In the end the heart decides anyway!

Divadlo na Peróne is one of the essential cultural institutions in the city of Košice. During its existence of almost eighteen years, the theatre has delivered dozens of original productions, collaborations, festivals and internships. We asked the founding members Jana Wernerová and Petr Kočiš about how Divadlo na Peróne is thriving in its new space, about the Nebľaboc! workshops, the new challenges and the future.

What is Divadlo na Peróne?

Jana: For me, Divadlo na Peróne is a fulfilled dream. It’s a dream that Peter and I shared some 24 years ago, when we wrote our first theatre story on a plastic tablecloth in the school cafeteria at high school.

Peter: Our dream has always been to produce evening performances to which not only the audience but also the professional public would respond. In the meantime, we dreamed of, among other things, performing in America, or being guest performers at the National Theatre, which also came true. This venue and the associated feeling that you no longer have to be continuously pushed out or sent away – because, for example, a yoga session is on the agenda after you – is also a dream come true. We empathically understand and respect ensembles that don’t have their own space, but at the moment we fully enjoy having our own space and being able to rehearse and play what we want, when we want.

Which of your dreams have not yet come true?

Jana: I don’t really know, because the last few years have brought us a lot of fulfilled wishes… My biggest dream when we opened was that people would come here, which at first didn’t look very hopeful since we were opening in June 2020. We were shut down almost immediately after the opening because of the coronavirus pandemic, so it was all very awkward and only a few people we knew were coming in. Ever since we reopened last September, we’ve been continually sold out. The absolute best part is when we’re in the dressing room after the show and we ask each other: ‘did you know anyone in the audience? Because I didn’t.’

Peter: Our dream is for people to have so much money that they can afford to enjoy culture every day, but not just to see us, to participate in culture in general. Because nowadays you really have to consider what you’re going to see, when you’re going to see it and how much money you can spend on it.Just because we had some dreams doesn’t mean they won’t transform over time. Our dream at the moment is to be fully employed in the theatre and to have a team dedicated to acting or just producing. It’s very hard to bring all the people on the team together when they have other jobs outside of the theatre. We have a great team behind us, including Monika Pádejová who supports us with production and PR, our acting colleagues Michaela Domovcová and Jakub Muranský, and the technical tandem of Dušan Kopčov and Palko Matia. We’ve also expanded to include a group of peroňáci who help us with operations, tickets and everything in between. However, we are still looking for a project manager, manager, or fundraiser to join the team and take the pressure off with the spreadsheets and grants, as we would like to devote all our time to creating. And my last dream is to have every resident of Košice visit us at least once.

What is the story of the new space of Divadlo na Peróne?

Jana: Because we used to work in big cultural centres, we basically lived in a kind of unwanted anonymity. The whole dramaturgy of a small theatre gets lost in a big cultural centre because you just become part of a monthly programme. We were faced with the decision either to disappear as a theatre and come up with a smaller production every once in a while as a creative team, or to do something radical, and that’s what actually happened.

Peter: You could say that after 15 years in Košice, people didn’t associate us with the city very much. We were often asked questions like: Is Divadlo na Peróne from Bratislava? The audience simply had the feeling that we only occasionally visited Tabačka. If you don’t have a space, you don’t have the truth, nobody recognises you. For example, the sponsors can’t define you because they don’t know if you are part of the cultural dramaturgy of the centre or if you are a separate entity.

Jana: People used to come to see our theatre productions in Tabačka. We are very grateful for our time in Tabačka, it was a good time. But we wanted to have our own face and our own identity, our own space where people could find us, visit us regularly, meet and talk.

Peter: We also wanted to inspire others. For a big city like Košice, there are very few independent theatres here. It’s also because if you want to be creative in Slovakia, you have to do everything, often crazy things that other people might find strange. But we wanted to show that it can be done. And the new structure of the Slovak Arts Council call for proposals helped us a lot. Some time ago they prepared a call for small independent theatres and this opened the door for us. In the past, such calls were only aimed at large cultural centres, which received support for a whole year or even three years. Theatres received subsidies only for specific productions. Thanks to the change in structure, which gives equal opportunities to centres and theatres, we have finally been able to start creating a year-round programme. Last year, the first call for a three-year subsidy was announced, and out of all the independent theatres in Slovakia, only we and Ticho a spol. from Bratislava received it.

Jana: As for the space itself, we did almost everything on our own. From demolition, painting, concreting and welding to furnishing. It started with us walking around Košice for three years looking for a suitable space for a theatre in the Old Town and its surroundings. We saw dozens of them, ranging from historic spaces with high ceilings to industrial ones that were resembling large cultural centres. We met some very interesting but also unpleasant people and got into a lot of standoffs. For example, on the first day of lockdown, during the first wave, we walked through an empty city to pay a deposit, which we ended up losing. Our dream has indeed been hard-earned. But fortunately, the owner of our current space is not only an entrepreneur but also an artist, and at the time that we discovered the space he had two options: rent the space out to a pub, or rent it out to a theatre. In the end he told us, “I decided to give it to the theatre!” It was wonderful how he trusted us from the very first moment.

Peter: Before we came here we had our own idea of the space we needed in terms of height and depth. We also knew what we needed to set up the operation. When we first came here we were surprised by details like the foyer, which resembles a small station, or the fact that we’re almost on the corner of Mlynská Street, which leads to the station, so we’re very close to the platform (in Slovak “perón”). We were also very pleasantly surprised by the courtyard and the storage areas and the possibilities for the bathrooms. Along with the new space, it also opened up the possibility of reaching audiences across generations. Younger and older audiences alike come to the evening performances, the workshop Nebľaboc! attracts mainly people of working age, some days of the week we teach acting to students from the Jozef Adamovič Conservatory, and soon we will open a Mini-Scene for the little ones. We want to attract as wide an audience as possible to our independent theatre.

