This chapter was written by Jana Svobodová and published in 2014 in Karaoke Europe: A Handbook to Social-Specific Theatre, as documentation of the project “Karaoke Europe” with the support of the European Union.
A theatre performance that was created on the basis of cooperation between professional artists and residents of Kostelec nad Orlicí, representing three different groups: long-time ethnic Czech residents, Roma, and refugees waiting for asylum in the local refugee camp.
- Start of preparations for the performance: June 2012
- Place: Kostelec nad Orlicí, Archa Theatre, Prague
- Work in progress: June 2013, Kostelec nad Orlicí, Archa Theatre, Prague
- Premiere: 11 and 12 February 2014, Archa Theatre, Prague
- Concept: Jana Svobodová, Philipp Schenker
- Creative team: Jana Svobodová, Philipp Schenker, Jan Burian, Jaroslav Hrdlička
1. Position in the bigger picture
We started preparations for the performance two years before the premiere, in June 2012. The method of working that we chose would not have been possible without the experience we had gained from similar projects. The history of our work goes back to sometime in 2003. If I may use a metaphor, I would compare this work to wandering in an unknown landscape. Our journey had a goal, but we did not have any map or other directions. We knew the direction, but we did not know exactly how to get to the destination. We only knew that we would not be able to reach it by ourselves, we needed companions. But we did not know them yet, we had to find them. We wanted them to tell us their stories. The stories and storytellers then became part of the performance.
At the beginning of the journey the theme was “Karaoke Europe”. Karaoke is a form of entertainment where the singer tries to adapt his singing to an existing melody. It does not always quite work. The melody is immutable. It is up to the singer to seize the opportunity. In a small town in eastern Bohemia three population groups coexist: ethnic Czechs, Roma, and refugees, residents of the local refugee camp. Who must adapt to whom and how? What will this karaoke look like? Who sings whose song?
Why are we engaged as theatre professionals in such work in the first place? Would it not be easier to find a suitable text somewhere, get a few fellow pros together and use tried and tested methods of commenting on particular issues? In 1988 when I had the opportunity to participate in the development of major theatre events at the farm of the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, what fascinated me the most (as a then recent graduate of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts) was the fact that the centre of the stage was often occupied by people who radiated immense power. I remember a seriously ill woman lying on a folding bed who could hardly move. Angels hovered around her, a choir comprised of outstanding singers and local farmers. Another time an accordionist, who spoke almost no English, played songs alone in a language which certainly none of the Americans could understand. He was from Armenia. At that time, I had no idea that 20 years later I would meet another Armenian who would be an excellent accordion player. For eight years I have worked with the accordionist Gugar Manukjan, whom I first met in a refugee camp, in theatre and music performances.
Theatre theory says that the actor must have a reason to enter the scene. The actor, however, must find this reason based on acting techniques by himself. These people, who were not trained in theatre really have a reason. That is their indispensable power. Since then, I have believed that people who have a reason to share their story with the audience also have a real reason to stand on stage. The daily lives of these people generally does not provide the opportunity to share their stories. Several times I experienced a similar principle involving untrained performers in Vermont, for example when working with Peter Schumann and other artists. In 1992 Min Tanaka involved three very old women in his choreography The Rite of Spring at the National Theatre. Their presence on stage created a sophisticated contrast to the trained performers and contributed to the profound statement, which the dancers could not achieve without their presence. Rimini Protokoll integrate “experts on life” in their productions. Besides these examples, I will discuss the work of Dutch group Dogtroep in more detail in the following sections.
Our goal was to create a space in which we can talk about things that are not discussed in everyday life, by using theatrical tools. The project sounds like a joke at the beginning: A refugee, a Gypsy and a Czech meet in the square in Kostelec nad Orlicí… And with a joke like this, our journey into the unknown began.
2. Sources and inspirations
Sometime around 2003, I discovered an article in the magazine Respekt that stunned me and became an impulse for a long-term project in refugee camps. The article was about fear in a small town in Bohemia. Its inhabitants were afraid of people who lived behind the fences of a refugee camp. In the photo there were iron fences, and children and adults crowded behind them. At the time we had planned a project with renowned Dutch group Dogtroep. The inspiration was the performance they created in a prison in Bruges. Dogtroep chose the principle of “one group” for building a theatre situation. Among the performers, the audience could not distinguish members of the artistic team from convicts. This principle became the basis for an artistic project in one of the refugee camps in the Czech Republic, created in collaboration with Dogtroep.
