Director Blaho Uhlár says "it means a lot to me" to be in New York.
photo: Courtesy Stoka Theatre
In New York they've seen their living arrangements fall through, and by their second of seven performances August 13, only 16 people had shown up.
The two-week international festival of 150 independent and alternative theatres was supposed to have been for Stoka a glorious foray into the theatre capital of the world, or at least a relaxing break from a troubled home front.
But so far it has only spelled more hard luck for the theatre which, embroiled in a dispute with the Slovak Ministry of Culture, may not survive into next year.
Founded in 1991, independent and controversial Stoka has always been on the brink of extinction. Resources were hard to find in the years following the revolution, and became even more scarce when outspoken Stoka actor/director Blaho Uhlár made enemies with the 1994-1998 government of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. And despite a plethora of awards and accolades, four of the theatre's original nine actors have bolted in recent years as audiences at the 125-seat theatre in Bratislava dwindled.
But in an ironic twist worthy of a Stoka performance - the theatre has a propensity for hurling unexpected misfortune at its characters like so many off-stage mud balls - the death-blow may come from the Mikuláš Dzurinda government, which appeared in 1999 to be in Stoka's corner.
The English-language version of From a Distance (co-starring Lucia Piussi) is showing in the Big Apple.
photo: Courtesy Stoka Theatre
"The decision that Stoka must return 1.8 million crowns means [the theatre's] liquidation," said Uhlár. "The value of our property doesn't even reach that sum."
The dispute revolves around the rules accompanying ministry grants. Uhlár's version is that he received state money in 1999 and made theatre. Simple.
Not so simple, said the ministry after the audit revealed that money granted for the 1999 calendar year ended up on January 2000 balance sheets, and that funds earmarked for reprises had in fact paid for a premiere - just two examples from a long list of violations.
Uhlár argues that it is impossible for a small theatre without a full-time accountant to follow the rules to the letter. The ministry says rules are rules.
"If money is granted for a certain project, it is absurd that it must be used in a given tax year," said Uhlár. "This means that if money for a play created in December ends up on accounts paid in January, it has been mishandled."
Stoka was also penalised for buying an 82,000-crown ($1,700) microphone while only 38,000 crowns ($775) were designated for technical purchases.
"We performed a standard check at Stoka," said ministry spokesman Juraj Puchý. "Independent theatres don't automatically receive state funds. They have to apply for specific projects. No other theatres violated the rules last year."
When asked if the ministry would search for a solution under which Stoka would not be liquidated, Puchý said only that the ministry would pursue the payment of monies it was owed according to the law.
Stoka staged its first performance March 21, 1991 and soon became known for its schizophrenic sense of plot and multi-layered themes, cataloguing the uncertain, the absurd and the bizarre in post-communist Slovakia. All Stoka plays are also views into the actors' lives: based on Uhlár's technique, Stoka productions are created in team sessions with the performers themselves.
By 1995 Stoka was selling out most shows. To date it has travelled to 10 European countries plus Israel, put on 21 premieres, and won prizes at French and Yugoslav festivals. Uhlár won Slovakia's highest theatre award, the Dosky, for best director in 1998.
Without Stoka, theatre critics say, Slovak theatre would be less innovative, far more tame.
"For nearly 10 years Stoka has alarmed and provoked the rigid, monotonous, official Slovak theatre scene," said Daša Ciripová of the Slovak Theatre Institute. "It has had its own poetics and style of acting, uncovering taboo themes, shocking and attacking."
But even if the conflict with the ministry is resolved, Stoka has other worries, including a cast that has shrunk from its original nine to five, and a lease with the city that expires at the end of this year.
Going to New York had been a lone bright spot for Stoka in 2001 and the realisation of an Uhlár personal project that began when he had the two-person play From a Distance translated to English in winter 2000. He and co-star Lucia Puissi memorised the lines, honed their accents and scoured the Internet for an opportunity to play here. They received an invitation to the festival in May.
"New York is the capital of culture," said Uhlár. "Playing here means a lot to me, even if I can't say exactly how."
With the visa problem and mad-dashes to the airport safely behind, Stoka, which had no money for festival advertising, may yet find its audience in New York. Regardless, Uhlár and From a Distance co-star Piussi are glad, for two weeks at least, to be far away from their troubles at home.
In the words of Uhlár's character in From a Distance when asked to predict the future: "I dunno. I don't even wanna know. I don't wanna know."
20. Aug 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds