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Theatre Around the Corner - Organizational Aspects

Czech Theatre On the Pacific Shores of Canada:
28 years of Theatre Around the Corner (TAC) in Vancouver

by Dr. Josef Skála

Czech theatre in Canada, born and cultivated by the untiring volunteer labor of theatre lovers in the Czech and Slovak ethnic community, and relying for its survival on the continuing interest and support of its audience, has recently entered a difficult period of its existence.  Not unlike other Czech ethnic organizations, it is confronted by profound changes of circumstances, from political to generational.  The current difficulties will not be easy to overcome and some new and as yet untried approaches will have to be adopted.  Nevertheless, by remembering the past success and analyzing the new circumstances we may incite new efforts to retain Czech theatre as the all-important nucleus of our ethnic life in North America. The following notes are my attempt to do just that.


Click the link below to select a paragraph:

» Organizational aspects

» The production system

» Selection of repertoire

» On artistic standards of amateur productions

» Audience support and audience numbers

» Perpetuity problems and musings about the future



Organizational aspects

Theatre Around the Corner is an independent, volunteer-based and nonprofit association duly registered in  the Province of British Columbia, Canada.  There are no dues and membership is open to anybody with an interest in Czech and Slovak theatre and performing arts.  The membership traditionally fluctuates between 30 and 50, with approximately half of the members actively participating in some aspect of the work. Since 1977 well over 200 Czech and Slovak theatre lovers have been at some time or another involved in some aspect of the production work, and there is a handful of members who stayed active for the entire 28 years.  The composition of the group is diverse and encompasses a variety of ages, educational backgrounds and professions. Not a single member, however, has made his or her living in Canada in theatre, even though some have had professional theatre training and/or were significantly involved in theatrical arts outside the Czech theatre group. Even the well-known actor Pavel Kříž (member of the National Theatre of Prague in the late1990s), who was an active member of the group for the entire 6 years of his exile in Canada, was making a living in health care at that time.  The majority of the group are of Czech extraction, but several very active members of the Slovak nationality have always been involved.  Participation by Slovaks both in the work of Theatre Around the Corner and as a significant part of the audience has not been affected by the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

The principal decision-making organ of the Theatre Around the Corner is its annual general meeting, at which the right to cast a vote is extended to all attending members.  The AGM receives reports about the last year's activity, financial reports, votes for a new board of directors and decides the next year's program. Efforts to establish a non-elected dramaturgy group and/or the official position of Artistic Director in order to provide continuity of repertoire selection, consistency of directorial concepts and production quality over longer periods of time have not yet succeeded. I see this as a distinct disadvantage; as proven time and time again, a fully democratic organizational structure is not a very effective way to run a successful theatre company. It should be pointed out, however, that for significant periods of time in the history of Theatre Around the Corner the function of an Artistic Director had been de facto assumed by the most active and productive directors of the shows. The director's chair, where most of the influence over the choice of a play and its staging standard is exercised, has been occupied over the years by several members of the group.  Most directorial work has been done by: Dr. Josef Skála (23 productions), Jitka Růžičková (12), Vladimír Kulhavý (6), Nora Linhartová (5) and Oldřich Paták (3).

Theatre Around the Corner has never had corporate or individual sponsors, nor has it ever received any government grants.  Its production budget is fully derived from box office receipts.  All the work, without exception, is done on a voluntary basis, with no financial compensation.  The production budget covers only the essential costs, principally theatre rental fees, publicity, and the purchase of materials for set building and costumes.  The technical crew is amazingly inventive and works miracles in order to keep the costs to an absolute minimum (the budget of a 3-performance production fluctuates now between $5,000 and  $7,000 and is recovered mostly from  ticket sales; the full price of a ticket stands now at $15 -25). In order to secure enough funds  for future work it is often necessary to organize fund-raising events, such as socials and dances.


