Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic 1994-1997

Organized by The Fund for New Performance/Video, New York in cooperation with the Tolerance Foundation, Prague
1. Background
Theater is a powerful tool that can come to grips with deep-rooted social attitudes not easily influenced by public policy-making. It can act as a forum for the safe exchange of contending ideas and conflicting emotions. It can even give audiences models for accommodation — if not resolution — of perennial conflicts.
In October, 1993 under a grant from the Trust forMutual Understanding to the Drama Division of theJuilliard School, New York, the Fund for NewPerformance/Video organized a visit to the CzechRepublic by the OBIE-Award-winning African-American playwright/performer Robbie McCauley to the Czech Republic.
In Prague McCauley met theater artists and members of the Romany community, and gave a presentation on new developments in African-American theater at the American Center for Culture and Commerce. She was also the guest of Ambassador Adrian Basora and Mrs. Pauline Barnes Basora at a dinner given in her honor at the Ambassador’s Residence.
In Brno she discussed her work with students at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts, visited the Centre of Experimental Theatre, and met with artists and political leaders of the local Romany community.
In the Northern Bohemian towns of Most and Usti nad Labem, she visited Romany ghettos and spoke with community leaders.
Many of McCauley’s conversations in the Czech Republic focused on analogies between the long history of racism and discrimination against blacks in the United States and the far longer, but now increasingly violent, ostracism of Roma in Central Europe. But she emphasized the potential for constructive response to discrimination in theater performances developed from stories about encounters between minority and dominant cultures in local communities.
Czech and Romany interlocutors alike were enthusiastic about the prospect of working with her. All felt that significant steps would be made towards modifying the largely unacknowledged and unrepentant racism of the majority culture if she could return to the region and adapt for local situations her work with ethnically and racially mixed communities in the United States.
The explorations begun with McCauley in Octobercontinued at a seminar entitled Media AgainstIntolerance which the Fund for New Performance/ Video organized in cooperation with Nova Television and the Kafka Society in Prague on December 6, 1993. Romany victims of discrimination and leaders of the Prague Jewish and Vietnamese communities discussed theirexperience with Czech and international newspaper,magazine, radio and television journalists, educators, foundation administrators, and representatives of the Czech government, including the Office of the President, and delegates from Romania.
The first phase of the Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic was underwritten by the United States Information Agency, the Open Society Fund of the Soros Foundations, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Prague, the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, and the New York Times Foundation.
2. Project Activities
a. October 21- November 7, 1994
In October and November, 1994 Robbie McCauley gavethree performance/discussions in Prague of her Sally’s Rape, winner of the 1992 OBIE for Best Play: a dialogue between McCauley and white performer Jeannie Hutchins which reflects upon the story of McCauley’s great-great-grandmother,a slave. A Czech translator played an active role on stage, and facilitated extended bilingual exchanges with audiences. The first two performance/discussions took place at theZizkovske Divadlo and Studio Labyrint, theaterslocated in neighborhoods where large numbers of Roma live, and the third took place in the Kolowrat space at the National Theater.
The Czech Theater Institute provided translations of the text of Sally’s Rape and background material.
The performance/discussions introduced McCauley’s working methods to communities in which there is tension between Czech and Romany residents, and to educational and cultural organizations which are beginning to address the question of social fragmentation.
Media Coverage
The New York Times Foundation’s Center for Independent Journalism hosted a press conference on the Stories Exchange Project on October 24,1994. Representatives of local, national and international media observed and participated in the performance/discussions, and McCauley and Hutchins discussed the project on Czech radio and television and with Romany journalists. Theyalso met with Czech and international journalists who participated in the December, 1993 seminar Media Against Intolerance.
McCauley and Hutchins gave workshops that explored both the genesis of Sally’s Rape and projects in Mississippi, Boston and Los Angeles in which McCauley has worked with residents of ethnically mixed communities to collect stories about intolerance and to develop performance/ discussions based on this material. The workshops took place at the U.S. Embassy’s Center for Culture and Commerce and the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU).
Selection of Core Group Participants/LocalCoordinator, Academic Advisor, Advisors on Community Relations
Following the second workshop, a site-visit toRokycany in Western Bohemia, and further consultation with colleagues (at Prague theaters,arts academies, universities, foundations, and human rights and environmental organizations), McCauley and Fund staff selected a group of seven Czech and Romany theater artists, writers, teachers, and community leaders to play primary roles in the story-gathering and script development phases of the Project.
