Black Light Theatre

Clowns, Venus and original sin: Myla Arumugam looks at a Prague performance style that blends tradition and tourist trap

The announcement asks the audience members to silence all cell phones and take their seats. The play is about to begin. The announcement is in only three languages: English, Spanish and Hebrew.

In a country as proud of its heritage and language as the Czech Republic, the lack of Czech translation can only mean one thing. A tourist trap.

Black light theatre is not all new. It dates back centuries, to ancient Chinese black cabinet performances, which used light and the contrast of black and white to create visual tricks. But the "Czech tradition" of black light theatre is more recent.

Since 1989, black light theatres have popped up around the Old and New Towns. Performances are held every night, with offices selling tickets on what seems like every other block in the center of Prague.

Solicitors hand out pamphlets in the street in front of the Astronomical Clock and on the way from Old Town Square to Wenceslas Square. Hardly surprising; Prague's five million visitors each year make it Europe's sixth most popular place to visit.

The first black light theatre, in what was then Czechoslovakia, was created in 1959 by Jiří Srnec, after he was inspired by black cabinet show in Brno.

He originally called it the Black Theatre of Jiří Srnec, but later decided to add the word "light" to avoid any racial connotations. In a Prague Post interview, Srnec recalled an American tourist asking him, "How come you have five black theatres in Prague when we're lucky to have just one in Detroit?"

The many black light theatres of Prague, and imitators of Srnec -- including his ex-wife -- have been popular since the Velvet Revolution. There are 13 black light theatres in a city of 1.2 million people, and over 60 traditional theatres.

The better known ones include the second oldest, the Image Theatre, and Ta Fantastika located across the street from the Charles Bridge. Even the state-owned Národní divadlo (National Theatre) has capitalized on the black light tourist craze by establishing Laterna Magika.

The shows are a wordless interpretive dance under black (ultraviolet) light, which illuminates the actors' specially dyed costumes.

The plots range from epic to fairytale, and sometimes both.

In a current show, two clowns pursue the goddess, Venus. "The theatre has the unique privilege of presenting the whole of a lifetime in a single night," according to the Laterna Magika website.

Laterna Magika boasts Josef Svoboda as its director. The critically acclaimed, internationally known stage designer and director brought Czech theatre to international prominence. His innovative and sophisticated use of light and abstract stage metaphors in the 1950s and 1960s influenced black light theatres ever since.

Although Laterna Magika is a specific niche, theatre in general is a critical component of Czech cultural identity.

It's no coincidence that Václav Havel, the first post-Communist president, is a playwright along with many other dissidents.

When tourists started flocking to Prague after the fall of Communism, local entrepreneurs adapted the world-renowned Czech theatrical traditions to foreign tastes. Josef Svoboda's light tricks and the centuries-old craft of puppeteers and marionette-making became a hit with visitors.

While Srnec and Svoboda may have begun the Czech black light theatres as an innovative form of expression, today the black light theatres are only after one thing: tourists' money.

"It's become a complete rip-off," said New York University in Prague theatre professor David Peimer. "It's a parasite [on] Czech traditions and thrown into a fruit salad of kitsch for tourist consumption." Peimer defines kitsch as something meaningful to a culture that's then bastardized into something meaningless.

"There's the image of the tourist before they come, and then the reality of when they leave, with a huge gap in between," said Peimer. When he came to Prague seven years ago, he had heard of this "typical Czech" form of theatre and was lured by the black light performance of Don Giovanni. He was disappointed in what he saw.

"We were trying to do something classic and local, and the opera was shot down [as an option]," said 20-year-old student Sydney McGrane, who went with her parents and brother to Rock Therapy, a medley of Beatles songs with psychedelic scenery, at the Animato theatre.

"So I convinced them black light theatre was this fabulous, unique theatre experience inherent to Prague and totally worth the 25-buck tickets. Guidebooks had said it was a 'Czech thing', we wanted to try something different," she added. "It was such a waste."

