Czech theatre is best known for such outstanding figures as playwright Václav Havel, directors Otomar Krejča and Alfréd Radok, and scenic designer Josef Svoboda, and for its puppet theatre, tradition of scenic design, its technological primacy in the field of black-light theatre, and its young generation of artists pursuing interdisciplinary projects and experimental theatre. Czech opera, located in between the genres of theatre and music, is represented by internationally renowned composers Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, and Bohuslav Martinů.

There are a number of firsts that Czech theatre can boast: in 1929 the was founded in Prague as one of the first international professional theatre organisations; in 1952 the Department of Puppet Theatre at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy for Performing Arts was opened and was the first university-level puppetry institute in the world; and the , the largest showcase of scenic and performance space design in the world, has been organised in Prague since 1967.

The Past

Theatre has a long history in the Czech lands and there are numerous surviving records and monuments as evidence of this. School theatre was introduced by Jan Amos Komenský, who incorporated theatre into his revolutionary system of education, and by the Jesuits, who were among the most active promoters of Catholic Baroque theatre. Court and aristocratic theatre was another important area of activity, a product of which is the Baroque theatre in Český Krumlov, an important monument of theatre and architecture. The Royal National Theatre of Count Nostitz (today the Estates Theatre) opened in 1783 in Prague and was the site of many important theatrical events, including premieres of operas by Mozart.

Because the Czech kingdom was part of the Austrian Monarchy from the 17th century, most performances during that period were in German. The development of new Czech theatre was closely linked to the Czech National Revival in the 19th century. In 1883, the National Theatre opened. The construction of the theatre building itself was mostly financed by taking up a collection amongst the national population, and the opening of this stage marked the culmination of efforts to establish a Czech and a Czech-language repertoire.

Czechoslovakia became an independent state in 1918, and the interwar period saw the emergence of modernist theatre, a form particularly associated with the work of two directors, Jaroslav Kvapil and Karel Hugo Hilar, and with the early work of Czech playwright Karel Čapek. Czech theatre was strongly influenced by avant-garde directors Emil František Burian, Jindřich Honzl and Jiří Frejka.

The February coup in 1948 had a devastating impact on Czech culture and society, but the 1960s were exceptionally good years for Czech theatre. The small stages typical for this period became launching pads for Jan Grossman, an important stage director, and for playwright Václav Havel. The National Theatre also managed to thrive in these years, and was where great Czech directors Otomar Krejča and Alfréd Radok and renowned scenic designer Josef Svoboda worked in the late 1950s. Radok and Svoboda established the world-renowned Laterna Magika. The ‘Golden Sixties’ however ended with the onset of Normalisation after the 1968 putsch, which marked a return to censorship and repression.

Since 1989, Czech theatre – like Czech society – has undergone a profound systemic and financial transformation and has seen the rise of a new generation of theatre artists.

The Present

The rich history of Czech theatre and its great variety of forms make it one of the most important parts of the country’s arts scene and the life of society. As well as creating productions geared towards local audiences, many theatre companies are involved in international collaborative projects (e.g. guest performances, co-productions, arts residencies, membership in networks); in this respect, it warrants recalling that some professional organisations registered with UNESCO that were established in former Czechoslovakia are still functioning today, such as UNIMA (International Puppeteers Union, 1929), ITI (International Theatre Institute, 1948), and OISTAT (International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians, 1969).

The country has a dense network of theatres across every region and includes institutional stages  (''brick-and-mortar theatres") with permanent companies, private theatres, seasonal theatres (stagione system), and independent ensembles, some with their own home stage, and others without one. The only theatre that is a state institution is the National Theatre (Národní divadlo). While the ‘brick-and-mortar’ theatres originated earlier and are currently run under local municipal or regional authorities, private and independent theatres are a phenomenon that has been on the rise since the socio-political transformation started by the revolution in 1989. The most important centre for theatre is the national capital of Prague, followed by Brno and Ostrava. In the Czech Republic there are 13 theatres that are home to more than one company (usually a combination of a drama, an opera, and a ballet or operetta company), 8 institutional puppet theatres, and a whole range of institutional and independent theatres and theatre companies, which are primarily devoted to drama, puppet, or experimental theatre.  

Top drama stages in Prague today include Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zábradlí), Dejvice Theatre (Dejvické divadlo) and Theatre in Dlouhá Street (Divadlo v Dlouhé). Modern-day Czech and international drama have long been the focus of stages such as the Heroes Studio in Prague (Studio hrdinů), Petr Bezruč Theatre in Ostrava (Divadlo Petra Bezruče), HaDivadlo in Brno, and the Drama Club in Ústí nad Labem (Činoherní klub). Some of the contemporary Czech playwrights whose work is performed most are David Drábek, Petr Zelenka, and Petr Kolečko, and the biggest prizewinning stage directors in recent years are Jan Mikulášek, Miroslav Krobot, Hana Burešová, Daniel Špinar, and Jiří Havelka.  

Top puppet theatres in the country include the institutional stages Drak Theatre (Divadlo Drak) in Hradec Králové, Alfa Theatre (Divadlo Alfa) in Pilsen, and Naïve Theatre (Naivní divadlo) in Liberec, and the independently run Forman Brothers’ Theatre (Divadlo bratří Formanů), Continuo Theatre (Divadlo Continuo), and Buns and Puppets (Buchty a loutky).

Experimental theatre is the focus of such stages as Archa Theatre (specialising in social theatre), Ponec Theatre (centred on physical and dance theatre), Alfred ve dvoře Theatre (multimedia, physical, and acoustic theatre), Roxy Experimental Space / NoD, Studio Alta (dance theatre), Jatka 78 (new circus). Ensembles prominently engaged in these trends include Spitfire Company, Handa Gote Research & Development, Bocal Loca Lab, Farm in a Cave (Farma v jeskyni), Cirk La Putyka.

There are also a number of major festivals in the country, such as the International Festival Theatre in Pilsen, the International Festival – Theatre of European Regions in Hradec Králové, and Flora Theatre Festival in Olomouc. Current work in the field of Czech independent and experimental theatre is showcased at the Small Inventory Festival in Prague, and the main puppetry festivals are Skupa’s Pilsen, Spectaculo interesse in Ostrava, and Mateřinka Festival (specialising in work for children between the ages of 3 and 7) in Liberec. Showcases of musical theatre include the Opera Festival of Theatre and Music in Prague, Janáček Brno International Festival, and Smetana’s Litomyšl International Festival. The biggest event in the world focusing on scenic and performance space design is the Prague Quadrennial.

The main theatre awards are the Alfréd Radok Awards, based on a poll of Czech critics (multiple categories of awards), and the Theatre News poll (which announces an award for production of the year). The prestigious Thalia Awards are handed out by the Association of Actors to recognise achieve in various categories. A number of Czech theatre festivals also announce their own awards and prizes.

Author: Martina Černá, Theatre Institute
Editor: Lucie Ševčíková, Arts Institute