A theater era is coming to an end. The Archa Theatre, which arose out of the need to present contemporary performing arts to the Czech audience, began its activities on June 5, 1994 with a joint performance by the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka and the American musician John Cale. Min Tanaka will also end the unique program of the Archa Theater with three performances at the end of December 2023.
Ondřej Hrab created the theater concept, which does not pay attention to the boundaries between individual artistic genres or geographical boundaries. At the beginning of the nineties, Ondřej Hrab transformed the traditional repertoire of the E.F. Theater Buriana in the modern European scene under the name Archa Theatre. He also asserted his vision in the architecture of the theater, which after extensive reconstruction according to the designs of architect Ivan Plicka and set designer and theater technology expert Miroslav Melena, turned into a dynamically variable stage. The Ark space was designed to allow playing in an arena as well as a traditional peephole stage, creating a “dance space” and holding concerts for both standing and seated audiences.
During its existence, the Archa Theater introduced the Czech audience to world artists, including Robert Wilson, Peter Brook, Min Tanaka, John Cale, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Schumann, Anne Bogart, Wim Vandekeybus, David Byrne, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Einstürzende Neubauten, Diamanda Galas, The Residents, The Tiger Lillies, Heiner Goebbels, Squad, Dogtroep, Josse de Pauw, Pieter De Buysser, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and many more.
“In many cases we were ahead of our time. Even world-renowned artists, such as Robert Wilson, had to wait another 10 years for recognition by Czech theater critics,” says Ondřej Hrab.
In less than 30 years, 5,358 performances took place in Arš, which were visited by 1,082,799 spectators (this statistic will be supplemented by data from the last two weeks). The Ark could have had even more performances and audiences if its premises had not been completely destroyed by a flood in 2002 and the subsequent reconstruction had not required a break of more than a year. The Covid-19 pandemic, which paralyzed all public events for two years, similarly affected theater attendance. Both catastrophic events, as well as the grant crisis in 2008, meant for Archa a challenge to set out for new goals along untrodden paths. Ondřej Hrab together with the director Jana Svobodová were the first to focus on documentary theatre. They invited artists to involve representatives of different social groups in the theater creation, whether it was asylum seekers in refugee camps, small town residents or members of the hip-hop community.
Ondřej Hrab and Jana Svobodová founded the Akcent international festival, which discovered world representatives of documentary theater for the Czech audience – in the Archa Theater, for example, Lola Arias, Rimini Protokoll, Milo Rau, Wen Hui and She She Pop performed.
Václav Havel had a special connection to Archa Theatre. He celebrated his sixtieth birthday here in 1996 and in 2008 chose it as the location for the world premiere of his play Leaving. Václav Havel even appeared as a performer in the Misunderstanding 68 and Šance 89 projects.
The Czech artists who regularly created their productions at the Archa Theater also include artist and performer Petr Nikl, director Jiří Havelka, music composer Michal Nejtek and others. The couple Skutr, who today lead the National Theater’s drama, created their first productions here, or Rosťa Novák, who later founded his Cirk La Putyka. Writers Jaroslav Rudiš and Igor Malijevský presented their EKG Literary Cabaret here for fifteen years. In addition to its own projects, the dramaturgy of the Archa Theater gave space to productions and concerts by Czech artists. For example, productions of the Brno theaters Husa na provázku and HaDivadlo were regularly invited to Prague.
Archa also created projects abroad, in addition to Europe, in the USA, China or Japan. In 2019, the Archa Theatre’s production Ordinary People, directed by Jana Svobodová and Chinese choreographer Wen Hui, was presented in the main program of the Avignon World Festival and soon after at the Autumn Festival in Paris at the famous Théâtre de la Ville.
The Archa Theater under the direction of Ondřej Hrab will cease its activities at the end of December 2024 and the premises in Na Poříčí Street will be freed up for other activities. From 2024, Ondřej Hrab and Jana Svobodová, in the new organization Archa – Documentary Theater Center, will continue to devote themselves both at home and abroad to projects that connect education and creation in the field of documentary theater. For example, they will continue to organize the International Summer School of Documentary Theater, which is regularly attended by young theater artists from all over the world, from China, South Korea and Iran to Ireland and the USA. They will continue to organize the Akcent International Festival.
As one of the first theaters in Prague, the Archa Theater was transformed from a contribution organization to an independent non-profit organization. However, the transformation of the theater network did not continue from the beginning of the millennium. And so the Ark, together with the Drama Club and Semaphore, remained a residue of an unfinished transformation.
“Czech culture is desperately underfunded. Especially the sector of independent cultural organizations, to which the Archa Theater belongs, is on the verge of viability. It takes a lot of effort to put together a demanding non-commercial international program. I consider it a huge success that I managed to end the thirty-year era with a balanced budget, i.e. without debts, in other words,” says the founder and director of the Archa Theater Ondřej Hrab.