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Uncertain Ground for independent theatre

THE BRATISLAVA-based Stoka Theatre is this year taking a second stab at the New York City Fringe Festival. The first attempt, back in 2001, was covered by The Slovak Spectator at the time, and although it did not bring the theatre its much hoped-for breakthrough, the small independent group managed to survive, and is now making another bid for international success. For this year’s festival, Stoka rehearsed its recent piece, Neistý grunt (medzidruhová agresia), in English, under the title Uncertain Ground (intraspecies aggression). The title is a play on words in both Slovak and English, possibly alluding to the uncertain and non-transparent way in which grants are allocated in Slovakia.

A scene from the play(Source: Ctibor Bachratý)

THE BRATISLAVA-based Stoka Theatre is this year taking a second stab at the New York City Fringe Festival. The first attempt, back in 2001, was covered by The Slovak Spectator at the time, and although it did not bring the theatre its much hoped-for breakthrough, the small independent group managed to survive, and is now making another bid for international success. For this year’s festival, Stoka rehearsed its recent piece, Neistý grunt (medzidruhová agresia), in English, under the title Uncertain Ground (intraspecies aggression). The title is a play on words in both Slovak and English, possibly alluding to the uncertain and non-transparent way in which grants are allocated in Slovakia.

“I have been bootlicking New York[’s festival] for twelve years already, and it’s finally on the right track,” theatre head Blaho Uhlár told The Slovak Spectator. The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC) is a big multi-arts festival, with more than 200 companies from all over the world performing for 16 days in more than 20 venues in 1,200 performances. This year, FringeNYC will take place between August 9 and 25; and Uncertain Ground will be staged five times in the East Village.

On May 6, English-speakers in Slovakia had the first opportunity to enjoy the “poor theatre orgies on the border of vaudeville and avant-garde”, as the theatre itself describes the piece. The play premiered in Slovak on October 31, 2012, and it features Braňo Mosný and Peter Tiljačík – who are also co-authors of the piece – together with director Uhlár. The minimalist visual concept is the work of Miriam Struhárová and the script was translated by Ivan Lacko. Given that the script was written by the actors, ensuring total artistic control, and in spite of the cast not being native speakers of English, the play is a masterpiece.

Apart from the English dialogue, the play also incorporates an extract from Jack London, a Hungarian song with lyrics by László Jávor, and a Polish text by Czeslaw Milosz. “Polish is fascinating – also a great director, Grotowski, was Polish – and I heard that the Polish language is big now also in America, so I hope to impress it [America], too, through such awkward hints,” Uhlár said, when asked about the selection of texts.

Although Uncertain Ground was “conceived using the method of collaborative creation, by means of improvisation with no specific goals set in advance” with performers “playing with various theatrical approaches, including commedia dell’arte, butoh, the expressive techniques of poor theatre, expressionism, variety shows and grotesque sketches”, as the blurb states, the series of sketches contains a considerable amount of dialogue, as well as a deeper level of thought beneath all the fun and theatre of the absurd.

In 2001, Matthew J. Reynolds wrote in The Slovak Spectator that the independent – and controversial – Stoka theatre has always existed on the brink of extinction. After making enemies with the governments of Vladimír Mečiar in the 1990s, struggling with the succeeding right-leaning governments and losing many of its original actors – and maybe also its audience – the theatre would eventually lose its premises in 2005 to the new Eurovea shopping complex. It has since remained on uncertain ground, performing out of rented spaces with a much smaller cast, yet it ceaselessly continues to follow its dream of a breakthrough at the NYC festival and beyond. Let us keep our fingers crossed for this uncompromising independent and progressive theatre, and hope that their recent piece will be re-run in English, not just in Slovak.

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