We approached the Ministry of the Interior with the idea of staging a theatre performance in the refugee camp, co-directed by the camp’s residents themselves. The performance would be intended for the general public, especially those who live next to the camp. After months of persuasion and repeated meetings with the management of the camp and the heads of the Refugee Facilities Administration, we obtained permission to create the performance.
In autumn 2003, we moved to the refugee camp in Červený Újezd with the Czech artistic team and several members of Dogtroep. The workshop was great. I had the feeling that in direct collaboration with members of Dogtroep we had the chance to look under the hood of their know-how, which I admired as a spectator in the prison in Bruges, at the Carré in Amsterdam, and other places. All these performances had inspired us deeply. We left the camp with the feeling that we could handle such a project with the Dutch. Dogtroep, however, split up soon after.
After some hesitation about whether we could manage the work by ourselves without much previous experience, we realized that we had no other choice. If we failed, we would disappoint the refugees in the camp whom we had approached and whose trust we had gradually gained.
Starting from December 2004 we regularly visited various refugee camps and held music and theatre workshops. We named the working principle as the “1+1 principle”. Based on it, a theatre performance arose for every situation. It is based on the participation of professional artists, authors of the concept, and those who were invited to participate in the creative process. We sometimes call them “storytellers”, sometimes “experts on life”.
Another important element of the 1+1 principle is common experience. A theatrical situation is a ground for sharing this experience. In the performance vadí-nevadí.cz, performer Philipp Schenker enters an audio-visual space where Mrs. Halušková, a Roma activist from Kostelec nad Orlicí, stands. We see both figures in the shade of an umbrella. In real life, Philipp and Mrs. Halušková indeed first met under the rain in the square. Mrs. Halušková was standing under an umbrella because there was no place to go inside on a Sunday in Kostelec. On stage, they both share the same experience before the eyes of the audience. In another situation, two young Belarusians who took part in mass demonstrations against Lukashenko, were expelled from the university and had to leave their homeland, teach a group of local children the clapping which the protesters used in the main square in Minsk. By means of this stage situation, the group becomes a part of these protests. They become guests in someone else’s experiences. This experience raises questions, creating a sense of belonging and encounter.
The 1+1 principle creates a space for trust. The people we work with are primarily those who want to participate in theatre. In any case, first it is necessary to create an environment of trust. We have discovered that this is one of the most difficult steps: How to convince new people to work with us? How to explain to them what their task will be?
Whenever I stand before an unknown group of people full of uncertainty, I think of artists who once stood in the same situation in front of me, and I say to myself: “Yes, it is possible.”
3. Methodology, line of development
It is said that when one starts to talk about the method, the creative process ends there. I think that this saying does not apply, just like the saying “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
If both these rules applied, the projects that we discuss here would have never come into being. Much of the work which we refer to here as the 1+1 principle is just a teaching and learning process as a tool of theatrical communication. This method of teaching is used as an open exchange of experience, whether they are professionals or storytellers, or a refugee’s child who cannot speak Czech. The process of mutual learning creates a space for an equal dialogue. The greater the communication barrier, the greater the challenge to search for forms of experience exchange. In the performance vadí-nevadí.cz, an 11-year-old girl teaches nine other people the basics of self-defence on stage. In everyday life this is a very unlikely situation. All the participants (small Roma boys, the couple from Belarus, Mrs. Halušková and Philipp Schenker) repeat the exercises in their own way. A moment later, a small Roma boy named Tomáš, dances hip hop and his Czech friend joins him. In everyday life an encounter between these people would have never occurred. Both boys admitted that they had never spoken to each other before. In the framework of a theatre situation, they have a chance to share someone else’s experience, to become active members of it, to understand it and therefore to understand each other.
In September 2014, Philipp Schenker, Jan Burian, Jaroslav Hrdlička and I built a tent in the square of Kostelec nad Orlicí. We called it the Newsstand. The Newsstand was a place where people stop to make small talk with a neighbour or with the tobacconist. In the Newsstand everyone could buy newspapers, stamps, cigarettes, postcards and many other things. But in our Newsstand, we did not sell anything. Instead, we exchanged “something” for a story: coffee for a story, a cigarette for a story, and a story for a story.
