- Making Something Happen Despite Borders and Critics: A Conversation with Artistic Leaders of Prague’s Archa Theatre, Ondřej Hrab and Jana Svobodová
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, [End Page E-1] 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.
In your project Ordinary People, you explore the parallels between living in communist Czechoslovakia and in communist China. How did it begin?
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.
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.
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...