BARBORA ETLÍKOVÁ AND KAREL KRÁL – THE INCOMING EDITOR AND THE RETIRING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF THE WORLD AND THE THEATRE MAGAZINE – IN INTERGENERATIONAL DIALOGUE
Karel Král: In fact, this conversation started already in the courtyard of the Alfred ve Dvoře theatre in Prague, as we were waiting together for the beginning of a performance. I had just incidentally noted that the two of us belong to different generations, when a little girl, about twelve years old, interrupted us, saying that she too comes from yet another generation. We spent the rest of our time before the performance talking to her and her younger brother. The topic was fear. I was surprised that what my generation considers to be academic worries, such as the fear of climate change, these children experience as something that genuinely terrifies them. Later, I concluded that people are only afraid if something concerns them personally. Moreover, to be able to tackle this given problem, we would have to change of most of our existing habits.
Barbora Etlíková: It is hard for me to imagine that there are people who are not afraid of climate change. On the other hand, I don’t take it as seriously as contemporary high school students, whose concern for the climate sometimes even leads to mental illnesses, such as anorexia. I found the little girl’s obsession with catastrophic visions almost horrifying. People from your generation have spent most of their lives believing that climate change is nothing they should be concerned about. They have become used to feeling safe whereas today’s children were not even given a chance to form such a habit. I guess this generation will eventually become explosively powerful. However, when you expose yourself to evidence of climate change on a regular basis, you soon aren’t able to treat it as an academic problem. At least that’s my experience. And it doesn’t matter to which generation you belong.
Král: I think each of us has a different understanding of “habits”. I’m simply referring to being accustomed to an affluent, comfortable, and ideally carefree life. Human beings, those small animals transformed into consumers, would have to deny their natural instincts, were they to truly deal with problems such as climate change. And that’s hard, almost impossible… I can’t say that I am not afraid of climate change, nevertheless I do not take it as seriously, probably because I am old, and I haven’t yet been faced with any major natural catastrophes. There is less water, but it is still running, there has been a tornado, but ‘far away’ from us, in Morava. We struggled through a pandemic, but we didn’t see people dying in the streets… Up to now everything has taken place either far away – even around the corner is far away for a human being – or it has been somehow settled and resolved: meaning, for example, that people still have enough to eat, even though the old theories calculated that the geometrically growing number of people on the planet would lead to a global collapse.
Etlíková: It depends whether you are a techno optimist or not. I am not.
Král: Or, maybe, one is led to believe that since we came up with solutions to certain problems in the past, we will be able to repeat them again in the future. And humans have been able to resolve a lot of things, for example the ecological situation at the end of the communist era. That was a true catastrophe! Moreover, people tend to refuse to admit and pay attention to things, which they should be afraid of. Nonetheless, it really fascinated me that those children were genuinely terrified. Did you have the same impression?
Etlíková: Yes, and it did not surprise me at all. I have recently seen the movie Grief by Andrea Culková about mothers, who attend demonstrations, where they demand government measures that could slow down climate change. Often, they experience ‘ecological grief’, which is a newly coined psychological term. In this film, the mothers ask themselves to what extent they should expose their children to their own inner crisis. Children are naturally sensitive to their parents’ moods and tempers; thus, it wouldn’t make sense to sugar-coat the future for them. However, to be sincere, the introductory scene, in which a mother tells her little girl that the whole continent of Australia is on fire, including her favourite animals, the koalas, is in my opinion ethically controversial. A child, who does not comprehend the power relations of the contemporary world, can interpret such news irrationally, as a pure indication of apocalypse. However, it is possible that the environmental crisis has to affect children in such an intense manner and there is not much we can do about it. Either way, this summer I attended two symposiums, dedicated to ecology in the theatre. Independently of each other, the various participants pointed out that it is not beneficial to think in extremes; to predict absolute misery and catastrophe, nor to have a steadfast belief that all problems will somehow be resolved. That’s a false scale. It is more useful to imagine that humans and other organisms are going to have to adapt to the upcoming changes to a certain extent only, even though these changes may be considerable. I think that my generation’s task is to break free from this extreme dichotomy.
Král: Not to be afraid is silly, but fear does not solve anything… the point is that we have to find the strength to make the necessary changes, even though it is uncomfortable and unpopular. However, from my point of view in Czech theatre climate change serves mainly as a topic, favoured by grant committees because it is ‘in’. It is simply easier to obtain money for such a thematically focused piece. Have you seen a production, which would at least give the impression that the artists are truly concerned about the topic?
