SLOVAK DIRECTORS OF THE X AND Y GENERATION (RESUMING DIALOGUE)

The electronic virtual catalogue Contemporary Slovak Directors contains entries about a relatively broad generational span of Slovak directors. Their productions also represent the most outstanding approaches or tendencies that have been applied in Slovak theatre after 1989.

The catalogue presents directors of the so-called older middle generation, middle generation (generation X) and the youngest generation (generation Y). Naturally, one cannot claim that these directors’ poetics, directorial work, themes or worldviews are overly similar. It is because they have been influenced by different social, political, cultural and artistic environments. They started working for the theatre at different stages of its development – stages that closely mirrored the transformation of the society and the network of theatres in Slovakia. Some of them experienced the theatre during its advancement (of artistic initiatives, resonance of the theatre as a medium, audience interest), others during it decline (stagnation, discontinuation, audience apathy). Several young artists, considered to be talented rising stars of theatre direction, were unsuccessful and were erased from the theatrical map before they could become visible. Despite these oscillations, contemporary Slovak directors constitute a very interesting and diverse group which confirms that they are a legitimate part of European theatre and can reciprocally offer a lot to it.

Most of the directors graduated from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava – in theatre direction, dramaturgy, or a combination of both. The catalogue includes also Slovak directors who graduated from Czech art academies and regularly work in Slovakia (Ondrej Spišák and Martin Čičvák). Some started their career as mature personalities (Rastislav Ballek, Alena Lelková), others as young graduates of the Academy of Performing Arts (Marián Amsler, Lukáš Brutovský, Ján Luterán). Others are so-called “self-made men” whose careers were shaped in amateur theatre, or who worked in professional theatres, but had no university education, further theatre-focused education, or who studied later (Marián Pecko, József Czajlik, Eduard Kudláč, Sláva Daubnerová, Iveta Ditte Jurčová, Michal Vajdička).

It can be assumed, therefore, that the pedagogues (and also active directors) who taught at the Academy of Performing Arts have essentially influenced their successors. This is mostly relevant for the living directors – pedagogues of the older and older middle generation, such as Vladimír Strnisko, Ľubomír Vajdička, Peter Mikulík, Juraj Nvota, Roman Polák, among others. Of course, such influence is partly visible in the directors’ perception of the text, the stage space and of the actor’s role in the production process. Overall, however, there has not been an influential school that would shape the contemporary directors, or at least the most creative and progressive part of them, a school led by a master and followed by a student who would carry and further develop the master’s legacy and his or her poetics like it has been the case, for example, in Poland (Jerzy Grotowski and Włodzimierz Staniewski, many epigones and followers of Tadeusz Kantor, or Krystian Lupa and his students Krzystof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna).

If the younger generations of directors acquired anything of the directorial approaches and techniques of their pedagogues, these were only particularities that have supported their own, different theatrical thought and the search for their own original theatrical language. Such tendencies can be observed particularly in the shifted perception of the domination of the dramatic text as the determining theatrical element, the introduction of themes that were more related to the postmodernist perception of the world, in the more civil acting “style”, in the employment of postdramatic theatre (not creating dramatic plots and big psychological arcs, but rather psychological states, and the use of fragments to complete a mosaic of feelings resulting from the current state of affairs). More than any time before does the artistic approach of the present generation of directors display an unclean style or deliberate stylistic contamination as an expression of artistic intent. In their perception, theatre should not be just art for art’s sake, or a critical mirror, but an engaged gesture, contact with reality, dialogue of today’s people with their past, present, future, identity and art. Theatre should not be a judge pronouncing the final verdict, but something that will puzzle, provoke, irritate and ask questions.

