In the last two decades, Prague’s Archa Theatre has firmly established itself as the country’s foremost space for alternative drama, dance and music, hosting such luminaries as Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, John Cale and Patti Smith. This month the venue is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its opening, so I caught up with the man who created Archa and is still its director, Ondřej Hrab. He told me in his youth he had hated watching plays – but chance encounters opened his eyes to a new kind of theatre.
“That year I saw the most important productions in my life. I saw Einstein on the Beach by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. Of course I had never heard of these two guys, but coincidentally I was passing the Carre Theatre in Amsterdam and somebody said, do you want a ticket?
“I entered the theatre and spent four and a half hours amazed. I said to myself, that’s theatre.”
This was literally life-changing for you?
“Yes. It really changed my life. The same year I went to Poland, to Wroclaw, and I saw the Bread and Puppet theatre. Earlier that year I saw Grotowski’s Apocalypsis Cum Figuris and later that year I saw Death Class by Tadeusz Kantor.
“So I was lucky enough to see the most important productions of the theatre in the, let’s say, second half of the 20th century. This was the moment when I changed my mind and said, theatre might be something that I could do.”
If we fast forward a bit to the early 1990s and the creation of the Archa theatre – what was the direct motivation to start Archa?
“For me it was mostly the fact that there was no place in Prague where you could present contemporary performing arts. Not only international productions, but productions by Goose on A String from Brno, or Ha Theatre from Brno, which were performed in arena, not traditional space… they were performed on the outskirts, in pubs, in gyms.
“There was no space for contemporary theatre, contemporary dance, contemporary music. That was the main motivation for building Archa Theatre.”
I presume there was a big audience hungry for this kind of work?
“Yes. That was typical of the 1990s, especially shortly after the revolution. On one side, the theatres were empty. Audiences were interested in other things. Theatre was actually happening in the parliament or on the street. The media were finally open. People didn’t feel the urge to come to the theatre.
“But on the other hand, there was a large group of people who were not traditional theatregoers but wanted to discover new inspirations, new forms of art.”
Also there must have been a kind of backlog of very interesting artists, musicians, theatre groups that they’d never seen?
“Yes. This was one of the major goals of Archa Theatre: to build bridges, to open doors, to bring the artists which were forming contemporary performing arts and who were totally unknown to our audience.
“Generally the idea of contemporary theatre was frozen somewhere in the ‘60s with the Theatre of the Absurd. But we never had here people like Peter Schumann from Bread and Puppet theatre, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass – all these big names who formed the contemporary performing arts at the end of the 20th century.
“My dream was to bring these people and to present them to the Czech audience, hoping that they will somehow inspire Czech artists and that they would form some new streams that would create a vivid environment for new art forms.”
You’ve had some very big names here over the years. Some have come back and performed a few times. Have there been any particular encounters with musicians or theatre people that have stood out for you at the personal level?
“Yes. Actually I must say that this personal relationship is very important for me. When I look back over the last 20 years I actually never presented someone whom I didn’t like, or with whom we didn’t find some form of or mutual understanding.
“I’m not so much a conceptualist in creating the programme of Archa Theatre. I do it through my heart. I do things which I like and I would like other people to like it.
“We have developed some very strong relationships with artists. One of them is here right now, Min Tanaka, the Japanese dancer, who actually had the courage to come to communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and to perform illegally. He became a sort of underground hero.”
Did he also perform at the opening of Archa?
“Yes. It was quite natural that I invited him to be one of the artists who opened Archa Theatre, who infused these new walls with the spirit of art.
“The other one was John Cale. It was a sort of symbolic encounter: Min Tanaka coming from the East, John Cale coming from the West, and the two meeting in the middle in Central Europe.
“Both of them influenced Czech art, though they probably so much aware of that. John, as a member of the Velvet Underground, was a great inspiration for the Plastic People of the Universe and other Czech underground bands.
“And not only them: The name Velvet Underground brought the name of the Velvet Revolution. American journalists invented this title and we started to use it.
“Both of them were quite important but they had never met before. They met for the first time on the stage of Archa Theatre.
You mentioned the Velvet Revolution. Tell us about Archa’s relationship with Václav Havel.
“Besides being a playwright, artist, dissident and president, Václav Havel was a very curious man. When we were building Archa he came to see the building site.
“Later on he asked me, when we had already opened, to organise his 60th birthday party. He told me, it has to be well organised but informal. Two things that are total opposites. How to do an informal party, but well organised? [Laughs].
“But we succeeded. Ten years later, when he wrote his play Leaving and didn’t succeed in having it staged at the National Theatre he came to me and asked if we wouldn’t produce his play as a world premiere here at Archa. And we are very proud of that.”
What does the future hold for Archa Theatre, do you think?
“I believe that if an art institution reflects the development of society, if its flexible and keeps seeking new impulses, that’s its only chance to survive.
“Of course we have to accommodate to a much more difficult economic situation in recent years than when we started. It’s absurd but it is so – in the ‘90s the situation for the arts was so much better.
“On the other hand, I feel also that this crisis that people call an economic or financial crisis is also a crisis of values. And more and more artists are reacting to that, creating new radical theatre, new political theatre, new socially engaged theatre.
“It’s something we didn’t witness 20 years ago and something that is really important for the health of society.”