Spring Weekend: Interview with Slovak playwright Martin Cicvak

The Rehearsal for Truth theater festival introduces SPRING WEEKEND –a series of contemporary European stage readings. Martin Cicvak is the featured Slovak playwright whose work Urn on an Empty Stage will be performed on Sunday May 12 at 3pm.

Martin Čičvák_photoIn Urn on an Empty Stage, Martin Cicvak brilliantly explores the dynamics between authoritative figures and their “victims”, particularly women. Using the Greek myth of Europa, the play attacks the problem of gender equality and the status of women in today’s society. The story begins when three actresses and an opera diva meet on an empty stage. They have come to say their last farewell to a great director whose ashes they have brought with them in an urn.

With him, the women want to bury memories of career highlights along with recollections of the traumas the director caused them. But they are getting stuck in the preparation of the ceremony. They can’t come to an accord about its nature, or even agree about what has been and what is to come. At its heart, the play is a testimony to the complex relationships in the world of theater – the three actresses fight and detest each other, but also find themselves in tender harmony.

Martin Cicvak wrote to us about inspiration for the creation of his work…

What/who was the inspiration for the creation of this play?

My first ambition was to write a touring comedy – simple and easy to pack up – about four actresses and an urn. But the text in itself started to be complicated – my mind started to dig out memories of all the abused women in the world literature and suddenly, an opera singer appeared in the play with all that “philosophizing” agenda. I realized that what I was really about to do was to give the women a weapon to murder that egocentric Creator, who I would give a “working” name Kronos, and to be able to do so every evening they would perform this play. When we are allowed to kill each other in such a ritualistic way, we all feel a big relief for a moment – the women, me and the audience as well. The blueprint of the play is in fact Greek – the play moves towards an explosion.

Why do you think the work aligns strongly with the theme of “Rehearsal for Truth?”

First of all, gender issues: I have, on purpose, exaggerated already paraphrased works of classics to be completely humiliating, to completely disjoint them, because that’s how every actress perceives it – at the end, at every performance, it’s like there must be a total self-denial, a total humiliation (by slapping, yelling or raping). Yet, I am aware, that for the majority of women that I have worked with, the time spent on stage is as much of a reality as reality itself – they don’t pretend – they are present there, so all the humiliation is actually happening and it is being stored inside of them like toxic waste.

After all the productions that I have directed, I began to have an uneasy conscience and therefore wrote this play so that we could redeem ourselves and each other. The political aspect of this play is much more complicated: these women hurt the man because he didn’t let them make the monologue of queen Kristina their own. This specific monologue is of course completely made up. It has absolutely nothing to do with Strindberg’s famous play, it’s fabulated – however, in it, the people are given all of the crown assets and nations are welcomed into “our backyards, our barns”. This is something that is in Europe (and I believe that in America as well) a very sensitive topic, I would even dare to say a neuralgic issue for the society.

The three women don’t allow, out of jealousy, the fourth one to “Welcome the nations into our barns” and they murder the creator of the idea. Hence, they kill the whole idea and the act of “Welcoming” does not happen. The deed does not happen. The issue is at a moot point just like our current society – torn, divided, split into two. One half wants to be open and the other half wants to EXIT.

The role of an artist is not to find the answer to an unsolvable political issue, but to try to form questions in the right way. To purposefully polarize the society in times of lethargy. In the time of crisis, whose basis has always been that “the old” is dead but “the new” doesn’t know how to be born, art should strive to lead the society to some sort of consensus.

What is the core political issue you are grappling with in the play?

In the play, Europe is surrounded by danger – there’s a threat creeping towards her by something from the earth’s core and another threat by something from the ocean. She’s about to be swallowed, raped and punished, just like in the time of Zeus. Of course, anybody can project onto this metaphor their own fears or intuitions: as an author I can assure you that the creeping evil represents xenophobia, it represents growing fascistic tendencies in the society, extremism in any form – the real evil is half education, which is starting to have a very strong voice in our society. Our society is more and more prone to be manipulated by half-truths. The winner is the one who answers the fastest, not the one who needs to pause and think about the question.

But the play as such in not really political. Or rather, originally, it was not its ambition – it wanted to be “as acute as a fire” in Artaud’s words. It’s a parable about the three witches from Macbeth or about the revenge on a father – Kronos – who devoured his own children. To quote the paraphrased Faust from the play – standing there is the Lovelorn lover, the Orphan and the Mother. You see – more of a forest of symbols rather than pure politics. But I don’t want the comedy of it all to get some kind of ludicrous tang of intellectualism with all this talk – all of that is just the seed from which the comedy sprouted. And the plant then has the lightness of Brecht’s “tree called Green”, it flexes under the blasts of wind and storms.

Who are your mentors? Where do you draw inspiration from to create your work?

All around here – I assume over there, too – there is an enormous intellectual and cultural field, eruptive vital creative energy, from which something exceptional, something radiant, is always born, something that influences a whole generation. Europe has myriad of cultural centers. Everywhere, every year, something arises, that pushes the boundaries of the current art – all we need to do is not to be blind and deaf to it. And I’m not speaking only about theater – literature, contemporary music, fine art – I think that we are somehow aware of each other, or rather that we want to be aware of each other, we want to see it all, see ourselves – if it’s in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, Prague, or Budapest, Cracow or Sophia – it’s always extremely important for the others to know what exactly is happening over there; new interpretation, new approach, new unparalleled and never seen theatrical metaphor, etc.

