Brief history of the Studio Ypsilon Theatre
The Studio Ypsilon Theatre is one of the leading theatre companies with a major mark in history, development, and current shape of the Czech theatre.
The Studio Ypsilon Theatre (informally known as “Ypsilonka”) was established in Liberec in 1963. Today, it is one of the leading Czech theatre companies with a major mark in the history, development, and the current shape of the Czech theatre. It is a legend in the heart of Prague. Although the authors’ theatre has recently celebrated its fifty-seventh anniversary, it does not seem to age. It is a theatre with its distinctive poetics proven in time and labelled as “uniquely Czech” by foreign reviewers.
Since its establishment, Ypsilon has applied a systematically developed creative method of group improvisation. Improvisation is used as an open way of perceiving the world and an opportunity for adding often diverse initiatives of all producers and members of the theatre company throughout all stages of the creative process. The theatre fosters a playful principle and deliberately works with directed chance, unfinishedness and indeterminacy, as well as acting fluidly shifting between the depicted character and the actor’s own self. The work is organised as a dynamic structure: open and moving. Key prerequisite for everybody on the stage: being able to participate in a continuously changing entity.
Initial concept: theatre as a cultivated garden, as a live and diversely structured entity controlled by natural principles and the rules of life, existence, and growth, similarly to the nature. Therefore: the theatre is organic matter giving rise to the unmistakable style of Studio Ypsilon with a concept driven from the beginning by Jan Schmid’s personality (the founder, director, author, visual artist, literary manager, and actor). His elementary metaphoric way of perceiving and thinking is characterised by the notion of inconclusiveness of all things occurring repeatedly in the state of inception and thus giving rise to a constant contradiction in the world perceived again and again in new contexts as well as transversally, while always discovering aspects common to all.
Additional characteristics that keep contributing to the definition of the theatre’s personality and character: synthesis, expression, communicativeness, authenticity, and humour. Humour is omnipresent, always liberating and helping one to stay on top of things. While visuality is the cornerstone of the theatrical work at Ypsilon, music also plays a major role. It is produced live on stage with a methodical and comprehensive approach: it is part of the work as a whole, i.e. in equality to and cooperation with other expressive elements of the theatrical work. And the extra specific: orientation noticeable at the first sight, typically playful visual image created for Studio Ypsilon by Schmid from the very start.
Numerous major artists have taken part in or continue to be associated with Ypsilon in some manner: these include (not only) actors, such as Karel Novák, Zuzana Schmidová, Jitka Nováková, Miloš Bílek, Eva Zapletalová, Bohuslav Maršík, Vojtěch Ron, Jan Vala, Dagmar Bláhová, Josef Fučík, Martin Kadeřávek, Luděk Sobota, Petr Popelka, Bronislav Poloczek, Marie Durnová, Rostislav Novák, Pavel Havránek, Jiří Wimmer, Petr Kratochvíl, Ada Kohuth, Julek Neumann, Ondřej Havelka, Oldřich Kaiser, Nika Brettschneiderová, Jan Panenka, Milada (Janderová) Kratochvílová, Ladislav Gerendáš, Miloš Nesvadba, Vlastimil Peška, Světlana Nálepková, Kateřina Lírová, Miroslav Vladyka, Luboš Zajíček, Luba Skořepová, Jiří Schmitzer, Vladimír Kratina, Ivana Chýlková, Lenka Termerová, Jan Vondráček, Jana Sováková, Martin Myšička, Jan Stříbrný, Jiří Laštovka, Lenka Novotná, Jitka Schneiderová, Vendulka Kafková, Josef Zíma, Mikuláš Čížek, Barbora Vyskočilová and many others, as well as the theatrical reviewer, theorist and literary manager Zdeněk Hořínek or the art historian Bohumil Nuska.
Scenic designers that should be mentioned here include Jaroslav Malina and Miroslav Melena, as well as Jan Schmid, also Vratislav Habr, Pavel Nešleha, Helena Anýžová, Jiří Benda, Irena Greifová, Šárka Havlíčková, Jana Břežková, Mona Hafsahl, Jana Sováková, Vladimír Němeček, Petra Goldflamová Štětinová, Jan Bažant, Maxim Velčovský, Nikola Tempír, Karel Čapek, etc., (people cooperating with the studio on its graphics included Adam Hoffmeister, Bohumil Franc, and currently Vladimír Vimr). Ondřej Zicha has been the theatre’s own scenic designer since 2016.
