I’m in Prague for the International Fringe Theatre Festival. Yeah!
But hold on… Fringe theatre… What is it?
For the non-adepts, non English speakers, non-theatregoers, “fringe” means obviously something that isn’t central, slightly peripherical, and this case it refers to those small theatres most people usually overlook and pass by without even acknowledging their existance. Why? They aren’t located in the main theatre area of a city, used to be something else – pub halls, basements, warehouses, storage rooms – and it shows, boast incredibly uncomfortable seats, no real stage, no curtains, and pay actors an absolute pittance.
Still, fringe theatres are where “new” theatre really happens, where new companies get the chances to show their abilities, playwrights try out new material, where innovative trends are born, where theatre can really happen in an artistic way far from the politics and the commercial mechanisms of official playhouses,
Most cities worth this name have a buzzing, exciting fringe theatre scene, and consequently a fringe theatre festival, except in Italy where even big theatres are overlooked by most people, can you imagine the small ones, unless they do a musical or a funny play with a TV starlet in it.
Okay,okay, I must stop my usual whine against Italy just in case somebody starts accusing me again of talking stereotypes (you’re boring, some of you out there, I’m trying to write a light hearted blog, not a sociology essay, have some sense of humour! Besides, I equally whine about the Brits in the same way, so I’m totally fair), even though, to ne fair, how many times have you Italian person been to a small, peripheral, “alternative” theatre in the past 3 months? How many plays have you seen last year?
Exactly, so shut up.
Ok, so, most cities worth their names have fringe theatre and, often, a fringe Festival. Prague is one of them. Prague in fact is amazing as theatre in the Czech Republic is so popular they have “Divadlos” everywhere, big, small, tiny, luxurious, run down, crazy, serious…
Theatres here an average of 80% attendency, which is absolutely incredible, and there are more young people wanting a career in theatre than in films. GREAT!
The Prague Fringe Festival is attended mainly by companies that work in English, which is a a bit of a pity as I would have liked really to see more shows in different languages.
The Czech theatre practitioners are a bit ambivalent towards this crowd of foreign thespians descending on their city, as they tend to be convinced their theatre is much better, and in some cases they might be right, even though I find this little war a bit sad, as theatre people should support each other morally, since nobody else does it financially.
I’ve been working with Beautiful Confusion Production at the show “The World’s Wife” for a few months.
It’s a visual, physical piece based on the poems of Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy imagined the wives (real or imaginary) of famous men to tell their side of thei husband’s stories and to share truths about what those famous people were really like. It’s a powerful, witty, dramatic, loving, desperate, ironic, truly feminist book that has the great ability of never turning into a rant against men.
It’s just women in the show, myself, Lee and Becka (two very good Americans living in London), Polly (AKA Eileen Pollock, who was very famous in the UK back in the ’80s because of her role in the sit com Bread), and Ellie, an Irish musician who lives in Prague and that we only managed to rehearse with on the last few days.
We love our show, we think it’s great and everyone who came to our London previews thought it was great too. We use tulle, we have curtains made of tulle, tulle to cover us as shy brides, tulle to wrap us and hide us and tie us like marionettes…
In London we had to divide the set between us before leaving – because this is what you do in the fringe, you don’t have vans carrying your set and props, you carry it yourself – so half of our luggage was basically tulle, cans, bouquets, and other weird stuff that would have been hardly to explain at custom.
As the experience was su full of funny details I’ve decided to write it in chapters, or, since it’s about theatre, in acts. So I can stop from time to time and rest. And so can you.
ACT 1 – Day 1. The flat near Tesco’s
We arrive at Prague airport late at night and get a cab to our accomodation. Becka and her husband Paul (pictured)
used to live in Prague so they found us some friends happy to leave us their flat for the whole 8 days.
The flat is lovely but it’s not exactly central. In fact, it’s right in the middle of nowhere, at the end of tram 22 route
off a main street dotted with ugly communist buildings that strangely remind me of the industrial Milanese suburbs of my childhood.