Etlíková: Yes, but from what I can recall neither one of them was what you would call a ‘big production’. The most far-reaching one was probably a piece called Ours, staged in HaDivadlo in Brno, in which the authors searched for a way to talk about their engagement in environmental issues with their less alarmed families and friends. Independent theatre is full of productions that approach the topic of ecology quite genuinely. Anyone who is interested can follow the program of the Prague community centre Punctum-Krásovka or Studio ALTA (in November, the Žižkov situated Punctum centre staged a piece called The Courage to Despair / Climate Drama directed by Jiří Honzírek, and Studio ALTA for example cooperated with the ecologically focused festival Bazaar). However, in general, theatre companies still seem to be looking for a way to discuss the topic, without people saying: “Those artists are just exploiting a controversial issue for publicity.” Or without spectators brushing off their attempt to communicate this message with the retort: “The artists are accusing us of irresponsibility and laziness, when they aren’t any better.” Finding a way to accept responsibility is a great challenge.
Král: And is it even possible? I think we will only get worried when we really run out of water, or something like that.
Etlíková: Well, that is already happening in some parts of the Czech Republic. In the dryer regions many villages have to rely on tank trucks. My grandparents tend to a garden in the sunny and dry Polabí region, and they have been affected by this change first-hand. I was surprised that this experience made them turn away from the politics of former president Václav Klaus, whom they used to trust. This empirical evidence will make everybody who has a field or who is interested in birds or wild animals, start shifting his or her mindset.
Král: So far, I haven’t registered many such mindset shifts.
Etlíková: My impression is that the atmosphere is changing quite a bit. By the way, when I discuss ecology with various people, very often someone observes that theatre is rooted in the city and that many artists don’t have a chance to spend time in nature, to be in contact with it. Their work may very well reflect that lack of connection. It is possible that in the future, people who live in the countryside or in very small towns and who tend to be in everyday contact with the forest and the soil will create important theatre productions.
Král: And do you think such people exist? So far, I have the feeling that for example painters and other visual artists have a much deeper connection with nature than theatre practitioners, who tend to be more urban, if only because they need an audience.
Etlíková: Well, in the Czech Republic, we have a strong tradition of various forms of folk theatre, don’t we? I believe that even today some people have a strong everyday relationship with nature. Partly I am saying this because I am aware of the high quality and diversity of Czech amateur theatre, but I admit that I got a bit carried away there.
you don’t! have to endure it
Král: A dialogue about fear is implicitly also a dialogue about courage. I find the recent initiative You Don’t! Have to Endure It, triggered by the June performance by several female students of The Faculty of Performing Arts, which then spread across theatre universities throughout the whole country, to be quite a courageous act. I am sure that it was not easy to criticize the situation at the faculty by way of reading out real stories, concerning some teachers’ abuse of power. In your opinion, was it an act of courage, a call for justice or a reaction to unbearable frustration?
Etlíková: I am not sure justice is the right word, though courage probably is. As I see it, the initiative is a result of the emancipation of certain sociological groups, such as women-mothers or the members of African diasporas, who often don’t see any point in abiding by the imperative of constant productivity or economic growth. For a long time, these groups were publicly sidelined, sometimes even trivialized, and derided. Then their voices started gaining strength in the western world, for example via the Me Too and Black Lives Matter initiatives, and we could say that they have realized that they are free and can act accordingly. I think that when you become aware of your power to reject an inferior position, you cannot perceive yourself in the same way as when you thought you were destined to silence. I have been experiencing a transformation like this myself and frankly, I have been expecting an initiative addressing the issue of teacher abuse of power for quite some time. I have been strongly influenced by a stint in a London organization, active in leftist political circles. Before that, I was quite unsure what to think about feminism, and only upon my return did I realize that my activities do not have to please all those who occupy important positions in theatre. The criteria they tend to apply to the world were coined in the past; by people whose worldviews I do not share. Even though I often respect and appreciate their work, I continue to ask why everything should be measured against the model of traditional interpretive theatre, represented mainly by men. In the past I have been unreasonably bothered by the opinions of such conservative authorities, their disinterest often made me abandon my original intentions and I went on to lose a lot of energy. That practical encounter with feminism in an economically developed western country has had a positive effect on my self-confidence and has brought much needed relief. I am sure that many women share my feelings; that we are really witnessing a sort of a chain reaction.
