Czech theatre in Vancouver

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, we may incite new efforts to retain Czech theatre as the all-important nucleus of our ethnic life in North America.

Theatre Around the Corner traces its beginnings to 1976 and has so far staged over three dozen full theatrical productions, ten programs of poetry and music, three original cabarets, three children’s plays and three guest productions. Its one hundred and twenty five performances in front of a total audience of over sixteen thousand put this Vancouver theatre company among the oldest local theatres. The longevity and artistic achievements of this thriving theatre group which breathes the clean and fragrant rain-forest air of the Canadian Pacific shores while speaking, unbelievably, a language of distant central Europe, is truly remarkable! 

Live theatre had always occupied, and it still undeniably does, a special and prominent position in Czech culture. Its significance for all strata of Czech society is virtually without equal in any other European, or perhaps even world cultures. Czechs have embraced theatre, probably even more so than their traditional devotion to folk songs and music, particularly during the extended historical periods of oppression, occupation and enslavement. Theatre had played a prominent role in their national awakening in the mid-nineteenth century and a hundred years later it was again live theatre that gave Czechs and Slovaks the resiliency and the unbending spirit of defiance which outlasted 50 years of brutal totalitarian regimes.

Even now Czechs and Slovaks find that theatre helps them retain and preserve their identity and inherited values among the prevailing chaos of alienating globalization. The sheer volume and quality of theatrical productions in today's Prague, 14 years after it entered the wide-open space of opportunities provided by a market driven political system, defies all logic and is unparalleled in any other major city of Western civilization. Consequently, it does not seem particularly surprising that theatre has also assumed a key and unifying role in the ethnic life of Czechs and Slovaks abroad. One has to admire, however, those relatively numerous individuals among the educated and experienced  of the post-1968 exiles, who mobilized enough enthusiasm, energy and drive to establish and keep alive Czech theatre in a foreign country. And they did so during the most difficult period of their lives while adapting to and coping with a foreign land that overwhelms and drains the vast majority of new arrivals. It is even more admirable that the repertoire and quality of the theatrical productions they had developed have gradually surpassed the boundaries of traditional amateur theatre. Czech ethnic theatre (and here I am referring specifically to the Theatre Around the Corner in Vancouver, where I have worked for more than 25 years, and to Toronto's New Theatre, with whose work I am quite familiar) has thus become an integral part of the overall Czech theatrical culture.

Prior to 1989, the amateur theatre companies residing beyond the borders of then totalitarian Czechoslovakia could stage plays written by dissident playwrights who were systematically persecuted at home and whose work was banned by the Communist regime. Productions of some such plays not only provided the writers with essential exposure to audiences, but sometimes also opened the way for translations of these authors to reach the professional foreign stages. The best of Czech dramatic works thus found their way out of the playwrights’ secret hiding places and gained the Western world’s attention and critical acclaim.  The Czechoslovak nonconformist culture and its brutal suppression attracted the interest of foreign artists and audiences, and had unquestionably advanced the cause of liberation.

Following the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, the participation by Czech theatrical companies abroad within the overall Czech theatrical culture has changed. They have now become uniquely positioned to stage the works of contemporary Czech and Slovak playwrights using a broader approach and emphasis. Since both the artists and their audiences have been exposed for quite some time to other theatrical cultures, they can apply interpretations which are more globally oriented than those traditionally used in domestic productions. Czech playwrights and sometimes also guest-appearing actors thus gain an opportunity to expose their work to audiences with other than the homegrown predilections and tastes. Such experiences are vital for Czech theatre to gain international scope.


The beginnings of Vancouver's Theatre Around the Corner

Vancouver is a very young and rapidly growing metropolitan center, located on the spectacular Pacific coast of the Canadian westernmost province of British Columbia. Its modern history spans only slightly more than a hundred years and the unparalleled scenic beauty of the city and its surroundings have attracted a significant inflow of immigrants only during the past fifty years. With no industry other than that based on natural resources, Vancouver did not provide adequate opportunities for Czech and Slovak immigrants until the late 1960s. It was only the post-1968 exiles who were the first large Czechoslovak immigration inflow that the city, and British Columbia in general, had experienced.  Even then, the numbers arriving here were considerably lower than those who chose eastern Canadian cities, particularly Toronto and its environs. Consequently, it was only in the 1970s that the Czech and Slovak community in greater Vancouver reached the "critical mass" necessary for the birth of its ethnic theatre.

Two well-known Czech theatre legends, perhaps appropriately representing the opposite extremes of theatrical arts, had stood, unwittingly, at the cradle of Vancouver’s Czech theatre. Otto Lowy left Prague for England in 1938 and had thus survived the Holocaust. Unsuccessful in his efforts to locate any relatives or any traces of family property upon his return to Prague in 1945, he emigrated to Vancouver, where he made a living in the theatre. His extraordinary talent had significantly influenced the beginnings of Vancouver’s professional performing arts scene. He was a very successful director, actor, and educator. In later years he achieved international acclaim for his weekly CBC radio broadcasts of Intercontinental, devoted to European, and particularly Czech, music.  In the spring of 1978 Lowy discovered that a Continuing Education theatre class of his consisted almost exclusively of Czech immigrants and that he could, therefore, include Czech theatre in the curriculum. His students were members of the so called Czech Theatre Club, formed in July 1977, who later constituted the core ensemble of Vancouver's Theatre Around the Corner

