Language no barrier at Prague Fringe Festival


Last week Prague locals as well as visitors had the chance to see 166 performances of theater, poetry, dance, music, puppets, improvisation and other shows, mostly by amateurs. The Prague Fringe Festival was established just three years ago, but the history of fringe festivals goes back to 1947 in Edinburgh. At the time some of the performers were not allowed to perform at the city's larger official festival. In response they established their own "fringe" performances. Today the idea has spread to about 50 towns around the world, mostly in English speaking countries. In Prague too it is dominated by the English language and is popular with the city's English speaking community.

But this situation is slowly changing, says the festival director Steven Gove.

"It's quite interesting, because in the first year the majority of our shows were in English but every year we seem to have more of a mixture - we've got a lot of non-verbal theatre, we've got dance theatre and music as well, we even have theater in Czech from local groups. But yes there are English language performances at our festival and every year again and increasingly there are more and more Czechs coming along. When people ask about tickets, I usually say: 'Do you realize that it's in English'? - 'Oh no problem, we are happy, we want to come and see something in English!' So it's actually received with very open arms, which is very nice."

Even though the Prague Fringe Festival is rather young and different from other events of similar kind, it has developed a special atmosphere.

"I think the most wonderful thing about this theater is the 150 performers who have flown from all over the world to perform here. They all get to know each other and they also get to know people who have come to see their shows. We have a wonderful spot here down by Certovka River which is a terrace bar. Everyone gathers here, you get to meet people, so it becomes a very sort of a social event. It's not just about going to the theater, seeing a show, and saying: 'Wasn't that wonderful!' It's about running to the next theater, it's about running to the bar for a quick drink and than meeting somebody that you met three nights ago who saw the same show as you. It's an incredibly social event which is, I think, what we feel as fairly unique."

The intimate atmosphere of the festival is also appreciated by Andi Neat, a singer from Scotland, whose music you're now hearing. Andi has performed at many similar festivals, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She came to the Prague Fringe Festival last year and enjoyed it so much that she decided to come again.

"I think there is something very much more community about this festival that I've seen so far. The performers all get to know each other because it's small enough you'll get to meet each other - which is very good. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is so big! I prefer the Prague Fringe because it's smaller."

Andi Neat is also a talented songwriter. Her music is a blend of folk and jazz, the songs are intimate and magical. The lyrics are an essential part of her songs.

"Nearly all the songs I sing are written by myself. This is the odd couple that I sing. It changes, you know, as I write material....Some songs are written by people like Suzanne Vega....although I do a couple of songs I know from friends of mine. I kind of like doing stuff by friends."

But the Fringe Festival is above all a theater festival. Four artists from the United States and the United Kingdom developed a dance performance called "Bird Trilogy". They describe their show as something where the grotesque contrasts with the elegance of their specially designed hair-dos and with the beauty of the dance. They say their stay in Prague has inspired them in their art.

"I think Prague has very rich history of theater, creativity and arts so it fosters that. You can feel very home here as an artist. It's very inspiring and enriching for our own process and also for our performance as well."

"I feel that it's the most beautiful city I've ever been to and so I feel inspired by walking around and that's informing my ability to dance. It's also informing the monologues. I feel there is something in the humor here that is similar to what we are working with and what we are interested in."

Poetry Vandals - whose performance you're just hearing - is a group of six artists - poets and performers. Their poetry is rather unconventional, funny and creative; on the other hand they are also provocative, sometimes even shocking. I met with the group made up of Scott, Jeff, Kate, Annie, Aidan and Karl after the show and asked them to tell me a bit more.

"Well we started about five years ago in New Castle, there was a night going on there of music and poetry and things like that. Some of us started getting up and doing our stuff and we found it easy if we work together as a group - a bit of self-support."

What kind of poetry do you do? How would you describe it?

"Well our poems are so different, because the six of us are really different. So some of the poems are funny, some are political, some rhyme some don't rhyme...It's probably the best mix of poetry, you'll ever get on the stage!"

Who writes the poetry? Dou you write it yourself or do you use poems written by someone else?

"Mostly we use our own material, occasionally we take someone else's material and vandalize it - hence the name poetry vandals. So - yeas - it's all original."

Where do you look for inspiration? What kind of topics do you use, what kind of things do you depict?

"I probably look from the end of my nose and between my ears for inspiration. Whatever interests me, whatever takes my fantasy. There are always eternal themes of love and tragedy and so on. But it's often on the lighter side of life as well."

Is there anything particular you like to focus on?

"Well, cars, football and drinking come up a lot! (They laugh) So yes, they are popular subjects with us...We like politics as well - we like to take political issues and show it up to the light. So we did a CD of war poetry mainly about the Iraqi war but about other issues too."

Actually I was quite surprised when I heard that in some of your poems even Prague was mentioned or you even referred to Czech history. How did you come to that?

"Well, I've been to Prague before and I researched the history, and I always like to put things like history into poetry form. It makes it more accessible for people."

However, there is one problem - the language. Of course, you need to have quite a high level of understanding English if you want to understand poetry. Most of the Czechs probably do not have such good English. How do you face that problem?

"Well, we've found that a lot of the audience so far has been English, quite a few have been American but the Czech people we've had so far and last year have mainly had quite good English - definitely good enough to understand poems. And even if you can't understand every word, you still get a good idea of what's going on. We are performers and we are using our body and hands as well."

The fourth year of the Prague Fringe Festival is over. Of course, we have only had time to present a few of the artists that performed there. Many other interesting groups from different countries have featured their shows. If you missed them, don't worry the event is definitely going to continue in the coming years.

And if you enjoyed the art of the Poetry Vandals, keep listening to Radio Prague, some of their poems inspired by Prague will be featured in one of our programs in the near future.