Král: And it has also become “trendy”, hasn’t it?
Etlíková: People who are not able to set their own boundaries can surely claim they are addressing a serious problem, while only exploiting a trend and drawing attention to themselves. I agree that Me Too and similar initiatives have become a buzzword of sorts, but that does not mean one should belittle the importance of feminist initiatives as such. Individuals with mindsets that suit privileged social groups (including the famous yet dreadfully generalizing category “white patriarchal man”), can still find numerous ways, sanctified by society, to exert pressure on women. It will take a long time before we reach a status, where women-mothers will be able to fully partake in cultural and political life; without constantly fighting for this right against those who have not chosen to care for others in their personal lives. I guess it won’t be easy to persuade people, who haven’t accepted any responsibility for intimate relationships or who voluntarily subordinated those relationships to their demanding careers, to slow down in favour of individuals who are also devoted to their family life.
Král: Let’s come back to the You Don’t! Have to Endure It initiative. If an ombudsman is appointed to deal with the potential abuse of power at the faculty, won’t the initiative suddenly seem pointless?
Etlíková: Certainly not. We are dealing with social transformation, and no one can stop that. It depends on the people in responsible positions whether this transformation comes to pass in a calm or an explosive manner. An ombudsman can help to make the transition more appropriate under the given circumstances.
Král: But what else should change? I noticed a complaint that professors at the faculty discourage girls from studying directing. Allegedly, it is not an occupation for women, who are supposed to study dramaturgy.
Etlíková: I think that the main problem is that female approach to directing does not fit the aesthetic categories, set by the prominent directors of dramatic theatre, in most cases men, as I have already mentioned. However, feminism is not supposed to serve only women, it is here for men as well. They are now given the opportunity to express their feminine traits that they have been forced to suppress as something unworthy. The professors of the old generation simply do not understand what there is to appreciate about artistic work influenced by this new sensitivity. Except for proven cases of sexual harassment or bullying, I have always opposed the inconsiderate and across the board solutions to sensitive relationship problems. For you, it will be difficult to grasp certain things, even if you manifest good will, because you don’t have access to a twenty-year-old woman’s feelings and experiences. You would have to take great pains to empathize with her. Indeed, that would require a very meticulous gathering of information regarding her everyday experience. It would demand a lot of your energy. It’s fine if you refuse to make the effort, provided that you don’t hold on to your opinions at all costs and that you don’t assert that artistic expressions corresponding to the feelings and experiences of another social group have no value just because you don’t have a clue how to deal with them.
Král: I guess I am more focused on another layer of the controversy, which I understand better. In this case I am wondering, who is to tell that the directing ‘model’ the professors at the theatre faculty seem to demand is necessarily bad. From my experience, a teacher – and particularly a professor at an artistic school – should serve as an example for the students. He or she should be an exceptional artist. In my opinion, a mediocre artist should not teach, precisely because his ‘model’ is of no value, it does not serve as an example with which I can compare myself or against which I can potentially revolt.
Etlíková: As I see it, a teacher at an artistic school does not have to be an outstanding artist, if he is good at passing on his knowledge and know-how to students. I am not sure if he has to set an example, but he should definitely command some sort of natural respect, which can manifest itself in very subtle and inconspicuous ways. He should also have an understanding of each student’s individual approach. Today, it is of more value when a teacher does not resort to manipulation than if he is an exceptional artist.
theatre needs an audience
Král: In the spring we exchanged some e-mails concerning the straightforwardness of my generation and the wariness and sophisticated artfulness of your generation. You wrote: “I have noticed that members of the generation, which took part in the Velvet Revolution, have a strong tendency to actively oppose the incapable government. The younger generation does not seem to have this need to protest in such a direct manner. I am not sure exactly why. Personally, I am not a fan of protesting because I have the experience that when something is proclaimed too outspokenly here, it often makes a U-turn and the result is quite the opposite. It is better to be more astute.” To me, it seemed weird. How a can a critic be astute? Isn’t that a contradiction?