But if we insisted on looking for outstanding Slovak directors whose work corresponded with the development of European theatre and has also influenced the production form of contemporary Slovak theatre direction, we would end up stumbling across names like Miloš Pietor or Peter Scherhaufer (1970s and 1980s), and even Blaho Uhlár as one of the most dominant representatives of devised theatre (1980s and 1990s). Director Miloš Pietor influenced the next generations with his conviction that theatre is not only a means to depict the world, but also a tool of communication among people as well as between people and the world. His productions did not show “the rivalry between different human characters, temperaments, or life concepts, but the struggle of man with his times and with the mechanisms that destructively bore down on human freedom, civil rights and the flight of the soul and of thinking.” [1] Miloš Pietor’s productions were elaborated to the smallest detail – he was a master of “creating a thought form that multiplied the intellectual message of the author and endowed it with new contours of meaning.”[2] His directorial work with the actors merged an openly analytical and critical attitude with a grotesquely rough approach[3] that was often even crudely stern (biologism prevailing over the spirit). Even today, Pietor’s legacy is acknowledged by teachers of theatre direction at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, the Academy of Arts in Banská Bystrica (founded in 1997), as well as by their graduates.

Director Peter Scherhaufer, who was the principal artistic personality of the Brno-based Theatre on a String for many years, influenced a whole generation of younger artists mostly owing to his tendency to constantly experiment and to communicate with the audience in unconventional ways in untypical, non-theatrical, often open-air spaces (he is famous for the walks he would take with the spectators offstage, moving through the interior of theatre buildings – the so-called read theatre). The starting point for Scherhaufer’s production work was never a traditional dramatic text, but journalistic or documentary material, various legends and folk forms. The productions he directed were ahead of what Slovak criticism later called “postmodern direction” – among other things also simultaneous action or connecting elements that were commonly not connected in theatre. For Scherhaufer, theatre was a magical place of creativity, resourcefulness and playfulness. He liked to acquire and take ownership particularly of such theatre means that traditional or conventional theatre rejected.[4] Scherhaufer was a director who made use of a specific place to enliven both the acting onstage, as well as history in its current contact with the “here and now”. Among Scherhaufer’s admirers are director Martin Čičvák, or Ondrej Spišák who has a similar penchant for clownery, open-air performances and the use of circus tents. With a similar intention to Scherhaufer’s production Who Needs You? (1991) in the Jonáš Záborský Theatre, several young directors invigorated the extensive building of the Slovak National Theatre more than twenty years later with the production The Ten Commandments (2014).

The last of the three mentioned directors, Blaho Uhlár, inspired the next generation of directors as one of the most outstanding representatives of devised theatre, collective creation and the theatre of gradually fixed improvisation. It was Uhlár, and later the Stoka Theatre under his leadership, who introduced to Slovak theatres art forms that were strongly fragmented, decomposed, full of cruelty, brutality and civil performative sincerity. Even though Uhlár is, even now, considered to be a director who prefers explicit scenes, his productions are metaphors of the society that unsettled, even shocked the audience: “The productions uncovered the ever deeper, hidden and animalistic expressions of humans, their libido, their perverse ideas and goals, their vulgar acts. The mental processes were transformed into physical processes – into human glands and juices. (...) The language used by the dramatic characters in Stoka’s productions was more and more blunt, rough and vulgar. (...) It was an enduring and gradated effort to shed all restraints, to “strip” people not only of their clothes, but also of all sediments of civilization, to uncover the animal in them in atavistic explosions.”[5] Uhlár’s work was later drawn on (and also transcended towards new forms of postdramatic “cruel” or performance theatre) mostly by the members of the younger middle and the youngest generation of directors who had experience with the work of small, independent theatres – e.g. Eduard Kudláč, Iveta Ditte Jurčová or Sláva Daubnerová. However, it ought to be added, that the directors who are actively working in theatre now have not always been inspired by the mentioned three directors directly or deliberately. They only made use of the most innovative of their directorial style – the new elements that were introduced into the Slovak production tradition, paradoxically, as an expression of directorial discontinuity.

But there is another fact that needs to be mentioned when talking about the work of the older and older middle generation of directors. They worked in professional theatres during the period between two political regimes and experienced the aesthetic and value-related change the transition from a totalitarian state to democracy brought about (the Velvet Revolution, 1989). In theatre, however, they were not able to fully adapt to the new social and cultural conditions for quite some time. Audiences lost interest in topics which this generation deliberately pursued: the conflict between totalitarian power and the desire for freedom, the resistance against power practices and censorship, and the absurdity of existence in such a society.  Negative social criticism portrayed through the action of individuals without any constructive vision resulted in a loss of multi-layered theatrical perception and did not start any creative dialogue.

