In the nine days from 26 May to 3 June Prague will be treated to its very own version of the Edinburgh Fringe. Audiences will have over 230 English-language performances to choose from at various venues around the historic Malá Strana district. Shows come from a huge variety of countries and, in the experimental spirit of fringe, they vary from slapstick comedy to soul-searching reflections on our troubled times. David Vaughan spoke to the festival’s founder and director, Steve Gove.
Founded in 2002, the Fringe has become a much-loved Prague tradition and has established itself as one of the major fringe festivals around the world. I caught up with Steve Gove as he was busy with last-minute preparations for this, the sixteenth Prague Fringe. He told me how it all started.
“I don’t think any of us thought back in 2002 that we’d make it this far; it was a dream to establish a fringe here in Prague. We jumped into the deep end, a small group of us, and said let’s do this, let’s make it happen. The first year was a lot of fun but it was absolutely nuts and I think we weren’t quite sure whether we’d done the right thing or not. But as the years went on we sort of honed it and perfected it and built bigger audiences. Now we’re sixteen. We’ve grown up!
Presumably your inspiration is Edinburgh…
“Absolutely, at the beginning of it all the inspiration was Edinburgh. The original idea was to take Czech work out to Edinburgh festival because it hadn’t really happened before. We quickly worked out that the risk factor and budgets would be incredibly difficult to manage so we decided instead to invite people to come here. Prague is an incredibly cultured city, so it was a bit like bringing coal to Newcastle, but the idea was unique. There wasn’t an English language festival.”
What makes the fringe special? The name implies that there is an element of risk, something that’s new and unexpected.
“Our model is slightly different to Edinburgh. Under the Edinburgh Fringe model anyone can perform. It’s a little bit different here in Prague. We’ve managed it down to a size that we like, we have seven theatres, nine days, space for 50 acts and around 250 performances. Because of that, it has all the atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe. It has an element of the risk factor because with some of the acts that we’ve chosen we don’t know much about them. It’s a risk but occasionally they can be the big sellout shows of the Fringe. That’s the kind of madcap element to it – that you just don’t know when you enter a theatre or a space in a cellar or the back room of a café, what world you’re going to jump into. Occasionally they can surprise you greatly.”
The fringe is remarkably international. I was skimming through the programme and it didn’t take long for me to come across shows from countries as far afield as Australia and Iceland.
“In the early years, it wasn’t quite as international but I think, given that we’re absolutely on the map now in terms of fringes around the world, we do attract acts from all over. We’re part of an alliance of fringe festivals that spans all the way from Hollywood to Adelaide in South Australia, and actually it matches the audiences as well because we have about 70 or 80 different nationalities of people visit the fringe festival. Many of them are tourists, many of them are Czechs of course, and many of them are expats living here. So it’s a real mixed bag.”
Let’s talk about some of the things that people can see at the festival. I was intrigued by the number of shows that are dealing with very serious current world issues.
“Theatre thrives during difficult political times and these are very strange times politically. Like Edinburgh, like Brighton, like Perth, young performers are bringing exciting, vibrant work to fringes, expressing their thoughts and feelings on the political climate.”
And you really have everything. There’s one show on contemporary surveillance culture, another that looks at the dark web; there’s a play about a woman sniper, and you’ve got something about the Nazi Rudolf Hess. The variety is huge.
“It really is. We’ve got a very exciting selection of serious theatre this year. It’s a weird thing because every year there are themes that come out and we don’t really intend it to be that way. Perhaps subconsciously we choose themes given the mood of the world or given our moods when we’re going through the selection process, but this year it’s got a very serious and political take to it. Henry Naylor is a very well-known English comedy writer and director; he is most famous for his Radio 4 programme ‘Parsons and Naylor’ and also for the British satirical puppet television show called ‘Spitting Image’ in the 80s. This is the second of three plays. The third one will be presented at the end of fringe this year. It’s called ‘Angel’ and it concerns a female sniper and it reminds us actually that a very large percentage of people that are fighting against ISIS are themselves Muslims. It is something that is not covered a lot in the British media, and probably not here either.”
And most of ISIS’s victims are Muslims as well…
“Indeed, that’s the point. This is a very poignant and incredibly powerful piece that I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and since then it’s moved onto doing Australian fringes. It’s also been over to New York and it has just won every award in every festival conceivable. So we’re really looking forward to that.”
So that’s not to be missed. What other shows particularly spring to mind looking through the programme?
