They have been working as an independent theatrical production in Slovakia since 2005 and are known for playing only those characters with whom they essentially identify. Jana Wernerová and Peter Kočiš are not only actors of Košice’s independent theatre NA PERÓNE – they are managers of the complete theatre ensemble, producers, performers, authors and teachers at the Jozef Adamovič Conservatory in the city. Moreover, they have been a couple for almost 20 years. Read about their carousel lifestyle, alternative theatre in Slovakia or plays that involve viewers in the performance.
Sold carousel and moving on stage
The independent theatre NA PERÓNE, now well-known in wider circles, has become especially popular thanks to dramatic works that respond to social happenings. Not many people know, however, that its founding member Jana Wernerová comes from a carousel family. She was the first from their community to graduate from university, the Academy of Arts in Banská Bystrica, where she met her future partner Peter Kočiš: “Our mother decided to sell everything that until then was our home and enrolled me and my brother in school. We started a completely new life,” says Jana. “It was an unknown world for me. They behaved in a way as if I was from a different social class,” laughs Peter. The link between Jana’s carousel past and their new profession was created much later, though. The dream of their own theatre originated during university studies. After school, the couple got a job in a stone theatre, which they both quit during the trial period. Moving to Košice had a new dimension for Zuzana and Peter; they teamed up with the third founding member Zuzana Psotková. Together, they founded a civic association in 2005.
During almost 15 years of its existence, the travelling theatre NA PERÓNE has moved around frequently: IC Culture train – the former cultural centre Jánošík, then not reconstructed Kasárne/Kulturpark or Tabačka. Today, it works without a physical space but in the future, they’d like to have their own: “One day, we want to introduce a space dedicated exclusively to theatre and performative art, where the younger generation can find the opportunity to educate itself. We can evaluate many things and approaches to theatre management after fifteen years of our work. Amongst other things, we learned a lot and care about the progress of the theatre scene in Košice and that young graduates have a place to work on their projects. We do not feel burned out, on the contrary. The enthusiasm that drives us in this work grows with each day.”
They called us enthusiasts
Jana and Peter are academic actors, but in the past, especially in the early stages of their career, they were often called theatre enthusiasts (which they didn’t like very much). Today they can’t help but smile at the memory of this connection, it is precisely the enthusiasm that has always driven them forward: “We talk about theatre every day. We are mainly interested in performances that are currently taking place in the Czech Republic and abroad, we participate in theatre festivals and travel with our plays to different countries. Authorial playwriting is what makes NA PERÓNE so distinctive – we never perform a piece with which we would not personally identify with, something we would not stand by with our opinions,” explains Jana.
NA PERÓNE theatre travelled almost across entire Europe and introduced itself to the New York audience as well. The performances are either delivered to the spectators with subtitles or actors learn their lines, for example in Arabic. Jana and Peter argue that in some ways their theatrical life resembles that of a carousel one from Jana’s childhood and neither has grown tired of it yet: “Our entire team, the technicians and the actors, get in a big van or a plane, and only afterwards truly unforgettable stories begin to happen. Stone theatre actors play on a permanent stage, someone sets up a costume for them, another person prepares the scene. We take care of the overall logistics, load/unload the stage, manage the team, play, write, hand out paychecks. We are one person with several roles and professions which makes us different from state institutions. I am a driver and even my name is Kočiš (a coachman),” adds Peter.
And the Dutchman asks: “You still have stone theatres?”
Recent developments in the performing arts are headed towards international collaborations and projects using independent centres. Jana and Peter point out the ever-growing tendency of supporting theatres: “In the past, there was a clear distinction between state institutions and amateurs – this category also included independent groups, those who wanted to do something alternative. We were also placed into this category, we did not belong to the “official” world of theatre. Now, these old stereotypes are slowly changing, also thanks to Slovak Arts Council (the fund to support art). Maps of cities now also include independent cultural centres, and the city sends people right there. Since we are in the business for quite some time, we experienced the time before and after Košice – European Capital of Culture 2013 title. The change that has occurred in the city thanks to this title and various artistic possibilities that were created is undeniable. We played in a dreadful cold in Kasárne/Kulturpark before its reconstruction and in Tabačka when there was no floor. Today, the possibilities for preparing theatre projects in the city are better, which we are pleased to say.”
A typical play by NA PERÓNE members draws the spectator into the story directly from the audience; it is an interactive theatre, therefore, it breaks the barrier between the stage and the auditorium and turns the viewer into an active part of the performance. This is a popular moment for Jana and Peter, who like to disturb the course of the play and add an element of surprise for the audience. The topics they usually address are social and political events, which they themselves witness in Slovakia: “We try to transform what we are going through into our work. In The Metamorphosis, we transformed the main character of Kafka’s novel into the central figure of the former Slovak Prime Minister. Slovak Paradise talks about the references of World War II linking to current events. It is true, though, that we have been covering mainly politically tuned topics, so we would like to create something lighter in the future.”
“We touch upon sensitive topics and the failing system, which is increasingly filled with extremism, populism and so on. We play these performances for high school audiences, and we feel a great deal of satisfaction with what we encounter. Theatre and art as such can influence public opinion, so it is important for us to address young audiences as well.”
What is a partnership and acting life in one?
Almost 20 years of common history seems to be a long time, but not if it is interwoven with common interest and work as it is for the members of NA PERÓNE. Dramatic art has become a part of their lives: “We always have something to talk about. It is something that unites us and, at the same time, allows us to grow together professionally and personally. We never stop to appreciate the freedom we’ve chosen a long time ago – we never had to be someone we didn’t want to be, play roles that we would not like to. We do not play in front of each other (we would recognise it anyway), but we like to play, exaggerate, imitate, and we enjoy writing authorial plays for other theatres in Slovakia and ourselves,” says Peter.
An important milestone in their careers is to see their own students at Košice conservatory follow in their footsteps as one of the first independent theatres in Slovakia: “Some of our students tell us that they could imagine their future in a theatre similar to ours. They simply understand that today it is possible to do theatre even without an institution. Personally, I feel very proud of what we have done with Peter and our entire team. Now it is appreciated by young people. We don’t just go to work – we do something that feeds us, dresses us and makes us happy. I wish the same for everyone,” says Jana.
The year 2020 will bring not only the 15-year anniversary of NA PERÓNE theatre but also cooperate with KAIR and Dutch playwright Sytze Schalk on populism & fake news, a theatre tour with the show Na stáž! in Sweden and premiere Jana’s radio play directed by Peter on Slovak Radio. Follow their website for regular shows and dive into the plot.