Besides Karel Novák and Miroslav Kořínek, the musical part of Studio Ypsilon’s production has attracted over time Marek Eben, Vladimír Kratina, Jiří Schmitzer, Jan Jiráň, Dominik Renč, Jiří Bulis, Svatopluk Jányš, Vratislav Šrámek, Ľubica Salamon-Čekovská, Zdeněk Dočekal and others.
From play Swing Returns or About Happiness (2016)
The principle of fostering the feeling for credibility and attempting to be ahead of the time applies to this day.
Awakening or Big Bang
The ongoing development of Studio Ypsilon can be divided into several major developmental stages, including an important preliminary phase before the foundation in 1963, during which Studio Ypsilon operated for several years as a free association without a name, occasionally performing various, mainly private improvised theatrical events at random places of the Czech Republic, often in Prague but mainly in North Bohemia.
The initial phase of Studio Ypsilon’s existence called AWAKENING or BIG BANG covers the period from 1963 to 1968, during which several titles written by the theatre’s own authors were performed. The first production of Studio Ypsilon was Encyclopaedic Entry 20th Century (1964, 1965), formally an entirely shocking two-part performance characterised as metaphoric non-fiction theatre.
Carmen not only according to Bizet (1966), another exceptional piece with a typical way of thinking and creating involving cut and montage, marked the beginning of the musical and opera dramaturgic series of Studio Ypsilon. Evald Schorm recorded this performance in a medium-length film of the same name during the disturbed period of 1968.
This was followed by Hořínek’s unpublished pseudo-detective story called The Second Last Case of Leon Clifton (stage by František Tröster; 1967) belonging to another dramaturgic series purposefully developed by Schmid and focusing on impossible-to-stage and forgotten texts. This series included A Visit to the 1889 Fair, a naive play by painter Henri Rousseau – called Le Douanier (the customs officer), which brings exceptional success to Ypsilon at the World Theatre Festival in Nancy (1968) shortly before any travel abroad is to be banned for many years to come.
Happening and tendency toward improvisation during these early stages culminate in the indecent fairy tale Princess Kudrlinda (1966) and The So-called Extra Evening (1966), where the principle of joint self-play was used – general improvisation with songs in numerous variations and often with major guests from the cultural and social life while using Schmid’s “as you go” live stage directing method.
The second developmental phase of Studio Ypsilon called THEATRE-WORLD unfolds approximately between 1969 and 1974. Although the theatre’s existence under the pressure of the totalitarian regime became increasingly difficult, Ypsilon retained the character of a studio (workshop), i.e. a theatre that is as open and communicative as possible under the given circumstances. Major performances staged by the theatre during this period include Schmid’s absurd microplay with an erotically psychoanalytical topic About her, how she… (1969), as well as the unique surreal play Desire Caught by the Tail by Picasso, which was performed at Ypsilon under the title Picasso and his Desire Caught by the Tail (with Picasso’s texts impressively put to music by K. Novák; 1969).
Classical topics staged by the theatre included Don Juan (1970), using the texts by Lorenzo da Ponte and Tirso de Molina, a magical performance seemingly negating the force of gravity. Under the musical series, the studio performed for example Orpheus in the Underworld (1970), La Traviata – Lost (with Camelias) (1972) or Rigoletto! The King Amuses Himself! (1973). Distinctly visual theatre was to be seen in performances such as Jokers (1968), Enchanted Ox (1969) or Petrushka as a Groom, or Petrushka will Win (1970), and exceptionally successful ballet motion comedy on the topic of Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral suite (with live acting interludes).
The encyclopaedic series introduced the musical Evening of Swing, the So-called Extra Evening (1970), as well as the fragmentary staging of the beginning of the theatre avantgarde of the 1920s, Dispatch and Other on Wheels (1972). The performance of the play by Andreyev called Love of One´s Neighbor (1971), about the fate of an individual in the ruthlessness of harsh times also rightfully attracted great attention. Grabbe’s play Jest, Satire, Irony and Deeper Significance (1971) was the beginning of regular directing in Studio Ypsilon for Evald Schorm, whose other productions during this era include Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband (1973) and The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov (1973).
