Semafor Theatre – 53 years and inventive as ever

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

The Semafor theatre, one of the oldest continuous traditions of modern Czech entertainment, is still putting out new performances after 53 years of existence. The latest concoction of multi-genre comedy theatre is ‘Kam se poděla Valerie?’, or ‘Where Did Valerie Go?’, which has four pre-premieres this week and next, before the real premiere in September.

Jitka Molavcová and Jiří Suchý,  photo: Dušan Dostál/Semafor
The heart and soul of the theatre, Jitka Molavcová and Jiří Suchý, tell us what we can expect:

“It takes place in an institute for the hyperactive, where Mr and Mrs Couval put their daughter Valerie for re-education. But Valerie got lost at some point, and I won’t tell you the twist, because that would spoil it. It’s a musical comedy, so there are lots of songs – including one about throwing authorities out of windows, which I think will resonate with the audience.”

“Just recently I tried to figure out how many plays we have in our repertoire, and if I reckon with three premieres a year that means 150 premieres in 50 years, so in 53 years, maybe we’ve done 160 plays. And since we only do our own work, it was up to me to write all of them!.”

The tireless, 80-year-old comedy theatre extraordinaire Jiří Suchý, who founded the famous Theatre on the Balustrade in 1958, and Semafor (“traffic light”) a year later.

'Where Did Valerie Go?',  photo: Dušan Dostál/Semafor
Semafor is not your everyday theatre. Most of its classic productions are neither dramas nor musicals. Comedy, song and dance, absurdity and a love for lovely ladies – essentially in that order – are the central features of a Semafor production. But it’s not just cabaret either. Originally an acronym for “SEdm MAlých FORem” (“seven little formats”), the name Semafor (aside from the stoplight meaning) refers to the original intention of presenting seven forms of performance art: film, poetry, jazz, puppetry, dance, fine art and cabaret. That grand scheme was abandoned after a few seasons due to the excessive demands it put on the actors, but “Where Did Valerie Go?” shows there are still lots of invention, as well as new demands on actors.

Bouquet,  photo: Semafor
“I always want to surprise the public with something new. Sometimes we have a play with three people, sometimes with 25. Sometimes the theme is Erben’s Bouquet, sometimes it’s a chamber comedy, but I want to do something different every time. And this time I was thinking that we have too little physical exertion. So I thought up a play around an institute for hyperactive individuals who get on other people’s nerves. So for that purpose we had the actors trained in acrobatics and took on some especially competent people.”

And so it is that Where Did Valerie Go begins with actors flying around the stage and bouncing off the walls as they sing and dance and speak – but mind you, there’s no playing in a proper Semafor play.

“They’re not plays, in the strict sense of the word. I would fail as a dramatist, because of everything I’ve written, no one ever cares about the story. They like the songs, the fun, the humour and we keep them entertained with those things. Our visitors never care how the hero ends up, or how the bad guy is punished – they laugh at both of them, and in Semafor the humour is a substitute for drama.”

Jiří Suchý | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio
The reason why Semafor is such a different kind of theatre emerges entirely from the personality and predilections of Jiří Suchý, and at least in part from the way he started out in the 1950s, basically just a kid who was dying to get on stage.

“I was a complete ‘anti-talent’, starting out. That’s not modesty, it’s the holy truth – an amateur theatre group even asked me to stop coming after a few rehearsals. But I longed to act on stage, so I started a theatre of my own that I couldn’t get kicked out of. And gradually I got better, so I don’t collide with the other actors on the stage anymore and can be understood when I speak. But it’s not acting, in the strict sense. When I got the Thálie award [the highest accolade for theatre acting], I said in my speech that I am a very problematic actor, as I can only play myself, and no other role.”

Hope then for those who yearn to act but haven’t the knack. Today, the name Jiří Suchý is rarely spoken without a superlative before it, and no one can doubt the incredible mark that he and his theatres have left on theatre production in Central Europe. Next to the great man is also a great woman, one who has been with Semafor since 1970, who young Czechs know from childhood thanks to her many television roles for children and who has earned the highest accolades in ‘serious’ drama as well, Jitka Molavcová:

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Even in my childhood I wanted to be an actress. When they said ‘What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl’, I would say ‘If I can’t be an actress then I don’t care’. Fate was kind enough to let me become an actress here in Semafor, where Mr Suchý and Jiří Šlitr had invented this blend of music, comedy and poetry. And if I had not dropped anchor in Semafor, then I would have looked for that combination of music, comedy and poetry elsewhere. Mr Suchý has never left this path, it fascinates me, I help him with it, and I think I’ve stayed because we believe in each other. He believes in me as an actress and I in him as a writer. We’ve walked this path now for 43 years, and we hope we’ll continue for another 50.”

Today Semafor, like theatres all over Europe, is contending with a financial crisis. Specifically that means a lack of four million crowns that it needs to survive. Prominent plays like ‘The Bouquet’, and ‘Lysistrata’ has to be discontinued because of their huge casts, and Jiří Suchý is now writing plays for three instead of 23. Every visitor, he says, is now a sponsor. But as Jitka Molavcová holds, more than money or anything else it’s Suchý who makes Semafor what it is.

“If Mr Suchý ever gets bored of writing and acting, there won’t be any Semafor anymore. But maybe new, young artists will come about and make their own theatre that draws on Semafor. Just like Suchý and Šlitr were influenced by the Prague Free Theatre and by Voskovec, Werich and Jaroslav Ježek and founded the Semafor theatre, there will be others who were influenced by us. I believe there are very many talented, young people who are on the same wave as we are and have the humour inside them, and I keep my fingers crossed for them.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 22, 2012.