I believe my (and not only my) mentor is the still existing principal of Modernity, that Europe still honors, and even in some sense still stubbornly insists on, for which I love us all. To constantly strive to do things differently, again anew, to surprise, fertilize each other, to never be satisfied with what was already discovered, already seen, already done – to strive to be always inventive. To try to surprise oneself, one’s colleagues and so to inspire them. Not to stagnate – which is possible only if you never return to what you have already done with pride. Theater ages very fast – you start rehearsing and by the opening night, all your new means of expression are old and worn out. And so you search for a new motor, new weapons, new wolf pack. The European thinking is the best mentor.

What is your process when you write your play? Do you write it over a period of time, or in a condensed time frame? How many hours a day do you dedicate to creating your work?

As a director, I am used to rehearsing from 10am to 2pm. I consider that my most creative, most fruitful time. Directing is hard, psycho-physical work – you must be prepared for the rehearsal, well rested, in a good mood. You must artistically mobilize everyone else. You must be full of vital energy and above all, full of unbreakable arguments. The rest of the day, after the rehearsal, all the stuff is already rolling around in your mind on its own. I can cook while that’s happening, play with my children, anything – nothing will leave your head.

In your thoughts, you are a bit unfaithful to your wife with the project, that is being developed. If the rehearsals don’t go smoothly – if things get stuck, or suddenly you realize that there is no synergy – the process swallows you completely and for the family you’re just a silent shadow lost in thoughts. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often.

With writing, it’s the same. For me, ideally from 10am to 2pm which includes all the rituals needed for the kind of concentration that’s necessary for writing: isolation into solitude, into silence. The text starts to write itself, but sometimes it takes hours until the psychological machine is put in motion. I recently finished my first novel. I love to think back and remember the type of concentration when the novel lay itself before me, if I may say it that way. A two-year process during the breaks between directing. At the most, 5 pages a day. A very slow passing of time. It’s where I learned the most about myself. The curve of writing – like Capote says “like the curve of fever” and with it a new “silent push” according to Nabokov.

What is your favorite moment/character in the show?

I am pretty proud of the Queen Kristina monologue – it’s written in blank verse and contains all the fears of our society, all its nightmares. That monologue is the cause of all events in the play.

In her review of the play, one renowned Prague reviewer demanded the name of the translator of Strindberg’s monologue – how come Mr. Čičvák did not credit the translator of that monologue?! Because she had no earthly idea that Strindberg’s play has nothing to do with the monologue, that there is no such monologue in Strindberg’s play at all, that he did not even write the play in blank verse, that it is fake on purpose. The audience, of course, could care less, it does not need to know that. The audience believes that by watching the play, they are also learning something about the history of drama.

I was purposefully paraphrasing each great piece of the world’s classics in a different verse, different style, different language than the original was written in to set up the reviewers. Forget it! They had no idea. The artistic director of one of the theaters where this play is being produced actually wrote the above mentioned reviewer a personal letter where he brings to her attention that all “quoted” works are paraphrased – disjointed and exaggerated from a gender point of view – and that’s why there’s no translator indicated. And she answered: “But the Strindberg is! The whole monologue is taken from Strindberg’s play!” – this is by far, my most favorite moment of the play.

How do you think Vaclav Havel still influences theater creation in Europe?

Václav Havel was a great personality of the world’s history. A personality of such huge philosophical and human scope is not born on this planet every day. For us, he will first and foremost be a man of the highest standards in the culture of politics – culture that the current political scene fully lacks. When we had Václav Havel for a president, we had a humanistic thinker for a president. A president, who was honoring moral principles and was constantly cultivating the society. He did not try to polarize the society as we see it now, he did not need a scandal for his self-realization. All he needed was his intellect and wisdom.

Unfortunately, there are no such politicians nowadays. But his message is immortal: there will always be a handful of Don Quixotes who will believe with their whole being that truth and love will win over lies and hate. Because Don Quixote will constantly reincarnate himself until the end of times.

Martin Cicvak is a native of Kosice, Slovakia. His plays include Frankie is OK, Peggy is Fine and the House is Cool, Agent Sonia, Kukura, and Urn on an Empty Stage. His works have been produced across Europe including at Grace Theater London (under his own direction), Norwich Playhouse, State Theater Kosice (Slovakia), The North Theater in Satu Mare (Romania) and State Theater in Novi Sad (Serbia). Cicvak’s awards include the Alfred Radok Awardfor Talent of the Year (2000) and the most prestigious Slovak theater award Dosky (2004) for Best Direction and Best Production of Schimmelpfennig’s Arabian Night at the Slovak National Theater. From 1999 – 2004 he was the resident director of the National Theater in Brno. In 2000, he started to direct at the Prague theater The Drama ClubCicvak has also directed productions in Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, Ljubljana, and Norwich. He has a Master’s degree in Directing from Janacek Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (JAMU) in Brno, Czech Republic and studied directing at Dartington College of Arts in London on the Erasmus Scholarship.

FREE TICKETS AVAILABLE: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/spring-weekend-urn-on-an-empty-stage-slovakia-tickets-59965285784

All productions for this Spring Weekend are held at the Bohemian National Hall, 321 E. 73rd St., New York, NY, 10021, and have been translated into English. The stage readings and full-length production are free events, and reservations can be made on Eventbrite. After every stage reading and production, there will be talk backs with the artists followed by a small reception hosted by the featured country’s cultural institution.

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