Ghelderode’s drastic The Ballad of the Great Macabre (1973) performed with various means of expression under Schmid’s direction also attracted great attention during these years.
However, Jarry’s Ubu Roi turned out to be a unique production that attracted numerous invitations to various festivals – which, alas, the theatre was not allowed to accept (1974). The theatre continued to foster free creation, such as the live group improvisations called Men’s Party (1971), About the Beauty among the Mammals, which even included several dogs on the stage (1974), Evenings under the Lamp, each involving an interesting guest from various fields (regular events from 1973, for example with the writers Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Vyskočil, Zdeněk Mahler, musicologist Václav Holzknecht, painters Jan Bauch, Vladimír Komárek and artists Jiří Kolář or Adolf Born, runner Emil Zátopek, composer Jan Klusák, conductor Libor Pešek, actors Josef Kemr, Miloš Nedbal, Magda Vašáryová, Oleg Tabakov, film directors František Vláčil, Juraj Herz, Věra Chytilová, minister of foreign affairs Jiří Dienstbier, and singers Eduard Haken, Václav Irmanov, Marta Kubišová, etc.), or Christmas Evenings with the discovery of the Pascha’s Christmas Mass in F major, which has been performed since 1972 up to this day.
The following period from 1974 to 1988 is characterised by change of focus from the Theatre World towards the THEATRE-PERSON, in which the theatre’s work shifted from the former wider encyclopaedic approach towards human exceptionality, uniqueness and depth. The Czech question continues to be developed but this time in a different manner, with the added topic of time and place, power, awkwardness, and geniality and with new focus on the lives and fates of great personalities.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1974), one of the major productions from this period, was the first piece with which Ypsilonka was once again allowed (six years after its premiere) to travel abroad. Other noteworthy pieces included Schmid’s play Thirteen Scents (from the Diary of a Student) (1975) directed by Schorm, and Stelzig the Blacksmith (1975), a play inspired by the baroque laymen’s theatre. The newly translated and somewhat differently interpreted Makbeth (1976), Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1977) with the music by Johann Christoph Pepusch and Kurt Weill, and the scandalous Life and Death of Karel Hynek Mácha (1978) are also worth mentioning. In the meantime, plays such as Vian’s The Empire Builders directed by Jan Kačer (1976, banned soon after) or Radzinski’s Conversations with Socrates directed by Jan Grossman (1977) were staged.
The very risky move of Studio Ypsilon from a regional town to the capital, which happened under extremely hard conditions at the end of 1978 was an event unparalleled in the history of the Czech theatre. Maintaining a theatre during the times of complete political helplessness was beyond belief. Although establishing a position among the Prague theatres was not too difficult for Ypsilon as all its titles had been up to then staged in Prague during regular guest performances, the problems which had previously piled up began to evolve into even greater complications and a subsequent crisis after the move from Liberec.
In Prague, Ypsilon first operated under the name Atelier-Ypsilon as an ensemble of the State Theatrical Studio, and only from 1981, when the new Theatres Act became effective, once again as Studio Ypsilon under the umbrella of Theatre of Jiří Wolker. However, in the same year the theatre hall on Spálená street was closed due to unexpected reconstruction, and the theatre was forced to play outside of Prague and in various theatres in Prague, mostly in the Žižkov Theatre, Reduta, Klicper’s Theatre, Drama Club, Theatre On the Balustrade, Rokoko, Braník Theatre, etc. during the following two and a half years.
In 1984, Studio Ypsilon finally returned into its own, newly reconstructed arena-shaped hall in the Olympic palace (the first functionalist building in Prague designed by architect Jaromír Krejcar in 1927), where since 1990’s the theatre can also use the second, larger hall reconstructed in the original art deco style. Rabelais’ Gargantua the Giant, his Laughter and Life (1979) was the first Prague premiere of Studio Ypsilon (still performed in the Braník Theatre). Following several smaller pieces, the theatre experienced a major breakthrough in Prague with Schmid’s highly improvisational and musical unclassifiable stage piece called Outsider (1981) with a subtitle: Biography of a Famous Man in Quotation Marks or Continuously Interrupted Party, where guest singers Ljuba Hermanová, Vlasta Průchová, Hana Hegerová and Zuzana Burianová performed alternatively in the gold mean of the performance. According to the retrospective view of theatrical reviewers: manifest of the Czech theatrical pre-post-modernism.