The local coordinator of core-group activities was the Romanian human rights activist Ina Zoon. She had recently completed a study of the new Czech citizenship law for the Tolerance Foundation in Prague.
The chief academic advisor of the first phase of the Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic was Milena Hubschmannova, founder of the Romany Studies Department at Charles University. Dr. Hubschmannova assisted the core group and the Fund in providing primary research, documentation,and translations. She was assisted in turn by members of her seminar on the Romany language, one of whom is a member of the core group.
Prominent Romany leaders, Karel Holomek, former Member of Parliament from Brno; Bartholomej Daniel, founder of the Museum of Romany Culture in Brno; and Emil Scuka of the International Romany Union, and two members of the Czech Council of Nationalities, Ladislav Goral and Ondrej Gina, facilitated relations with various Romany communities.
Ondrej Gina was also a member of the core group, along with other individuals whose position and reputation helped maximize the influence of the Stories Exchange Project: Ilona Furkova, a Romany writer whose work recently won an international prize awarded in Vienna for outstanding Romany fiction; Jan and Magda Slepcik, a Romany couple who are well known throughout Central Europe for their writing and performances of Romany music.
Observers – both Roma and non-Roma – from Slovakia and Romania took part in all Core Group meetings, public workshops, and working sessions with McCauley and the production team throughout the year-long process.
b. November 15, 1994- April, 1995: Czech Republic and New York
Each member of the core group was responsible forcollecting (in text and on audio tape) stories about relations between Czechs and Roma from their family, friends, and local communities and presenting these stories for discussion by the group. The local coordinator collected the stories at monthly meetings. These meetings were simultaneously translated into English, taped, and all materials were sent for review by McCauley in New York and Fund staff in Boston.
The local coordinator convened the core group sixtimes. In addition to providing opportunities forpresentation and discussion of stories collected,these meetings provided psychological andorganizational support for the story-gathering andscript-development process.
c. February 25- March 3, 1995: Washington, D.C.and New York
At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in a session entitled “The Romany Holocaust: Stories for Survival,” four Czech and Romany members of the core group presented stories of Romany experience during World War II.In Washington, the group also attended performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts of new work by McCauley on theexperience of African-Americans during the McCarthy era. They then met with individuals and agencies concerned with ethnic tension in the former Soviet empire, including members and staff of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the office of the Assistant Secretary of States for Human Rights, John Shattuck, and the United States Information Agency. Ambassador Michael Zantovsky and his wife Kristina hosted areception for the visitors and members of the Washington community at the Embassy of the Czech Republic. The leader of the delegation, Ondrej Gina was interviewed for broadcast by RobertSiegel, producer of All Things Considered at National Public Radio. Selections from the presentation at the Holocaust Museum were broadcast by Voice of America radio throughout the world.
In New York the group gave a presentation similarto the one at the Holocaust Museum, and took partin workshops with a performance group recently formed by McCauley. They also met with theater artists, journalists, and representatives of foundations, human rights and environmental organizations including Human Rights Watch.
d. May, 1995: Prague
McCauley rejoined the full core group in Praguefor two weeks of intensive work on the final script. She also auditioned performers for October, 1995 performance/ discussions based on the stories collected. Several members of the core group prepared to perform in the new piece or do production work on it.
e. September- October, 1995: Czech Republic
With the Fund production team, the core group, and additional local performers and production staff McCauley completed development of the new script and directed three performance/discussions – in Czech and Romanes — for mixed communities in Prague. Invitations were extended to Czech and Romany participants in earlier components of the Project as well as to journalists and broadcasters throughout Europe.
In collaboration with the Prague Center of theInstitute for EastWest Studies the Fund for NewPerformance/Video organized an October workshop”European Partnerships for Inter-Ethnic Dialogue.”Leaders of projects throughout the Czech Republic,Hungary, Ukraine and Romania joined participants in the Stories Exchange Project in discussing andevaluating strategies for increasing cooperationbetween majority and minority citizens in formerCommunist nations.
f. 1994- 1997: Documentation
The Washington-based film- and video-maker GaryGriffin documented all phases of the Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic. Supplemented by print material, including teaching manuals, the edited tapes will enable theater artists, educators, and civic leaders throughout the world to study McCauley’s uses of story-based theater to engage local communities in developing cooperation among ethnic communities.
A half-hour video documentary on the Stories Exchange Project, Czech Republic 1994-1997 is available from The Fund for New Performance/Video, 175 West 73rd Street, New York, NY 10023 USA.
Excerpts from the documentary can be accessed at this site (“Videos”).