Etlíková: I am not sure that the word “astute” was the right choice, ‘more sensitive’ would probably be closer to what I meant. Unfortunately, I also made the mistake of generalizing in terms of whole generations. I beat my breast a bit afterwards, when I realized that it caught your attention and that you want to quote my words publicly. Astuteness as such is not a value, however that seems to be ‘the strategy’ current society insists on. When you accept responsibility for the feelings of others as well as for the fulfilment of your own needs, you end up constantly speculating and calculating to harmonize these diverse goals. Today people are expected to be independent and knowledgeable in many different fields and to be able to concentrate even in an extremely distracting environment. That requires quite a lot of astuteness. The communist regime treated people like children, which made open protest quite the logical answer. In fact, it was an act of courage because outspokenness could lead to many years in jail. However, today we live in a society based on the prerequisite of responsibility. No matter what you proclaim, you should always be aware that your desires may not be perceived as legitimate and beneficial by others.
Král: Well, I am still not sure about that. I think you would prevaricate to death in the end. Last December we published an appeal on The World and the Theatre website (and then again in the first issue of the magazine in 2021), called The Theatre Needs an Audience. The following spring I learned from you that it had outraged some theatre practitioners, that they had discussed this appeal, even in the National Theatre. They did not provoke debate, rather they denounced the whole matter; they did not sort it out man to man, but behind my back. That’s simply not nice. I don’t even understand what offended them so much… I have doubts only about one sentence in the appeal, which reacted to the then widespread and, in my opinion, suicidal online ‘streaming’ of theatrical productions. However, even this sentence contains the non-generalizing introductory phrase “it seems”. It went as follows: “it seems that directors and actors have a false impression that the purpose of theatre is the presentation of their art.” I simply wanted theatre practitioners to realize the - as I see it – unconditional prerequisite is the immediate, live presence of an audience during a performance, even if a streamed one. That was supposed to be their goal, even during the Covid quarantine. Theatre can be executed without actors – as we can see in the growing number of experimental productions with acting robots – but not without spectators. That is the essential difference between theatre and television or film. My intention was not to offend anyone, but to encourage. I have always believed that any restriction is at the same time a stimulus. However, in 2020 during the first lockdown I didn’t notice any such tendencies. And that was disappointing. From what I know, productions aiming for contact with the audience (by way of Zoom), did not appear until 2021, that is – even if by mere coincidence – only after the publishing of the above-mentioned appeal.
Etlíková: Maybe people felt a bit under pressure and needed more time to recover from all the changes. Moreover, navigation through the logic of governmental measures demanded quite a bit of energy. Theatre practitioners all around me were very keen on observing the anti-pandemic measures.
Král: I didn’t mean they should not observe them, but that they should search for some contact with their audience despite these measures.
Etlíková: A lot of my theatre acquaintances did not want to disrupt the stability of the government during the Covid crisis, in order not to threaten the remainders of its authority. If we are to defeat the new coronavirus, the citizens must have trust in the state. Sociologist Stanislav Biler tried to point this out in his article We Are Not Going to Get Vaccinated Like Sheep, Therefore We Shall Be Locked Up Like Sheep for the a2larm newspaper, where he drew a comparison between the Czech Republic and more vaccinated European countries. And I think many theatre practitioners were aware of that.
Král: What exactly were they aware of? In the Czech Republic, as Mr. Biler also points out, it is the politicians themselves who undermine the citizens’ faith in the state. Besides, I have the feeling – and the lack of solidarity confirms my belief – that theatre officials were hampered by fear. Instinctual fear. They probably wanted to receive Covid financial aid and survive.
Etlíková: But that’s quite legitimate, isn’t it?
Král: Yes: it is legitimate to request financial aid, necessary for survival. However, I am afraid that in the Czech Republic many such individuals, for example theatre critics, almost didn’t stand a chance of meeting the requirements while others wheedled out money as a compensation for lost profits instead of emergency financial aid. The whole state subsidy system seemed quite foolish and, in the upshot, even unfair. The state has come up with a Potemkin village. From my own experience with the State Cultural Fund, I guess that the governmental accountants don’t know any better. From what I know, those who wanted subsidy, had to apply for a special grant with an artistic project, which was then assessed by employees of state-funded institutions at the Ministry of Culture. Based on their assessment the applicant received the money and that was it: no final accounts or artistic outcomes were demanded. Of course! It was purely an accounting trick. Those who wanted subsidies had to play this game.
Etlíková: And what do you suggest these people were supposed to do?