We chose this kind of bartering as a way to reach out to strangers in Kostelec nad Orlicí. The Newsstand was an expression of our previous experience. When we wanted someone to tell us a story, we started by offering ours to them. In 2003, we were in the crowded gym of the refugee camp in Červeny Ujezd. There were people from all over the world, but mainly those who fled with their whole families from the war in Chechnya. Old people, young couples, children. Alarmed. Doubtful. We asked if anyone knew any folk songs, and everyone was silent. Someone from our group tried a classic Moravian folk song. Within half an hour everyone was singing it. Then a red-faced guy from Moldova said he can dance. I asked him to show us. The Moldovan danced for a long time, then others joined in. Occasionally someone else added something new. Everyone watched the new elements closely. They created a completely new dance, which we then incorporated into a small performance.
I think of this moment whenever I stand in front of strangers with the idea that these are the very people I would like to collaborate with in the future. It is me who has to offer them something first, not the other way around. It is me who must reveal something about herself, invite them to a new dialogue that takes place at a different level than the reality of everyday life.
All sorts of different people came to our Newsstand in Kostelec nad Orlicí. For us it was a victory just when someone stopped and asked what we have. From all sides all I heard was: “Don’t think that anyone will talk to you!” We feared that we were too aggressive in our desire to reach an unknown passer-by, or too submissive to get noticed. The idea of bartering proved to be a good move.
An interview often looked like this:
Woman: What do you have here?
Us: It’s kind of a newsstand. We exchange coffee for a story.
Woman: What story?
Us: Would you like a coffee? Or a cigarette?
Woman: I don’t smoke, but I’ll have a coffee.
Us: Sit down with us for a little while. Are you from around here?
Woman: Yes, I grew up here and still live here.
Us: Do you like it here?
People mostly talked. When asked whether we can record the conversation, some said yes, some said no. But we needed to record the conversations. Philipp Schenker, as a graphic designer, came up with the idea of converting the stories into comics. During the narrative, Philipp drew. We then gave them the picture, took a photo together, and in this way also kept the story. To the question why we need the story, we answered truthfully that we will do theatre and added “If your story appears in any form on stage, we will let you know.” This situation never occurred. All stories that served as the basis of the theatrical situations were eventually presented by the storytellers themselves.
More people stopped by. In the afternoon schoolchildren came. With them we exchanged a game for a story. On the site we created with them short animated movies using an inexpensive camera. We would put various items on a small table and the child would move them around as he/she wished. Click. Items moved. Click. Then a bit further. Click. In the end we watched the animated film together. Small personal stories.
We even exchanged a story for a story. Both Philipp and I prepared 10-minute solo performances. Considering the subject matter of the project, we talked about our experiences in an “unknown foreign country.” Philipp as a Swiss living in the Czech Republic has a rich experience of this. When he moved to Prague in the 1990s, very few people spoke English there. I never lived in a foreign country for a long time. But I spent some time in the mountains of Japan in 1992. In addition to dance training at Min Tanaka’s farm, I participated in field work. I experienced a moment of utter despair stemming from not understanding the language and a very superficial knowledge of Japanese customs and culture. Can this kind of experience provoke a debate on the topic of “being a stranger in Kostelec nad Orlicí”? Foreigners, people of different cultures, religions and skin colours belong to the everyday atmosphere of this town, thanks to the refugee camp. I chose a group of older ladies who were long-time Czech residents. I was standing in front of them next to a small round coffee table on which I had hidden in a pile of photographs documenting my stay in Japan. I told my story showing pictures. I made the gestures that I never understood. To my surprise, all the ladies lamented one after the other how terrible it must be when one is in a foreign country and does not understand anything. They all agreed that it would have been difficult for them as well. We could then easily open a discussion on the topic of refugees in Kostelec nad Orlicí. The important thing was that we met, and whenever we met in the square we talked cordially. The square in Kostelec nad Orlicí is a real meeting place. Everyone can see who talks with whom, who is hurrying where and at what time they take the bus. My friends, these ladies, were in the square almost every day. I was sure that at least one of them would get involved in our work. I believed that we would learn more about her life, maybe she would even be in the performance itself.
