My Prague – Ondřej Hrab

Ondřej Hrab, photo: Ian Willoughby

Ondřej Hrab is the founder and director of Archa Theatre, Prague’s leading contemporary arts venue. Since Hrab took the space over in 1991, Archa (Ark in English) has played host to many of the world’s top names in cutting-edge theatre and dance, as well as musicians of the calibre of Patti Smith, Randy Newman and Philip Glass. And given his deep, quarter-century association with the venue, it’s a natural starting point for our tour of “Ondřej Hrab’s Prague”.

Ondřej Hrab,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“It’s my baby. It’s the place where, if I am not travelling, I am always here, every day.

“I know every corner, every place here.

“I also feel like I am in service to this place – that I need to make the soul, to do programming which is attractive for people, which gives new impulses to society and which also provokes new ideas and tests ideas about the future.

“So I would say if a scientist goes to a laboratory, he or she goes there every day because they need to continue their research.

“And this is the place where I have to go every day to do my research [laughs].”

Over the years you’ve had amazing artists, directors, theatre groups and musicians. Václav Havel had his parties here. What for you have been the standout events over the years, if I can ask that question?

“It’s very hard to say that I am proud of having Robert Wilson on the stage of Archa, or Philip Glass, or Peter Brook and his productions. Wim Vandekeybus. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

“Of course, with these artists I love their work.

“But at the same time, sometimes you bring a totally unknown artist and their impact on the audience and their message to society is as important as the message of these big artists.”

Archa Theatre is on the street Na Poříčí, which is quite lively but maybe not so attractive. How do you find this part of the city?

Archa Theatre,  photo: archive of Archa Theatre

“Well, we are still in the centre of the city. Actually, historically the development of the city finished near here during the crisis of the 1920s.

“In communist times everything was frozen, so only recently did this neighbourhood start to develop again.

“Maybe in the next 20 years you will not recognise this part of the city. Maybe it will be a new centre.

“I am amazed by the dynamic of our neighbourhood.

“Also I’m very happy that we can be part of it and bring to this part of the city people who have critical minds, who are not only traditional consumers of commercial art, or don’t go to department stores or don’t go to the offices next door, but bring colour to people on the street by Archa Theatre.”

Not far from Archa, by the Vltava in the Karlín district, is an outdoor, alternative arts venue named Přístav. When Ondřej Hrab takes me there, past the shining new office and apartment blocks that have sprung up in Karlín in recent years, it is out of season. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine the piece of barely tamed land metres from the river as a pleasant place to be on a summer’s evening.

“A few years ago it was really wild nature here. It was probably the last piece of wild nature in Prague.

“And a group of artists and art managers who worked for the National Theatre and were fired some years ago decided to turn this piece of land into a place where they could have concerts, they could have theatre performances and they could create an alternative to, let’s say, the city life of the establishment, which starts a few hundred metres from here.”

Přístav 18600,  photo: official Facebook page of Přístav 18600

This area by the river in Karlín has been so developed I’m surprised to see that there is still this kind of “free” area here.

“Well, this place has an advantage, which is actually the wall near here. We are still in the flood zone, so that actually protects the space.

“So this is sort of like an oasis of alternative culture in Prague.”

I was reading that this used to be a train station. It’s dark here now, we’re here in the evening, but during the day can you see any evidence that it was a train station?

“No. Actually, you can only feel that it was not ground that was not industrial in the past. You can see concrete and stones and so on.

“But nature it took back in the middle of the 20th century when freight trains stopped coming here and the whole area was abandoned for almost 50 years.

“So you can see huge trees and bushes around – and they’re not young. It also represents the hope that nature can get its property back!

“The idea of the artists who created this space was also to respect nature.

“It’s not something that would develop into some entertainment park here. Everything is done with respect to culture.

“One day you can see people sitting around a fire, like in the middle of the wood, just singing songs. The next day there is a literature reading. The day after that there is a tent with a theatre performance. And on weekends usually there are some acoustic concerts.

Přístav 18600,  photo: official Facebook page of Přístav 18600

“So they want to bring community life here, with respect for nature – that’s what I like about this place.”

And you were telling me Ondřej that you like to cycle down this way.

“Yes, just by here is a cycle path that leads through Karlín and then to Libeň.

“And when I am biking back home from the theatre, usually I stop by here for a glass of beer.

“I usually find some young friend here to talk to, so for me it’s also a place for refreshment and for unexpected meetings.”

Our tour of “Ondřej Hrab’s Prague” concludes across the street from Archa Theatre at the Art Nouveau Café Imperial. Now a grand spot, the property was run by a trade union organisation in the communist era and lay abandoned – with paper covering its large windows – throughout the 1990s. But then, Hrab tells me, he Archa played a major role in its revival.

“In the year 2000 we were organising a meeting of the AETM, which is a performing arts network in Europe.

Café Imperial | Photo: paddy,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“We had 500 guests and we were looking for some kind of hangout, some place where they could meet and have a glass of wine or a beer or coffee and discuss their work.

“But we couldn’t find a place in the neighbourhood of Archa Theatre. And one day I said, What’s behind the paper on the windows? Who owns the building?

“It appeared that one of the reasons the place was so long abandoned was that there was some claim from the original owners, but they were not united in their claim.

“So the trade unions were still keeping the building. We went to them and they said, OK, we have the keys.

“And they opened this wonderful room and we were amazed. It was intact.

“It was like if you went back to the beginning of the 20th century: These tiles and the beautiful décor were not destroyed at all.

“But there was no electricity and no water [laughs]. So we hired a catering company that usually did festivals and knew how to find electricity and bring water.

“For three days we squatted this place [laughs]. And some members of the AETM still remember that after 16 years. They say it was the most beautiful meeting place they ever visited.

“So we actually reopened this café to the public.”

I remember coming here 15 years ago or so. It was like it is today, but not so fancy and more affordable. And there was a strange thing on the menu – that if you bought something like 25 doughnuts you could throw them at other diners. What was that story?

“Yes, that was taken from a novel by the Czech writer Zdeněk Jirotka. It was one of the most popular comic novels...”

Café Imperial | Photo: Andreas Praefcke,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0

It’s called Saturnin, right?

“Yes, Saturnin. He was describing people according to what they would do when they see a pile of doughnuts.

“So the most conventional people say, A pile of doughnuts – that’s something I wouldn’t be able to eat in a day.

“Then there are others who would say, What if I threw those doughnuts at the people in this restaurant? These are imaginative people, but not people of action.

“Then there are those who don’t ask anything – they just throw the doughnuts at people [laughs].”

In all my times coming here, I never saw anybody throwing the doughnuts. Did you ever see it?

“I heard about it. But I think it usually happened late at night. Usually when some group of people were having a party here. But I also didn’t witness anybody throwing the doughnuts [laughs].”