‘The goal of theatre cannot be to succeed with the audience.’
The interview was conducted in 2013, for the Masaryk University magazine Absolvent.
Studying at university is easy for today’s secondary school students. They choose their study programme, fill in an application form, and take an entrance examination. Petr Oslzlý, a long-serving playwright for Brno’s theatre Husa na provázku [Goose on a String], wasn’t even able to easily choose his field of study. For political reasons, he had to go to a vocational school, then to a technical secondary school and the Technical University, and only then could he go to the Faculty of Arts as he’d dreamed. He joined Husa na provázku in 1972 and has been working there ever since. In addition to his roles in the theatre, he works as a director of the Centre for Experimental Theatre. He was among the people who contributed to the fall of the Communist regime. In the early 1990s, he was an advisor to President Václav Havel.
What did you expect from the studies at the faculty? You probably knew that even if you successfully completed your studies, you wouldn’t be allowed to work in your field.
I didn’t even think about that. It was spring 1968. It seemed that we were heading for democracy and that the period of totalitarianism was ending.
In fact, you did get a job in the end. Right after graduating, you started as a playwright in the theatre Husa na provázku. How did you manage to do that?
My case was not exceptional. We were all young there, about the same age. I was recommended to my colleagues by the founder of the theatre, Bořivoj Srba, who was our teacher. I already knew everyone and I had worked with them. During my studies, I worked on the development of performers’ expression in an amateur theatre group called Quidam. As early as 1967, our group managed to get to the International Student Theatre Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, which was one of the most important events of the emerging New Theatre. In 1968, we were very successful there. As a result, we received an invitation to the Arts Lab, the largest alternative European artist’s cultural centre, in London. That was an adventure and a great experience.
In what sense?
At the beginning of my studies at the Faculty of Arts, I had only attended the lectures for about a month, and then I went to London. We were supposed to perform there for two weeks, but the Arts Lab was going bankrupt, so they couldn’t pay us. We stayed right there in the building, slept and ate there with about a hundred hippies from all over the world in a large basement hall. There was a special free atmosphere. One night, for instance, the experimental film Yoko Ono was projected on a large wall, and there was constantly something interesting going on, and a heavy haze of marijuana ... But we needed to make money to get back. So we were looking for some engagement in London where we could actually earn some money. We finally succeeded with the help of Maruška Jones, a student of Bohemistics at London University, who introduced us to Charles Marowitz, who worked with Peter Brook. I managed to persuade him to have a look at us.
Did you even speak English?
Fifteen self-taught lessons...Being the child of a bourgeois family in Prostějov made it impossible for me to attend English classes. But in the theatre, you have to be able to communicate regardless of language.
Didn’t you think of staying across the border?
I had the opportunity. Thanks to Charles Marowitz, we got a month-long engagement at the International Theatre Club. We started off with just a week, but we were so successful that we wound up performing there for a month and a half. I played the protagonist in our two wild creations that we performed there, and was invited to study at the New York City Theatre School, including the promise of an intensive preparatory English course. But I hadn’t even said goodbye to my parents back home before I had left for England. I couldn’t imagine that I might never see them again. It was Christmastime and that was also a factor. I returned on 23 December 1968. I thought about it a lot and I decided that my place is here.
Do you sometimes think back on your times at university?
I could never forget them! I had some great teachers. In addition to the art historians, there was Artur Závodský, from the theatre study department, who at the time invited a young assistant from JAMU (Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts), Bořivoj Srba. I should also mention Hugo Široký, a psychologist involved in the theatre, and Oleg Sus, who, in the last years of my studies, was forbidden to teach anymore, but he lectured several students, including me, unofficially in the main building on Arna Novák after 8 in the evening. The study was affected by the death of Jan Palach in the spring semester of 1969, after which we were on strike for several months. The Faculty of Arts in Brno was probably the longest striking school in Czechoslovakia.
You also initiated another kind of university, the secret seminars in Brno, the so-called Underground University. How was it then, in the beginning?
I didn’t initiate it. I was entrusted with the task by Jiří Müller, one of the most active and most radical of the Charter 77 signatories in Brno. He offered it to me and my wife; we both had to be involved in it and to be in complete agreement, because the seminars were to take place in our flat, and any possible punishment would have had an impact on both of us. I knew there were often very dramatic fates for the Prague seminars, but the offer was incredibly tempting. Jiří had already agreed with the British philosopher Roger Scruton that the Hus Foundation would send British professors to Brno.
Did you hesitate to accept such a responsibility?
No, I didn’t. We agreed with Jiří on rules which made it as safe as possible. It wasn’t so much for us; I was used to the idea of possible police repression from the outset. It was for the protection of the young participants in the seminars, many of whom were students of the Faculty of Arts. We did everything in such a way that any potential punishment would be just for me and my wife, and wouldn’t affect anybody else. As a result of one of the visits, they did actually arrest me, but I was ready for it, and told them that the visit was connected with my international theatre contacts, and eventually they let me go. One of the reasons Jiří approached me with this issue was that I was, thanks to the theatre, in contact with students and young people at the time, because they were our audience. So it wasn’t necessarily that suspicious that they would have a meeting in our flat.
Could you tell us more about the seminars?
We started in December 1984 and ended in 1990. The seminars were held about every two months and lasted for seven hours, often longer. Initially, they were philosophical and political, focused on ethics. We chose ethical themes because we were living in a society where moral values had been destroyed. It was necessary to confront this using philosophical thinking. Later on, we conceived our seminars in the sense of medieval faculties of art, meaning that writers, dramatists, poets, artists, composers, and eventually even architects came and gave lectures, but the main programme was always a philosophical lecture.
