Monday, November 26, 2012

DIARY | Lectures and Teaching at Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague in Czech Republic

PRAGUE |   Every morning I wake up in Dejvicka, a quiet residential district located northwest of the city center of Prague, and my first thought is that I have to go teach today.  There are several colleges nearby where they teach architecture, civil engineering, chemistry and theology.  I look out my window, I see huddles of Czech students either going to their classes or heading toward the dining hall, and the second thing in my mind is, "How can I, an American who does not speak Czech and (most important) who is interested in the arts and in aesthetics, connect with them?"  After grabbing coffee and running out to the Metro Line A, I head out to Staromestske, and the next thought I have is, "Might there be anything useful for me to share to the Czech students of the Faculty of the Arts, Charles University that would actually be helpful in their unique situation here in Prague?"

Charles University in Prague
I momentarily forget my worries, anxieties and questions as I walk up the stairs of the Staromestske station.  The city of Prague is well known as one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. Its central location makes traveling to other parts of Europe quite easy, especially to the neighboring countries of Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland.  

The archway of the main building of the Charles University on Jana Palacha square looks grand on this cold, grey morning. When you hit the top of the stairs, you see the Vlatava River and beyond it the imposing Prague Castle. Around noon, the sun creeps out, and the sight of all of it is epic. Every time I walk into the classroom, I sneak a peek out the window to see the red-shingled rooftops and impressive vistas. "I could get used to this," I joke to myself.

It is November. Unlike in the summer when you have difficulty seeing this charming city for the swarms of drunken tourists and party-hardy visitors, the fall in Praha enchants.  There are mornings when I feel like I have Charles Bridge all to myself. And there are shadowy evenings, the air filled with fog and lit only by the dull-yellow streetlights, when I begin to glimpse the melancholy labyrinths that must have fired Franz Kafka's imagination. A number of world theater figures from Asia have been invited to visit Charles University, a traditional center of Czech scholarship since 1348 and the most important Czech educational institution oriented toward the humanities. Prior to my arrival, the Prague university's Faculty of the Arts has hosted Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Prize winning Chinese émigré novelist, playwright and critic; Stan Lai, the influential U.S.-born Chinese playwright and director Stan; Shigeyama Motohiko, the Japanese kyogen actor; and Galina Sinkina, Russian playwright, director and founder of Teatr.doc.

I was asked to lead a series of workshops on American theater and criticism and to offer a lecture on what it is like to practice theater criticism in New York. The audience is composed of young writers, emerging scholars and students of theater studies, Anglo-American studies, film studies and other disciplines. We take in Czech productions in the evening: a Czech production of David Mamet's presidential comedy November at MeetFactory and German writer Katharina Schmitt's Sam, staged by Studio Hrdiny Prag at the National Gallery. 

On Tuesday, I present a formal lecture on the present state of criticism at a time when the media is transitioning from print to online. I worry that for the Europeans, who are more steeped in theory and more addicted to state-government funding than the more practical-based Americans, my talk might not be too engaging. It might be too much about the media business. But I have no choice but to specifically discuss how critics need to become entrepreneurs in the digital age. The future of the art of criticism is what's at stake. 

On Wednesday, I had hoped to focus on new trends in contemporary American drama, but I was informed that except for a few famous names like Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and David Mamet (and even then they knew only their most famous works), the students who were present did not have a strong knowledge of how American theater has historically evolved into its present state. No critic can begin to offer authoritative opinions on new drama without grasping the apparatus, so my lecture which I originally designed to center on new 21st century American drama explodes to become a survey of 20th century U.S. theater,

On Thursday, it is my turn to learn. Prior to arriving I had made a strong point that the Czech students should prepare to give a short presentation on who they personally think is an important Czech artist of the moment. I asked them to tell me what this artist's most significant work is, and what is their least significant, and to outline whether they think this artist should be known internationally. Setting aside the fact that I am clearly also fishing for insider knowledge about Czech theater artists, this session, I feel, is the most successful, because I get to see, hear and learn from the students and the other people present what their values are in terms of art and aesthetics.  You cannot write criticism out of a vacuum, and you certainly cannot discuss criticism without a context.  So focusing specifically on how the students viewed their own Czech artists provides a glimpse on how I was about to approach the next session.

On Friday, the session focuses on how to write great criticism.  Originally, I had intended to provide a lecture on "Narrative Architectures: How New Advances in New Technology Has Changed the Way We Shape Theater," as well go deeper into a sundry of topics like hip-hop theater, theater by women, African American theater (August Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle in particular) and Latin American Theater. But I have to change my m.o. so that I could specifically respond to the expressed needs in the room. By now I have learned that the students were all interested in writing strong reviews and criticism.

All throughout my stay in Prague, I keep repeating that I would give a lecture on American musicals. And so I do on Saturday in what I feel was one of the most entertaining lectures I have ever given. I have given this lecture before on musicals in other cities in Europe, notably the International Festival of Musical Performing Arts "Life Is Beautiful" in Bucharest, Romania. But this lecture in Prague is great fun because it doubles as a listening party. At the back of the room sat a Czech guy who simply loves musicals — his name is Patrick Fridrichovsky, a dramaturg at the Vinohrady Theater and a noted radio producer — and so it was a special challenge to also have another musical theater lover in the room.  For the most part, I tie the evolution of musical history to shifts in American society and culture. I pay special attention to the elements of a musical and its anatomy.  I have to say that I never felt more American than after spending nearly four hours in Europe lecturing on American musicals.

It is now the weekend: I will plan to visit the MeetFactory again in Smichov where I will renew my acquaintance with two hip-hop-loving Czech painters who have a studio on the top floor of that former slaughterhouse, now owned by David Cerny, the bad-boy of Czech sculpture. (If I am lucky, maybe I will meet Cerny again, and he will grant me an interview or show me to his studio!) Meanwhile, the violence in the Gaza Strip flared anew while I have been here, and I am sad that I was not able to delve deeper into Middle East American dramaturgy, even though I gave the students scripts by the Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi and the British-based American writer Naomi Wallace. We discussed their plays, but if I had more time, I would have asked the writers to write even more extensively on the Israel/Palestinian conflicts on stage.

Coming to Prague, I was filled with worry and trepidation. I don't know for sure if what I had to offer as an American is useful to the Czechs I met, but now those feelings are mixed in with guarded optimism and, well, hope. As Vaclav Havel once said, "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

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