Martin Stropnický: Breaking usual stereotypes

Career highlights
1980 completed acting studies at DAMU
1980-90 engagement with Městská divadla pražská and Divadlo na Vinohradech
1993-94 ambassador to Portugal
1994-97 ambassador to Italy
January-July 1998 cultural minister
1999-2002 ambassador to the Vatican
September 2002 returned to Divadlo na Vinohradech, and starred in the play “Howard Katz”, for which he received the Thalia award
Since April 1, 2003 artistic director at Divadlo na Vinohradech, published a book, “Klídek, nerve!”

Martin Stropnický (47), a charismatic actor and former minister and diplomat, has returned to his home stage, Divadlo na Vinohradech, which under his leadership is enjoying a breath of fresh air.Although your original profession is acting, you have had an extremely varied career. For seven months you served as culture minister and for twelve years as a diplomat, and since April 2003 you’ve been the artistic chief at Divadlo na Vinohradech. How would you evaluate managerial work in such varying environments?
The environments were truly different. Diplomacy was a bit like military service, because a diplomat is an employee of the state who should “faithfully serve his government”. The first and paramount task of a culture minister is to come up with funding for cultural events, but I’m glad to have politics behind me. As the theater’s artistic chief I decide which plays we stage, who will act in them, and who will direct them. So today I’m probably enjoying my greatest freedom. I don’t have to represent anyone else’s opinions, I can be myself, and I don’t have to shave every day (laughs).

You stepped down from the exalted position as ambassador to the Vatican and returned to the theater, where you have less authority and earn far less as well. Why?
I was drawn by the change, but I wanted to return as an actor, not as a functionary. I was fed up with being a leader. I understood that when someone’s been a leader for a long time he loses his ability to get his hands dirty. I didn’t want to live in the bubble of “his excellency” who couldn’t see past the flag hanging in the window.

But now you’ve wound up in a leadership position again. Why?
Because my predecessor, Jiří Menzel, didn’t much enjoy working as a manager and wanted out. I took the job on the condition that I could act as well. I felt that having three children at home was more than enough, but now I’m responsible for forty actors and actresses! Actors are a bit childlike – they’re emotional, impulsive, egocentric. And unlike many other professionals, they really care about their work.

Shortly after your appointment you said you wouldn’t make any effort to be popular and that you’d make some changes in the theater. How are you doing after one year?
I don’t want to play the role of a general, but I’m trying to get rid of bad habits. For example, television crews come before a premiere and an actor refuses to be interviewed. We have to coax him into promoting the theater. There isn’t much I can do about it, because at our theaters the actors are working on the basis of contracts of indefinite duration, which is demotivating. So I don’t want to close any more such contracts as long as I’m in charge. I’m trying to bring about changes for the better, and I hope that in time I’ll succeed.

So you started rather uncompromisingly to do away with the stereotypes of the ensemble, which includes actors who are national icons, like Jiřina Jirásková, Jiřina Bohdalová, and Viktor Preiss. How did you go about gaining their respect?
I believe that in any workplace there are plenty of people who think their boss is stupid. It’s just a part of life, and trying to fight it is a waste of time. My advantage may be that I’ve accomplished things in the past. I’m tough on myself, and I’m not afraid of hard work. The actors can see this, which makes it easier for them to follow me.

A theater is a typical example of teamwork, but it also involves strong personalities who compete with each other for starring roles. How is it possible to pull it all together?
The theater is a highly competitive environment, but when work needs to be done personal animosities must be suppressed. In fact, a theater relies on concentrated energy that has to be spread throughout the team. Good actors know that they need each other, and that competition drives them to deliver their best performances.

What’s the hardest thing about being a director?
Besides finding an interesting repertoire, it’s rather hard to maintain the energy required by an individual approach. There are some people here to whom the theater means everything; it’s the only thing they live for. This forces me to maintain great internal flexibility. It isn’t easy, because I also act on the stage, and I have a good-sized family and problems of my own.

How would you define an ideal leader?
I think three characteristics must be well balanced – competence, decisiveness, and the human dimension. The older I get the more I realize what great responsibilities I carry. A person needs not only professional, but also human maturity. I’m no fan of simple “hoorah!” solutions, since they’re usually based on a lack of information and maturity. I can’t stand pretentiousness, hiding behind one’s position, or cowardly evasions passed off as prudence.

How do you handle times of crisis?
The theater is like a roller-coaster. The higher and more attractive the goals, the more crises can arise. Here’s a typical example. I give a visiting actress the lead role, I use her to attract audiences, and then I learn that the premiere, in which we have invested great energy, is in jeopardy because the star has changed her mind. It makes you want to jump off the nearest cliff. How do I handle that? I might just pick up my guitar.

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