The myth of a tortured artist is absurd: An Interview With Ivan Buraj

Ivan Buraj, photo: David Konečný

Ivan Buraj, photo: David Konečný

I have been excited to watch every premiere of the politically distinctive theatre philosopher and the rational analyst, who aims at revising modernism and searching for new means of expression in his productions. We eventually had an opportunity to talk about his work, human and civil attitudes the director and artistic director of the HaDivadlo in Brno Ivan Buraj can perceive in an unusual contextual range.

We have been postponing the interview due to the new manifesto and the motto of the upcoming season in the HaDivadlo: Degrowth. What is it about?
I will start with a broader point of view. It is important to try hard to achieve a more sustainable world but if we want to implement this idea, we need to be as specific as possible. I think it is important to combine various types of tactics because the hyperobject that represents climate change is truly complex. This is the reason why I believe, apart from thinking in the big picture, it is important to start with yourself and things we understand and are in touch with every day. The climate crisis is not only the crisis influencing nature out there, but also us people and culture we produce because we are nature as well. One of the most pressing questions is the economization of everything in our society. Values different from those associated with the GDP growth are vanishing as the GDP has become the representation of a deity today. However, other important aspects are at the bottom of the list of our priorities: our mental health, whether we are happy in our lives, quality of our relationships, the value of care, improvement of our knowledge and critical thinking, being interested in a whole. The modernist project of self-development, which is now limited to career growth, seems to outshine many important things. In HaDivadlo, we were thinking about how to approach our return before we started to play again. The topic of productivity, culture overload and quantity over quality brought us to the decision that we would focus on intensifying our observation of a cultural institution as such and the meaning of our work rather than the spasms of permanent production. This was the reason why we interrupted the preparations for the unfinished season and new pieces and we decided to apply our seasonal concept on how we actually work. Thus the season Degrowth 21/22 will not feature any new production except for these we already rehearsed in the quarantine. We are interested in the emphasis of the suppressed elements in understanding a theatre institution, such as making unexpected connections between people across disciplines, communities, care, and nature of relationships we create as an institution, highlighting multiple layers and complexity of audience’s experience, as well as expanding our experience with what theatre is and can be.

How can you do that specifically?
In the Degrowth season, we want to invest our energy in creative interventions that comment on our repertoire in the series of unique events. We get back to this repertoire like strangers to get to know it again together with our viewers. The point of the concept is to understand the world in more complex terms, less dualistically and unambiguously. Our world provides fewer opportunities, so a theatre performance is not only an artifact that is in HaDivadlo from 8:30 to 9:45. It is also a huge number of secondary streams of inspiration that exist under the piece like a subterranean river, many scientific concepts that provide the framework for the production, social relationships emerging during rehearsals and performances, temporal layers in which the piece resonates in people. We often see performances from only one point of view but every work can be bent, transformed, lit differently, processed and fermented. We were also intrigued by the redefinition of our relationship toward creators who have had guest performances in our theatre as we want to liberate our relationship from the utilitarian logic of a materialistic product a person provides the theatre with and then leaves. We believe that our relationships with guest artists are different from purely professional ones. Each of them leaves their aura here and this is why we got back to many of them to return to their pieces and react to them with creative interventions that intensify the understanding of the specific work. It can mean changes of some parts of the performance that will be played only once in this special interpretation, the development of a line that is currently sidelined, remediation into another type of art, or creating a walk associated with the work on one of the rerun days, which works with audience’s pre-set. We also wanted to redefine the relation to our actors and other employees. Thus, we invited both external workers and theatre employees to think about possible creative interventions in the existing repertoire because they are the biggest experts in these works as they coexist with them every day. These interventions are supposed to be simple, rehearsed shortly, and with joy. The rare thing about them will be that each of them will take place once or twice as an attempt to enhance the uniqueness of the theatre visit which takes place here and now unlike the online concept of time that everything is on-demand anytime.

Do you already know a form of any intervention?
The performance The Perception inspired by Georges Perec’s novel A Man Asleep about an actor who stopped going to rehearsals and spends time home, he does not read, does not develop or improvement of his career was our first choice after negotiations with the informal group with climatologists, sociologists, economists and members of various environmental associations dealing with the topic of degrowth. We decided to create three scenic imaginations: one will take place in 2028, the other in 2035, and the last one in 2050. The imaginations will take place in the dark and will be a live voice and acoustic composition depicting three awakenings in the world where everything had a happy ending and society started to be based on other values than primarily economic ones. Where do we wake up in such a world? In what architecture? How do we get food? Will we go to work? How will we understand work and relationships? We can enjoy the interventions by Kamila Polívková, Jiří Havelka, Miroslav Bambušek as well as creative interventions by the members of our company.

What has inspired you in this season?
We understand our season as a part of the effort to face the ongoing climate catastrophe. For instance, it is not ok under what conditions we make theatre nowadays. Freelance artists must direct three or four productions a year to make a living and reach the average monthly salary, not to mention other jobs, of course. Artists cannot keep producing something 24/7, they need to be inspired, care about personal relationships, seek and get lost in new topics, and grow organically. Nevertheless, this level is unthinkable now. We are all snowed under the quantity that we have no chance to think creatively and freely. If artists are those who keep producing something, we then cannot want them to ask unexpected questions and create space for creative thinking about the future. Culture loses its very important function and it needs to be changed. One of the possibilities is to create pressure from the inside of the cultural scene on politicians, which is not common here, another one is to create new practices and this is what we are trying to do this season.