Where the communist architecture ends a huge Tesco mall appears, shiny and glassy like a cathedral in a desert, a real testimony of western capitalism taking over Eastern Europe (three days ago the right wing party has won the elections here). Our building looks like an office block and is situated just behind PRAZSKA ENERGETIKA, whose premises boats a neat little garden and a weird plastic sculpture with fairylights all around.
As the taxi stops in front of what we assume is our building, I notice a woman standing at the corner, smoking a cigarette. Is she a prostitute? I immediately wonder, once again thinking about the Milanese suburbs and the Brasilian transexuals parked outside my friend Patty’s building. But, on a closer inspection, I discover the woman’s wearing a pyjama and waving at us, a huge grin on her face. It turns she’s not a sex worker but Iva, our middle age host, who’s been waiting for us. Iva can’t really speak English and just says “Welcome to Prague, this is home, Welcome to Prague”. Poor Iva has effectively been evicted by her daughter in order for us to have a flat all to ourselves. Even though in fact the flat isn’t just for ourselves because Jirka, Iva’s son, is apparently going to share with us.
We go to bed at around 1.30 am and Becka announces that we’re going to pick up Lee from the airport in the morning so we need to leave at 8am. I’m NOT an early morning person but since I’m older than Becka and Lee I don’t want to sound like I don’t have as much energy as them, I turn down Becka’s suggestion to sleep longer and wait for them in a cafe’ (especially considering I presently don’t know where I am, how to get to town and how to ask for help in Czech…). It’s 3am and I can’t fall asleep for the sake of me, maybe it’s the new bed (that I’m sharing with Becka for the first 2 nights), maybe I’m too tired to relax, maybe it’s the rain rattling against the balcony. At 4.30, just when I’ve finally entered sleep, I hear some noise. Somebody’s in the room… My body fights consciousness so I don’t get to really find out what happens but I suspect Jirka has come in order to go out on the balcony and retrieve some clothes… When the alarm goes off at 7am, I’m so sleepy I’d rather be shot than have to leave the bed. I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and I want to cry as I’m sure my wrinkles have multiplied overnight. Becka on the contrary is fresh like a rose, and totally iperactive, as if she’d been resting in a beauty farm for 3 weeks. She’s out of the flat in no time, dragging me to the tram stop before I can say “coffee”. I still have no idea of where I am, who I am, where I’m going, why I’ve agreed to go back to the airport to get Lee… Also I can’t keep up with Becka’s walk, as she strides so quickly I’m literally running after her like an idiot. She lived in Prague before so she knows every single tram intersection, metro stop, and bus station in Prague and confidently hops from one to the other like a cricket. With her long blond hair and pretty velvet jacket she looks like a model, while I look like a mix between a junkie and a 156 years old zoombie.
I desperately need a coffee and something to eat. I don’t function without breakfast in the morning, I don’t do going out with an empty stomach. But we’re running late so there’s no coffee stop for us. When, at the bus station, we make the mistake to try and buy a pastry from a stall, we almost miss the bus to the airport and Becka gets stuck between its closing doors. Not nice. We finally arrive at the airport and find Lee, who’s been up since 3.30am in order to take her 6am flight. Now WonderBecka has 2 zombies with her, one dwarfish one (me) and one gigantic one (Lee). Back at the flat she announces we only have an hour and a half to rest before going to town to collect posters, meet our musician Ellie for the first time and start our tech at the theatre. Lee and I collapse on our bed for a nap. Becka, who I suspect is taking cryptonitis behind our backs, decides to walk to Tesco’s (15 minutes) to buy some groceries and look for props for the show. She comes back still full of energy with a bag full of salame, cheese and bread (which will represent our dinner for the rest of the week but at present we don’t know that and enjoy it). We pack our bags and off we go to the theatre.