The autumn of 2012 can be described as the first phase of the project. Our goal was to explore the city using the personal stories of its inhabitants. Schoolchildren formed a large part of our collaborators. Thanks to the kindness of the director of the school, we were able to work with students in the form of music and art workshops. We asked the children to show us places they love in the town. Together we formed a map of the town, which we called the “emotional map”.
An important part of the work was with Roma children. Jan Burian and Jára Hrdlička established cooperation with these children thanks to their distinctive rhythmic abilities. Together they did beatbox, rap and hip hop. In this first phase of the project groups of Czech and Roma children were completely separate.
In October 2012, we completed the first phase of the short theatrical happenings, which began in the square in Kostelec nad Orlicí and moved to the school building. In the context of performance, which was more like a mosaic, different groups performed entirely separately: Czech children, Roma children, and the children from the refugee camp. American musician Michael Romanyshyn also attended this preparatory phase. As a musician who excels in the ability to play music with everyone, he was keen to meet with Czech musicians from Kostelec nad Orlicí. However, his expectations were not fulfilled. No one showed up. Pupils from the local art school were banned from participating in the project by their teachers. Hoping to get a local brass band engaged, Michael composed several polkas. This did not arouse interest. Michael then gave up his participation in the project.
We returned to Kostelec nad Orlicí in the spring of 2013. Along with us came colleagues from Holland. Musician, actor, and a former member of the Dutch group Dogtroep Ted van Leeuwen, a young theatre theorist Lonneke van Heughten, whom I approached for dramaturgical cooperation. Lonneke also closely monitors the development of various European projects for her own scientific research.
4. Karaoke project – why we joined, expectations, how it went, and how it influenced the partners
The project conditions very clearly defined the boundaries within which all interested parties will work. Four partners from four different EU countries. A common theme. The obligation of cooperation among the partners. The obligation to contribute additional financing from own resources in an equally large sum, provided by a grant from the European Union. The conditions stipulate with whom the project will develop and how this cooperation will take shape. These were the conditions that define each stage of the process. In the current practice of theatre work as we understand it, the creator approaches his close associates. At the very beginning there is an idea, a topic. All elements of theatrical expression are formed in parallel as the project itself develops: the text is created simultaneously with musical inputs; the scenography is formed during the process.
In the case of the vadí-nevadí.cz project another element of theatrical expression has been added, a very important variable: involvement of the population of Kostelec nad Orlicí in the creative process. At the very beginning we did not know whether such a move would succeed. And if it would, who would be our new co-creators? And finally, how would they be involved in the work? Would they provide their story to the theatrical process while themselves remaining hidden? Would anybody be willing to appear with us on stage and become an authentic narrator of their own story? Would anyone be willing to enter into the stories of other residents of Kostelec nad Orlicí? Who would they be?
With all these unknowns, we embarked on the Karaoke Europe project knowing that part of it involves the active participation of the foreign partners through workshops and creative meetings. We knew Dutch musician and theatre artist Ted van Leeuwen from his work in Dogtroep. The group was close to us in its dramaturgy and theatrical language. In the 1990s Philipp Schenker was an external member of Dogtroep. Musician Jan Burian, another member of our team, met Dogtroep as part of the Cool Heavy Tango project. The group had prepared this project for the Archa Theatre in the 1990s and invited local artists. Jan was one of them. On the other hand, Ted van Leeuwen, inspired by our music group the Allstar Refjúdží Band, founded a similar group in the Netherlands called the Orchestra Partout. So, we had a clear and logical reason to reach out to Ted van Leeuwen.
Stanica in Žilina is one of the most prominent cultural centres for contemporary art in Slovakia. Stanica entered the European project with a project led by cultural anthropologists based on urban legends. The source of these legends was all sorts of meetings with management representatives of KIA, the Korean automaker based in Žilina. The team that came together as part of the Stanica project had never worked with us before. We felt, however, that we were on the same page about how we think about the role of the performing arts in contemporary society. Hungarian dramaturge Anna Lengyel, founder of the group PanoDrama, has focussed for a long time on the problematic situation of Hungarian Roma. She works with real sources. These people, together with a team of dramaturges and professional actors, elaborated the Verbatim method, where the text of a play is the literal transcript of testimony of real people involved in a conflict. Anna was introduced to us by Gyorgy Szabó, director of the Trafo Theatre in Budapest. Anna’s working method appeared to be close to our theatrical approach. Taken together, there was sufficient input for a partnership in a joint European project. We filled in all the forms, put together budgets and submitted our application. In March 2012, we received word from Brussels that we had succeeded. The project, which had until then existed only on paper, suddenly gained real contours. In parallel with the joy from the fact that we could realize our artistic plans came a series of concerns arising out of the mission of the Karaoke Europe project itself.
