Prague avant-garde theatre pioneer breaks language barrier with bold performances

Alfred ve dvoře is for "people who prefer art galleries," says artistic director Tomáš Procházka of the theatre's visual, non-verbal shows. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 19.11.2021 17:28:00 (updated on 20.11.2021) Reading time: 8 minutes

Holešovice-based theatre Alfred ve dvoře remains an unmissable part of Prague’s professional indie theater scene for over twenty years. Its legacy of supporting new forms of artistic expression, especially those centered on non-verbal theatre, lives on in a new season of dynamic performances for all ages. 

We recently spoke with Tomáš Procházka, artistic director of Alfred ve dvoře who offered his insights on why this form of theater is so perfect for our overstimulated, highly visual age as well as some interesting historical background on the theatre “in the yard.”

If you haven’t already experienced a performance at this unique venue, and want to support Prague’s cultural life during the coronavirus crisis, now is the time.

Tell us a bit about where it all began -- where can you place Alfred in the context of the larger Czech theatre tradition?

I guess the roots of it lie somewhere deep in the avant-garde. We should definitely mention famous Czech director and composer E.F. Burian, who created a very special kind of musical theatre already in the ’20s. We need to mention the world's first multimedia theatre -- Laterna Magika. But our main inspiration was probably the independent theatre movement happening here in the '90s. Many experimental groups emerged suddenly in the time when people were generally very curious about doing or watching “something different”. This new scene needed to be developed and I think Alfred ve dvoře was one of the places which were open to it.

On an international scale who are some of your biggest influences/inspirations?

I personally have a strong interest in art brut and outsider artists. They were always very inspiring for me. They are creating fine art (or music as well) outside the canon. They are not fighting the mainstream, they just coexist with it or maybe they live in a world where mainstream does not mean anything special. That’s something you cannot consciously achieve but is nevertheless inspiring. 

If we want to speak about direct theatre inspirations, we probably need to mention groups like Akhe, Rimini Protokoll, Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Showcase Beat Le Mot, Gob Squad, and many others. But our inspirations were never coming only from the theatre, we were always inspired by many visual and media artists, who experimented with performance and theatre: Jan Švankmajer, Milan Grygar, Petr Nikl, František Skála...and also by media theoreticians or scientists. But this is my point of view, which is naturally very personal. Motus has been working for twenty years now, and its focus was changing quite a bit during those years. We did a lot of dance and physical theatre in the beginning, for instance.

How has the definition of words like "indie" and "new" evolved over the years?

It’s very difficult to call something new in a situation when what’s “new” is evolving so quickly. In the beginning, we were focused mainly on physical theatre, a bit later then we started working with the media. We wanted to create a creative crossroad for theatre-makers, audiovisual artists, experimental filmmakers, and other artists. Not just be sort of self-absorbed theatre fundamentalists, but to embrace a lot of different topics and inspirations from the arts and sciences. Nowadays there are many new genres that interest us and which we want to explore: documentary theatre, visual and object theatre, or even modern puppetry. We look for theatre projects exploring sociology, anthropology, and the human relationship with technology. 

As a programme director, dramaturge and as a creator, what do you believe sets Alfred apart?

We use different, unconventional forms of storytelling or documentary theatre.  We focus on object theatre, visual theatre, theatre which experiments with incorporating other media organically, but also critically. Often we have a feeling that contemporary theatre is somehow fascinated by design. We were always very much into the DIY approach. Our stages are mostly made up of objects or disclosed technical apparati of the theatre. You may call it site-specific theatre inside the very theatre environment. Or you may call it an exploration of our own world. Trying to see things we were not able to see before and developing their subtle potential.

Theatre founder Ctibor Turba’s original vision of Alfred was as a place for modern pantomime. Motus association began to work here in 2001. We soon shifted towards a wider understanding of nonverbal theatre, one that is based much more on images than dramatic situations, and goes further away from pantomime tradition, however modern. Here you can almost never see actors creating characters, they are rather finding any possible ways to interact with objects or audiovisual media and several other kinds of technology. 

What is the MOTUS collective and how has it played an essential role on the Prague theater scene and Czech cultural life?