Král: They should have demanded clearer rules. The simplest solution would be to copy some functional model from abroad. However, learning from others – as Mr. Biler also notes – is something the Czech people are not capable of. This kind of tricking must have affected the applicant himself, don’t you think? For example, all the recipients of this subsidy perhaps lost their right to criticize other buck-passing governmental decisions… But who knows, maybe there would not have been much of a criticism anyway. Subservience has been on the rise for some time, in my opinion. Maybe it has something to do with the growing number of theatres and new productions and the decreasing social and economic security of theatre practitioners. It has already been more than ten years since I first had the idea to host a public debate called “Is the Czech theatre going to be crushed under its own weight?” Or maybe go-getters are just elbowing their way up. I don’t know.
Etlíková: I share your concern about Czech theatre crushing itself under its own weight. Unfortunately, there are too many theatres, which I hate to say, because the diversity of the theatrical web is exciting. But I am not sure about go-getters in today’s underfinanced cultural sector, which lacks social prestige. I mean – really?
Král: Go-getters, which includes those trying to pull the strings by way of bowing and scraping to influential people (or lobbying, as the contemporary euphemism goes), can be found even among beggars, so why not among theatre practitioners. However, the fish stinks from the head. A nice example is the so-called State Cultural Policy. The Ministry of Culture put out the current one (for the period of 2021-2025) this fall, with a delay officially caused by the pandemic but in fact brought about by the carelessness of the institution. However, it was quite understandable that the Ministers of Culture were in no hurry to put the document together. Sometime in 2019 the Czech ITI Centre Committee, of which I was a member, held a meeting with two high-ranking officials from the Ministry of Culture, Kateřina Kalistová, the former deputy Minister of Culture, and Milan Němeček, director of the Arts, Literature and Libraries Department. The topic was the assessment, or the more up-to-date evaluation, of the State Cultural Policy 2015-2020. It was quite interesting material as it – apart from other things - included a plan of the Ministry’s tasks and the deadlines for their fulfilment. However, the problem was – and the invited officials owned up to it – that the Ministry has not even started dealing with most of those tasks. I tried to imagine what would happen if similar institution or company neglected its work like this. Most likely, it would result in a scandal and the punishment of those found to be at fault. In this case, nothing happened. That imposingly entitled text was basically a valueless scrap of paper. I am afraid that the State Cultural Policy 2021-2025 is a similar case. It has a modern graphic layout, and the texts are in most cases quite pompous sounding, while it is evident that nobody at the ministry has read them. Right at the beginning of the Minister’s Introduction, the reader is confronted with a nonsensical verbal scrum (a piece of text inserted in the wrong place) and later one can come across such gems as the phrase: “The effective management of cultural heritage is the effective management of cultural heritage.” I am sure I will be accused of being a faultfinder, that these are just minor mistakes. However, these minor mistakes demonstrate that at the Ministry of Culture words (and promises) don’t mean anything. The document seems to be no more than a buck-passing, boastful self-promotion, as is nowadays so common in PR; dressed in nice graphic apparel, put together by just about everybody, from grant applicants to government officials. And because it is the norm, it does not really offend anyone… By the way: in 2019, those two officials from the Ministry agreed to the meeting on condition that we keep it a secret. We agreed. And that was a mistake.
Etlíková: I am sorry that I can’t be an adequate partner in the debate regarding this topic because I haven’t read the State Cultural Policy.
Král: Of course! I understand. I don’t blame you at all for not engaging in this field. I am fed up with this so-called cultural advocacy as well. However, there are many theatre practitioners, members of various committees and boards, who do engage in such matters. And I have the feeling, for at least the past five years, that they are losing courage to articulate their thoughts and opinions clearly and openly. Provided that they had any. Sometimes it seems that everybody has a single goal: to stay on friendly terms with politicians, to gain connections, to get chummy with the authorities. We could also call that astuteness, which bears fruit. The Minister of Culture can then revel in being loved and maybe it motivates him to really obtain money for his department. That is of course a compelling argument in favour of astuteness. Nonetheless, I still hope that an outspoken and frank person would go a longer way.
