How should Czech theatres be funded?

Divadlo Ta Fantastika, photo: www.tafantastika.cz

A trip to the theatre in the Czech Republic has long been within the reach of ordinary people, and in Prague alone, there are scores of theatres to account for all tastes. Theatre is not just the conversation topic of the intellectual elite, but something you will hear discussed by many Czechs down the pub. Why? It could be to do with ticket prices being affordable to most. And why can most people afford to buy a theatre ticket? Perhaps because there is a strong tradition of the state funding the theatre. Though all this could be about to change, with one theatre taking the Czech Republic to a European court over the way it funds its rivals. Petr Kratochvil and his Divadlo Ta Fantastika want to see an end to grants for commercial theatres.

But first things first, Vladimir Prochazka is the head of one of Prague's best-known theatres, the Cinoherni klub. He outlines the Czech Republic's legacy of state-funded theatres:

"Under communism, and actually this tradition survives in part right up until the present, all Czech theatres were funded by the state. The state or the municipality gave them funds on a regular basis, and that is how they worked. Such state-funded theatres still exist today, but the majority of those working in the theatre consider them to be an outdated remnant of the last regime, because from an economic point of view, they're not in the least bit practical. And as well, in a liberal society, cultural institutions shouldn't be answerable to anyone, because this means that the employees and directors of such institutions can be singled out and dismissed whenever a politician feels like it."

Petr Kratochvil, photo: CTK
Petr Kratochvil owns Divadlo Ta Fantastika in Prague. He too is against the idea of theatres being funded by the state alone:

"In my opinion, state-funded theatres operate in a de-motivating way. Because for them, it doesn't matter in the slightest how large their audiences are. They receive a large sum of money, automatically, every year. It would be better if the state, or the municipality, gave the organization 30 or 40 percent of the current sum, and it was up to the theatre to earn the rest itself. Because at the moment, these theatres are making art for art's sake. They're playing to audiences of four or five. Critics are lauding these productions, but they're running for three or four nights - and that's it. I couldn't work in this way."

Mr. Kratochvil originally set up Divadlo Ta Fantastika in America, where he lived in exile during the 1980s. After the fall of communism, he and his theatre returned to Prague. But it hasn't been a glorious homecoming for Mr. Kratochvil, who is now taking the Czech Republic to a European court over what he calls the 'illogical' way it funds its theatres:

"The arbitration court marks the height of this dispute which has been going on here regarding the financing of theatres. I'm not in the least bit opposed to the state financing theatres, in fact, I'm for it. Some theatres have to be financed by the state. But we have to make a distinction between those which are not-for-profit, and commercial, profit-making theatres. Not-for-profit theatre organizations should be supported, up to an extent, but that is not the problem. The problem is that, for some strange reason, commercial theatres are being awarded grants as well."

So, Mr. Kratochvil explains, he is out to protect his investment:

"If someone decides to set up their own commercial theatre, and invests lots of money into that, and on the other hand you have some private theatre getting a massive grant, then you have an unbalanced market. My investment has been partially devalued by the fact that other private commercial theatres are awarded lots of grants, and my enterprise has not received a penny."

Vladimir Prochazka, photo: CTK
Vladimir Prochazka's Cinoherni klub was awarded the largest grant available by Prague Council earlier this year. His theatre was one of the first to change its status after the revolution. He explains:

"Right now, there's a trend in the Czech Republic for these state-funded institutions to turn themselves into different types of organizations. Most frequently, they turn themselves into what is known as a 'benevolent association'. This means that they become a relatively independent enterprise, with their own director, but that they are supervised by the municipality. They are supported by municipalities through a series of grants. In Prague, it is Prague council which hands out these grants. These grants come in different forms. Some are for individual projects, some are for a year in length, and for the longest-running theatres, such as the Cinoherni klub here, there are grants for four years in length."

Mr. Prochazka is against the law-suit being waged by Mr. Kratochvil, but does agree that the system of grants for theatres needs to be rethought:

"It should be experts deciding who gets which grant, as it is elsewhere in Europe. A panel should be set up, which is composed purely of those working in the theatre. At the moment here, it is half politicians, half experts, deciding upon these grants. But, as the system of grants is developed and refined, I think politicians will realize that it is more advantageous for them not to involve themselves in the allocation of grants, and this way they will not be vilified. Because there are always people who don't get the grants and who are unhappy about this. And they always kick up a fuss. But the one appropriate, transparent and logical solution is for politicians to decide how much money should handed out, a panel of experts to decide who this money should be handed out to, and what percentage of this money they should receive, and then in the end for politicians to approve the decision of the panel. If I were a politician, I would be happy with this."

But Mr. Kratochvil is dead set against this idea of a panel of experts:

"Grants should be administered here as they are in the United States, by the magistrate, based on a series of well-defined conditions. They shouldn't be handed out subjectively by so-called experts in the field. The Czech Republic is a small country, there are not really very many of us, we all know each other very well, and we all have our own groups of friends. There is lots of room for nepotism and even corruption in such a system."

Since Mr. Kratochvil announced that he was taking a complaint to Europe, this topic has really been making waves in the Czech Republic. I asked Mr. Kratochvil how the reaction had been:

"The reaction has been really mixed. Here in the Czech Republic, the general public, and unfortunately the experts in our society as well, don't make much of a distinction between the commercial and the public sectors. They don't understand it. They think 'that Kratochvil has lots of money anyway, why does he want more?' I repeat, I don't want money, but nor do I want my competitors being given large grants, because this really complicates my standing on the market. Imagine there are two bakers on the one street. They both bake bread, and one of them gets money from the state to buy his flour, the other doesn't get a thing. That cannot end in success."

Prague council has recently announced that it will re-evaluate the system of grants - a move which looks like it will be universally welcomed - because the only thing that these two warring factions seem to agree upon is that the system is not satisfactory as it is.