prof. Ivan Vyskočil
Writer, performer, psychologist and teacher Ivan Vyskočil was born in Prague in 1929. He was one of the leading figures in the Czech “small forms” theatre movement in the 1960s. Vyskočil has been hailed as one of the most original figures of Czech post-war culture.
Vyskočil studied acting and directing at DAMU (the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) completing his Master’s studies in 1952. “I studied acting. I did not study to become ‘an actor’…. I wanted to become aware,” he says. For these reasons, he went on to study psychology and philosophy at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University under Czech philosophy professor Jan Patočka. After spending some time working in criminal youth prevention, he went on to briefly teach psychology at DAMU from 1957-9. He was the first psychology and psycho-hygiene teacher at DAMU.
In 1957, Vyskočil, at the invitation of Jiří Suchý – a childhood friend who, as yet unknown, would eventually become a popular singer, songwriter, musician and theatre practitioner - began performing at Reduta. (Reduta is a wine tavern and jazz club in the center of Prague.) There they performed their so-called “text-appeals” (á la sex appeal = appealing and attracting by and through text). In the closed and unfree society of former communist Czechoslovakia, it was a uniquely successful attempt to establish open and free contact and communication with an audience through unusually playful and appealing stories and songs.
Vyskočil’s nightclub text-appeals inspired the most significant theatrical movement in post-war Czechoslovakia – the “small forms” movement (small forms: a looser assemblage or montage of literature and music including stories, anecdotes, songs, poetry, mime and dialogue). Following the Reduta model, a profusion of independent theatres - professional and amateur - were born. These adopted an approach emphasizing playing with language and contact with the audience. They de-emphasized an acting style based on “living through the role” and held nonconformist views.
In 1958, Vyskočil and Suchý founded the Theatre on the Balustrade. This was an attempt to expand and structure the irregular performances at Reduta. At the Balustrade, Vyskočil continued performing text-appeals after regular performances. He also wrote several plays during his tenure at the theatre, including Autostop with Václav Havel.
Václav Havel writes that Vyskočil “…is inseparable from the history of small theatres in the 1960s. Vyskočil was one of the godfathers of that movement.” Further, according to Havel:
He brought several important elements into the theatre: first, intellectual humor; second, an entirely original fantasy; third, learning (he had studied philosophy and psychology); fourth, a sense of the absurd; and fifth, a completely unconventional aesthetic impulse. He managed to link playfulness with obsession, and philosophy with humor. His need to push a playful idea to absurd extremes, and constantly to be trying something new, was infectious.[i]
Vyskočil’s Non-Theatre (in Czech: Nedivadlo) also played a seminal role in Czech theatre culture (1963-1990). Non-Theatre profoundly developed narrative theatre and aspired toward numerous ideals: theatre in statu nascendi; theatre emerging from authentic encounter; theatre as a collaborative work; and theatre as open dramatic play. Like Grotowsky, Vyskočil advocated a “poor theatre”; but, unlike Grotowsky, he privileged joyous poverty over venerable asceticism.
Vyskočil’s dramatic priorities inspired his experiments with socio- and psychodrama. He met and briefly collaborated with Jacob Moreno, the founder of psychodrama, between 1965-8. In 1968, he led a workshop on gibberish with Roy Hardt.
Vyskočil’s creative activities in the 1960s also extended themselves into the world of the printed word. He wrote four books whose style balanced between literature and theatre. His work can be seen as a supplementary counterpart to Milan Kundera and Bohemia Hrabal. Many of his stories have been translated into a number of languages including English, French, German and Japanese.
Vyskočil’s public activities were sharply curtailed after the Russian occupation in 1968. As with most freethinking intellectuals and artists at the time, he was not permitted to publish or perform. Non-Theatre was banned in Prague for many years. It was then that Vyskočil began teaching at a small evening school for adults, and gradually came to be one of the most important teachers of acting and authorship. During the totalitarian era, the themes of his teaching and theatre emphasized studying and cultivating paths towards a free identity, and the individuality, distinctiveness and creativity of the human being. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he was invited to teach at DAMU, where he founded the Department of Authorial Creativity and Pedagogy, and the Institute for the Research and Study of Authorial Acting.
Vyskočil has been one of the most important representatives of Czech alternative culture his entire life. When he recently turned eighty, he received acknowledgment for his life-long contribution to theatre in the form of several significant awards, including the Czech Ministry of Culture Award for Contributions to the Field of Theater; a Thalie for Unique Achievement in Theatre (the Czech equivalent to the Tony); the Hlavkova Foundation Award; Honorary Medal of the Czech President; and the Humanist of the Year Award for 2010 of the Church of Humanism in New York City.
Theatre on the Balustrade 1959 – 1962:
If a Thousand Clarinets with Jiří Suchý (1958)
Faust, Markéta, The Servant and I with Jiří Suchý (1959)
A Little with Miloš Macourek and Black Theatre (1959)
A Sad Christmas with Pavel Kopta and Miloš Macourek (1960)
Autostop with Václav Havel (1961)
Non-Theatre 1964 – 1990:
The Last Day (1964)
Christening Party in Hbřbve or Stupid Play (1964)
In Between Speeches (1966)
Performance Cancelled (1970)
Course, Recourse of the Course, On Old Themes, Evocations I. – V.
A Business Trip (1980)
HAPRDÁNS or HAmlet the DAnish PRince in Brief (a brief, little known version of the well-known version, where the tragic hero appears but briefly) (1980)
The Journey to Ubic (1985)
Small Alenáš (Small, But Ours) (1976)
Onkel Zbyndas Winterrock (1987)l
Treatment of Vyskočil's work can be found in English in Jarka Burian's Modern Czech Theatre (2000) and Zdeněk Hořínek’s essay, The Non-Theatre of Ivan Vyskočil. For a thorough description of his life and work, please see “Ivan Vyskočil: A Life-Long Commitment to the Alternative,” M. Čunderle & A. Komlosi, Slavic and East European Performance, 31:1, Spring 2011, pp. 62-73.
Three recent books in Czech are: Hra Školou - Dvakrát o Ivanu Vyskočilovi, by Michal Čunderle and Jan Roubal (2001); Ivan Vyskočil: Vždyť přece létat je o hubu, by Přemysl Rut (2000); and Nedivadlo Ivana Vyskočil, ed. by Přemysl Rut (1996).
[i]HAVEL, Václav. 1990, p46. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvížďala. Wilson, P. (trans.). New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 228 pp. ISBN 0-679-73402-3.
The above text is an excerpt from Ivan Vyskočil: A Life-Long Commitment to the Alternative, M. Čunderle & A. Komlosi, Slavic and East European Performance, 31:1, Spring 2011, pp. 62-73. Used by permission from the authors.