The two-year project started with an opening meeting of all partners at the Archa Theatre. Many of the partners had never met before in person. The main topic of the meeting was a plan involving methodological and collaborative workshops. I admit that two hours of debate on the nature of methodological and collaborative workshops made me panic. How could we create together when we could not even agree on the basic terms and their meanings? Looking back, I realize that it was a case of administrative confusion – the fact that the plan of the workshop was created not by the artists themselves, but by administrators who did not consult about the description of the project with those who will actually implement it. The lack of communication created unnecessary tension between the initial authors of the individual projects. Another aspect was a certain suspicion, which is a natural part of every encounter with the unknown. Our group came up with 19 joint activities, eight of which the Archa team proposed as the organizer. The project also included a workshop for foreign partners in Kostelec nad Orlicí. I think that each of us had these questions in our minds: How to cooperate? How to prepare space for colleagues from Karaoke Europe for exchanging experiences? What kind of experience? With whom? How to involve “specific groups”, in our case residents of Kostelec nad Orlicí, in cooperation with strangers?
A theatrical process is a very delicate matter. In a process in which “real people” are involved, this fragility is even more evident. Convincing non-professionals to actively participate in the preparation is one of the most difficult tasks of the process. It was hard for us to imagine how to explain to a Roma mother from Kostelec nad Orlicí that she will work together with a Hungarian dramaturge who does not speak Czech. The schedule of the work was set in the application, which was created approximately one year before the start of the project. As was the case in everything, we hoped the European grant would permit us and we did not know what will happen. How would we do it all? We felt a strong conflict between what was created in order to fulfil the administrative requirements and the actual creative process.
Two years after the start of the project and these initial concerns, we succeeded in doing all the pre-arranged meetings – the conference in Budapest, the collaborative workshop in Alkmaar, Holland, the methodological workshop in Žilina, and the collaborative and methodological workshop in Kostelec nad Orlicí (except for one “collaborative workshop”). The creation of our performance took two years. We started with the intention of getting to know the unknown town, of meeting with residents and representatives of different groups. Through a series of different workshops, the performance of the work-in-progress called Promised Land took its final shape, which we called vadí-nevadí.cz and presented in February 2014 at the Archa Theatre. We conducted one more collaborative workshop with the PanoDrama group, which took place in the evening of the final day of the Karaoke Europe Festival at the Archa Theatre in May 2014.
What were our feelings? Did our fears materialize or was the whole process – which at the beginning had appeared so complicated and unnatural – a voyage of discovery full of creative productive meetings? From the very beginning, we knew that our work would be a theatre performance based on the authentic presence of the inhabitants of Kostelec nad Orlicí. After the premiere, which was very well received by the audience, I admit that the whole process was extremely meaningful, even though it was planned in such a complicated way.
Ted van Leeuwen was with us in Kostelec nad Orlicí during the phase when it was necessary to involve the widest possible team of local schoolchildren. From the statements, which we considered as the key for our performance, we created choruses based on simple harmonies. The children were still divided into two groups, one formed of ethnic Czech children and one of Roma children. Ted van Leeuwen’s workshop contributed to the development of our project, not only in terms of music, but also socially. It naturally linked the two groups.