In your productions you often raise social and political issues, and you like to provoke as well. Why?

Jana: I don’t think it’s a targeted provocation. I’m always taken aback when I hear that word because I don’t think it applies to us. We always work with topics that grab us. They fly through the air: you’re dealing with something in your private life and you want to talk about it, or you’re reading a book and suddenly you want to adapt it. That’s what happened in the case of Daniel Majling’s Ruzká Klazika. Or in the case of Janka Bodnarová’s play – you read her play, you see the images and you feel that something has happened inside you and you want the world to see it. It is true that the performance My ľud! is a bit provocative and political, but we are slowly trying to move away from heavy, political themes and we want to talk more about themes that touch the human soul, are timeless and will always be relevant.

Peter: It’s not about calculation. We have a duo of dramaturges, Mário Drgoňa and Tereza Trusinová, who help us with organisation and setting the direction and vision, but in the end the heart decides anyway. We don’t want to be defined as political theatre. Rather, I think what defines us is our perspective and the fact that we like to make fun of ourselves and, by extension, others. We’re not afraid to name things as we see them, and in doing so, it can be provocative to some.

Recently you have started adapting quite a few literary works, including Dievča z morského dna (The Girl from the Bottom of the Sea) by Jana Bodnárová and Ruzka Klazika by Daniel Majling. What’s the difference between adapting a work and an original production?

Jana: By the time we started to think realistically about our own space, we realised how much work it would require to run it. We realised that we would have to be much more efficient in many ways, including the creative process. Adapting an already written text is not easy, but it is much easier than creating a new text from scratch. It’s a wonderful job where you can push the text into different positions and planes. We are first and foremost actors, performers and directors and we decided to leave the writing to others.

Why did you decide to do theatre here in Košice?

Jana: I studied here in high school and Košice was love at first sight. I never wanted to go anywhere else, except Prague. I enjoyed Prague to the fullest when I guest-starred in several shows there. We also took part in several artistic residencies in Prague and now I’m a distance student at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts. I want to live in Košice but I wish that one day, maybe in 20 years, the streets of this city will be like the ones in Prague, full of theatres and galleries.

Peter: I like Košice. Bratislava never appealed to us. We respect it as the capital of western Slovakia but that’s about it.

What are Nebľaboc! workshops and why is it important to connect the theatre space with the public outside of performances?

Jana: For me, the workshop Nebľaboc! is not so much about teaching people not to babble or express themselves beautifully; it’s more about trying to help society develop basic decency. Sometimes I get very sad about the way people express themselves in public and I also get very upset about the way certain professions, such as service workers, act. It strikes me when I walk into a hotel, a bank, a grocery store or a post office, for example, and the staff cannot speak politely. I see this as a handicap of the whole country. That was one of the reasons why we started the workshops. On the one hand, we wanted people to not be afraid to use their voice as a tool and on the other hand, we wanted to be more polite to each other. That’s my biggest motivation. There’s always a great atmosphere at the workshop. A safe place where you can try out basic acting, breathing, voice and speech exercises, you can relax and you don’t have to impress anyone with your importance.

Today we go out into the world to impress everyone. We go out like we’re in the ring, knowing that we have to fight everybody and beat everybody up or they’ll beat us up. Nebľaboc! is a space where participants often find that we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously and that everything, how we feel and perceive things, is influenced by how relaxed we are, how we connect our body and mind. Nebľaboc! is a guide to working with self-esteem, and that’s something we need to work on, not just as individuals but as a country.

Peter: Participants also often find that they are not the only ones who want to work on their speech and voice. Often there are people who might not have come to the theatre otherwise and want to improve or move on in some way. What’s also interesting about the public workshops is that they bring people together from many fields and professions – for example, the head of a company who has a thousand employees under him, a judge, an unemployed person, a writer, or a person who has an important job interview coming up. Suddenly they all have something in common and sometimes even an unexpected dating opportunity develops. Through the workshop we also broaden our audience. After attending a workshop, people are happy to come to our performances because they already know us, they know the space and they don’t have to be afraid of the unknown.

What can we look forward to in 2023?

Jana: In March we will open the Mini-Scene for the young ones with the premiere of the fairy tale Lily a Momo, based on the book by Katarína Macurová and directed by the Polish director Justyna Czarnota. Shortly after that, also within the Mini-Scene, we will launch the first workshops Nebľaboc, junior! for children and youth. On the 11th of March there will be a premiere of our production of the radio-adapted play called Slovenský raj (Slovak Paradise) on DEVÍN radio, which was directed by Michal Náhlík and in which we are also performing. In April, we will have our second guest appearance at the Slovak National Theatre with the play Niekoľko skíc k vlastnej samovražde (A Few Sketches for Suicide), and at the end of the year we would like to come up with a new premiere. We are in the phase of searching for a text, so we are reading contemporary playwrights and authors and looking for a suitable candidate or candidates we could adapt. We also have some tours and festivals coming up, but at the moment we have our heads full with the Prague Quadrennial, which will be attended by 68 countries from all over the world, and we are representing the Slovak Pavilion.

Peter: We will participate in the Quadrennial together with the architectural studio DOXA from Košice and the sculptor Michal Machciník. We are also working with composer Miroslav Tóth and costume designer Daša Krištofovičová. We are currently putting together a team of performers from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We will start rehearsing during May and the whole thing will take place in the first half of June. I think we are going to have a good year in good company and the audience, not only in Košice, has a lot to look forward to.

Invisible Mag is supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council. The Slovak Arts Council is the main partner of the project.

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