CHAPTER 2: TECH
Our theatre is called A Rubin Studio, and is a sort of black grotto, a very Czech looking taverna, quite perfect for our “hellish” cabaret. It’s located right in the centre, in an allyway just off Malostranska square, between an Italian cafe and a Sushi bar doubling up as coffee place during the day (pictured above).
Having being told our tech is at 5pm, we happily sit at the sushi cafe and drink cappuccino with Ellie, going through the musical part of the show. Ellie orders half a pint of tea, followed by two more half a pints of tea. I’ve never seen anyone drinking so much tea in my life, and I live in England… We rehearse the songs in the allyway just outside the theatre. It feels exquisitely bohemian and I love it…
We go into the theatre at around 4pm, convinced to be early, only to fin out that the Festival’s organizers have decided to change our tech times without informing us. We’re told in fact that we’re missed our slot, which was apparently at 1pm. But since our appointed technician is quite a cool guy who doesn’t mind staying over, we’re granted an hour and a half to try out our technicalities. Aaaaargh!!!!
We drop our bags in the changing rooms and start rushing around.
Tech. What is it? A tech, or technical rehearsal is when, before the opening of a show, you finally enter the theatre where you’re going to perform and set lights, check audio, props, get ins and outs, basically you do anything but acting, going through your show from beginning to end just checking its technicalities with the tech guy.
Now, in normal circumstances, ie not in a festival, you tech your show for a whole day, sometimes even for two days, you point lights, you build the set, you leave all your props in place etc. But at festivals, one theatre has 4 or 5 shows every day and only half an hour between each show. So you need to be able, in 15 minutes, to put up your set from scratch, set lights, set props, arrange audio and be ready to go. At the end of the show you need to do the same in 15 minutes and clear the space for the next company. It’s not always easy.
Our tech guy, Christoph, is a 22 year old chubby Czech who thinks all western theatre is rubbish and amateurish compared to Czech theatre, that westeners voting left wing parties are mad people romanticizing socialism and that our show should be just fast funny numbers and songs – what’s all those moving around? Christoph, like most Czech apparently, is a happy alcoholic who has free use of the theatre bar and every night gulps down at least 10 pints of bear and half a bottle of a clear spirit with a name I can’t pronounce. However, Christoph is fast and on the ball, and he also seems to secretly like our soundtrack because every time he plays it I can spot him dancing in the tech box, waving his arms and jumping up and down.
The last thing we do before leaving the theatre is telling Polly to keep her phone on just in case they should change the time of our dress rehearsal on the following day. She nods but seems confused, she’s supposed to tech the other show she’s in (a one woman reading of Cyrano on the Moon) but instead of going to the theatre where they’re waiting for her she announces she’s going home to wait for her friend Nora who’s arriving from the airport. We offer to go to the flat at her place and let Nora in but she seems stubborn. “How about your tech, Polly?” “Oh, I’ll go later,” she says. Okay….
Polly is the “senior” member of the company and our only celebrity so we’re very fond of her.
Of course the moment Polly leaves the Festival organizer arrives and announces our dress rehearsal time has changed and we’re now on at 9am. I curse him silently as I had hoped to be able to sleep a bit longer in the morning… We call Polly to let her know but her phone is off. Oh dear. We leave a message. Two messages. Three, four. We text… No reply. We ask the other theatre whether she’s showed up for the tech. No she hasn’t. It’s now 10pm and nobody has heard from Polly. The phone is off. Does anyone know where she’s staying? No. Does anyone have Nora’s number? No…
More about it in chapter number 3..
It’s now 7pm, we’ve been teching for almost 2 hours and are tired and exausted. Food! Lee and I scream. But Becka has another 150 errands planned between now and tomorrow, plus a music rehearsal with Ellie at our flat. Okay…. can we get a bite first? Pleeeease??? Ellie proclaims she knows a restaurant where they make fab Italian food and we all follow her.