Etlíková: I think that freelance and independent critics and theatre journalists like me should take more interest in the work and actions of people in responsible and high-ranking positions in the cultural field. How else can we exert pressure and achieve change? Still, we don’t do it. Nevertheless, I don’t think we can put all the blame on theatre critics of my generation. Our seemingly paralyzed state and inability to influence anything is not just our fault. It is by no means easy to stay motivated as an active advocate of theatre, let alone become a full-time theatre critic today. Personally, after receiving my degree I have struggled for many years with the feeling that people, who made their careers in the 1990s, take all the high-ranking, responsible positions and that it is not likely going to change soon. These people tend to be very rigid in their beliefs and are willing to co-operate only with younger colleagues who do not oppose them much. Thus, it is no surprise that nobody is offended by or keen on protesting what you call “the boastful self-promotion” of governmental officials or grant applicants. I have certainly not felt encouraged in the self-confident expression of my opinions by your generation. I am aware it may sound buck-passing and as if I was dumping responsibility on my older colleagues. Moreover, my view is affected by my personality. I see myself as a rather shy and unassertive person, though the impression I give may be different. I tend to compensate for unassertiveness with perseverance. However, I had almost given up on theatre criticism and only very recently and by coincidence have I come to the conclusion that it makes sense for me to engage in it in the future. This decision to continue derives from my own convictions and personal traits, not from feeling motivated by some positive change in the Czech theatre community. I am only slowly getting used to this ‘comeback’.
Král: Yes, it really seems that you are - God knows why – only looking for an alibi. I guess you would have to specify whose rigid opinion prevented you from expressing your opinion. Here, in The World and the Theatre, we want critics to not only claim something, but to be able to support it with a compelling argument, nothing more. Moreover, your flippant condemnation of the older generation can be easily confronted with a similar condemnation of your generation, whose members are incapable of creating opportunities and space for themselves and are just passively waiting for it to be vacated by the older generation. I find that strange. By way of illustration: WAT was not built on a greenfield site. It was preceded by several years of intensive – and unpaid - publishing and organizational activity by the so-called Caucus of Young Theatre Practitioners. After the Velvet Revolution, this endeavour led to the foundation of WAT and, subsequently, of the International Theatre Festival in Pilsen. In other words: we did not wait for the old generation to make way for us. However, I share a certain aspect of your disillusion. Even I have started to doubt that there is any point in theatre criticism. However, I think that the current situation partly stems from the lack of courage of many of those involved. As far back as the spring, when I shared the difficulties I had been met with when trying to seek financial aid for critics during the pandemic, nobody else joined in: even the editors of other theatre newspapers and magazines and university officials from theatre faculties and departments remained silent.
Etlíková: I think it would greatly benefit all of us if we started communicating across generations. Personally, I am genuinely interested in your experience, deriving from your long and active engagement with Czech culture and I think that people from your generation have a great know-how that they could share with us.
solidarity and the “Celetná affair”
Král: That’s nice of you to say. At the same time, I have been assailed by critical self-doubt, concerning my probably overly naïve humane and high-principled stance. During the first pandemic wave and the first lockdown, at the meeting of the Czech ITI Centre Committee, I proposed that the closed theatres could offer help with the administration of the then very much needed vaccinations. I was rejected. The argument was simple: we can’t perform for people, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t working.
Etlíková: And you think they weren’t? The pre-pandemic work tempo was perceived as normal, however as I see it, the way people were forced to multitask really crossed the line. During the Covid years many people were able to devote their time to mental work, which they have been postponing for a long time because of the pressure to be effective.
Král: But up to then theatres were used to a specific system of operation – rehearsals during the day and performances in the evening, with emphasis placed on the quick succession of new theatrical productions. During Covid, productions were rehearsed behind closed doors for extended periods of time to be at best performed for employees of the given theatre or streamed online and then mothballed. Theatre practitioners, the majority of whom were not used to such a laboratory style of rehearsing, must have been frustrated.
Etlíková: To that I can only say that it made me happy that many directors and companies took the time to get used to a more lab-style kind of work. In my opinion, the quality of the summer and fall premieres is the outcome of this break. I am glad that the pandemic opened a debate on the concept of un-growth because I find that greedy Western societies need to assimilate this notion and its principles and act accordingly. I believe that if we all slow down, many people will show solidarity quite naturally.
Král: Although I haven’t noticed as many high-quality outcomes of lab-style rehearsing as you mention, otherwise I completely agree. As I see it, civilization based on overproduction and excessive consumption is self-destructive. However, my idea concerning theatres helping with vaccinations was supposed to be an example of my naïve way of thinking. It is naivety – not outspokenness – that is the true counterpart of astuteness. Personally, I vote for naivety.
