the first victim of the crisis…

 The first things to close down were the erotic clubs in Dubí and in Železna Ruda. Attendance at pop music concerts is falling sharply. The business of pleasure and the entertainment industry is failing. People are thinking carefully about whether to buy four or six bread rolls or whether to buy a new car or to put up with the old one for a few more years, and they still decide to pay for entertainment designed only for consumption. I think that in the future it will be more important to make art which actually touches the existential reality of people’s lives.

Has the direction of the dramaturgy at Archa Theatre changed as a result of this new call? Will you more often stage performances that address current events?

 The seventh of the ten points that define the mission of our theatre states that Archa places as much emphasis on the artistic and social functions of the theatre. We have been doing this at the theatre for about 15 years. Of course, this does not mean that we want to engage in so-called “political” theatre. We have been trying for many years to seek out taboo subjects in our society and to address them in various ways. One of the projects next year will be the performance of the “documentary theatre”, which asks critical questions about the future of multicultural societies. The project was the working title “What would happen if Abdulrahman were our president?” But it’s not just about theatre. The first point in our ten commandments states that we are not looking for the borders between genres. From this point of view, engagement is just as important as theatre, music and dance. A concert by Diamanda Galás or a dance performance by Min Tanaka or Wim Vandekeybus has a lot more “politics” in them than many so-called political plays.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

 It’s good to learn from the Great Depression before the Second World War. At the worst point in the depression at the start of the 1930s, the Osvobozené Theatre was packed and was on the rise. Emil František Burian opened the D34 Theatre. This gives me a certain hope. They were successful because they used art to respond to the political situation. From this point of view I am an optimist.

Jan Vávra, A2 Magazine (translated from Czech)

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