It was not easy either for the present middle generation, people born in the 1970s, who entered the professional theatre environment in the mid-1990s. They were the so-called Husák’s children who grew up in the seemingly favourable period of a baby-boom and prosperity. They were untouched by the enforcement of normalization principles, the communist party ideology, the tighter censorship of the 1970s, the fight between “the good and the even better” represented by the drama of so-called socialist realism, but also the true struggle of man (artist) for freedom and a connection with the surrounding world of a divided Europe. When they started their theatre practice, many directors had had an international experience (stays in Poland, the United Kingdom, the USA) and were familiar with new trends, typical for postdramatic theatre. At first, however, their creative effort did not meet with much understanding. Unstable conditions in Slovakia did not allow them to grow fully – audience interest diminished rapidly, the theatre network underwent turbulent transformation (in-house directors’ and dramaturg’s jobs were scrapped), directors once more became nomads who had to live and work with professional uncertainty, and original Slovak drama in theatre repertories became a taboo. Changes were made only very slowly.

In the 1990s, mostly the so-called big stage directors[6] (of the older and middle generation) found it hard to find good topics – and so, paradoxically, or perhaps quite logically, this resulted in director-oriented theatre, in which the director became the dominant element prevailing over the synthetic approach favouring teamwork-driven productions. The directors could not find a topic that would resonate in the society. Even topics of absurd or modern drama never received positive feedback, very much like world classics (reinterpretations and formally embellished interpretations of Elizabethan and classicist drama), or the productions of until then always popular Russian authors (Chekhov, Ostrovsky, Dostoyevsky), or even the more subtly produced plays of new European drama (Bernard-Marie Koltés, Martin McDonagh, Janusz Głowacki, Ingmar Villqist, Patrick Marber, Martin Crimp, Elfriede Jelinek, Yasmina Reza, David Harrower, Yevgeni Grishkovetz, Igor Bauersima, or plays by Ray Cooney, Miro Gavran, Matjaž Župančič), or the few plays of Slovak new drama.  A different view of the world had to be discovered – a view in which the Slovak audience would get to know itself anew and formulate its own, as well as national, identity.

Slovak theatre found some dynamism and themes shared with its audiences in the new millennium, particularly in the second half of its first decade. Since then, Slovak theatre has become remarkably diverse. The middle generation of active directors has brought back to the stages works of original Slovak drama (for example, the successful productions Krcheň the Immortal by Eva Maliti Fraňová directed by Rastislav Ballek, Roman Polák and Alena Lelková, Viliam Klimáček’s Hypermarket directed by Roman Polák, and the play Fetishists written by Iveta Horváthová, directed by Soňa Ferancová, produced by the Slovak National Theatre), as well as plays about real figures from Slovak history that interconnected their work and life paths. These include productions that recorded the destiny of the generation before and during the Štúr national revival movement (The Messianist’s Head or the Ark of the Covenant directed by Michal Babiak, Hollyroth, or Robert Roth Sings Jan Hollý’s Uglies and Observations directed by Rastislav Ballek, Prophet Štúr and His Shadows directed by Roman Polák); productions about nearly forgotten women authors and male authors of the 20th century (And We Will Whisper and The Quieter the Tone, the Better directed by Kamil Žiška); productions of so-called “nature” fiction (e.g. Piargy directed by Roman Polák), or the works by the exceptional woman writer Božena Slančíková Timrava, whose view of the Slovak affairs is self-ironizing (among others, Big Luck directed by Ľubomír Vajdička, All for the Nation and The Ball directed by Michal Vajdička, The Loveliest Beauty directed by Ján Sládeček, or the productions of The Ťapák Clan directed by Dušan Bajin and Matúš Bachynec), and finally productions of contemporary plays about the life and work of statesmen and politicians who influenced the social and political development in Slovakia when “regimes and ideologies were broken apart” (Tiso directed by Rastislav Ballek, Dr. Gustáv Husák directed by Martin Čičvák, and also M.H.L. directed by Sláva Daubnerová). Most Slovak drama originated and was staged in Slovakia thanks to good cooperation between theatres and directors. Many of the productions were commissioned by the theatres.