However: when I mention it today, it may sound as a complaint, concerning the ‘Celetná affair’ and the absence of solidarity, which I hold against the same theatre advocates, who back then resolutely rejected my naïve vaccination idea… It now occurs to me that even my reaction to this ‘affair’ will probably come across as autistic naivety. An astute person would probably wait the problem out in silence, or he would ingratiate himself with anybody in power, even if he considered that person despicable.
Etlíková: The ‘Celetná affair’ is wrapped up in secrecy and many ambiguities, especially the motivations of the Prague Municipal Council seem to be quite unclear and in need of explanation. Prague is currently full of similar cases, regarding historical buildings in the city centre, which are exposed to inconsiderate architectural renovations, even though we are talking about a heritage conservation area. The city institutions seem susceptible to blackmail from various lobbyists or the mafia. I would gladly take part in a project that would save a building threatened by lobbyist pressure but not yet serving short-term economic interests. I am tired of always missing the bus and demonstrating in support of buildings and property that are probably irretrievably lost. The building in Celetná sounds like an ideal opportunity to help where it still matters. However, I think this would demand the active interest of a larger group of people. I know that what I am going to say is easier to write and much harder to put into practice, but I think that the Arts and Theatre Institute should be the first entity to protest. We are not talking about some ordinary tenant but a publicly funded institution with a certain social responsibility… Including to the building in which it resides.
Král: I guess so. However, I am afraid that the Institute would then find itself in a schizophrenic situation. As a subsidized institution it would probably have to adopt a critical attitude not only towards the Municipal Council but also towards its establishing authority, the Ministry of Culture. The most absurd part of this whole controversy is that in our country the state and the capital city are not able to cooperate and reach an agreement. Instead, they fight over property. In whose name? Are Czech citizens waging war on Prague citizens? No. For the most part, these citizens don’t have a clue about what is happening here… I think it has to do with our inability to put into practice Havel’s notion of civic society, which is mostly proven by the fact that politicians view citizens merely as their voters. Otherwise, they do not feel the need to cooperate with them. And by cooperation I do not mean letting people express their opinion and then simply ignoring it. This issue has been the subject of debate during the September conference Culture Get-Together, where attendees of consultations with officials from the Ministry on the topic of the State Cultural Policy expressed discontent with this approach.
Etlíková: I completely agree. However, it is also up to us, the citizens, to create this participation. The constant complaining that politicians do not act as they should and drowning in helplessness is also one of the unfortunate traits typical of the Czech national character. Frankly, what is preventing us from creating an initiative, demanding an explanation of the Municipal Council’s intention for the building in Celetná and a guarantee that the tenants – non-commercial institutions funded by the state – will be granted immunity against the usual economic assessment of their tenancy. Once the publicly open discussion of problems becomes a norm, I am sure it will bring relief to all of us.
The “Celetná affair” and why I decided to quit as editor of The World and the Theatre magazine
■ At the end of March 2020, the World and the Theatre magazine editorial department received a threatening letter from the Property Management Department of the Prague Municipal Council. We found out that in 2019 that the state-funded Arts and Theatre Institute had lost a legal case, relating to the building in Celetná, where our magazine (and the editorial departments of other theatre-related magazines) have been renting office for twenty-five years. As a result the building is now the property of the city of Prague. Besides other issues, the letter stated that we have “groundlessly enriched ourselves” and that we owe the city rent (by the way, a higher rent than we have been duly paying the Arts Institute, because the city has demanded an increased payment).
Up to now, the city has been insisting – and possibly still is - on this irrational requirement. Or maybe not so much the city as the solicitors’ office, hired by the Municipal Council, which has for long been the only correspondent that cared to reply to our letters. The Arts and Theatre Institute has supposedly also lost its right to sign off contracts with tenants and collect payment. Surprisingly, the Institute has not been enriching itself: the ‘thieves’ – in accordance with the weird logic employed here – are those who were solidly paying the agreed rent to the state organization.
Now we are caught in a double blind. We still have our office in Celetná. However, the Institute has terminated our contract as of the 12th of May and the city has not proposed a new one, or to be precise, one that would not contain absurd requirements. At the end of August, the Arts Institute presented a draft of a three-party agreement that would at least settle the alleged debts. However, to date, we do not know whether this agreement will be finalized.
