In today's One on One Jan's guest is Ondrej Hrab the director of Prague's most cutting edge Archa Theatre. Mr Hrab sat down with Radio Prague to discuss the direction of Archa today as well as Questioning Heaven in Despair - one of its gorgeous flagship performances. Jan began by asking Mr Hrab about Archa's beginnings, including the period of the Velvet revolution that preceded its founding.
"Before the revolution the theatres were packed. Theatres were like the leading force because the audience was eager to read between the lines. Even if they played Shakespeare. Even Chekov could be understood as subversive to the communist regime. Well, after the revolution, after the situation came to be open, politics went to the streets, people were much more interested in public discussions. The theatres came to be empty. The audience which left the theatre never came back, so the theatres had to find a new audience. That was the situation when I started thinking about building a new theatre, building a new organisation."
One of the strongest points of the Archa Theatre is this striving for international communication, to bring that into play...
"Yes, well, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to build a new theatre, just to open the door to influences from abroad. Czech theatre was frozen by fifty years of isolation. I was sure that there was a community of people who were interested in new forms of the performing arts, at the same time hungry to experience new influences from abroad."
What was the first presentation, the first performance to premiere?
"Well, we opened in'94 and I was trying to symbolically present the idea of Archa Theatre and I phoned two artists who had never worked together before. On one side I phoned to the East, Japan, calling Japanese dancer Min Tanaka, and on the other to the West, John Cale, a musician who was famous for being a member of the Velvet Underground, which even gave the name to the Velvet revolution. They were a huge influence - heroes for many in the underground here, including the Plastic People of the Universe, who were strongly influenced by them. So, John Cale and Min Tinaka met on the Archa stage and created the opening ceremony. The performance being a sort of meeting of two artists of a different nature, trying to understand each other and at the same time to be understood by the audience and it worked perfectly. I still, from time to time, look at the piece they created on the spot and I am amazed how strong it was."
Last year, not even the tenth anniversary, and the theatre was struck by the worst event, the worst possible event in its history, the floods... At that time did you despair as director of Archa?
"Of course when your baby is totally destroyed, when all the plans you had are interrupted and you don't know if you will ever get the money to rebuild it again than you are not a very happy person. But, on the other hand, what was following the flood was something that gave me great hope. This catastrophic situation, this critical situation showed that Archa theatre is not only a place, it is something more - it is a community. And, this community is very coherent and the community can show also the solidarity. Which gave me the strength to continue."
The Archa Theatre was also one of the main venues for the "Canadian Season in Prague", which was interrupted by the floods...
"Well yes. Because we couldn't do this Canadian Season in Prague when we were flooded we will continue in November, we will bring the Canadian artists to Prague and we will finish our mission, which we promised to do last year. Along with two companies planned last year da da kamera from Toronto and Holy Body Tattoo from Vancouver. Da da kamera is spoken theatre, text-based theatre and Holy Body Tattoo is a dance company. We will bring another dance company from Montreal called O Vertigo and an experimental theatre company from in between Toronto and Montreal. It's called PME, the company is directed by Jacob Wren, but the actors, dancers, artists on the stage are from both cities, both communities, both English and French-speaking. The whole piece is made as a public discussion in a theatrical way. I thinking we are bringing quite an interesting programme of theatre companies which are pushing the limits not only here but also in Canada, where the arts I think at this moment are on a very high level."
In terms of Archa's own repertoire I saw one multimedia performance that I enjoyed very much called "Marne Tazani Nebes", inspired by Karel Slavicek notes from China. I think it would fascinate our listeners to hear a little how that was put together.
"We wanted to go back and show the sources of the contemporary arts in the Baroque. We went to the letters and diaries of Karel Slavicek, a Czech Jesuit who went to China in the 18th century. He was a part of a mission which was trying to accommodate the Christian faith to Chinese culture. This was the first impulse for making a piece which we later called "Questioning heaven in Despair". Another impulse was that we met a Chinese singer who was educated in the Beijing opera, who coincidentally ended-up in Prague. She is a fantastic singer. But, of course, you hardly have the stage for the Beijing Opera in Prague! So, we also wrote the piece for her and we were trying to merge traditional Chinese opera with Baroque on one stage. We have Chinese singers and Czech opera singers and, in the tradition of the Baroque theatre, we try and express the ideas of the piece more through images than words. In terms of the content, it's also a tribute to those who didn't "succeed" - the Jesuits didn't succeed in their mission. They were condemned by the Chinese emperor as well as the pope, who couldn't understand why they began to dress like the Chinese themselves, why they accepted Confucius and Lao-Tsu in their rituals... And the whole mission ended up a catastrophe. We were performing the piece during the last year in Poland and Germany, where it was easily accepted by the international audience and with great success. Now we are bringing it back to our home stage and we are looking forward to performing it here again."
You can visit Archa's website in Czech and English at www.archatheatre.cz
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