The production system 

Theatre Around the Corner stages one or two full theatrical productions a year. Following an average of three months of rehearsals, the cast and the crew move into a rented theatre. The group has used seven different theatres in greater Vancouver for its principal productions and several jazz clubs for its jazz and poetry evenings. The venue selection depends upon the cost, size, location and facilities available and preference is given to modern, well-equipped venues with 180-300 seats.  Theatres are rented for a period of one week (from Sunday until Saturday) and the rental cost is a major production expense.  On Sunday morning, the director with the technical crew move in and begin building the set.  The final set design, its construction and overall technical aspect of the production has, for many years, been in the magic hands of a crew headed by the highly talented Vladimír Bezruč.  Sunday evening is a blocking rehearsal, Monday and Tuesday the set is being completed and the lights are set,  and technical and costume rehearsals take place in the evenings. The technical side of the production must be finalized by Wednesday, when the stage manager (here we should mention Jiří Adler, who occupied this demanding position for many years) takes over and a nonstop general rehearsal (sometimes a preview open to other members of the group, friends and families) is held in the evening.  Opening night is on Thursday, second performance on Friday, and the production closes on Saturday.  Immediately following the Saturday derniere, the set is stricken and the entire theatre vacated and cleaned.  By midnight the cast and crew leave the theatre space looking exactly as it did when they moved in a week ago - empty, clean, and devoid of any sign that a production, which took thousands of hours of work of many dedicated aficionados, had taken place there. What an incredible effort for merely three evenings of theatre! Several experienced members of the group take turns as production coordinators in charge of a support team responsible for publicity, ticket sales and house management  (Jitka and Milan Čepický, Leah Patáková, Helena Charvátová and Radka Zelmanová should be mentioned here).

In addition to the main theatrical productions, once or twice a year Theatre Around the Corner stages other events.  Evenings of jazz and poetry are performed in  different local jazz clubs and involve a variety of accomplished musicians together with several actors from the theatre group.  A talented professional  jazz pianist and trumpet player Ivan Nagy has participated in most productions prepared and sometimes written by Vladimír Cícha. Three original cabaret shows took advantage of the musical talents of a number of members of Theatre Around the Corner. These talented instrumentalists (e.g. Jiří Šemora, Richard Brun, Ferdinand Knobloch, Rudolf Lenhart, Jan Hynek, Vít Suchodol and Luboš Dvořák) participate also  in many of the main theatrical productions which usually include live music.  It is also noteworthy that the group attempted  to develop a training  program  for children of Czech and Slovak exiles.  Under the leadership  of Jitka Růžičková, some of the mothers in the group had  attracted about a dozen school-age children and produced three children’s plays during the early  1990s.  However, this valiant effort to attract young blood could not be sustained. The children grew up and developed other interests  and the inflow of Canadian-born youngsters gradually trickled to a stop.  A viable weekend Czech language school, similar to the one operating for decades in Toronto, would have helped.

Recently Theatre Around the Corner also successfuly produces performances by visiting top Prague artists (e.g. J.Pecha, J.Hlaváčová, Petr Kostka, L.Smoljak, N. Jiránková and V.Postránecký).


Selection of repertoire

The choice of repertoire is certainly one of the most difficult and, at the same time, vitally important tasks facing all amateur theatres.  Many considerations limit the acceptable selection.  Traditionally preference is given to works by Czech playwrights; the only exceptions to this rule were several adaptations of classical repertoire, such as Moliere’s Imaginary Invalid and two comedies by Goldoni.  Extensive knowledge of Czech and Slovak dramatic literature and familiarity with current domestic productions is essential. Only very few members of the group have the opportunity to travel regularly to the Czech Republic and to stay long enough to maintain familiarity with current theatrical productions.  The second and equally important consideration in the selection of a play is the preference and taste of the audience. Here attention must be given to the majority opinion because the survival of Theatre Around the Corner depends on the number of tickets sold.  The third, and in my opinion , overriding consideration is the ability of the available talent to mount the production and to perform it at the artistic standard expected. Finally, even a choice which satisfies all the above three criteria will not be realized unless the director, essential actors and technical crew express enough interest, enthusiasm and drive to see the project to its successful conclusion.  A volunteer cannot be expected to devote countless hours of his free time, energy and creativity to a project to which he does not relate and in which he does not see a personally rewarding experience.  The final decision on next season’s repertoire is made at the General Assembly meeting either by acclamation or by a vote.