While many black light theatregoers emerge disappointed, the theatres do have something to offer tourists. Aside from the perception that they are an important part of Czech history and culture, they are completely non-verbal, visual spectacles. They play off of popular literature and music to woo the audience into a comfort zone they would not otherwise have. Even if you can't immediately get into the visual insanity, the music is still the same.

The non-verbal feature is especially important. Only a few million people outside of the Czech Republic speak Czech, and it is impractical for the actors to perform in another language.

The other important aspect is the visual spectacle. It captures audience attention with disembodied hands, flying inanimate objects and bright colors.

The show at the WOW theatre even incorporates giant spiders that spew paint at audience members. The audience is a part of the show until they step out into white light and the paint is no longer visible.

"I was hoping for a workout of my imagination," said Kyle Kolb, a 20-year-old student from Southern California. "Instead I got an hour-and-a-half of poor effects, confusing nudity, and a desire for an enforced minimum of hallucinogens to be taken beforehand."

Not every tourist feels the same. Elizabeth Pauker, 19, a student at Brandeis University, saw Ta Fantastika's Aspects of Alice and said black light theatre was something she had to experience because it seemed such a part of Prague, like marionettes.

"Overall I had a good experience, and if nothing else, it's something to look back on and laugh about with my friends," she said. "But I do think it is a bit of a scam for tourists, and the shows are definitely overpriced."

She related a story in which her cousin paid for a less-than-third-rate performance in the back of a bar, with plastic folding chairs for the audience.

Both Kolb and Pauker went to Aspects of Alice, one of the more widely known black light shows. The tickets were $25 (500 CZK) for students while the regular show price runs you an extra $12 (150 CZK). The show -- which is supposed to be about an adult Alice, from Lewis Carroll's classic novels, traipsing about Prague -- had more apparent religious undertones than hints of the original plot.

The play began with a metaphorical crucifixion behind a black transparent screen. The priest-like figure continued to play an important role throughout the performance, marrying Alice, who by the second act was completely nude.

The only remnants of the original Alice novel were two huge puppets, which could possibly have been Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and the final scene, when the two actors playing Alice sat opposing each other, as if in a mirror. (They were completely nude and sitting on a gigantic apple at the time, however, bringing to mind original sin.)

For a tourist interested in getting a taste of Czech culture through theatre, there are always other options.

Get tickets to the National Theatre; recent performances of Giselle sold for 400 CZK ($20).

Or if you're looking for an original Czech performance, non-verbal theatre has been on the rise in the last 10 or 12 years.

Ones to check out include Farma v jeskyni (Farm in the Cave), named for Spanish writer Federico Lorca's family farm, and SKUTR, a show that combines live music, acrobats and physical theatre.

But the temptation of the black light theatre is sometimes too great.

According to Peimer, this is the price of democracy: "Culture is never constant. One should embrace the dynamic collisions and see what comes out, even if it trades on a perception that isn't true. It's just another type of propaganda -- this time from a democracy."

Still, black light theatre is a Czech creation.

"It was made here," said Andrea Varcollerová, a spokeswoman for the WOW black light theatre. Though it attracts mainly tourists, black light theatre has artistic value, she said.

Markéta Chaloupková, a spokeswoman for Czech Tourism, the government tourist organization, agrees. "I would say that in many cases it is a tourist trap," she said. "On the other hand, I have seen performances that are something special."

Some shows are being performed in the United States, she said. "We must preserve the art [of black light] to do this."

Varcollerová said the high volume of tourists at shows is inevitable. "When tourists come to Prague they want to see something very specific. If you open some guide you will always see something about black light theatre."

It's not surprising that the locals of Prague have been trying to capitalize on the hordes of tourists that visit each season.

"So long as they're making money it will be around," said Peimer. "If they would charge 500 crowns (25 USD) to walk across the Charles Bridge, it would be the same."

Myla Arumugam is in her third year at New York University's College of Arts and Sciences, studying Journalism and Politics. She is from Mamaroneck, New York.

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