Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo by: David Holas
Following his return from America, the co-owner of the Prague Ta Fantastika theater extended his success to business. Read what he has to say about show business, politics, Jewishness, and the nation’s icons.
In 1979 you didn’t return from a foreign tour with Jiří Srnec’s Black Theater; you remained in the west. Did emigrating have a positive effect on you?
Emigrating taught me absolutely everything. I was a demoralized person from a communist country to whom America gave a chance to learn what responsibility, freedom, and democracy are. I started out as a body guard protecting a two-meter tall telephone company employee that was disconnecting switching centers in Harlem and the Bronx. I had nothing but a helmet and a baseball bat. I waited tables, washed windows, and cleaned carpets. America taught me to value work, whatever it was.
After your trying beginnings as an emigré you were able to assert yourself in your field in the US, which is considered a theatrical Mecca. How did you manage to break through in a competitive show-business environment?
I knew what I wanted and I put everything into it. And I was lucky. I worked on non-verbal, visual theater and met up with a producer from Broadway, whom I invited to a Czech Sokol Hall for a sneak preview. He really liked one of our performances, “Dream”, and after that he promoted us wherever he could.
What surprised you the most in the US?
For the first two years I had the feeling that I was in a terrible jungle, and I marvelled at how people were able to live there at all. I was used to having someone else plan my life. All of a sudden no one was planning anything, and all I could see was chaos. Then I discovered that in fact there were very precise rules regulating decency and trust, which you might not regain if you let people down once. I was also surprised that doing business is very simple, accounting is simple, there are practically no officials. There is no way to make an absolute comparison with our post-communist socialist state.
In the US, theaters receive practically no subsidies, which results in tough but fair competition. In this country there are subsidized theaters that could not survive alongside private ones without state funding. What do you think about this?
It doesn’t seem right to me. For example, the Šaldovo Theater in Liberec receives about seventy million crowns a year. And this city of one hundred thousand has two drama companies, a ballet, an opera, and two other theaters. It doesn’t make sense in terms of economics. One thing in America is amazing: you have to take the audience into account, you have to think economically. Divadlo Ta Fantastika is private and unsubsidized. Our rent is high, and I have to admit it’s very hard to keep it going. But even though our revenues dropped by nearly 90% following the floods, we’re profitable.
Some theater critics claim that theaters like Divadlo Ta Fantastika try to draw audiences by pandering to the masses. Do you think quality and profitability are mutually exclusive?
Quite the contrary. They complement each other. Andy Warhol used to say that he really liked painting, but that he enjoyed selling paintings even more. The same is true of us. Our current production – “Excalibur”, a musical, is directed by Vladimír Morávek, who is very unconventional. The music was written by Michal Pavlíček, and Karel Steigerwald wrote the script. These people would never pander to anyone. I think “Excalibur” will be a breakthrough; it won’t be considered a superficial account.
You publicly supported Václav Klaus. Do you think that art, politics, and business should affect each other?
Dirty tricks bother me. I didn’t like it when in 1997 Václav Klaus’ colleagues and friends threw him to the wolves in the so-called Sarajevo Assassination, so I spoke out about it in public. I don’t want to be involved in politics, but if we’re to build a civic society and I’m a tax-paying citizen, I want to state my opinions. I value freedom of speech more than what people say about me.
Some time ago a Star of David appeared on your house. Do you think the anti-Jewish issue is still topical in this country, or was it a one-time occurrence?
I encounter this often. In this country it’s seen as axiomatic that if you succeed you’re either a Jew or a fraud. A person should almost be ashamed of being one. Any time I say something in public I get lots of anonymous responses that always point out the fact that I’m a Jew. Why? Probably because in this society, after fifty years of totalitarianism, when the Bolsheviks wanted to wipe out Judaism just as the fascists did, it will take a long time for people’s attitudes towards minorities to change.
In an interview you said, “the Czech public places value on the greatest conformists and opportunists, who are popular because they never speak openly about anything.” As examples, you named Zdeněk Svěrák, Jiří Suchý, and Miroslav Horníček. Why didn’t you criticize stars of communist show business like Gott or Vondráčková?
I basically respect people like Suchý and Horníček. Nevertheless, I think that they served as shop window displays of communism. Gott and Vondráčková are still doing what they used to do – they sing. I find it deeply disturbing when someone who used to be a party member or worked for the StB tries to forget everything, wants to declare a clean slate, and starts moralizing. We’ve never come to terms with our communist past, and that’s the greatest problem.
Fourteen years after the revolution, do you think we should still be concerned with who collaborated with the regime? Is punishing the offenders still worth it?
No one’s been punished here! It’s a terrible injustice and a huge fraud. There was no revolution, there was just a ceding of power under certain conditions. All the old StB people still work, all the communists are in business now, and the evil has gone unpunished. It was just as great an evil as fascism was. I think something like the Nürenberg trials could have been held here, to cleanse society, but that didn’t happen. In this country people don’t start doing something actively until they get permission.
What will you be doing in ten years?
I hope to still be alive, so I can enjoy all my children. The theater is my destiny, and unless I go bankrupt I’ll stay with it.
How would you like people to remember you?
As a normal guy who went to America and learned a few things there, and then came back but didn’t tell people what they should do. And as a humble servant of the arts.
How would you describe yourself?
I love life. I love to battle fate and stupidity.