The middle and youngest generation of directors departed from the tradition of realist and psychological detail that relied on a subordinated relation to the dramatic text or material (in terms of interpretation) and resumed the dialogue about contemporary man (both in regional as well as broader social frameworks), his historical memory, and about responsibility as well as the morals and values of the old continent. The contemporary man originated from the fight with himself, with his urges, atavistic tendencies, intellectual effort and attempts at self-identification coming from the past, but also in the contact with certain mysticism, or perhaps with God and with the Devil as entities that exist in us and around us, entities man cannot control (recently mentioned, for example, in Gogol’s Dead Souls directed by Michal Vajdička, Goethe’s Faust directed by Martin Čičvák or Michal Babiak, The Master and Margarita directed by Dodo Gombár or Ondrej Spišák, as well as in Esterházy’s play Mercedes Benz directed by Roman Polák).

Among the directors who strongly influenced the form and profile of Slovak theatres after 2000 are Roman Polák, Ondrej Spišák, Marián Pecko, Rastislav Ballek, Martin Čičvák, directing dramaturg Svetozár Sprušanský, József Czajlik, Soňa Ferancová, Dodo Gombár, Patrik Lančarič, Alena Lelková, Michal Vajdička, Eduard Kudláč, Kamil Žiška, Viktor Kollár, Iveta Ditte Jurčová, and many others. Several strong dramaturgical-directorial tandems have emerged with extraordinary authorial and staging potential, particularly as far as creative work with dramatic text or theatre script is concerned. This kind of collaboration set up a base for substitute dramaturgical and devised workshops, which used to be attached directly to theatres in the past and which focused on creating texts and scripts for the theatre’s ensemble.

It is also important to note that the mentioned directors, together with the youngest generation of directors, have gradually once again endowed Slovak theatre with its civic commitment, became creators of political and documentary theatre (e.g. Terra Granus dealing with the issue of politically forced repatriation of citizens in the late 1940s as a result of the so-called Beneš decrees, or Misery tackling the issue of poverty, both directed by Iveta Ditte Jurčová). Other relevant themes included the reflection and critical coming to terms with the Slovak and European experience with the Holocaust, the atrocities of World War II and the Slovak fascist past (Holocaust directed by Rastislav Ballek, The Kindly Ones directed by Michal Vajdička, and partly also Europeana directed by Ján Luterán, Leni written and directed by Valéria Schulczová and Midnight Mass directed by Lukáš Brutovský), as well as the reflection of the Slovak communist, socialist and early privatization past (Communism directed by Martin Čičvák, Once Upon a Time in Bratislava directed by Patrik Lančarič, Máša and Beta directed by Viktor Kollár, or Carpathian Thriller directed by Roman Polák).

Together with the youngest generation, the mentioned directors initiated a strong current of socially active theatre. But the theatres did not steer away from the difficult role of coming to terms with the Slovak and European literary and artistic development (e.g. the dramatizations of the works by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Charlotte Brönte, or Slovaks Ivan Horváth or Peter Pišťanek), with the issue of artists taking over the responsibility for the conditions in art and the accountability of people for the state of culture (Kukura, subtitled Dissertation on the State of ArtCapital directed by Martin Čičvák, or Michel Houellebecq’s Submission directed by Marián Amsler), as well as with new processes of self-shaping and/or attitude towards national, gender and family identity. The rich repertory also includes the five theatre sitcoms staged under the title www.nationalcemetery.sk directed by Dodo Gombár, the production Mojmír II. or the Fall of the Empire directed by Rastislav Ballek, or Silver Bowls, Excellent Vessels, an ironic production told using a feminine lens and directed by Alena Lelková. But the list should also include such productions as Nostalgia directed by Marián Pecko, The Country of Unscythed Meadows directed by Iveta Ditte Jurčová, Single RadicalsThou Shalt Not Commit Adultery and The Day When Gott Died directed by Júlia Rázusová, as well as the very specific projects Morals 2000+ and The Ten Commandments produced in the Slovak National Theatre and featuring entire teams of contemporary Slovak directors.