The selection of the repertoire of Theatre Around the Corner had been influenced to a considerable extent by the political changes which occurred after the “Velvet Revolution” of November 1989.  Until then, the Czech and Slovak ethnic community had only one option to hear the Czech language from a theatre stage, and thus the repertoire and its artistic quality weren't the paramount reason to see a show.  The social aspect of seeing and being seen at the show played then a significantly larger role in the decision to reserve a ticket.  Now, a considerable number of exiles visit the Czech Republic and frequently partake in its theatrical offerings.  Consequently, the demands on the content and artistic quality of the shows have grown considerably.  Prior to 1990 Czech theatre groups abroad could include in their repertoire plays written by dissident playwrights, whose fame among the émigré community guaranteed large audiences. In some instances those mountings were actually world premieres of the subsequently famous plays in the original language.  (Theatre Around the Corner  staged, for instance, the world premiere of Milan Kundera's Jacques and His Master under the original name and authorship, the first official run of Václav Havel’s Beggar’s Opera after the Czechoslovak secret police had raided the underground  performance in Horní Počernice, and the first ever production of Pavel Kohout’s Safari in the Czech language.)   It is interesting to note in this context that mountings of plays by a high-profile dissidents during the “normalization” times met with objections of some members of the group. They feared further persecution of their relatives back home by the Communist regime and believed that Czechoslovakian secret agents in Canada and their informants monitored all politically-sensitive activities. It has not been confirmed whether there was indeed a secret police file on Theatre Around the Corner but it  is true that communist agents were very much interested in any professional mountings of the dissidents' plays in translation, as I can attest from my experience of playing Vaněk in the English world premieres of Václav Havel’s Protest and Pavel Kohout’s Attest in 1984. Furthermore, in those times the Czech dissident playwrights gladly granted the performing rights to their works  to foreign theatres, whether or not any royalties were offered.  In the post-1990 free market that is no longer the case for at least some of the best authors and the agencies which represent them.  Budgetary constraints of amateur productions and limited number of performances make it difficult to negotiate the performing rights.

One aspect of the repertoire selection has not changed after 1990 and I am certain it never will.  It is the ever-present choice between comedies on one hand and somewhat more insightful and “brainy” plays on the other.  It is my sincere belief that both the ensemble and the audience deserve a balance between the two.  In both cases, however, the quality of the script and the artistic standard of its production should never be compromised. One cannot deny that laughter is a powerful medicine and that the preference of the theatergoers seems to lean towards comedies in recent times. A good comedy, however, does not necessarily preclude wisdom, and thus it may stimulate the audience in other ways than by just producing diaphragmatic contractions.   The lack of such good comedies  forces many theatres to mount shallow commercial comedy shows, quite abundant in contemporary dramatic literature.  They seem to serve the box office requirements rather well.  It would be foolish of me to deny that the cash register occupies an important part in the repertoire selection of Theatre Around the Corner;  it is important, however, to realize  that repeated mountings of mediocre material do not provide the volunteer artists with an opportunity to grow and expand their craft, and do not perennially satisfy even a less demanding theatergoer.  Occasional creative productions of more challenging material are, therefore, quite vital for the longevity of volunteer theatre groups. This has been proven repeatedly by well - received productions of challenging and stimulating modern repertoire (e.g. plays by Havel, Klíma, Goldflam and most recently by the new brilliant Petr Zelenka’s play “Tales of ordinary madness”) by the Theatre Around the Corner.

