Czech Republic’s Drive-In Drama Theater

When the coronavirus pandemic disallowed theater companies from performing onstage in the Czech Republic, a theater actor decided to host a drive-in drama theater.

Karel Kratochvil, an actor with a children’s theater company, couldn’t stand to see the repercussions the lockdown was having on cultural life, including his own productions, reported The New York Times. Kratochvil felt a duty towards people’s emotional well being- “To me, an actor is not a job, it’s something higher,” said Kratochvil. “It means taking some responsibility for society.” Hence the actor put on a one-man show, orating literary excerpts from a small moored boat under a medieval footbridge in central Prague but when only one person showed up for the performance, he decided to think anew.

Karel Kratochvil— the actor who came up with the idea of Art Parking. Copyright image by The New York Times

In late March, the actor began toying with the concepts of drive-in plays and drive-in cinemas, both of which have been a hit with attendees the world over. He furthered this conceptualization by founding Art Parking – a festival featuring both a drive-in theater and a drive-in cinema. Kratochvil invited several theaters to participate, including small independent groups, to the state-funded National Theater. The festival also hosted performances from folk singers and classical violinists, rock guitarists, and chanson singers. By the end of May, around 11,000 attendees had seen 28 performances.

Cars lined up to watch the drama performance at the Art Parking festival. Copyright image by The New York Times

The Czech Republic had enforced stricter restrictions than most European countries to minimize the effects of the pandemic. This subsequently made the country a specimen for how arts and culture can adapt to a situation as unforeseen and debilitating as social distancing. Art Parking, held at a parking lot in Prague’s vegetable market, is just one example, where, to avoid restrictions on public gatherings, people watched plays, concerts, and comedy from behind the wheel. It was just one of the many drive-in programs Europe saw during the lockdown including Germany’s drive-in disco, Lithuania’s drive-in movie theater, and drive-in Sunday churches. However, the quick proliferation of the trend suggested that they could become a common feature of society, at least until the coronavirus has been eliminated.

But these programs have both cultural and environmental implications – Attendees informed that the drive-in theater sometimes felt more like a traffic jam than a drama theater. Instead of applauds, horns were being honked. To hear the actors, attendees had to hook their car speakers to a portable radio provided by the organizers.

Prominent Czech theater critic Marie Reslova also drove in to witness the scene. Before the lockdown, she used to watch three to four plays in person every week and during the lockdown, she could only see theater on the internet. “I don’t have to watch this online!” she exclaimed to Patrick Kingsley of The New York Times. Amongst the attendees was also a photographer, David Konecny, who had snuck-in on foot and stood at the back, delighted that there was something to watch but wondered how the performers would elicit the sense of shared experience which he felt was so central to live theater. Otherwise, the photographer feared that it was “just people in their cars, sitting in their bubbles.”

Critic Marie Reslova in conversation with Patrick Kingsley. Copyright image by The New York Times

However, for the actors, the experience was the ‘exhilaration’ of performing again after a long hiatus mixed with ‘eeriness’. Peter Vancura, one of the performers, said that he felt nervous stepping onstage, where he was confronted by hoods of cars instead of people’s faces with frowns. But then he could make out people’s expressions through the windshields and even see their smiles. “It’s not so bad!” the actor said backstage. “Not so unconnected.” Before the first performance of the festival, the artists didn’t know if they would need to speak or sing through protective masks since they were working in public. At the last moment, the singer decided to go on without them and when the police didn’t intervene, a precedent was set.

For comic playwright Tomas Dianiska, who performed his own play in the festival, his show had been an important human experience but something he hoped will not be needed to be repeated any time soon. “We came to the stage, and said ‘hello’ to these cars,” informed Dianiska. They were “using klaxons instead of laughing.” He added that to him, it was “better than nothing.”

Workers from the National Theater preparing the set for the bad weather. Copyright image by The New York Times.

According to Kratochvil, the artistic quality of the festival varied. He also added that the goal was to keep the cultural world ticking and keep human interaction alive instead of aiming for a virtual world. “My thought was : We have to show how living art will never die,” he said. When the lockdown eased in the Czech Republic after the festival ended, Kratochvil said, “There’s no more need for this, and I’m glad about that.”

The month-long program ended with a variety act by the National Theater, which was attended by theater critic Marie Reslova. It seemed that Reslova had driven off disappointed. “Terrible”, had shouted her companion while they left the parking lot after the performance ended. Reslova later emailed to clarify that while she had appreciated the concept of the festival itself, she hadn’t enjoyed the National Theater’s variety show as much. This might be because smaller theater groups had performed entire plays while the National Theater opted to perform a mismatched collection of excerpts from various different plays- from Faust to Oedipus- and they hadn’t really jelled well together, reckoned the critic.

Actors from the National Theater pictured preparing for their performance. Copyright image by The New York Times.

On the other hand, several attendees were just happy to have been among other people at a cultural event. However, one of the attendees shared that there was just one problem – all the honking had drained his car battery.





Feature Image Via Canva

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