Future of Culture: Re-formulate the Meaning of Theater

The cultural sector has been facing unusual changes since 2020. The main pillar especially of the theater –its direct contact with the audience– has been shaken to its roots. To what extent is theater reacting to all the changes, what are its foundations, and how can it profit from this situation? These questions and many more answers Marta Ljubková, dramaturge of the new Prague cultural center Vzlet.

We Have to Take Off, Yet We Don’t Know Where We’ll Be Landing.

The cultural sector has been facing unusual changes since 2020. The main pillar especially of the theater –its direct contact with the audience– has been shaken to its roots, and as soon as the theaters reopened several months ago, the war in Ukraine started and a new explosive topic appeared in society. To what extent is theater reacting to all the changes, what are its foundations, and how can it profit from this situation? Too many questions, too difficult to answer, too many unpredictable variables. But still, we can try to predict certain scenarios. And if not scenarios, then at least ways, parts of the cultural sector, where theater specifically, can lead.

With an unnecessary simplification, since financing should not be the core point, the main problem theaters will be facing over the following months and years will be a lack of finances. Institutions depending on state or municipal subsidies will keep receiving their money, but their resources will be in all likelihood drastically reduced. The independent sector, relying on a still, very unstable and far from ideal, local grant system (mainly municipalities and the Ministry of Culture) will inevitably face even more dramatic cuts, instability and insecurity. It is already a publicly and openly discussed fact that some of the groups or artists will have to end their activities due to the financial situation. It has never been ideal but now it is becoming unbearable. It will be simply difficult to survive.

The foreseen economic crisis will remarkably influence people’s resources, and as many surveys have already predicted, family expenses for culture may easily become the first to be reduced. Although Czech public theaters are quite accessible financially compared with for instance American or British, and provide many reduced tickets for various social and age groups, one can expect that people will be affected, and therefore the attendance and the income of theaters will be affected accordingly.

This situation has been somehow simmering under the surface for many years – only now is it taking more physical forms hitting us directly. I am not writing to complain and cry. In the cultural sector, we have been hearing of sorrows and wailings –very reasonable, one must admit– for years. During the pandemic, something happened that might help us survive, and I would like to summarize it from my point as a dramaturge and with reference to the place I have in the theater sector at present. There will simply not be enough money and we have to find ways to earn it, a way to survive.

Rethink the Dramaturgical Approach and Freshen Up the Topics

First of all, during the pandemic, we finally had time to stop our massive production.

Without the direct audience, the theaters lost their primary goal and meaning: meeting people every day and sharing with them whatever they have to share.

The radical reduction of the main activity turned our attention to other aspects of our work. We began to think about our working conditions, the social situation –and last but definitely not least– our topics, and artistic practice. We started to deeply question what we do, why we do it, and who we do it for. This seems easy, but it is part of a European cluster of questions nowadays: speaking about the discourse, or in a more modern way “the narrative”, of our work; asking whose stories we are telling, who we represent, and who in general the cultural sector is aimed at, who is participating. These questions appeared throughout Europe years ago, but only in recent years have they turned from theoretical or rather rhetorical questions to everyday practice.

These questions are tightly connected with the distribution of power, solidarity, and hierarchy, which are topics resonating throughout society.

This is a society which is re-thinking its structure and existence, its organization, which is and has always been a breeding ground for any kind of vivid theater.

The everyday wheel of existence stopped, and we began to think about who is pushing it forward and under which conditions. All these questions obviously influence not only the existence (organization and structure) of the cultural institutions, but also the content of our productions: we mirror or picture on stage what we all live; not necessarily directly, but definitely indirectly. So the first point of this paragraph is a huge exclamation mark, rather than a question mark: we have to rethink our dramaturgical approach and freshen up our topics.

