Independent theater

by Maja Hriešik

Whatever is independent creation within the theater scene of a country, in each country is defined on the basis of different, locally cultural, political and historical activists. In Slovakia, the concept of independent theater is usually interpreted in two ways substantially different from each other, sometimes even mutually exclusive. The first interprets independence as the financial autonomy of theaters (or rather theater groups) from public funds (state, regional authorities, city), placing independence in operation and financing. Independence understood in this way does not mean that civic associations with high artistic ambitions with no access to any theater building may occur in the same category beside commercial entities, which their resources or facilities obtain from commercial sponsors and from sales profits, which in Slovak conditions foresees a more commercial, sometimes tabloid character of repertoire. This cast doubts on the “independence” as such, since independent civil associations are dependent on grants (on national or international subsidy claims, on their terms and conditions), while commercial entities are dependent on the good graces of the audience, who often adapts to their likings.
The second manner of interpreting the concept of independent theater in Slovakia is the assessment of the artistic ambitions of the creators, which is the basis for the assessment of independence. The independent theater is placed in opposition to the stable “stone” theater – a theater that still has a stage, ensemble, which uses traditional staging procedures in its work. Independence is conditional on finding new content and approaches, in working with form, often swaggering towards multi-genderism and a non-traditional means of communication with the audience. Understood in this manner the concept partly overlaps with what is known abroad as alternative, avant-garde theater. In Slovakia this tends to also include community theater projects.
For the mentioned inconvenience with the terminology, the term “independent creations” began to replace the term “non-establishment culture”. This term better represents the character of the creation arising from the state’s initiative of the non-established entities, also often outside official theater buildings, with an effort to promptly respond to the actual issues of social life, or to break away from a highly acclaimed artistic practice. Non-establishment culture does not exclude a certain dependence on financial subsidies (national or international), which also has positive and negative consequences. On the one hand it is characterized by diversity and on the other hand temporality. Even renowned, critically acclaimed entities, in the absence of multi-annual grants, are forced to re-justify their existence and annually apply for grants for specific projects. This factor greatly affects creation itself – chronically lacking a sense of continuity and stability. It drives out many creators abroad with the prospect of better, more stable conditions or to more commercial work, but on the other hand, inspires uncommon, often much more imaginative solutions and deeper reflection by creators of artistic intent.
While within official and regular funding for theatrical creations in stable opera, drama and ballet ensembles as well as dramaturgy has to much more maintain a pre-established schedule and clearly defined financial framework and fields of action, because they cannot afford to wing it, independent theater is complicated, “not able to strictly define” a department with varied genres, where there is often the equal co-existence and co-production of artists and experts from various branches or professionals cooperating with amateurs. The production itself takes place in modest (often inadequate) spatial conditions, with the need to minimize costs and ensure the storability of theatrical components to increase the mobility of the group. These external factors also subsequently form an artistic language and a statement in itself, encouraging practices that intentionally ignore common solutions as well as relations towards theater architecture or the theater audience.