Er… To be honest, I follow her out of desperation as I’m so hungry and exhausted I’d eat a raw mutton. In my normal state of mind I’d soundly refuse to go anywhere near an Italian restuarant when I’m abroad, especially in places such as the most touristy area of the Czech Republic. It just CAN’T be a good idea. We Italians aren’t genetically programmed to be able to bear bad Italian food. It’s against our constitution. Food is a HOLY thing in Italy. It has RULES. You put SALT in the water before cooking pasta. Not a pinch, a proper fist full of salt. We don’t do overcooked pasta. We don’t do weak coffee. We don’t have a cappuccino or tea while eating savory food!!!!!!!!! It makes no sense, it’s like putting icecream in a soup, it’s awful. They don’t go together. And the list could continue. Anyway, as soon as we reach the place I know the owners of this “PizzeriE” (why plural???) not only are not Italians but wouldn’t be able to point at Italy on a map of Europe. You can tell good Italian restaurant outside Italy by one, very simple thing: SPELLING. If the name of the dishes on offer on the menu are spelt right and make sense, it means there’s an Italian chef in the kitchen or somebody who’s spent enough time learning Italian cuisine to be able to write down BRUSCHETTA with an H and two Ts, and PARMIGIANO with one G only and no Es in it… Anyway, I gorge on my too salty pizza, that has cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella and some strange spice instead of oregano, watching Becka covering her pizza in balsamic vinegar and Ellie accompaning her breaded chicken with milky tea. Bless the Anglo-Saxons… Life is so much easier when you think canned spaghetti is acceptable food for human beings…
As soon as we finish our amazing dinner we grab Ellie’s buzuki, guitar and drums and jump on number 22 tram, heading back to our flat for more music rehearsals.
At home we find Jirka who immediately offers us a beer. Dear me I thought the Brits were alcoholics but the Czechs beat them by far. I’ve had already half a beer and reached my very pathetic limit so I ask for tea instead and so does Ellie, who by now must have drunk a couple of gallons of tea – I wonder how she prevents her bladder from exploding…
Jirka’s a spectacled, shy, Czech engineer who wakes up every morning at 5am in order to drive to a building site an hour and a half from Prague. His team is digging a sewage. “There’s not much work in constructions recently,” he says in his stilted English, ” so one needs to go where the work is.” When I ask hims where he usually goes on holiday he says he’s building a cottage just next to the site he’s working at. “So what do you do for a living,?” he asks. When we reply we’re actresses he looks at us bemused. He was obviously convinced our show was just a bit of fun, not real work. “That’s great,” he says. “That’s not too bad.” He sips his beer and sits in silence, a puzzled expression on his face, while we start rehearsing our songs. At the moment Ellie still hasn’t really understood what we want from her, and keeps turning every piece into a sort of pop/folk performance, and I can see Lee fuming under her very professional smile. “That was awsome, Ellie!” she says. “But now, can we try something different? Like, could you not play the guitar AT ALL, and just do the drums? It’d be so much more powerful…”
Lee’s a genius at giving notes to performers making them feel good about themselves even though in fact what she’s saying is that what they’ve juts done was pretty shit and they should try something different. But Ellie totally falls for the trick. “Oh yeah, she says. I was just thinking that the drum could be very atmospheric…” “And you’re totally right!” says Lee. “So forget about the guitar, ok?”
I so want to laugh. Ellie is mainly a guitarist and she’s basically just been told our show’s better off without her guitar. And she’s happy. Brilliant.
Whe, by 11.30pm, we finish rehearsing, I think my eyelids have been loaded with stones because they simply can’t stay up.
“Right, let’s go to Tesco’s and buy what we need for the set then!” says Becka, jumping up.
I only have one sentence echoing in my head I HAD 3 HOUR SLEEP LAST NIGHT AND TOMORROW WE’RE UP AT 7.30…. But I say nothing. For the first time in my life I’m almost forced to admit to myself that I don’t have the same enery of a 28 year old girl like Becka and it just sucks. I used to sleep 3 hours per night and be fine. i simply won’t let age beat me. We’re hear to do theatre. To create art! Who cares about sleeping? I can keep up with Becka, and I will!!!!