I feel like you are trying to redefine and accomplish what we understand when we say theatre is a public institution.
In the Czech Republic, people usually think about theatre as an isolated semiotic and aesthetic object regardless of social and temporal conditions, as well as the political context, which is not about who is currently in power now. The political context is much wider than the reality of parliamentary democracy. It seems to be very dangerous in what trap the post-revolution artistic community found themselves. The dominant opinion was that independent theatre is artistically the most offensive. Nobody and nothing in the world can be absolutely independent. Independent theatre depends on the market or the insecure position in the annual subsidy competition. Every year the employees and external workers in many independent theatres live in extreme social insecurity because short-term subsidies do not allow the theatres to plan. According to recent research, poverty and social insecurity diminish our cognitive abilities. People in insecure conditions have worse creative capabilities because they have less mental capacity to think the work through. The myth of a tortured artist is absurd, that is why I need to facilitate the acknowledgment of legitimacy to the concept of culture in institutions. Yet I do not want to say that every culture created on independent stages is bad. Only the post-revolution paranoia from institutions does not work and is rather dangerous in my opinion. I do not think that an institution is a priori a guarantee of better social conditions, which HaDivadlo sadly proves, but it creates the legitimate right in the eyes of founders and politicians to speak about these things and fight for them. We, as members of the institution, experienced important social benefits in the lockdown and I felt truly sorry for my freelance colleagues. A cultural institution is a form of protection of its members and this feeling of relative safety is a basic condition for high-quality production. I understand the second dimension of theatre as a public cultural institution in association with public service. It is some kind of a commitment that we will do theatre, not a business that appeals to the taste of the majority but we will create good alternatives to the mainstream. We will try to push theatre back to its roots, the polis. We should ask questions about the quality of our society, where it is going, and whether this way is sustainable. Public service is the protection of the diversity of culture, which would be totally erased by the market logic to the benefit of forms that earn money the best.

If we look back at the last year and a half, which was a specific experience for everybody, what do you take from it?
We will only find out much of what the period of the global pandemic has brought or taken from us. It is rather soon to think about it because we even do not know whether we are at the end of the process. What I felt at first was the cease in production. I was surprised at how joyful that was. I then realized that I started to have health and personal problems I considered to be a norm, something that belongs to the formidable work of an artistic director. The pace and rhythm of the daily routine after the lockdown seems to be like a crazy run I do not want to be part of anymore. When I really stopped, I felt how much I have lost in this haste. I think that every job should allow people to live happy lives because they would not do a good job in the long run anyway.

HaDivadlo was the only Czech theatre that did not stream and create the secondary digital content, but many workers became volunteers.
Before the lockdown started, we launched a project called HaDivadlo Supports. We did not want to focus on the production of works, but we wanted to be surrounded by people who aim at a more solidary and sustainable world both in theory and practice. We started to support the association My je v tom nenecháme, which distributes clothes and other material in refugee camps. In autumn, when the epidemic got worse, we decided to interrupt our activities because we did not consider it to be socially acceptable to play in the upcoming covid wave and expose ourselves and the audiences to the danger. However, we felt it would not be authentic to stream things as far as our dramaturgy is concerned. We provided space for our employees to become volunteers. Yet I understand that somebody saw their usefulness in being in touch with their audiences and creating something that would disengage them. The next periods of our interrupted work were dedicated to education. We had online seminars about contemporary world theatre and the history of HaDivadlo. We founded an online film club for our employees and audiences and we also created the podcast Future of Theatre in which we discussed progressive theories about the options for theatre after the pandemic. And it is not really true that we would avoid experiments with remediating theatre. Kamila Polívková’s production-in-progress was transformed into an online series of multimedia contributions you can still see and we also recorded Petty Bourgeoises, Eyolf, and Chevengur we understood as our part in the discussion about the possibilities of audiovisual recordings and interpretations of theatre through film.

Ivan Buraj
Ivan Buraj was born in Bratislava. During his studies at JAMU, he worked as an assistant in the National Theatre Prague when preparing Rober Wilson’s Makropulos Affair. He graduated with The Prince of Homburg, which was awarded by the jury and audience at the Istropolitana Project, the international festival of theatre schools. He was also associated with the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre with the performance of Expulsion!!! Buraj prepared his adaptation of Kafka’s Castle for HaDivadlo and in the mid-2014/2015 season, he became the artistic director. Studio Hrdinů in Prague saw his adaptation of Max Frisch’s Stiller and Gombrowicz’s Cosmos at the New Stage of the National Theatre.

Interviewer: Marcela Magdová, theatre researcher
Translation into English: Eliška Špilarová
The interview was shortened. Its original version was published in the Slovak magazine kød – konkrétne o divadle 9/2021.