Features Guest Column Published 13 March 2013

Secret Alchemy

A trip to Prague and the challenges of teaching theatre.

Duska Radosavljevic

So here we are on the last evening of January, sitting in a small actors’ studio miles away from home, listening to the American theatre-maker Howard Lotker talk about Ivan Vyskočil, a Czech actor, director, writer, psychologist and a one time friend of Vaclav Havel. Born in 1929, Vyskočil dedicated most of his life to theatre and pedagogy, although he also studied and taught philosophy and psychology and embarked on a period of “non-theatre” in the 1960s. In the latter decades of the 20th century, we learn, Vyskočil taught Authorial Acting and Interaction with the Inner Partner at the DAMU academy, a practice that shares similarities with devising and performance art but is also born from its own specific context. It is a practice that we are about to learn.

I’m here at DAMU in Prague with a group of fourth year directing students and a few MAs from the University of Kent. In many ways I’m glad of the escape, as teaching has been on my mind a lot recently. Coming back after a year and a half of focusing solely on research, it came as a huge shock that a new guideline had been introduced in my institution whereby if a module scores below 4/5 in student satisfaction it is in danger of being pulled. I only discovered this when one of the modules I taught last term came in mid-January with the score of 3.7 – and not without repercussions. One could never take these things seriously in the past, but as of this year what the university authorities actually seem to want is to harness positive student scores in order to sell their degrees in a competitive market place. They don’t care how, but high scores must be had. How does one teach an arts subject in a place like that?

The actors’ studio at DAMU seems a million miles away by comparison. Vyskočil’s former student Howard Lotker now teaches Interacting with the Inner Partner, and as he begins one of the basic exercises with the students, he explains the rules. The point is for each student to come out into the space one by one and engage in a spoken dialogue with their inner partner; it is a practice that we should all be familiar with because we have all at some point talked to ourselves. We may have a number of different inner partners and the point is to discover them and summon them to our aid when we might need them to solve a problem of some kind.

So we talk to our inner partner for about two minutes, but this is timed by the teacher rather than by the student, to ensure that one keeps going at those times when one would ordinarily want to stop. The idea is to recognize and follow one’s verbal and bodily impulses, to go with them, maybe even exaggerate them. On the other hand, the audience is to pay active attention, in a Stanislavskian way, to the actor’s “public solitude”.  Finally, the actor is not allowed to interact with the audience or with any potential props in the room; they should be entirely focused on themselves. Needless to say, one should not plan one’s behaviour before going up on stage.

At first this is nerve-wracking, but gradually, one by one, the students go up and find their calm within the space, within themselves. It is an exercise which may expose one’s stream of consciousness, one’s playfulness, the wonders of one’s imagination – eventually, perhaps, one’s own voice as an artist. Howard’s students do this twice each session, two or three times a week, for about a year or 18 months. I wonder whether this could sometimes lead to excessive solipsism or over-indulgence, but Howard reminds us that this is not so much a theatre training technique as a technique for working on the self.

The DAMU students work on themselves in a variety of ways, we discover. The following day we witness a dance class presentation of Jiri Havelka’s second year students in Acting for Alternative Theatre and Puppetry. Jiri is also our contact here and it was he who opened the doors to us on this winter showcase of the DAMU students’ work.  The first half of the presentation is a contemporary dance and physical theatre showcase featuring a variety of etudes ranging from parody, ballet and fighting to some more meditative, more dramatic numbers. The second half of the presentation is a showcase of mazurkas and ballroom dancing routines.

This is all taking place in a massive room with a wedding cake ceiling and stained glass windows, which may well have been a genuine ballroom once. Several generations of teachers are present, but the oldest one, who was here since the 1960s, doesn’t even know what this room was before it was annexed by the DAMU School (which by the way looks not unlike a Habsburg version of a Tardis – small on the outside, genuinely endless on the inside). One of the younger teachers is there with her toddler, who can hardly resist keeping still to the beat of the music. The toddler is comfortable with the students and all the audience present – even us foreigners – and she keeps giving us pieces of paper to read in between her dancing and snacking breaks. There is a definite sense of community and homeliness here – and certainly no Health and Safety considerations – as most of us are seated on the floor, informally huddled together for the performance.