I put my jacket, scarf and hat on and I’m ready to go,
Oh yes, because I’ve forgotten to point out that on the 26th of May in Prague is so cold I’m wrapped up like at Christmas. It’s also pouring with rain.
We walked down the 3 flights of stairs into the Czech suburbian night and start walking like the 3 little Indians along a totally deserted street towards the mall. The huge sign TESCO hovers half a mile in front of us, like a star lighting our path.
Of course by the time we get there we find that only the food department is open but all the shops are closed. No way for us to make photocopies, by a mirror and find blank CDs… “Well, it means we’ll have to get up a bit earlier tomorrow and go to Pavlova to buy stuff before going to the theatre,” announces Becka. I love Becka dearly but right now I want to vaporize her. Every single cell of my body scream BED. We buy more groceries and start our slow walk back to the flat, soaked to the bones and looking like 3 refugees from Bosnia.
Before going to bed we try once again Polly’s phone: off.
CHAPTER 3: where’s Polly?
9am and we’re ready to go for our dress rehearsal, our prova generale, the only chance to do the whole show from beginning to end in our space – costumes, props, lights, audio and everything else in place. Dress rehearsals are a crucial moment in a show. They’re the last chance to correct things before the opening, the last chance to screw up, and the greatest opportunity to do the show for real without an audience.
Obviously such a great chance is slightly spoiled when one of the main actors fails to show up.
Because of course it’s 9am and there’s no sign of Polly and her phone’s still off.
Let’s start, she’ll show up. Says Lee, always the enthusiastic.
I sneak in a leave her another message on her voicemail saying something like “Polly, we’ve been calling you since last night, get your ass here NOW!!!!” I assume she probably went to bed late last night after waiting for her friends but she will get up at some point and switch the phone off… I assume wrong.
We start rehearsing without Polly and Becka and I split her parts between us. We discover that Becka not only is wonderwoman in terms of energy, she’s also memorized the whole show and she knows Polly’s poems by heart. Whatever they used to give to American babies in the 80s must have been powerful stuff…
11am, we’ve done the show once and no Polly. 12.45pm, we’ve gone through the show twice and no Polly. Her phone is still off.
We’re now positevely worried.
Becka and I don’t say it loudly but we actually fear she had a stroke or a heart attack and is lying in a allyway somewhere in central Prague.
We wait until 1pm (the original time of our dress rehearsal, the time Polly said she’d be at the theatre on the previous day) and then the official panic begins. Where IS Polly? Why is her phone still off? She can’t possibly be still in bed, she knew she had rehearsals. We become even more worried when Giles, one of the Festival’s organisers, storms in and ask to see Polly.
“No Polly here, sorry,” we say. “She hasn’t come to the dress.”
“What?” he screams. “She never showed up for her Cyrano tech at the other theatre last night either! It was at 6.30pm and we had a light technician waiting for her until 9!!”
Yes, we know the feeling.
So, to recap. Last time anyone saw Polly was at the end of our tech, at 7pm last night. She told us she was going home to wait for Nora who was arriving from the airport. We assumed she’d let Nora in and go to her tech but in fact she never showed up at the theatre and went incommunicado.
2.15pm. No Polly. Now she’s over an hour late even according to our “old” scehdule. Right, let’s be rational. If Polly had had an accident on her way home, Nora wouldn’t have been able to get in and would have contacted the theatre. So Nora MUST have met Polly last night. Pollly was probably in a slight state of confusion as so much is going on with her having two shows at once, so she forgot about the other tech. Okaaay. Her phone battery might have been flat and she might not have an adaptor, hence the phone off. She didn’t get the message about the changed schedule so she slept until late. Yeees, but why isn’t she here NOW? NOW!