Nontraditional and avant-garde approaches to theatre and performing arts in general provide the director and at least some key cast members with the necessary challenges and give them the space and stimulation for further artistic growth.  One- or two-actor plays, productions involving puppets, pantomime, innovative use of audiovisual aids and of other media are all experiencing an exponential growth recently. My extensive involvement in the ever-growing phenomenon of the so-called “Fringe Festivals” (every September more than 100 small theatre ensembles from many parts of the world converge on Vancouver and their shows during the ten days of the festival attract total audiences larger than those of all local theatre productions throughout the entire year), makes me believe  that this branch of theatre will expand and constitute an essential form of theatrical arts in the not-too-distant future.   The intimacy between the performer and the audience which occurs in such small-scale productions cannot be duplicated by any other modern media. The unexpectedly great success of the recent guest performance of Panych’s intimate play “Vigil” (Moje teta, tvoje teta”) by Václav Postránecký and Nina Jiránková fully supports this view. This kind of theatre, of course, requires new and great writing skills, innovative direction, and nothing less than an absolutely dedicated and truthful performance.

Can these observations be applied to amateur theatre and its repertoire?  Audiences available to any theatre ensemble in Prague, their sheer numbers and their level of sophistication cannot, of course, be paralleled by the limited size of the Czech and Slovak ethnic community in Vancouver.  The attendance numbers of avant-garde theatre shows in Prague cannot be duplicated here.  A highly acclaimed production in Theatre on the Balustrade or Theater Ungelt may easily fail to attract enough ticket sales in Vancouver to cover the costs. Nevertheless,  I am quite confident in proposing that even an amateur company such as Theatre Around the Corner  should occasionally include an avant-garde and untraditional production in its repertoire.  Including such shows is essential to reinforce the creativity of the more demanding performers.  Avant-garde theatre productions are equally important to satisfy and stimulate the more sophisticated part of the audience and to perhaps educate at least some of the others.  My confidence is supported by my personal experience of mounting with Theatre Around the Corner a rather avant-garde production  of the surrealist play Sound of Thunder by Ivan Klíma in 1995 and by my multi-layered and  untraditional interpretation of Arnošt Goldflam’s  “catastrophic grotesque” Sci-Fi  in 1997. Even though the audience numbers for these two productions fell well short of those recorded at, e.g., V+W+J plays (attendance of Klíma’s play was boosted by the author’s presence at the opening, whereas the attendance of Goldflam’s play had suffered ironically because of a postal strike at the time), the production costs were recovered, and the shows were labeled as unforgettable by a majority of the performers and by most members of the audience.


On artistic standards of amateur productions

The cornerstone of the following thoughts is my firm belief that theatre is first, and uppermost, an art form.  Of course, theatre serves other functions as well (e.g. social, political and economic), and attending a show may provide just a temporary escape from gray everyday life and a fleeting smile on a worried face, but theatre’s principal task is to convey the artist's perception of human life in its endless dimensions.  Consequently, a theatrical experience should enrich the participant by inspiring new thoughts, emotions and levels of understanding in similar ways as do other art forms.  It is my sincere belief that this applies to all theatre, regardless whether it is performed by artists who make it their profession and whose income derives from it, or by those who do it without any financial reward or compensation.  Financial reward (not the artistic merit) should in fact be the only definitive distinction between a professional and an amateur artist. An enthusiastic amateur has no excuse to short-change his or her effort whereas financial considerations may sometimes cause a professional to do an uninspiring work. We have to remember, however, that the quantity of stage work and therefore the amount of accumulated experience in theatrical crafts is immeasurably smaller for a vast majority of amateurs than for the “seasoned” professionals. It is precisely this difference, which usually denigrates amateur companies to be only “poor relatives” in the eyes of the theatre community at large. Experts seem to forget that it is not only possible, but sometimes greatly advantageous, to utilize such lack of schooling and experience of amateur actors for inventive casting which results in deeply moving performances. This has been repeatedly proven by Theatre Around the Corner as evidenced by many glowing reviews of its productions  (see e.g. Literarní Noviny, Prague, VI, No.27, 1995; ibid XVI, No. 23, 2005, Nový Domov (Toronto) 48, No.19, 1997; ibid 49, No.2, 1998; ibid 56, No.6, 2005, Divadelní Noviny (Prague) 7, No.8, 1998; ibid 8, No.7, 1999).