At the beginning of June, we contacted Hana Třeštíková, the councilwoman for culture, and Jiří Sulženko, the Head of the Cultural Department. As there seems to be a political dimension to the dispute, we requested that the political administration of the city assesses it as well. Mr. Sulženko’s reaction only came three months later, stating that it does not fall within the competence of his department and that he does not see any political dimension to the case. However, he proposed – in his own words – ‘a favourable’ tenancy in the Prague Creative Centre building. Since then, we have been waiting for some specification of this proposal. In any case, I cannot agree with Sulženko’s opinion that the dispute has no political dimension and that it is not a problem of the Cultural Department. The whole scramble is in tune with the long-standing disinterest of the Prague municipal council in supporting professional journals devoted to the Arts. In such an unclear situation decency and justice are hard to find. Thus, one is easily led to believe that it is simply a conspiracy with the aim of hounding out the current tenants of Celetná 17 and then selling the building in a sort of ‘Andrej Babiš style’ to some relatives or other acquaintances.
I used approximately these same words in my report, describing ‘the Celetná affair’ during the Culture Get-Together conference. I presumed that my speech would elicit public reaction: during the conference, at the municipal council, in the media, among critics, theatre practitioners, members of the Czech ITI Centre Committee, to whom I have appealed for a statement several times. However, nothing happened.
■ Personally, I am very much offended by the combination of outright indecency and untrustworthiness of the Municipal Council (it seems that officials and politicians are not even obliged to answer letters anymore) and the lack of solidarity within the Czech theatre community has only deepened my disappointment. It seems (as some people insinuate) that everybody is afraid of a possible punishment from the Municipal Council (e.g. not receiving subsidy). Up to this year I would not have fathomed that I would ever again have to deal with this totalitarian form of conformism and cowardice. I find it unbearable to deal with. Therefore, I have decided to leave all my professional posts: I have resigned from my position as Chairman and member of the Czech Association of Theatre Critics as well as a member of the Czech ITI Centre Committee etc., and at the end of this year I shall leave the World and the Theatre magazine, of which I have been the editor-in-chief for the past 32 years (and which I consider to be, as we say, a child of mine).
However, since I do not want to leave until the situation is resolved, I made an appeal to the city Mayor via a personal letter, dated October 11th. On the 21st of October I received a provisional reply from Hana Třeštíková, “just until the mayor finds time to respond”. Her letter does not propose any solution; however, it assures us that we are not to be expelled from our office, that the members of the council are working very hard and that we should “make every effort” and appeal to the Ministry of Culture and the Arts and Theatre Institute. What exactly we should be appealing for remains a mystery. It still holds true that the city is taking us hostage in its dispute with the state, in which we do not partake and the true nature of which eludes us.
■ This text was posted on our website on the 31st of October 2021. Since then, there has not been any noticeable shift in the situation. Not even in the form of a reply by the mayor. Only as late as the 22nd of November 2021 did we receive the finalized (however, not yet definitive) agreement from the solicitors’ office as well as a detailed draft of a possible future contract between our magazine and the city. In the new version, all statements regarding our “groundless enrichment” have been omitted. However, the irrational requirement to settle our “debt” - the difference between the rent, which we have been paying since 2019 to the state aka The Arts and Theatre Institute, and the sum of money potentially demanded by the city, had it concluded a contract with us - remains. We are currently in the process of negotiating the future agreement.
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 6, volume 2021
translated by Ester Žantovská
) Slovak born Czech multimillionaire and former prime minister known for his “shady” businesses in the past.
) In 2020 the Czech ITI Centre Committee members were: Yvonna Kreuzmannová (president), Marta Smolíková (member of the board), Adriana Světlíková (member of the board), Jakub Vedral (member of the board) and Jan Bažant, Dagmar Bednáriková, Dagmar Brtnická-Roubalová, Stanislav Doubrava, František Fabián, Petr Francán, Radmila Hrdinová, Blanka Chládková, Eliška Jevičová, Eva Kejkrtová-Měřičková, Ondřej Kepka, Karel Král, Marie Kinsky, Lenka Kolihová Havlíková, Ivo Kristián Kubák, Martina Němečková, Viktorie Schmoranzová, Linda Svidró, Ludmila Vacková, Šárka Pavelková, Sylva Pracná and Zdeněk Prokeš. The members of the Association of Czech Theatre Critics Committee were the following: Karel Král (chairman), Vladimír Hulec, Kateřina Lešková-Dolenská, Eva Kyselová, Tatjana Lazorčáková, Martin Pšenička, Jana Machalická, Veronika Vejvodová, Zdeněk A. Tichý.