Come Together and Share

The “break for re-thinking” emphasized the necessity of solidarity and collaboration. Theater activists managed to get to one table, and partial questions became sector problems. The diverse ecosystem of the theater which is uniquely rich in this country, consisting of huge institutions like National Theaters, and ending with completely independent individual artists, began to work and speak as one. The power of associations, the power of sharing and helping each other created one platform that became a relevant partner to politicians and its rhetoric. The sector became its own advocate – very powerful, well equipped and strong in its unity.

This collaboration later led towards co-productions on a bigger scale, and as far as dramaturgy is concerned, it brings new challenges and impulses.

Collaboration shakes the traditional competition based on more and more productions, and therefore the sector becomes more sustainable, since environmental issues appeared as the topic of the day.

All this again brings new ways of dramaturgy, and therefore enriches the content of the theater as such. Slower, more concentrated, more focused, art work can in the end bring more valuable results, and also a greater variation of art pieces.

New art forms, that are not based simply on producing, can reach new audience sectors, and that is something we will inevitably need in the coming seasons and years.

Some of the theaters are already facing an outflow of the audience, and it can be expected that fewer and fewer people will be able to afford tickets for the theater or life culture as such. We have to find ways to communicate with the audience on a more direct level, to create art that will become an inevitable part of their lives.

It is no longer this old concept of “masterpieces” delivered to the masses, but a more elaborate way of sharing, a way of finding a common language.

It is quite possible that the simple fact of being together and communicating in the same language –in the widest meaning of this word– will be a reason for people to come to the theater, especially the younger members of the audience, or the seniors.

Give a Czech Team any Space, They’ll Make a Theater

The traditional meaning of the term “theater” changed dramatically alongside all the changes in its structure – or at least in its general notion. Theater left the traditional space decades ago, and as of the middle of the last century can be found not only in cellars and in suburbs, but later began to occupy brownfields, former factories, slaughterhouses, swimming pools, schools, etc. This architectural exploration is now tightly connected with a change in its main substance, with its dramaturgy, with its content and also with the way it is done. 

In Prague, we only have very few venues that were originally constructed as a space for “proper” theater; many of them are situated in apartment buildings, adapted from cellars, movie theaters, cabarets, music halls, etc. In fact, all the “real theaters” in our city can be counted on the fingers of one hand, the others are reconstructions, adaptations. Give a Czech team any space, and they will make a theater out of it! With a stage and auditorium of course.

Future of Culture: Re-formulate the Meaning of Theater

Future of Culture: Re-formulate the Meaning of Theater

Theater as a Non-Hierarchized Space

But we can look at the concept of the theater from another perspective: Why don’t we try to do theater in a space without that classical diversion? The venue Vzlet in Prague 10, the former Sokol movie theater, recently re-opened after decades of void and years of reconstruction, could serve as a case study. It reminds you more of a dance hall from the twenties, with a useless little stage and no auditorium. Doing theater there means getting rid of the classical concept and looking for a new dramaturgy – i.e. new topics, and also a new audience; probably new performers as well. Even the first visit to a similar space, which can be found not only in many Prague neighborhoods, but also in various Czech towns and larger villages, provokes you to re-think your traditional concept of theater – i.e. an auditorium with a dark and distant lit stage. What might seem a huge disadvantage can lead us towards new dramaturgies, which I touched upon above.

The theatrical space is no longer a strictly hierarchized space but a variable open space that enables the artist to explore it beyond its traditional functions.

I am not saying something all that new here, theater artists have been crossing the borders of this classical setup since the beginning of the last century; nevertheless, one does not find many such spaces in Prague. Building a theatrical set-up in various technical spaces or cellars? Why not. Performing in non-theatrical spaces re-constructed as theaters? Yes. Trying to occupy this kind of cultural venue with theater and actually not turning it into a theater? Not very often… 

Such a setup means a way of re-organizing the work in the space, abandoning the classical hierarchy, opening up to new formats. The space can reincarnate every evening, not resembling theater at all. It can be the location for a conference, for instance, since that originally scientific form offers a variety of performative potentials. Such a space can remain a dance hall – with the tradition of Czech dance classes we can look for new inspiration in sharing, common dancing, and at the same time being performers.