One of the chapters of our performance was entitled The Bus Stop. Twelve-year-old Hana, who lives in a village not far from Kostelec nad Orlicí, received from Jára Hrdlička a small camera with the task of documenting her bus ride home. While shooting the landscape through which she passed, she kept saying “It’s beautiful!” We decided to create a similar bus on stage. In answer to the question “Who will be the driver,” a little Roma boy named Kevin volunteered. We knew that despite his speech impediment, he was gifted with an extraordinary sense of rhythm. Jan Burian began to develop a specific “freestyle” rap with him interspersed with beatbox. Emotions and perfect rhythm overshadowed the fact that almost nobody understood Kevin. Who else was on the bus? Everyone? So everyone got into our imaginary bus. The Czech children automatically sat down in front, the Roma at the back. Kevin as the driver set the rhythm. The others sang together the song “It’s beautiful!” To create a chorus, the group had to be mixed. Based on the rules of choral singing, there was no reason for the Czech and Roma children to be divided.
The “bus” scene remained in the performance of vadí-nevadí.cz. Kevin, as the driver, performed his freestyle. The choral singing resounded only as an echo from the recordings. The children argued about their places on the seats as passengers with a certain amount of irony. There was a certain level of aggression. They could afford it on stage, because it connected them to a common experience that changed their relationship, which had hitherto been determined by social convention.
Anna Lengyel arrived with a group of dramaturges from Budapest at one of the workshops to participate in the “work in progress” phase of the performance. Despite the language barrier, the PanoDrama team analysed the performance based on the logic of the story being told. Their keen observation and responsiveness to the topic shifted our relationship from initial distrust to creative communication, as though we reverify the rules under which we speak to co-workers. We cannot work with people we do not know. We never work with people with whom we do not have a personal relationship first. This does not mean that we do not seek new collaborators, but before commencing the work we set aside time to get to know each other. This time was lacking in the Karaoke Europe project plan. The theatrical process is, as I said earlier, based on absolute trust. In this project, which was based on the personal stories of all involved, this rule applied even more. The environment of trust between the collaborating partners occurred about halfway through the process. After the work was completed, I thought it would be more productive to bring the administrators and artistic team together more frequently. They should have had the chance to hear the problems each party had to deal with, which were inherently so different. I believe this could have helped us avoid occasions which caused a sense of distrust and would have replaced it with an environment of inspiration and mutual influence.
5. Who is our audience?
I think the following question is more important than asking who our audience is: “Who do we want as our audience?” As it is evident in the parts described so far, the performance that we created as a part of the Karaoke Europe project was based on completely different principles than performances created with professional actors. The result, however, was still a theatre premiere and repeated performances that took place at the Archa Theatre. However, during its creation we did not focus on the expectations of traditional theatre audience. At first glance these are contradictory standpoints.
In Kostelec nad Orlicí a performance based on the active participation of local residents arose over a year and a half. We therefore assumed that half of the audience would consist of residents of Kostelec, a “sample” of whom participated in the preparation of the performance. A performance right in Kostelec nad Orlicí seemed like a natural step. In June 2013 we spent three weeks with intensive preparations in the local community centre. Although this was just an intermediate step, a work in progress, it had all the characteristics of a theatre performance. Our aim was to verify the effect our work had on the audience. From the very beginning, the preparation process reckoned on that aspect. We organized workshops right in the main square and in the local elementary school. We built a newsstand, which served as a place to exchange stories and insights. We believed that in this way we would build friendly ties that would form a basis for trust. We were aware that these people had not invited us to their town as theatre artists. But we expected to arouse curiosity. People would ask “What are those people from Archa doing here?”, “What will it be?” Through this curiosity, we created an audience in a town where theatre was not a part of everyday life. We expected a massive turnout at the show, which involved children from local primary schools, Roma children from Mrs. Halušková’s club, and a young Belarusian couple that some of the residents remember from the time when they lived in the refugee camp. We printed posters and hung them everywhere we could, including in the refugee camp, prepared leaflets and handed them out to everyone we met in the square. The posters and leaflets were also in restaurants, in the sweetshop and other places where we regularly went. To attract attention, we decided to start performances in the main square and to lead the audience to the community centre by means of a parade with the band.
Despite all our efforts, to our surprise the hall remained half-empty at the performance. In the audience there were several Roma families and not even all the parents of the child performers. Perhaps even more surprised by the low turnout were the director of the public elementary school and the deputy mayor. Nobody expected it. Whatever the reason, the plan to create the final shape of the show directly in Kostelec nad Orlicí turned out to be completely wrong. It was clear that we still had a long way to go to get a local audience.