The formation  of the Theatre Club had been, again indirectly, influenced by the other Czech legend, Jára Kohout. A beloved comedian and entertainer who had lived in exile in New York, he stopped in Vancouver on his way to Los Angeles in late April of 1977 and on April 30 had performed an evening of monologues and songs in the Flamingo Cabaret. The evening was organized on very short notice by his Vancouver hostess, Jarmila Smékalová (who had worked in Prague’s Vinohradské divadlo prior to her emigration in 1968), who also managed to secure the participation of pianist Beno Vánì, singer Jana Plattigová and step-dancing by then ten-year-old David Nykl (who subsequently performed in several other Czech productions, graduated from the theatre program of the University of British Columbia and now works professionally in both Prague and Vancouver). The impromptu evening was surprisingly successful and Jára Kohout offered to come again to Vancouver in November to perform in his well-known musical comedy from the thirties On the Green Meadow, provided, of course, that the local Czech group could cast and rehearse the play prior to his arrival.

The seed of his suggestion fell on fertile ground (attempts to start a Czech theatre group under the auspices of the Multicultural Theatre Association of B.C. had already been made in 1976), the Theatre Club was formed and a dozen Czech theatre enthusiasts began rehearsing under the direction of Libuše Netrvalová (a student of theatre in Pilsen prior to her emigration in 1948) and Jarmila Smékalová. On November 4, 1977 almost 400 Czech and Slovak exiles filled every available seat in the rented Metro Theatre and gave great ovations and multiple curtain calls not only to the histrionics of the aging Kohout, but mainly to their friends and neighbors appearing on stage. 

The significance of this event didn't reflect its artistic quality, which was rather lacking, but the simple fact that for the first time since leaving Czechoslovakia an ethnic group of people sharing common roots and the common daily hardships of establishing themselves in a foreign culture, could suddenly spend an evening among kindred souls, hear and speak their mother tongue, remember the familiar humor and listen to the beloved melodies of their old home. Of course, according to an old Czech proverb - “One swallow does not make a spring” -  the great success of this single theatrical event did not guarantee the beginnings of an independent and continuous Czech theatre company in Vancouver. Such a possibility had subsequently been explored by my production of two evenings of poetry in 1978, again quite successful. One of them was co-produced with the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada, a very active political organization of Czech and Slovak exiles. Its Vancouver branch had immediately recognized the essential role that a Czech theatre group could play in strengthening the ethnic cohesiveness of the Czech and Slovak community. This had already been proven by the success of Toronto's New Theatre, established in 1970. The Toronto theatre group, however, had served a much older and larger ethnic community (estimated at twice the size of the approximately 14,000 Czechs and Slovaks living in Vancouver and its vicinity).

In the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s, the Canadian federal government supported multicultural theatre in Canada as part of its “cultural mosaic” policy. A two-week annual “Festival of Multicultural Theatre” was initiated in Vancouver by the B.C. Multicultural Theatre Association.  This group of predominantly European theatre aficionados was joined in 1978 by several Czechs and Slovaks and was successful in receiving a few federal cultural grants. Individual national theatre groups were encouraged to enter the Festival and were provided free theatre rental and publicity. Unfortunately, the government's generosity did not last longer than a few years and neither did the B.C. Multicultural Theatre Association.  Nevertheless, even in its short life span, the association  proved to be instrumental for the beginnings of Vancouver's Czech theatre group.

A group of approximately 20 Czech and Slovak theatre enthusiasts had somewhat consolidated during the production work on the evenings of poetry, and had decided to use the opportunity of the Multicultural Festival to mount another full-scale theatrical production. To no great surprise, the choice fell on a traditional forte of Czech amateur thespians, The Lantern  by Alois Jirásek. Dr. Josef Skála took over the directing of the classical folk tale and “enriched” its otherwise very traditional staging by a few short commentaries on the play, offered by a couple of water sprites during the set changes. These dialogues were performed by a graduate of Bratislava’s AMU, Peter Bugár and Skála himself (both are still active in the Theatre Around the Corner), and satirized the abuse of Czech classics by the cultural savants of the Communist regime during the so-called “normalization” period. Thus, for the first time in his theatrical experience Skála was able to take advantage of the freedom of speech and artistic expression provided by a functioning system of democracy. This had generated a mixed reaction from the audience. Even though the majority enjoyed the newfound openness of the humor, some took exception to the "politization" of a classical story and one deeply offended older lady actually slapped Skála’s face on a later occasion. This rather eye-opening incident is mentioned here only because it was the first warning sign of the influence of rigid political convictions on the life of Czech theatre abroad. In any case, the production of The Lantern was a great success, not only financially (it provided the necessary seed money for further productions), but also artistically. The ensemble gained the necessary stage experience and the quality of its subsequent productions kept increasing steadily. Comedies by Voskovec and Werich (The Straw Hat, Caesar, Heaven on Earth) were interspersed with plays by brothers Èapek (Limping Wanderer and Insect Play), Kundera (Jacques and His Master), Havel (Beggar’s Opera and Audience), and others (a complete list of productions can be found on the Productions page).

In 1980 the group named itself Theatre Around the Corner (Divadlo Za rohem) and legally formalized its status as a nonprofit society.

Dr. Josef P. Skála

(Reprinted from a chapter in the monography of Vera Borkovec: "Czech and Slovak Theatre Abroad", to be published in 2006)