The present study explores areas of contemporary independent theatre culture in Slovakia. It maps out a range of phenomena which are drawn from current theatre practice and offers several interpretive probes into selected stage and performative works. The theme of recycling is foregrounded in various contexts of theatre which intersect the boundaries of play, everyday life and performance.
Keywords: Theatre, independent culture, phenomenon, communication, recycling
The current independent theatre culture of Slovakia is noted for increased audience participation, including greater interaction in site-specific settings. There is an apparent need for theatre professionals to create new forms of coexistence in a collective meeting. The reality of the theatre merges in part with the reality of everyday interaction in a particular form of coexistence. This merging of domains creates a paradox: as the Slovak literary theorist František Miko suggests, theatre does not equal life, as it is its mere fraction. In such cases of theatricality, the original need for a meeting becomes much clearer. The collective group of creators and participating spectators work together to create a unity or symbiosis of contacts and dialogue in a characteristic setting, allowing the parameters of the theatre to merge with everyday life in a participatory form of play.
An illustrative example of such merging can be seen in the stage piece Sorry, I’ll Just Reply (Prepáč, len odpíšem) (Theatre NUDE, 2017). The directors, Lýdia Ondrušová and Veronika Malgot, set the story in an actual café bookstore located in the centre of the capital city of Bratislava. Within this authentic setting an encounter took place, that of a high school reunion, replete with all the stereotypes of the given ritual ad revidendum. The reunion scenario thus provided the required group, whose members participated in a cohesive and dynamic interaction. Within a set period of time, the audience and actors became actual classmates. Thus, a literal performative play was staged with individual actors enveloped in the reality of the city as they participated in the secondary development of a theatrical/fictional reality. The play foregrounded the interpersonal interactions which transpired at a table in the centre of the bookstore; actors, embodying both classmates and spectators, accepted their roles in a play which resembled a board game.
What happened at this distinctive reunion? Even before the established community arrived, after having previously RSVP’d by e-mail, they received text messages from a so-called performer, a fictitious classmate/actor, about the reunion and the program planned for the evening. Spectators, thus, received a series of individual instructions for the theatrical event before arriving at the specified place. As a result, the spectators came well prepared, ready to participate collectively in the events at the café, where a reserved table and menu awaited both performers and spectators.
Notably, to the uninvolved visitors at the café, the meeting unfolded as a typical high school reunion. Therefore, those who participated in the reunion were part of the everyday reality that permeated the facility and shaped the development of the narrative, a result which theatre critic Jakub Molnár has termed a café site-specific performance (Molnár, “Sorry”). Spectators were able to order food and drinks, included in the price of their tickets, as they took part in a performance.
During the café performance, the creators used a series of late arrivals of selected performers in order to present recognizable types of classmates. In this way, the performance focused on the usual clichés of ordinary reunions, which typically involve a showcase of personal achievements or other important life events. Thus, as reunion participants arrived gradually, one after another, a sketch of the typological tendencies of former high school friends emerged: some had advanced in their careers, others were young parents, or single, some were frustrated, others enamoured and so on. The reunion play was enacted, as previously noted, behind or around the table.
The routine theme of the play contrasted dynamically with the explicit movements of the main characters, as they walked up to the bar or exited the bookstore to smoke. This series of movements allowed the play to develop thematically while featuring a number of gender stereotypes as women gossiped, men boasted and embellished their accomplishments and other classmates gossiped about each other. In such situations, the audience was able to collaborate interactively with the performers in a free improvisation. They, then, returned to the designated table, where a scripted and conventional reunion was centrally staged. Eventually, the climax was reached as incessantly arguing classmates left the café and then headed home by tram or taxi.
After the actors scattered, the spectators stayed in the café and enjoyed the reverberations of the so-called inscribed space, in which the basic performative model developed by the American director and theorist Richard Schechner was effectively applied, utilizing the components of GATHERING– ACTION/ACTIONS–DEPARTURES. The stage work Sorry, I’ll Just Reply (Prepáč, jen odpíšem) (Divadlo NUDE, 2017) clearly represented such a ground plan, as it featured these performative elements par excellence in many ways.
Just as the independent theatre group NUDE performed the ritual of the reunion in the context of the Bratislava bookstore on SNP Square, the creators of the independent platform Prvý plán placed their theatre performance Fake It Till You Make It, directed in 2019 by Andrej Šoltés and Daša Krištofovičová, on the Danube embankment and the Tanker Boat as an explicitly site-specific project called wedding theatre. It followed a similar instantiation of the basic performance model; thus, the wedding celebration on the ship was carried out again according to the principles of the performative play, with individual phases following the same sequence of events: gathering–action/actions–departure (Schechner 185).
The staging of this work was preceded by an online invitation to a planned event and a subsequent R.S.V.P. The invitation resembled an actual wedding invitation, yet it also assigned the recipient a certain role at a particular wedding reception. Through this e-mail correspondence, spectators could become acquainted with other details of the wedding-ceremony strategy and could also follow the bride on Instagram, as she obviously needed to draw attention to herself and her major life event in the virtual sphere. Moreover, all spectators, by confirming their participation, took on the role of a member of either the groom’s or the bride’s party and were required to adhere to their respective roles consistently throughout the wedding theatre/performance. Observing the dress-code as well as bringing a wedding gift were also required.
