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Playwright Štepka keeps 'em laughing despite lean times

"I wanted to write joyful plays," babbles the middle-aged man on stage, confused and slightly distraught. "I wanted to make people laugh."
"But they will laugh," responds one of the four life-sized 'parasites' which surround him. "They will laugh when they see you."
The exchange is from the play Ako som vstúpil do seba (As I entered myself), one man's absurd, hilarious journey into his own body and soul. The adorable middle-aged man on stage is Slovak legend Stanislav Štepka, founder of the theatre house Radošinské naivné divadlo (RND) and author of its 34 plays. True to the forecast of the 'parasite', the packed house bursts into laughter every time his fidgety, nervous character appears on stage, every time his face wrinkles into a guilty smile.


Stanislav Štepka thumbed his nose at Communist hero-worship, preferring human stories instead .
photo: Vlado Vávrek

"I wanted to write joyful plays," babbles the middle-aged man on stage, confused and slightly distraught. "I wanted to make people laugh."

"But they will laugh," responds one of the four life-sized 'parasites' which surround him. "They will laugh when they see you."

The exchange is from the play Ako som vstúpil do seba (As I entered myself), one man's absurd, hilarious journey into his own body and soul. The adorable middle-aged man on stage is Slovak legend Stanislav Štepka, founder of the theatre house Radošinské naivné divadlo (RND) and author of its 34 plays. True to the forecast of the 'parasite', the packed house bursts into laughter every time his fidgety, nervous character appears on stage, every time his face wrinkles into a guilty smile.

It's has been this way for quite some time. The 56 year-old Štepka - playwright, actor, singer and lyricist - recently opened the 38th season of what is by far Slovakia's longest running independent theatre. And with a busy list of October performances already sold out and an eagerly awaited premiere coming in November, neither Štepka nor RND appear to be exiting stage left anytime soon.

Ako som vstúpil do seba, written by Štepka in 1981 for a different theatre company (the late Slovak comedy legend Jaro Filip originally performed the lead role), was revived to rave reviews in 1998. But the return in November of the older and better-known play, Jááánošííík, is creating even more anticipation. Jánošík, a Slovak folk legend, has often been compared to Robin Hood for his defiance of Slovakia's 17th century Hungarian overlords and the aid he gave ordinary folk.

"I decided to bring Jááánošííík back because of enormous audience demand," said Štepka moments after finishing a rehearsal last week. Jááánošííík, po tridsiatich rokoch (after 30 years) premieres November 14 on the 30th anniversary of its original opening night and 14 years since it was last played. "Many people have heard the music from Jááánošííík and showed great interest in seeing the performance."


Štepka's facial expressions earn laughs from the audience every time he steps on stage. Here, he plays alongside famous Slovak film director Juraj Jakubisko (right).
photo: Courtesy Radošinské naivné divadlo

Professional life wasn't always so secure for Štepka, who has watched RND grow since 1963 from a small collection of village amateurs into perhaps the most popular independent theatre in Slovakia. Written in 1970, Jááánošííík was the first of Štepka's plays to gain nationwide recognition. According to experts, it was also a seminal moment for Slovak theatre.

"Never before had anyone made fun of Jánošik, who was nothing but an ordinary thief," said Ján Jábornik, head of documentation at the Slovak Theatre Institute. "Now Štepka was using irony, humour, satire, even sexuality in portraying him."

Štepka explained that the tone of the play was a reaction to the country's climate under communism. "At that time we had the overblown hero image promulgated by the government," said Štepka. "They wanted to make heroes out of the ordinary, common working man. So I showed Jánošík as a hero that just wanted to be an ordinary person."

Štepka wrote the play after being forced to move his small, amateur theatre to Bratislava from the village of Radošiná, a small town of 2,000 near Piešťany. Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovkia two years before, initiating a period of harsh artistic censorship after the relatively liberal 1960s. For nine years, RND played Jááánošííík illegally before getting official approval from the communists.

"The government did not like the idea of my mocking the national hero," said Štepka. "We were not under the ministry and had no official stage, so we played at universities and dormitories. Some places were so full it was barely possible to breathe."

Born in Radošiná, Štepka never expected a career in theatre. Indeed, it wasn't until 1983 that he gave up his day job as a journalist and devoted himself full time to the stage. "I never chose theatre, but ultimately it chose me," said Štepka.

As a boy, Štepka was active in amateur theatre in Radošiná. As a 19 year-old student he established RND in the spirit of Czech cabaret, featuring monologue, dialogue, music and a broad spectrum of humour. Performing in the regional dialect of Radošiná (a Slovak accent with a heavy German influence and similar in some ways to Czech) was also a distinct characteristic of the theatre.

But in the broadest terms, the theatre's central feature has been its focus on themes close to people everywhere - illusions, myths, pacifism and the endless comedy of stupidity.

According to Jaborník, by focusing on folk humour and issues important to ordinary people, RND became an important voice for Slovaks during communism. "At a time when people behaved completely differently in their private and public lives, at RND you saw and heard things that struck a chord, things you couldn't find in the newspapers and on TV," he said.

Although dogged constantly by the communist regime, RND travelled frequently throughout Slovakia, becoming popular and well known. But with the death of communism, many wondered if Štepka's work would lose its purpose.

"I thought that maybe, after the revolution, Radošinské naivné divadlo would no longer have meaning," said Blaho Uhlár, director and founder of the independent theatre Stoka. "But obviously I was wrong. RND was more than anti-communist, it voiced the spirit of the people."

This was the main goal all along, said Štepka. "I have always been primarily concerned with people, with human problems. Of course, if you want to write about people you have to write about their regimes."

Štepka, who has performed in Canada and the US as well as in cities all across Europe, says that while satisfied with his theatre's success, he is disappointed by the slow pace of change in Slovak society since 1989. "We are still living as if under socialism," he said. "You can see it in the level of services here, and in the way nobody ever smiles when delivering those services."

Štepka has no plans to retire and hopes to be still working when conditions in Slovakia have improved. "I think humour is the best form of optimism, and I am glad to be able to make people laugh during these hard times," he said. "But I would like to continue long enough to write about a society that functions better, for an audience that has a little more money and a few less worries."

Jááánošííík's November 14 premiere is by invitation only. Tickets to performances open to the general public on November 15, 21 and 22 go on sale October 20. They can be purchased daily between 16:00 and 19:00 at RND, Škultétyho ulica 5 (at Istropolis) in Bratislava.

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