Such a Great Loss of (New) Blood (Daniela Špinar is Leaving National Theatre)
At the end of August 2021 Daniela Špinar announced that the upcoming season was going to be her last one in the position of the Artistic Director of the National Theatre Drama section. Characteristically, the director first publicized her decision in the following post on her Facebook profile (August 26, 2021): “Dear friends, I have decided to leave the position of Artistic Director at the National Theatre. I am going to stay for the forthcoming season to round off what has been planned and to hand over the agenda to my successors. To those of you, who have been following the Prague Faculty of Dramatic Arts “You Don’t! Have to endure it” initiative, I don’t have to explain anything. For those who want to know more, I would like to record a video, discussing the various ‘elephants in the closet’ and ‘Czech theatre mafia’, which I have never become a part of and I never will – because I have a conscience… However, the mere sitting back and having to observe it, has been quite unbearable. Even though I know nothing much is going to change and JB will probably keep all of his accumulated positions, trust me when I say that I feel better now and it has definitely been worth it! Thanks to all of you, who have kept your fingers crossed for us on our National Theatre journey – there haven’t been many of you, but that’s a tradition rooted in our society. Most of all I wish for the students of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts that the atmosphere in the school changes radically – it is worth it!”
The director’s statement even took some of the members of the ensemble by surprise. This indicates the hectic and explosive nature of these times. Daniela Špinar herself suggested that her decision resulted from a stir up in Czech theatre, provoked by the performance of You Don’t Have to Endure It. The director’s response to the students’ initiative was quite emotional and active from the very beginning. I have no doubt that it has played a crucial and critical role in her professional as well as her private life. However, it seems to me that she somehow ‘stole’ the whole affair and adjusted it to her own needs and to an extent reduced it to a dispute with Jan Burian, the longtime director of the National Theatre who is also the Head of the Department of Dramatic Theatre at the Theatre Faculty of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
The “elephants in the closet” and “theatre mafia”, mentioned by Daniela Špinar in her social media post, clearly demonstrated that she is not willing to cooperate with Jan Burian anymore, although only six months earlier she requested a three-year extension to her role as the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. Apart from this personal dissension, Špinar’s decision and its explanation also give the impression that the director and the National Theatre management have been facing prevailing differences of opinion regarding the practical operation of the theatre. It seemed that Burian was not a great fan of transitioning from the traditional Czech ’repertory’ program to the staging of productions in blocks, as was announced by Špinar in 2021. Moreover, Burian was not too keen on the idea of doing away with the repertory ensemble and transforming the National Theatre into more of a production house. Furthermore, Špinar seemed apparently worn out by navigating the ensemble of such a huge theatre playhouse and has repeatedly expressed her desire to engage in authorial and more personal work in smaller studio spaces. It is apparent that the roots of this sudden shift in opinion are to be situated into the so-called Covid outbreak. The material, which Špinar presented to the National Theatre board of directors on the occasion of extending her mandate, doesn’t contains the above opinions. In fact, she (quite legitimately) boasts of her part in the rejuvenation and consolidation of the ensemble.
Even though the phrase, “the Covid outbreak has provided us with an opportunity to re-think our work” has become quite hackneyed with time (and not only in the theatre community), it goes without saying that the management of the Drama section of the National Theatre quite revolutionarily re-evaluated their view of the theatre. A series of live-streamed discussions on the platform #cultureisthenation, broadcast from the Estates Theatre during the closure, were dedicated primarily to general topics such as the role of the National Theatre in society, the funding of culture and art criticism. The ND Talks – and other events or happenings – following the re-opening of theatres have shown a rising level of openness and an effort to address several issues that have been previously swept under the carpet. This is clearly related to the team’s decision to terminate their engagement in the National Theatre early, as it provided them with the liberating possibility to end the consideration of and “playing out” of various strategies. The departure of Daniela Špinar and the most important members of her team may thus reflect the director’s professional crisis and the urge to search for a new or at least different approach to theatre. However, it also seems to be the consequence of a sort of “operational” fatigue, almost inevitable in the longtime management of such a giant institution and being such a sensitive and complicated personality as Špinar no doubt is.