I believe that it is only fair to consider  amateur theatre to be an organic part of the overall theatrical art culture (after all, the very roots of theatre lay in amateur stagings of "market" and religious plays by villagers throughout the last several centuries), and its achievements and failures should arouse the same interest as those of the professional productions. This seems to be already the case in North America, where theatre artists often switch between full-fledged professional productions and small semi-professional and amateur shows. I have witnessed both brilliant and very bad amateur theatre, and everything in-between these two extremes, probably in an almost identical distribution to that seen on professional stages. After all, one has to remember that the majority of artists who created the greatest achievements of our civilization were never paid for it!


Audience support and audience numbers 

Statistical market analyses in North America show that only 5 % of city populations express any degree of interest in live theatre, only 1% have actually seen a show, and that a mid-size theatrical production with excellent reviews in the media could expect that only 0.05% of a city population will be interested in the show's publicity and, finally, that no more than approximately 0.02% will buy tickets.  What a pitiful picture for those who know that the approximately seventy-five live productions playing at any given night in Prague are mostly sold out!  Unfortunately the Prague statistics are unique in the world and Theatre Around the Corner is located in North America.  If the above statistics applied to the Czech and Slovak ethnic community living in greater Vancouver, there would be no Theatre Around the Corner.  The potential audience size for Czech theatre in Vancouver is estimated at around 600-800 (not much larger than the above mentioned 5% of the estimated total number of Czechs and Slovaks living in Greater Vancouver), however, about half of that number have seen every single main production during the last 28 years.  The total ticket sales for the usual three performances of each show varied between 250 and 600 .  The above range of box office  receipts must be maintained for each production, in order to assure the survival of the theatre at its current scale.  The actual size of the audience for individual  shows  is influenced by many factors:  the quality and success of the preceding production, the familiarity of the playwright, the reputation of the director and of the featured actors, the efficacy of the publicity in the media - and even by the timing of the performance and the prevailing weather.  It used to be customary among the older exiles to feel an obligation to support and attend every event put on by their compatriots.  Many among them never missed a Czech theatre show, but would probably never consider attending any other live theatre.  That generation and those days are unfortunately fast disappearing and the interests of their children and of the new immigrants have significantly outgrown the boundaries of ethnic cultural life.  Consequently, the younger audience has to be attracted by a different set of values and new ways of eliciting interest in Czech theatre must be sought.   It has been proven, for instance,  that occasional guest performances by top Czech artists result in an enlargement of the audience even for subsequent local productions. Soon after the “Velvet Revolution”,  a small group of members of Theatre Around the Corner  (headed by Stanislav Tumpach and myself) formed the Art Pacific Productions, which started to organize West Coast tours of prominent Czech artists  (e.g. Horníček, Pilarová, Hegerová, Suchý and Molavcová, brothers Neckář, Janžurová and Remunda).  In addition to Vancouver, the tours covered other Western Canadian and US cities with Czech and Slovak communities, such as Edmonton, Calgary, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. Such multi-stop tours were generally economically viable  and proved to be very rewarding experiences for all involved.  Performances were usually very well attended, but interestingly the total audiences never exceeded the above mentioned 5% limit.

Toronto’s New Theatre has successfully used guest appearances by well-known Czech actors in its productions for a number of years. This would be difficult for Theatre Around the Corner  because of the almost double distance travel involved.  However, such an economical disadvantage may be overcome.  An appearance in Toronto could be, for instance, scheduled with a side trip to Vancouver (as it had been recently successfully done with a sold-out performance by the well-known Prague actors Jana Hlaváčová and Petr Kostka in Ladislav Smoček’s direction of Gurney’s "Love Letters", another two sold-out performances of Ladislav Smoljak starring in one of his and Z. Svěrák’s Cimmerman’s plays, “Záskok” and with the greatly successful 3 performances by Václav Postránecký and Nina Jiránková of Morris Panych’s black comedy “Vigil” ).  Fortunately most visiting artists find a trip to Vancouver and the West Coast a very rewarding experience.  Their willingness to do guest-appearances is extremely important for building and widening audiences for future productions of Theatre Around the Corner.