Later, we chat with Jiri about differences between our courses, what we do and within what kind of conditions, limited resources and excessive restrictions on the UK side being a major theme. Being Drama School students, the DAMU actors clearly get a lot more technique classes and this shows. Jiri then takes us around some of the teaching spaces they use: a scenography room, where we can see a recent exhibition, and eventually his own acting studio where he works with his students. He calls it an “atelier” – a term which I associate with painters, but rarely, until now, with actors. And indeed these rooms are like real artists’ studios, with scratches on the floors, peeling walls, cuttings of texts, pictures, interesting quotes or drawings on the walls. There are even a couple of coffee cups with cigarette ends lying around.

I ask Jiri what is the first thing he teaches a group of students when they arrive to him. He sends one student outside the room, asks them to take a walk and come back. When they come back, the student is asked to repeat exactly what they did when they were outside. This raises issues of observation and the difference between reality and theatre performance, and very quickly we arrive at Peter Brook’s idea that all we need for an act of performance is one person walking across an empty space and one person watching. Jiri then asks people to walk around the space, becoming aware of and exaggerating their own idiosyncrasies, followed by some concentration and movement exercises, and eventually by an exercise where students take it in turns to build a sequence of non-verbal actions by creating a chain of memorized units to which each person adds something, therefore repeating and copying the gestures but not the inner meaning of each gesture. This sort of sequencing can occur on a number of parallel lines simultaneously, thus building potential narratives. The most thrilling is the final exercise, where students are paired up to represent a car and a driver – one pair’s aim is to hit the others, whereas the others are to avoid getting hit.

The following couple of days are filled with more student presentations and us being squeezed (or not managing to be squeezed) into rooms of very small proportions, where we often find ourselves sitting on the floor, well within the performers’ own space. They deal with this beautifully, accommodating and accepting our presence, even interacting with us in the course of the performance. Their etudes range from non-verbal renditions of what looks like unsuccessful nights out, to whimsical fantasies involving picture frames and cake ingredients being spilled all over the floor, to a parody of Stanislavskian acting itself. They have also worked with a Slovakian choreographer Jaro Vinarsky and one of their showcases is an improvisation based on his specific combination of the visceral, the dynamic and the meditative.

There are two counts of full frontal male nudity across the two days, numerous counts of haphazard refocusing of lights by climbing on each other’s shoulders in between scenes, opening up and closing of windows to let the air in. This is a working atmosphere, and as one of the British students observes, you can tell that they really “own the space”. They respect it too and they also respect each other profoundly. The way in which the students work with each other testifies to a kind of collegial closeness that is rarely seen. They are comfortable with their own and each other’s bodies – one of the guys adjusting his colleague’s penis as the latter plays a dead body – and there is no discomfort or awkwardness when playing erotic moments with each other. Everything is technically accomplished, professional, honest. Perhaps the biggest giveaway of the secret of their success is a motto hanging on the wall behind the audience’s backs which reads: “too much EGO will KILL your TALENT”. The process of letting go of one’s ego is a lifetime’s work, of course, but the foundations for it are apparently very well laid in here.

And talking of secrets, there is the whole alchemy side of Prague as a city. In the wake of the European Renaissance, in the late 1500s, the Habsburg emperor Rudolf II apparently created an alchemists’ hub in Prague, which also occasionally included the Britons John Dee and Edward Kelly and – according to the Alchemy Museum – William Shakespeare too, who supposedly visited Prague as a spy in the company of Kelly and Dee. Later, the myth of the Golem of Prague – a creature brought to life from inanimate matter by a 16th century Prague rabbi – becomes part of the local folklore of the occult. Much of the Czech culture is therefore co-opted into this narrative, as is Kafka’s observation that Prague has claws which make it impossible to leave.

It’s not until we reach the airport that I am reminded of the dreaded student evaluation forms that I have to give my fellow travellers to fill in. What did they get out of the trip? What I witnessed was an image of a group of young adults being curious, being open, enthusiastically responding to their surroundings, asking questions and having fun. What the form-filling exercise forces out of them is, sadly, a group of consumers whose experience is measured by numbers from 1 to 5. No offence to my students, but what kind of alchemy does it take to make consumers into artists? This is a question my Inner Partner must find an answer to.


Duska Radosavljevic

Duska Radosavljevic is a dramaturg, teacher and scholar. She is the author of Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of The Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers (2013). Duska has also contributed to The Stage Newspaper since 1998 as well as a number of academic and online publications in English and in Serbian.


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