It is said that you had some more ambitious plans for these seminars.
We were heading to a point when our participants would have obtained some type of graduation certificate. If November  hadn’t come, it would certainly have happened. They would have passed exams that would subsequently be acknowledged in Britain. Our seminars differed from those in Prague in that ours were attended by people who were able to study at the non-free-minded universities of the time, and we wanted to radically influence and enrich their thinking for their future lives.
Let’s get back to your work as a playwright. How often did you have to face them checking up on you? What did they do?
Getting a performance programme approved was a terribly complicated process. The very first theatre schedule I wrote, for the 1972/73season, was almost completely rejected by the censors, so my colleagues and I had to come up with a new one overnight.
How did it work in practice then?
We declared ourselves to be a playwright’s theatre with irregular theatre studies work. We wrote most of the scripts ourselves, and during the approval process we claimed that the script wasn’t ready yet, and so we could only describe what it was about. That’s why they required the so-called ‘approval rehearsals’ about a week before the premiere, and that was our main battle. In 1968, writers had been at the forefront of the cultural movement, so in the period of normalization, the censors focused primarily on written texts. They weren’t used to looking at theatre events so much. Of course, they were looking mainly at the titles of the plays. For instance, in the very first theatre schedule, they removed the Hamlet play with the explanation that they knew how we would approach it and what we would make it about. And a production of stories based on Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense was taken out of the plan three times.
How did you manage to push these things through in the end?
I understood that the problem was in using the term ‘nonsense poetry’. The Communist regime, being itself nonsense, hated the word nonsense, it was dangerous to it. So the fourth time, I called it ‘playful poetry’ and it got through. For each play and its production, it was necessary to create a specific argument and a complex defence procedure. But overall it was, in a way, a miracle, how much freedom we achieved.
Provázek emerged as an experimental theatre, and that is still the case now. However, hasn’t the definition of the theatrical experiment changed over the years? Is it still surprising for people?
I do not perceive that the experiment’s purpose is to surprise or shock. Experimentation is the foundation of every creative work. A theatre that doesn’t experience experimentation in its work is not a living theatre. The experiment is the irregularity of the theatrical form on which we are constantly working and developing. From the beginning, we tried to look at the world from different angles, and that’s still our approach today. It is important to maintain, as we have, a state of inner freedom. In our type of theatre, even success, although we naturally strive for it, shouldn’t influence what we do or how we do it. The main point is the sense of the message of the theatre.
You were, from the very beginning, practicing a type of theatre production that isn’t very common. After all, you don’t do a mass production nowadays either. Has it ever happened that the people’s reaction wasn’t very good?
At the beginning, we shocked people by not numbering the seats. But it wasn’t possible for us, as we had to build a differently shaped auditorium for every production. Our starting point was the so-called irregular theatre, which eventually influenced all the elements of the theatrical shape. We were the first Czech theatre to work systematically in a variable theatre space. In some spatial variations, we dragged the spectators directly and physically into the play, and sometimes we manipulated them against their will. In such cases, you must count on the fact that someone might not be ready for it and may not take it well. When I go to a theatre where something like this might happen, I plan for it and purposely sit some place from where I can’t be drawn into the play.
One would think that you would want to participate in the experiments.
I do this because I want to see how the spectators react when they get involved in the play. In our experiments of this type, all the dragged-into-the-play spectators finally joined the play. Even if they were sometimes a bit reluctant, no one really protested in the end. It was also for the fact that we were a ‘generation theatre’ and the performers were all the same age as the audience.
But you aren’t a generation theatre anymore, are you?
Of course, as we were getting older, younger generations came to our plays, but our age group also remained faithful to us, so the spectator age spectrum expanded and now includes all the generations, although younger people predominate. And like the audience, there has been a generational change in the ensemble. Nowadays, there are, in Husa na provázku, actors of all generations. What’s important is that the atmosphere of a community of related opinions is still there.
Considering your approach to theatre, how do you see musicals or any form of commercial theatres?
I’m fine with any kind of theatre if it’s good. I only hate bad theatre.
If there’s a performance you don’t like, what is the reason that you don’t like it?
It’s if there is a confusing theme and unclear or completely absent main point of the play. One of the best performances I’ve ever seen was a musical on Broadway in 1992. It was called Jelly’s Last Jam, and it was an incredibly human story about a fantastic black jazz musician called Jelly Roll Morton.
Why was it so great?
One thing was the way it was done, and then the feeling of the free human community that I experienced there. It was on a Sunday afternoon, the auditorium was full, and we were some of the few white people in the audience. The auditorium was full of beautiful, highly cultivated black or mixed race people, whole families with children. The only four white men on the stage played silly cops, but there was no racism, there was just a beautiful atmosphere. And this happened in a country where thirty years before, whites and blacks couldn’t go to the same schools or sit together on the bus. It was a symbol of the development of democracy for me. That’s my answer to your previous question: I like to see a good musical, but I don’t like the theatres where the main objective is profit. Although the musical is a commercial theatre, the only theatre actually earning money, it mustn’t sacrifice the quality of its artistic message.
Do you think that theatre should be fun as well?
There can be an excellent performance that is really funny, but the so-called ‘entertainment’ type of theatre that is being promoted nowadays has nothing to do with a proper theatre. Shows like The Stand are certainly a scenic form, but it’s just fun for fun’s sake. The fun itself can’t be the main purpose of the performance. It should be a story about the world and the people in it. The fact that it is humorous and the audience laughs only helps this story in its approach to people.