The viability of ethnic theatre is determined by its success in penetrating the awareness of as many as possible of the members of the Czech and Slovak community.  A crucial part in the theatre's publicity is played by other ethnic organizations and by the media.  Regular broadcasts of radio or TV programs in Czech and Slovak would be extremely helpful. Attempts to establish regular weekly Czech and Slovak broadcasts on Vancouver’s multicultural TV channel (made by M. Kovalčiková, a member of the theatre group) have to constatly cope with almost insurmountable economic problems.  The printed media  are more accessible.  Reviews and other theatre related articles printed in Vancouver’s newsletter Zpravodaj and Toronto’s semimonthly newspaper Nový Domov are extremely important, and the interest in theatre of the editors and contributors to these publications cannot be overestimated.  Efforts should also be made to use the local English-language media by providing them with regular press releases. In addition, the appearance of interesting reviews and stories on Czech and Slovak theatre abroad in Czech and Slovak Republics also carries a considerable impact. More and more Czech and Slovak expatriates read these publications and follow other domestic media via the Internet.  In addition, local Czechs and Slovak artists would then take notice of the work of foreign-based theatres and become more interested in guest appearances. Only such wide-scale and effective publicity could make the future life of Czech theatres abroad possible and place them firmly within the folds of overall Czech theatrical culture.


Perpetuity problems and musings about the future

The pace of time is unstoppable and both theatre performers and theatergoers age at an identical and rather alarming rate. The group of post-68 exiles which constituted a clear majority in the Theatre Around the Corner  gradually approaches retirement age and the casting of younger parts becomes more and more difficult. The vast majority of the exiles’ second generation lacks the necessary degree of language proficiency and their interest in Czech amateur theatre is more or less nonexistent.  New immigrants are numerically few and even fewer among them are willing to get involved.   Fortunately, there are still exceptions, and it is those rare younger theatre aficionados on whom the future of ethnic theatre depends, because realistically speaking, such a future will always rely on Czech and Slovak immigrants who were born, and at least partially educated back home.  Czechs and Slovaks who come abroad for extended study or work-related stay may contribute significantly, even if temporarily, to the work of ethnic theatre groups.  Again, it will be significant to reach those among them who do have interest in theatre.

Theatre Around the Corner   has fortunately already succeeded in at least a partial renewal of its composition by utilizing all the above mentioned resources.  Recent arrival to Vancouver of Tereza and Karel Růžička, very talented young theatre professionals from Ostrava who were significantly responsible for the latest production, is a glowing example. It will take a concentrated effort by all current members to ensure that the process continues, and perhaps even accelerates, during the next few years.  The quality and success of future productions will be as important as the provision, for the new members, of a fertile environment for artistic development.  The possibility of work with Czech and Slovak guest  professionals  will be immensely valuable in that respect.   Only those new members who will find that the work in ethnic theatre provides them  with genuine enrichment and creative satisfaction will stay. The social aspect of a cultural organization such as an ethnic theatre group is also extremely important for its renewal and thus its survival. Regular meetings and opportunities for personal interaction, for the fostering and  development of new ideas outside of the current production work itself, must be maintained in order to sustain a supportive and creative environment; no electronic communication can ever replace a pleasant evening spent with friends sharing similar interests.

The future of audience support for ethnic theatre also looks somewhat optimistic. Adopting not only a modern and aggressive publicity system, but also altering the repertoire selection and becoming proficient in applying modern staging techniques in future productions will be necessary to attract younger audiences.  More extensive interaction of ethnic theatres with the mainstream theatrical culture at home will be essential and it will undoubtedly benefit both sides. The Czech theatre community must learn to treat amateur ethnic theatre abroad as an indivisible part of the overall Czech theatrical culture.  The leaders of Czech theatres abroad must develop and cultivate a close and trusting collaboration with playwrights, directors and actors back home.

Let me close with a personal wish:  I would like to see that the distance of one entire ocean and more than one entire continent, which separates Theatre Around the Corner from mainstream Czech theatre, is perceived as nothing more than a purely geographical coincidence . . .

 

(Reprinted from a chapter in Vera Borkovec’s monography: “Czech and Slovak Theatre abroad” to be published in 2006)