Jiráskův Hronov, a celebration of amateur theatre, returns for 86th year

Jiráskův Hronov, photo: archive of Radio Prague

This Friday sees the start of one of the oldest festivals in Europe celebrating amateur theatre in Hronov close to the Polish border. The festival is dedicated to the great writer Alois Jirásek, who was born there. Although his plays have since fallen out of fashion, some troupes still take a crack at his work every so often; more importantly, over the course of ten days, visitors get to see some of the best in amateur theatre from the year all in one place.

Jiráskův Hronov, photo: archive of Radio Prague
I spoke to Lenka Lázňovska, the head of Nipos (a cultural organization helping put together the festival) and she agreed ‘Hronov’ has had a fantastic run.

“It may be the oldest festival of its kind in Europe and something which has never lost continuity…”

This is a festival which celebrates amateur theatre of all kinds: performance, dance, puppetry…

“That’s right. Children’s theatre, too, moving theatre…”

Was it always like this or is this what it has become over time?

“It is difficult to describe. The selection process plays a role: basically the best productions in a given year are first chosen on a regional level and then come to the national festival and from that the very best come to Hronov. So it really is a celebration of amateur theatre.”

Are there any genres which are popular based on past experience? Drama, comedies…

“It is a cross of all different genres. You can have comedies like A Perfect Wedding to darker humour and tragedies as well. So it is a mix.”

Obviously, as we said, this is a festival which has a very long history and it references the writer and playwright Alois Jirásek – who was born in Hronov. To what degree is his legacy still an important part of the festival?

“We know that he was an important playwright and the festival is dedicated to him. One theatre troupe in Hronov will be performing one of his plays; that said, thematically, his work is quite difficult because unfortunately in terms of his topics it has aged.”

“People involved in amateur theatre are more free. It is not a question of money.”

It is dated, you say.

“I think so.”

I am curious about this: there are various definitions of what amateur theatre is. How do they see themselves? Because one definition is that is simply unpaid or ‘from the heart’, a hobby; another leans more towards work which is not as polished or as on high a level as professional theatre. How do they see themselves?

“There of course many ways of approaching it: in Britain they call it voluntary theatre or in many countries they call it amateur theatre or non-professional theatre.”

But obviously this is something, amateur or not, which requires a lot of work, a lot of practice, a lot of study, so I imagine that at some point the definition between amateur and professional become blurred…

“Yes. Absolutely.”

What is the community like compared professional theatre? Is this a close-knit community?

“Every year people are surprised by how many professionals come or are involved in some way at Hronov. Co-operation is intertwined. You have some professional directors or well-known people in theatre running workshops for guests. It is a big surprise how many professionals are involved or in the audience. It is a big society of theatre makers. And this is typical of Hronov and I have not seen it elsewhere. I was at a similar amateur theatre in Germany and this aspect was missing.”

Jirásek theatre in Hronov, photo: archive of Radio Prague
We could take it a step further also by pointing out that there is a long tradition in Czech filmmaking of also using non-actors or amateur actors…

“Yes, I’d agree with that.”

I was talking with someone just recently who is a big fan of the theatre who attended an event where there were both professional and amateur interpretations of some of the same material and she felt that the amateur actors outdid their professional counterparts. In some ways, the performances were more immediate, less polished but more authentic.

“They are more free. It is not a question of money.”

Let’s talk about some of the productions that people who are attending Hronov this year should see.

“There will be 32 productions this year in seventy-five performances at three different venues, from the Jirásek Theatre to a school stage for smaller performances for puppet theatre for example. A Perfect Wedding opens the festival on Friday, directed by the profi director Milan Schejbal who told me many times that he needed the energy which is involved in amateur theatre. And this is a production which features perfect acting.”

One important aspect for visitors are the workshops and seminars at Hronov, on everything from acting to directing… to storytelling methods.

“They are a tradition, a definite tradition.”

What is the overall atmosphere? This is a small town, right on the Polish border, population of around 6,000…

“The most interesting thing is to see all these people come together for one reason: their love of performance.”

“That’s right, it is a small town, it’s no city, which is a slight drawback because it can make getting accommodation difficult. That has been a problem in recent years.”

And in terms of the festival? It must be very ‘personal’…

“Very personal. The most interesting thing about the festival is to see all these people in society, in the community, come together for one reason: their love of theatre. They see performances, they talk about theatre in the pubs and on the street. The people involved are a big ‘family’ and for Hronov this is the biggest event of the year.”

The festival runs from this Friday until August 7. Learn more at www.jiraskuvhronov.cz