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Strike! Actors walk in protest

NITRA - On the last Friday morning in February, 15 of the 21 state-run Slovak theaters went on an indefinite strike. Joined by four independent theater companies, including the avant-garde Stoka Theater and the acting company of the Slovak National Theater (SND), the strike brushfire blazed as far as to Prague, where it gained support not only from theater professionals but also from Czech President Václav Havel's office.
Originally ignited by three puppet theaters, the strike amounts to the biggest clash between citizens and the government since the November 1989 revolution, strike organizers said.
"The union believes we have no alternative but to strike," said Vladimír Durdík, honorary president of the actors' union.

NITRA - On the last Friday morning in February, 15 of the 21 state-run Slovak theaters went on an indefinite strike. Joined by four independent theater companies, including the avant-garde Stoka Theater and the acting company of the Slovak National Theater (SND), the strike brushfire blazed as far as to Prague, where it gained support not only from theater professionals but also from Czech President Václav Havel's office.

Originally ignited by three puppet theaters, the strike amounts to the biggest clash between citizens and the government since the November 1989 revolution, strike organizers said.

"The union believes we have no alternative but to strike," said Vladimír Durdík, honorary president of the actors' union. The strike stems from an edict passed down by the Ministry of Culture on June 1 1996, designating eight regional cultural centers (RKC), each headed by a state-appointed superintendent, to assume administrative responsibility over theaters in their respective areas.

Under the new arrangement, the superintendent is the supervisor of cultural institutions, including theaters, galleries and museums. The actors' union has repeatedly claimed that the RKC's were not legally ratified by parliament, and therefore are not legitimate.

The union also claims that the RKC's are comprised of politicians, and that its members have no say in superintendents' decisions. These decisions have included restrictions on touring and working with theater companies abroad, restrictions on the use of tour buses and other examples of what they say is interference with theaters' autonomy.

They also complain about the ministry's decision to cut theater funding by one-third. The final straw in this long-simmering dispute was the firing of Karol Spišák, director of the Puppet Theater in Nitra by that region's superintendent, Miloš Bača, on January 28. From now on, theaters will remain dark. Actors and directors will continue to rehearse plays but will not perform unless an agreement has been reached.

The strikers set out five demands that they said would enable theaters to take matters into its own hands again (see box accompanying this story). In other words, the strikers want the ministry to get rid of the bureaucratic figures it has put between itself and the theaters.

But the ministry claims that the responsibility for theaters now lies solely with the RKC's. Because of that, communication between the two has been completely broken, Durdík said. Matej Landl, the union's spokesman, said that the union invited the ministry's officials for negotiations in mid-February but nobody came. The ministry's spokeswoman, Marta Podhradská, later said they had not been invited. Landl maintains this is untrue.

Rudo Kratochvíl, an actor from Nitra, described the present status of the theaters' communication with the ministry this way: "Through history there has always been the Fool and the King," he said. "The Fool speaks the truth, and the King never listens."

Silence

The ministry has disconnected all communication lines with the press as well. Repeated attempts by The Slovak Spectator to speak with Culture Minister Ivan Hudec were refused. Podhradská later announced the ministry will make no further comments until they have received an official notification of the strike from the union.

Actors in several theaters said they have been threatened by their respective superintendents with dismissal for going on strike. Marek Ťapák, an actor with the Nová Scéna theater in Bratislava, said this was the case at his theater where the actors chose to strike but were not backed by the technical crews. The actors at Žilina's Puppet Theater were told it would be unconstitutional if they didn't perform, a threat rejected by Jozef Kollár, vice-president of Slovakia's Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), who stressed that the constitution spells out all citizens' right to strike.

According to Kollár, whose union backs the actors, the strike is historic, because it is likely to be the first of any length in the country's brief history. Michal Kožuch, another union spokesperson and an actor at the Nitra Puppet Theater, showed the tie between the trade union and the actors' guild when he quoted Ivan Saktor, KOZ's president: "Everywhere around the world, the government is afraid of the people," he said. Then, in his own words, he added that, "In Slovakia, the people are afraid of the government. We have to show it is the other way around, and the artists are here to show how to do it and not be afraid."


The actors' union 5 demands:

1) Legal subjectivity. This means autonomy for each theater to manage its own finances, choose what to perform, where to tour and with whom to collaborate.
2) Establish a Hiring Committee. This panel, comprised 50 percent of theater artists and related professionals and 50 percent of actors from the theater in question, would convene when a theater needs a new director.
3) Halt preparation on Theater Law. Due to be presented to parliament this month, actors fear the current draft could liquidate the artistic branches at all permanent theaters and allow the superintendent sole control over the selection of actors and directors.
4) Establish a committee made up of representatives of the artistic community. This panel should help prepare a revised version of the Theater Law and any future legislation affecting theaters.
5) Wage increases for every artistic worker and employee of all state-run theaters outside Bratislava.

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