Some of the productions have become the voice of entire generations. They viewed classical authors through a new lens, but never denied them. The boldly overwrote their words and ideas in a friendly gesture. How would Shakespeare, Goethe, Bulgakov or Chekhov wish to see their characters today? What would they communicate to our contemporaries? Owing to such approach, new varieties of theatricality could emerge – for example, socially engaged type of community theatre (Viera Dubačová), feminist theatre and gender-sensitive theatre (Iveta Škripková), or research-based theatre[7](Iveta Ditte Jurčová). The youngest generation of directors then drew on these tendencies. It brought intellectual, emotionally cold social and critical line of productions of world classics, which was an unusual development in Slovakia (Lukáš Brutovský), light cabaret and political satire (Ján Luterán), combinations of drama and material-based visual theatre addressing issues of family disintegration and the new lost generation presented as a generational statement (Júlia Rázusová and her collaboration with the Prešov National Theatre). Slovak theatre also enjoyed experimental and laboratory forms of theatre that was inclined toward performance (Sláva Daubnerová and the P.A.T. theatre) or inter-genre theatre (Andrej Kalinka and the Honey and Dust association).

Contemporary Slovak direction clearly reflects the current European theatre context, both on its dramatic and production level. It has shown a tendency to discuss current social, theatrical and intimately human issues. Of course, as any other country, we have a close relationship with our regional development, including the development of literature and art. But that which seems to be local might just have the greatest potential for artists and might provide enough impetus to appeal to international audiences as well. After all, Slovakia has always been a very multicultural and multi-ethnic country whose theatre was shaped essentially by two aesthetic and poetic approaches – German (the rational and rather cold) and Russian (the more emotional one). Slovak theatre has drawn most of its production from the intersection of these approaches. I do not wish to claim, however, that we were separated from the Anglophone, Francophone or Transatlantic theatre, or any other big theatre cultures. But contemporary Slovak theatre and direction is characteristic for its combination of a unique sense for the present and a verification of the present by returning to the past, both in playwriting and play production. In the centre of it all, however, is the actor and his faith in the emotionality of the word, the power of a stage image being a theatrical gesture or metaphor that aspire to incite social dialogue.

 

Elena Knopová

theatre theorist, Institute of Theatre and Film Research, Slovak Academy of Sciences

 

[1] ŠTEFKO, Vladimír. In the Context of Slovak Direction. In MISTRÍK, Miloš (ed.). Director Miloš Pietor. Bratislava : Koordinačná rada pre vydávanie divadelných hier z teatrologickej literatúry, 1992, p. 13. ISBN 80-900513-5-9.

[2] MISTRÍK, Miloš. Drama Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s. In MISTRÍK, Miloš et al. Slovak Theatre in the 20th Century. Bratislava : VEDA, 1999, p. 211. ISBN 80-224-0577-9.

[3] MISTRÍK, Miloš. Pietor’s Actors in the Slovak National Theatre. In MISTRÍK, Miloš (ed.). Director Miloš Pietor. Bratislava : Koordinačná rada pre vydávanie divadelných hier z teatrologickej literatúry, 1992 p. 69. ISBN 80-900513-5-9.

[4] MAŤAŠÍK, Andrej. Theatremaking in the 1990s. In MISTRÍK, Miloš et al. Slovak Theatre in the 20th Century. Bratislava : VEDA, 1999, p. 241. ISBN 80-224-0577-9.

[5] MISTRÍK, Miloš. Slovak Absurd Drama. Bratislava : VEDA, 2002, p. 186. ISBN 80-22407-13-5.

[6] On the contrary, small, experimental and independent devising theatres (such as Stoka, GUnaGU, or later SkRAT) were successful. They could quickly react to social stimuli, established their own subculture and shaped the audience.

[7] These are productions created based on field research (collecting authentic material, interviews, learning about the language, historical, cultural and social particularities of a given location). The authors then compare and contrast their findings with official sociological, ethnological and anthropological research and surveys, or various social theories and concepts. Based on the findings and results of their research, they devise semi-documentary theatre whose aim is not to transfer facts and reality onto the stage, but to make a topical statement about facts and reality using theatrical means. These often include productions with an appealing ending used as a way to warn or call for a public debate, communication about an issue as part of a broader discourse. In this type of theatre work, the director participates in the creative dialogue with the actors already in the material collecting stage and then when developing the characters and the staging concept.

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