It might therefore come as a surprise that the actual departure (especially compared to the turbulent summer and September of 2021) comes across as very quiet and inconspicuous. When Špinar in the above quoted interview with Josefína Formanová stated that “leaving is normal” and promised a calm and concise handover of “power”, it seemed almost impossible to believe. However, in the end that is probably what happened. What has been going on in the theatre internally, we don’t know (which also is a sign of the proclaimed normality). Publicly, the termination of Špinar’s seven-year long engagement in the National Theatre was mainly acknowledged by a series of hosted ND Talks, subtitled Taking Stock. The first gathering, called Meeting with Daniela Špinar, took place on the 25th of October 2021. Another five such followed, entitled The Actor and Repertory Ensemble in Contemporary Theatre; Dramaturgy, the Running of a Theatre and Foreign Models, Economic and Social Situation of Theatre Practitioners, Working Conditions in Theatres. Visions and Utopias and finally – on the 12th of July 2022 – The Last Drop of Blood. Each of the live-streamed discussions introduced three guests, experts in the given field. Apart from the rather performance-like debate on the economic and social situation of theatre practitioners, the concept of which was more noticeably “directed” by Jan Frič, the individual discussions were quite serious and thorough. The whole series is available on the website ndtalks.cz, where one can find not only the recorded talks, but also a lot of accompanying material. As the title suggests, the last event in the series was exceptional in many ways. It went on for seven hours (one hour for each season in the National Theatre) in Václav Havel Square and spectators could meet with Daniela Špinar, Jan Frič and Marta Ljubková, all of whom kept changing into various bizarre costumes. One could have a conversation with them, eat an apple or just look on for a while.
The important question is – what legacy and accomplishments are Daniela Špinar, Marta Ljubková, Jan Frič and others leaving behind? One such contribution is without doubt the already mentioned ensemble, which Špinar quite radically (and scandalously) ‘cleansed’ and reassembled to her own needs right at the beginning of her mandate. However, she did not appoint ‘her own’ actors and actresses (the usual procedure in the past), which would would disfavour the ‘old guard’, condemning them at best to minor roles. Her decision to make an agreement with some members of the ‘old’ ensemble to leave the National Theatre altogether was shocking perhaps – as it defied tradition – but in the end was probably fairer. At present, the Drama ensemble is in the best possible shape. As some of the current productions, such as Vassa Zheleznova or The Father Watches Over the Daughter clearly show, the actors are capable of exceptionally harmonious interaction and interplay; be it strictly stylized performances or the more liberal methods, typical of smaller studio theatres. Moreover, this applies to all the generations of actors in the ensemble.
Daniela Špinar also contributed to the development of a program of activities under the now commonly used label ND+. Events, such as the aforementioned, #cultureisthenation and ND Talks or a special program, called New Blood, which introduced stage readings of new texts or ‘compiled’ evenings (as they were called), considerably contributed to enlivening the program and hopefully to the dismantling of the image of the National Theatre as an outdated institution. The occasional Emergency Briefings, which can be seen as an entirely specific chapter, were devoted to contemporary issues in culture and cultural politics, such as the recent situation in Poland, Hungary, Belarus and finally Ukraine, always with the participation of experts and other guests. And of course, one should not forget the festival Prague Crossroads, organized by dramaturgs Marta Ljubková and Sodja Lotker, which introduced not only famous foreign artists and ensembles but also performances and names that took even theatre professionals by surprise. Špinar and her team also attempted to open the National Theatre to other than theatrical events (which I have failed to list in their entirety), no doubt a bit involuntarily thanks to the Covid closure.
Looking back on the seven-year long era of Daniela Špinar and company, a term once ‘famously’ coined by the ex-President of The Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, comes to mind: ‘non-victory’. For a long time, Špinar’s position seemed secure. Had there been any conflicts between her team and the management of the theatre, represented by Jan Burian, they did not leak out to the public. And when Špinar, for whatever reason, finally openly revolted against Burian, she and her closest colleagues took it as a cue to resign and leave altogether. Jan Burian has kept both the position of the Head of the Department of Dramatic Theatre as well as the Director of the National Theatre. Daniela Špinar is being succeeded by the creative duo SKUTR and Marta Ljubková is replaced by the previous dramaturg of Prague City Theatres, Jana Slouková (a member of Burian’s university department from 2021). Jan Frič, the director of Vassa Zheleznova, awarded Best production of 2021 in the Theatre Critics Award survey, is to direct Euripides’ Bacchae in the National Theatre’s upcoming season, now in the role of a ‘mere’ visiting director. I have my doubts that rather than witnessing an ongoing revolution or evolution we are to expect quite an unfortunate normalization.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 4, volume 2022
translated by Ester Žantovská
) Even though this text refers to a period, when Daniela Špinar still identified herself as a man, I respect her decision – publically announced in the fall of 2021 - to become a woman. Thus I am strictly using the feminine gender.
) Daniela Špinar joined the National theatre team in 2015.
) The Head of Dramaturgy, Marta Ljubková, left her position during the theatrical season 21/22 and Jan Frič, the permanent director, is leaving with Daniela Špinar.
) ND+ for example refers to programs for schools, which offer not only the performances themselves but also introductory tutorials and workshops.