So, who was our audience? Four days after the show in Kostelec nad Orlicí, I transferred the entire production to the Archa Theatre. Archa is known for its educational focus and activist audience. The auditorium was full. The audience was enthusiastic. In our journey to find a new audience, we set ourselves a daunting task. For a performance that was created with the inhabitants of Kostelec nad Orlicí, it was necessary to make its own way before returning to its hometown. Getting recognition elsewhere, away from the place where they were all at home, was needed. The old saying “Nobody is a prophet at home” seemed to apply to our project directly.
After the premiere of vadí-nevadí.cz and after the first encore performances at the Archa Theatre, we went to Brno and Plzen in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. Our goal remains to bring vadí-nevadí.cz back to where it all started, in the main square of Kostelec nad Orlicí. If the audience will come, it will mean that something has truly changed there.
6: Ethical issues and sustainability
It seems that our work created more questions than answers. The premiere was held. The people with whom we cooperated, who were strangers a year and a half ago, became our close friends. We like each other, trust each other, are honest with one another. A large family has been established in which the rules that we created in the course of work apply. One of the rules is mutual responsibility.
The whole process nevertheless still has two important lines based on the nature of the project: The social line and the artistic line. These two lines are intertwined, and each of them has a slightly different objective. The first seeks to destroy ongoing prejudices in society, working with social codes, which are a source of tension, hatred and ignorance. The second line places professional artistic demands on all of those who are involved. This is essentially a prerequisite for our joint work, which is a theatre performance. This we present to the audience in a professional theatre. The rules of professional artistic work lead all parties to accountability. The responsibility belongs not only to the performance – it is mainly about mutual responsibility. In our system there are no stage managers, stagehands or other helpers. Everyone is responsible not only for themselves, but also for the other performers, for the items, costumes and technology that are used. For example, at one point in the show little Kevin gives the microphone to Philipp Schenker. He knows that if he does not do so, Philipp will not be heard on stage. Tomáš helps Hana attach the cable to the camera. Without his help the contact would be disconnected and the whole scene would lose its meaning. The scene is constantly changing. Four projection screens are constantly shifting. New environments are created. The walls, the projectors and the cameras move on the scene, not by being operated by professional theatre technicians, but by all the performers. The timing and quality of the theatrical form depends on the cooperation of a team who had no previous theatrical experience. The youngest was eight years old and used to go to a special school at the time. This performance was entirely in the hands of people who a year and a half earlier had no idea that there was a place in Prague called the Archa Theatre.
Our two lines are inseparable. One accompanies the other. One serves the other sometimes as a backup, sometimes as a healthy obstacle that must be overcome. In a conventional performance, i.e. one based on a text interpreted by actors, the protagonists can be replaced. Anyone else can take over the role of Hamlet. In our performance this is not the case. Our protagonists utter words that belong only to them. They themselves are the narrators of their own stories. They are irreplaceable and they are aware of it. Each of the protagonists knows that the others are also depending on them. The ethics of our work is based on mutual respect; it does not depend on the director or the degree of public popularity.
That is one aspect of the ethical approach. The second, less visible in the result of the process, is the ethical issue we must consider as creators. The Newsstand was a place where we learned all sorts of stories. We then wanted to record them. Our ethical responsibility requires us to ask these questions to our participants: “Can we record your story?”, “Can we work further with your story?”, “Would you mind if we used it in a theatre performance?” Mostly we received positive responses. If people did not want to be recorded, we did not record them. After the interview, I sometimes took some notes for our own orientation. We never used anything without the knowledge of the storytellers. The performance vadí-nevadí.cz features only what the protagonists brought to the project themselves. We often experienced situations in which they were not pleased with their own wording. In such cases we found another wording together. The same applies to the stage action, in which everyone participates.
And sustainability? What happened next? In the case of traditional theatre productions, the work usually ends with the last performance. It does not and cannot apply to what we do. The show is merely an external manifestation of relatively complex events and relationships. We are aware that the work on the performance is only a catalyst of the process, which can help people to improve their self-esteem. We feel responsible for what our intervention causes. Even if the performance only has one encore, we cannot simply close the work. Our commitment to the community that evolves around the performance does not allow it. It is a long-term commitment and therefore we constantly need to evaluate the results. Even shortly after the premiere, we saw small but significant changes:
• The Roma club transformed into a mixed club, which is also attended by Czech children now.