MOTUS is an association founded with a vision to create a professional production environment for the new forms of theatre that were slowly emerging in the Czech Republic during the '90s. We were curating one of the very few places where this new theatre form could be seen and developed in the early 2000s. We later founded Nová síť (New Web), an organization focused on promoting those new productions in the Czech regions. Twenty years after we have naturally aged a bit, as original MOTUS members are people in their late forties, but we also keep cooperating with many young people who come here as performing artists, or to work in the production. And I'm not afraid to say that young is also our audience.

Your name translates to English as “Alfred in the yard”. Is there an interesting story behind the building that your theatre is housed in?

Alfred is one of a few newly constructed theatre buildings in Prague after 1989. The whole story began with the vision of Ctibor Turba, well-known mime, actor, and teacher. In the mid 90's he decided to build a theatre in his own backyard and to perform there together with his students. After a couple of years of his production, our company MOTUS stepped in. We have been working in the theatre since 2001. 

How would you convince someone who is not really into avante-garde theatre -- especially mime -- to come to your non-verbal performances?

First of all, I need to say that what we do here is very far from mime. The word “nonverbal” helps to describe other than text-based forms of theatre, it includes also working with media and objects. It refers to drifting away from the written text towards specific visuality and musicality. We can also simply talk about post-dramatic theatre, nonverbal theatre is just where we started twenty years ago.

We often say that our spectator is adventurous and does not expect genre conventions to stay in place. During the years we found out that our program is appreciated by people who normally fear theatricality or prefer galleries or concerts. So this might be the way to convince certain people to visit us: what we do is theatre without pathos, without overacting, sometimes even without any theatricality. Its message is never too literal, there is plenty of room for one's imagination.

What are some important motifs for the new season that the audience will really connect to at this moment in time? Will you get political?

This is probably the point where I should say that every theatre is political. It might be true for some of our productions, but of course not necessarily in the explicit sense. I see theatre as a great tool for critically looking at contemporary realities. I think that its role is to unsettle trends rather than adhere to them. Good or bad, the trends are not connecting people, they are rather unifying, or sometimes even normalizing. 

But for me, theatre needs to have some transcendental quality. And that’s more than politics.

However, some very actual themes and topics always emerge in the new works by themselves, even though we don’t really have a specific theme for each season. Last year it was the topic of western society's omnipresent guilt feelings in the project of Jan Mocek called I am The Problem. This year we explored even more contemporary topics, like fake news, racism, and post-colonialism presented in Memories of Togoland from Handa Gote. 

And Jan Mocek continues his theatre research on actual themes in Present:Perfect, which speaks mostly about iconoclastic tendencies as a kind of cheap recipe for facing our problematic past. All the shows mentioned are quite ambivalent and they don't offer an unequivocal interpretation. I guess that is our way of being political - not to go for easy solutions or proclamative pieces and rather perform some kind of “friendly fire”.

Give us a brief rundown of this season's lineup and what’s in the works.

Most of our production at the end of the year is nonverbal. Tomáš Danielis is a Slovak dancer and performer, he will do his solo called 21&Counting on Saturday this week. On November 22 we will present a musical show from Czech-based Finnish artist Pasi Mäkela, called Rickey Mouse Fun House.

On November 24 you can see a weird Butoh-pantomime show of the young collective Musashi Entertainment Company.

At the beginning of December, we will invite you to see Memories of Togoland by the residential company Handa Gote, a piece about a fictitious Czech colony in Africa.

And last but not least, the very same group will turn the theatre into a video game hall with loads of 8-bit computer games, which you can play for almost the entire day of December 11.

We try to choose the best of small independent puppet theatre productions. It's important for us to present children shows that are not cheap or underestimate their audience. There are a lot of clichés in the field of children’s theatre, and we find it crucial not to support them. Maybe they learn something about the esthetics and maybe they will develop a good relationship to the theatre. And children or adults, we give all power to the imagination!

Lastly, how are these performances ideal for those of us that speak poor Czech but want to experience the essence of Czech theatre?

We have many non-verbal shows but have recently added a couple of productions with text. We try to subtitle these shows whenever possible, but mostly you need no language knowledge to understand. I honestly think we are a pretty foreigner-friendly theatre. We are not a space where you can see all the kinds of theatre, or even possibly the mainstream genres. We present maybe some of the weirdest of the theatre genres -- eclectic, postdramatic, crossover, what have you. We like to stay open and create some sort of counterbalance on the theatre map of Prague. Come to see us!

This article was written in cooperation with Alfred ve dvoře. To read more about our partner content policies see here.

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