The theatrical plans are therefore influenced by the space itself; they are directed by it. What might seem a big disadvantage can be transformed into a challenge. Doing theater in such a non-theatrical space –but be careful: it is neither a factory, nor for instance a house, where you can currently find many site-specific or immersive shows– means changing your original approach to it. It is the space that is the dramaturge and the set designer first and foremost. Such a setup obviously erases the barrier between the stage and auditorium, the position of the audience has to be re-thought for each performance and the situation for everyone involved is extremely dynamic and flexible. You cannot do there many of the things you would be doing in a normal space, you have to inevitably do something else.

The One With the Story on the Stage

This shaken hierarchy obviously casts a new light on who can be on the stage or better said: whose story we will be listening to. In such a space, the accent is not put on the technical virtuosity of the actor, but rather on the authenticity (the story) of the performer. I am not speaking about amateur theater, which has one of the strongest traditions in the whole of Europe here, I mean a professional show where “untrained” people bring their own message under the leadership of an artistic team. We are speaking about “experts of the every day” – a concept we know from Germany based on the artistic group Rimini Protokoll or the performances Milo Rau is doing in Campo or NT Gent in Belgium. This mix of professional artists and experts gives a new level to the authenticity but also attracts people that want to hear personal stories, and those who want to share them.

Those who have documentary materials, and guarantee them with their own lives, can then be placed on stage.

This concept of space breaks the barriers and opens up for unexpected performers and therefore an automatically unexpected audience. These kinds of projects can address and can be developed with seniors, disabled people, or, for example, youngsters. 

The everyday working of the space, its specifics, its availability for community activities make any kind of over-production impossible: no relevant storage and backstage can make impossible any kind of regular repertoire and a house full of set designs. We have to think about the space differently – in a lighter manner, which may be even more ecological. We are not trying to stuff the program, we are trying to find reasons for doing things.

Finding Reasons for Doing Things in Theater

The dramaturgical mission of such a diverse space –also tightly connected to the contemporary European trends– is to develop smaller formats, and be able to explore, to invent, to experiment.

Experiment as a word left Czech theater many years ago: economic pressure on production erased any possibility of mistakes, of a road with a dead-end but also research, and alternative results.

This becomes a floor for students, and their project does not necessarily lead towards a “proper” full-length show: even a performative walk or an outdoor game for kids could provide a new audience and new impulses.

A venue that could not be in fact called a theater can widen the concept of theater, it extends the concept of the spectator and constantly experiments with its forms. Although still very new in this country, European theater knows and develops performances without performers, one-to-one performances, audio-performances, etc. The Covid conditions taught us to seek out new ways of communication in the arts, theater especially: new media, audio-communication, theater without direct contact, etc. Larger established theaters soon returned to their typical stage format, but we can also develop what we have started to explore. We are no longer at the beginning.

Traditional Theater Losing its Position in Society

One thing is more than obvious nowadays: traditional theater is losing its social and cultural position in this society. An art house means an open house, a place for people coming to share, not to sit in passivity. If there are so many cultural venues –and the Prague cultural map is one of the densest in Europe– we have to try to find ways to attract a new audience. This should be an audience, which would adopt such venues as a regular place to spend their time, to develop, to explore, to experience new things.

We cannot provide the perfect aesthetic experience, which a big, technically well-equipped stage could offer, but we can most certainly broaden and extend the concept of what culture can be, and what possible formats can have a performative or theatrical aspect.

Theater develops in waves and each social or political change dramatically influences its direction, formats and its position within society. If we accept these complicated times as a challenge to analyze and re-formulate its meaning, then we can bravely face the future. And I believe we will be landing in better times, with a plane full of satisfied passengers.

 

Marta Ljubková

is a dramaturge, educator and occasional literary critic. She studied Czech language at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, and the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts In Prague, where she now works. After seven years of work for the National Theater, she plans to anchor in Vzlet.

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