• Bara managed to finish primary school at the age of 16. Before the project, she had repeated several grades, claimed that she was tired of learning, and she was not interested in further education. Based on the experience of preparing the performance, she decided to study at the Central School of Social Work. She helped Mrs. Halušková in the club.
• Tomáš’s parents did not originally want to send him to the club because they did not think that additional education was important. Thanks to the performance, Tomáš now attends the club.
• Mrs. Halušková gradually realized that the public presentation of the problems that Roma people face gives publicity and greater credit to her social work.
• Thanks to their participation in our project, Belarusian refugees Hanna and Eugen met other people who helped them in their integration into Czech society. By talking about the situation in Belarus and the problems of living in a refugee camp openly on stage, they drew the attention of non-profit organizations that support democratic activities in Belarus.
• The school principal invited the creators of vadí-nevadí.cz to present the project at a meeting with students, teachers, schools and residents of Kostelec nad Orlicí.
• The town hall of Kostelec nad Orlicí came up with a proposal to support the presentation of vadí-nevadí.cz in Kostelec nad Orlicí.
• A sense of collective responsibility was established in the group, which could never have come about without their participation in the preparation of the performance.
7: Evaluation (positive and negative outcomes, risks/dangers, pitfalls, failures, by-products)
In the first part, I compared the preparation of the performance to a journey into an unknown landscape. Our journey was accompanied with moments of ambiguity and dangerous pitfalls. We had to overcome steep hills, deep valleys and high mountains. I tried to describe all of these in the previous parts, pointing to the specific cases.
The beginning of our work is always like a baby’s first steps. You have to try, touch, smell and taste everything. Nothing is ready in advance. We learn by doing. One activity is derived from another. One cannot make too big plans for the future. The greatest danger that threatens every stage of such work is hidden in such big plans. This does not mean that we should not set ambitious goals for ourselves. Too big plans mean premeditated strategies that describe the procedure of the work in detail, i.e. what participants should do, what they should learn, what to show. American director Anne Bogart says: “We’re here because we have watched and listened. Everything else is around us. Listen!” In other words, respond to everything that comes to you, get inspired at every moment of encounter. Be aware of such moments, then work with them. Let yourself be guided by what is happening around you. In theatre practice such a process might resemble improvisation. Improvisation ends where one partner forces the other to exercise with their intention or idea. At any time, whether it was the first meeting with people in the square or later work with children as a part of theatre workshops in schools, a similar rule applied in our work. We always had to open our own hearts, with the risk that the others will not. We were skating on very thin ice. Switch the recorder on without the storyteller’s permission, for example, and you’d fall through. At that moment, the possibility of further cooperation would be lost.
We never know what exactly will happen, who we will meet and whether we will meet again. The creation of the script depends heavily on who the author of the text is. There is nothing concrete to rely on at any given moment. We do not have validated procedures or an established methodology. This kind of work is extremely demanding for the professional team, i.e. the artists and producers. One thoughtless e-mail or phone call can mean losing the trust of people who work closely with you. Not every artist or producer can participate in such work.
The rehearsals mainly involve preparation of suitable conditions for our participants to tell their stories, so it looks different than usual stage work. We do not seek great actors for our professional team; we are looking for someone who is an actor, musician, artist, singer, author, and at the same time willing to stay hidden, to retreat when others stand in the lights. Such people are rare. A common mistake that can very negatively affect the work is not taking enough time to verify the ability of your creative team. If there is no trust within the professional artistic team, it can be difficult to establish confidence in the wider group.
I could describe more and more examples of pitfalls, joyful discoveries, meetings, breakups and misunderstandings. We see theatre as a unique means of communication where all other means fail. The performance of vadí-nevadí.cz, which was created as a part of the Karaoke Europe project, is proof of that.
Our professional team consisted of four artists: a musician, a video artist, a performer and a director. Along with other colleagues, we decided to embark on a journey in an unknown landscape and try to get out bearings relying on our professional skills. For two years we sought for a theatrical language in which we can express ourselves together with our new friends from Kostelec nad Orlicí. This language belongs only to this performance. In addition to the fact that we understood it, it turned out that the audience could also understand it. Therefore, it seems that our work was worthwhile.