“Well it’s almost impossible not to flag up a few shows that focus on politics again but in a very different way. We’ve got a London performer called Sajeela Kershi, who’s bringing two performances. One is called ‘Immigrant Diaries’, focusing on people who have moved to different parts of the world and are essentially immigrants. You know, we call them expats but we are immigrants as much as a Syrian person who’s trying to live in England. It’s a polite term isn’t it, expat. So this is going to be an interesting one: it’s a conversation with a number of immigrants about their experiences living in different places. Sajeela Kershi is an interesting woman and her theatre company is called ‘JamJar: Jews and Muslims joined against racism’.”
Let’s have a look at some of the more performance-oriented shows because there’s dance, there’s mime, there are various music-based shows as well…
“Absolutely. I’d like to speak about a beautiful theatre company from Sweden called ‘Slava Theatre’. They’re bringing two entirely new shows which I haven’t seen. One is called ‘What If’, which is a show for children and they are bringing all the way from Sweden a tent which will be built in one of the spaces on the first floor of Malostranská beseda.”
Malostranská beseda, we should explain, is a venue on the Lesser Quarter Square.
“Exactly, and it’s the hub of the fringe where the fringe club happens after hours as well. So they are building this tent and they are bringing with them all their seats as well and all their technical equipment from Sweden. They perform this children’s performance called ‘What If’. We’ve often had a large children’s section to the fringe and this year’s no exception. In ‘What If’ you’re asked to travel inside your imagination, visit planets and meet unknown life forms and you’re invited into this beautiful tent.”
You’ve talked about some of the more established and better known companies. What about the role of the fringe in promoting young talent?
“A lot of the performers that come to the fringe are fresh out of theatre school. Over the last five years or so we’ve had a real raft of performers coming from the Gaulier School in Paris, which was the breakaway from the Lecoq mime school and very physical, very funny, as well as poignant and beautiful. ‘Tooth and Nail’ theatre company from England are coming with their award-winning show which I saw at the end of fringe last year called ‘Humming Bird’. It’s absolutely beautiful and focuses on a love story between two people. It’s very delicate and it’s beautiful to look at. They came last year with a show called ‘Parlour Games’, a very different piece and we didn’t know anything about them. They were new, they were fresh out of drama school and we took a risk we said ‘let’s see how these guys go’ and they were one of the sellout shows of the fringe last year.”
With 50 shows, 236 performances, how can our listeners find out more about the fringe and get hold of tickets?
“Well, the website is up and running and tickets are on sale, you can find all the information on www.fringe.cz. It’s a big event, it’s fifty acts over nine days in seven theatres and sometimes that can seem a little daunting so we made it a little simpler for people. When you go to the website you can create little themes for yourself. So you can choose a country as a theme – ‘let’s go see all the Australian shows’ – or you can choose a category. We’ve got a big LGBT section.”
… and there’s Swiss comedy. I love the idea of Swiss comedy.
“I know. It’s all there. Swiss comedy is not searchable in the category field, I might add, but you will find it! There is a big comedy section and there is obviously a big theatre section as it’s largely a theatre festival. So it does seem daunting but the risk factors are low, the tickets are cheap, they are 150 crowns as a standard price and the shows last between 45 minutes and an hour, sometimes little over.
“Some of the shows will sell out as the theatres are little. The smallest space seats only 20 people. The trick is to get your tickets in advance where possible but if you’re down at the Fringe, there is a different show starting every 15 minutes between 5 o’clock and midnight so if you’re disappointed and you don’t get into one performance, it’s very easy to find another one to get into just around the corner.”
And there are a lot of shows during the day for families and kids as well.
“In the early part of the evening rather than during the day. Around 4/4:30 is the earliest we start. I will also mention that we’ve got two special events that take place this year. One which takes place every year is called Fringe Sunday. It’s basically a fast-paced snapshot of as many of the shows that we can cram into 90 minutes. So you get half a minute of something, a minute of something else and you can sit with your programme and say ‘yeah I want to go and see that’ or ‘no we don’t want to see that’.
“So once you’ve jumped in on the first two days Friday and Saturday, on the Sunday of the fringe you can just sit back and allow Fringe Sunday to help you make your decisions for the rest of the week. The other event, which is completely new this year, is called Family Fringe. There are going to be a number of acts performing segments of their performances for young audiences and both of these events are completely free, so everyone is welcome to join us at those.”
Before we finish let’s just have a couple more of your recommendations.
“Two entirely different pieces: one a comedy improvisation show called ‘Men with Coconuts’ and the other a Washington based theatre company’s presentation of Václav Havel’s ‘Protest’. Now you couldn’t get much more varied than that.”