The gathering took place on a specific waterfront in the presence of family members from both sides, along with highly qualified assistants from a wedding planning agency. Spectators were also each given a nametag to facilitate getting to know each other. The participants equally divided the invited guests into the groom’s or the bride’s party and then made contact with them with a regular welcome that involved the actors: they communicated with them interactively, as this form of social event allowed it. After the newlyweds arrived amid a shower of rice, a kitschy photoshoot was undertaken, after which the wedding procession gradually moved from the quay to the Tanker Boat, where the staged wedding feast continued. This wedding theatre contained various elements of ceremonial games and performative events that anticipated audience participation.
Throughout the play, a sporadic narrative was continuously developed. The performers and the audience interacted smoothly as a participating group of wedding guests. At the same time, the spectators acted as fully engaged co-players, especially on board the tanker in dance rides, but also during individual dialogical performances and conversations; for example, when giving their wedding gifts to the bride and groom. Gradually, the revelling audience became aware that a prima facie flawlessly organised wedding party was being unmasked.
The creators captured the explicitly gaudy superficiality of the event, along with the artificiality of the surrounding wedding tinsel, through the expert contributions of a professional wedding agency. The festivities of the tasteless wedding party were eventually disrupted, however, when an unwelcome late-night guest, the bride’s rival, arrived. The original party was thus transformed into a harsh conflict zone between two women fighting for a man. At this point the structure of the performance was shaped by analogy to formulaic ceremonial plays in Slovak traditional culture, which feature visits by a woman with a baby, asking for alimony from the groom. The intrusive appearance of an emotionally fraught unknown woman, the original partner of the groom, interrupted the progression of the wedding performance with its interactions, performances, sketches, dances and song fragments; it prompted the dispersal of all the wedding guests, both performing characters and spectators, from the anchored boat, and the jovial remains of a failed wedding party dissembled in a performative action. In this case, the authors quite parodically approached the recycling of the given prejudices in similar rituals of Slovak traditional culture. Their superficiality and shallow commercialisation purposefully remained in the foreground.
In sum, the overlapping realities of the theatre and the non-theatrical territory of everyday life exemplify how the theatre can move into the public space, as it intervenes and functions to blend fiction and everyday life in minimal degrees and often across invisible boundaries. The intrusion into public space of a theatrical performance is not as abrupt as is the open-air theatre of the street or other outdoor locations. Quite the contrary, the experience of a theatrical event in an enclosed public space involves a close interaction, as it utilizes the dispositions, parameters and functions of the local community. This regrouping of actual and fictional realities creates a modern, revitalised collective reciprocity.
Contemporary directors have thus achieved both an overlap and a separation, emerging from the background of the public zone or non-theatrical reality, as in the aforementioned example of the café performance, Sorry, I’ll Just Reply (NUDE Theatre, 2017), or the wedding performance, Fake It Till You Make It (Prvý plan, 2019). In the former, the backdrop is a specific café bookstore with authentic visitors, while, in the latter, the background setting features the river Danube along with sailing or neighbouring anchored boats and the surrounding visitors, pedestrians and tourists on the waterfront.
The common denominator of these recent theatrical performances is their ambiguity in creating theatrical interventions in attractive environments that overlap with everyday realities, such realities which may or may not correspond to the created reality of the theatre. Both works discussed above, Fake It Till You Make It and Sorry, I’ll Just Reply, prioritize the attributes of a theatre event, but also foreground performance, performative play, immersion theatre (Molnár, “Immersive Theatre”), and even ritual elements of theatre. In a sense, they can be described as a hybrid form of innovative trends in contemporary independent theatre production, as both emphasize the interactive and co-constructive qualities of communication. From this perspective, both instances of current independent theatre discussed above can be more fully understood; indeed, through such intriguing contemporary performances, a type of reality game is played out in a public setting of the theatre in the world.
 Richard Schechner states in this connection that “. . . the first theatres were ceremonial centres—they were part of the hunting system, search for food sources according to the seasonal schedule, meeting other human groups, celebrating and immortalising these celebrations by inscribing a given space . . .” (184).
Kubák, Kristián Ivo, et al. Immersive Theatre and Media [Imerzivní divadlo a médiá]. Pražská scéna, 2015.
Molnár, Jakub. “Immersive Theatre” [“Imerzné divadlo na Slovensku”]. Themes on the Margins of Interest? A Collection of Research Papers from the Theatre Studies Symposium [Témy na okraji záujmu? Zborník vedeckých príspevkov z teatrologického sympózia], edited by Karol Mišovic, Art Research Centre of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Institute of Theatre and Film Research, 2021.
—. “Sorry, I’ll Just Reply” [“Prepáč, len odpíšem”]. Theatre NUDE [Divadlo NUDE]. Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.
*Miroslav Ballay is a Lecturer, Department of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Arts, Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra. His research focuses largely on independent theatre culture. He has published a number of monographs and edited several specialist publications: Cultural Memory in Contemporary Theatre (Preparation of an Author’s Production from Life in Totalitarianism) (Kultúrna pamäť v súčasnom divadle (Príprava autorskej inscenácia zo života v totalite), 2021), Survey of Independent Theatre Culture in Slovakia (Sondáž nezávislej divadelnej kultúry na Slovensku; 2020), (Removing) Taboo of Death in Contemporary Art Discourses ((De)tabuizácia smrti v diskurzoch súčasného umenia; 2016), 3 x with A Collection of Lectures on Contemporary Theatre (3 x s zborník prednášok o súčasnom divadle; 2015), Farm in a Cave (Farma v jeskyni; 2012) and others. He is a member of the Slovak Centre of the International Association of Theatre Critics (SC AICT).
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