Was her confused state the sign she was having a stroke? Could she be in the hospital? Certainly Nora would have let the Festival know… Does anyone have Nora’s number? No, of course. She is actually presenting a recital of her poems at the Festival but none of the organizers has her mobile. This is flawless management, this is.
Lee is out of her mind. She swings between preoccupation and pure fury, as, knowing Polly, a part of her supects she might just be happily wandering about Old Town Square admiring the architecture and oblivious of the time…
Finally, insipiration strikes.
“Does Nora have a dress rehearsal today?” Becka asks Giles.
He checks his diary.
“Yes. 2.30 at a small theatre off Udjez (I apologize to Czech people for my wrong spelling)”
“Bingo!!! Let’s go there and ask her what the hell has happened to Polly.”
And so it is that four furies arrive at the small theatre where Nora is tech-ing and literally crash her rehearsal (pictured)
“Nora? Are you Nora? Polly’s friend?”
“Why didn’t show up for our dress?”
“Why didn’t she go to her tech last night?”
“Is she all right?”
“What’s happened to her?”
Nora, a nice, Irish lady with an ironic smile on her face and a low, mellow voice looks at us puzzled.
“And you are?”
We calm down and explain the situation.
“Oh Polly is fine,” she says. “I had no idea she had a tech last night, we had supper. Her phone wasn’t working as she forgot her charger at home. We walked together to your theatre at around 2pm.”
“2pm? Why 2pm, she knew the rehersal was at 1pm. Besides we waited at the theatre until 2.15 and didn’t see her.”
“Strange… I don’t know what to say. She’s well known for being very relaxed about things. Like, she doesnt really worry about anything… She lets everyone else worry for her.”
Lee’s fuming. “I want to kill her.”
Becka’s pensive. “We’re left with the same problem: where is she?”
We called the theatre but Christoph says there no Polly there.
We return to Nora who’s been desperately trying to continue her rehearsals and very kindly invites us to watch and give feedback.
“Hold on, Nora, one last question. The theatre where you and Polly went at 2pm… was it the RUBIN?”
“Rubin? No, It was the Na Pradlo.”
Great. Polly went for our dress rehearsals to her Cyrano theatre….
The idea of the stroke returns.
While Lee and Ellie – who by now have decided they’ve had enough – sit down and start watching Nora’s recital, Becka drags me to Na Pradlo to get Polly. But, guess what, when we arrive at the theatre she’s not there either. We call her. We check every corner, including the toilets in case she’s dropped dead in one of the cubicles.
We return to Nora and watch her rehearsals.
Nora’s brilliant. Her poems about Ireland are funny, moving, ironic. Her delivery is superb. We drink cappuccino and sit with her for a chat
At the end, seeing our dispair, Nora invites us to go to the flat she’s sharing with Polly.
“She’s bound to return home at some point,” she says.
The flat they’re renting is right in the centre and gorgeous. We squat in the sitting room and start talking about the show, checking emails and sending invitations while Nora makes us tea (Ellie consumes her 5 gallons and says thanks).
After a couple of hours, at about 5pm, we hear the door…… POLLY IS BACK!!!!!
We don’t know whethere to hug her or strangle her so for the first 5 minutes we ignore her and go on rehearsing a song.
Apprently Polly has been walking around Prague trying to buy a new phone. She seems unconcerned about the fact that she missed our only dress and her own tech.
“I thought it was in the afternoon. I did text Becka from nora’s phone last night to ask if there was some changes but there was no reply. I don’t know why but I lost the other girls’ phone numbers…”
We turn to Becka.
“I’m not carrying my English sim card today! I bought a Czech card, it’s cheaper.”
Lee is banging her head against the wall.
Finally reunited we go through the show at Polly’s flat, hoping she’ll remember everything tomorrow. In the evening we go for dinner at a Hari Khrishna restaurant (another one hailed as fab by Ellie and Becka) and I gulp down blend curry and rice. Strictly vegeterian food and (more) tea is what one needs after a day like this!!!!
TO BE CONTINUED….