The Outsider, which revealed a new staging direction for Ypsilon, was followed by a paraphrase of the buffa opera The Barber of Seville or Bartolo’s Wedding (1981), another exceptionally good outcome of Schmid’s staging principle of “theatrical deconstruction” (adapted musically by Ypsilonka’s own composer and bandmaster M. Kořínek). This was followed by Schmid’s biographical play They are a Good Boy or The Anabasis of Jaroslav Hašek (1983), which was very surprising from the perspective of acting, and, while being incredibly humorous, remains perhaps the deepest psychological piece of Studio Ypsilon to this day. Ypsilon 84 Workshop was a major event in the theatre’s upcoming season, which opened the hall on Spálená street, and which included Radzinski’s play Theatre in the Time of Nero and Seneca (1984). In the same year, Studio Ypsilon contributed to a major stage project called Pathways, which was a manifest interconnection with the theatres Goose on a String Theatre, Hadivadlo and Theatre on the Edge.
Although Ypsilonka continued to enjoy the interest and enthusiasm of its audience, its situation was complicated by repeated bans and complicated approval procedures. Despite this, the theatre managed to stage a number of daring titles, such as the philosophical pamphlet Matthew the Honest (1985), Schmid’s Party (a provocative probe into relationships within a socialistic family in crisis; 1985) or Ghelderode’s modern antidrama Of a Devil who Preached Wonders (1986).
Tynyanov’s The Wax Persona (with songs by M. Eben; 1987) and Erdman’s The Suicide (with music including songs by J. Schmitzer and J. Jiráň and lyrics by J. Synková; 1988) are among the top pieces of the 1980s. These are preceded by a successful collective improvisation Anyway (1987), theatrical and musical improvisation of an unorthodox genre with songs by Ypsilonka members. For several seasons the performances are staged predominantly in the arena with the audience on both sides, in a less frontal arrangement.
The following long and prolific period from 1989 to 2014 called THEATRE-CONTEXTS begins already before the Velvet Revolution with Hořínek’s excellent dramatization of Kafka’s Amerika (1989). It is a cruel performance studying disappointment, disjointedness, false hope, and helplessness but delivers an almost magical experience. After some time, the play became the main source of inspiration for a film by Vladimír Michálek bearing the same name and featuring the same actors in the leading roles (1994).
Before the film was made, Ypsilonka attended the Kafka festival in Korbach, Germany with the play Amerika which did not “pamper” the audience, and at the same time scored great success with the play The Burrow (1991) prepared by Schmid and his students and later included in the repertoire of Studio Ypsilon.
An event preceding this is certainly equally worth of mention: during the upheaved season of 1988–1989, the theatre performed an author’s improvisational gala program in the large hall of the Prague Lucerna Palace entitled Ypsilonka in Lucerna (1989) to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ypsilonka.
In the 1990s, the Studio Ypsilon´s STUDIO began to operate alongside Ypsilon as a specific creative platform combining teaching, study and practical theatre, which led to (besides numerous plays, such as Čujba, 20th Century, Alphabet, Craft Fair, Hymn, Death, Friends, Amála and Lecher, Mr. Nobody, 1203 or I am not Sad, Franz K. is from Prague, In the Seventh Declension and many others) a nonconformist festival Against the Collapse of Creativity, which was followed by the regular Cute Drama Festival with the aim to systematically map the current trends in the young theatre. This has also given rise to the cooperation with the drama school from Toronto – the University of Toronto at Scarborough and the consequent creation of several interesting Czech-Canadian theatre projects (Man and Woman, I and They, Myths that Unite Us, The Art of Living), always under direction and pedagogical leadership of professor Jan Schmid on the Czech side and with dramaturgic cooperation of professor Michal Schonberg on the Canadian side.
Excellent plays by Studio Ypsilon created during this era (still valuable especially due to strong intergenerational links) include, for example, The God (1990) according to Woody Allen, Mozart in Prague (1991), renowned and highly sought-after abroad, after that the theatre was inspired by the film Some Like it Hot and created the “revue” Hot Some Like It (1993) and the Shakespearian improvisation Romeo Tonight, Juliet (1993), Schmitzer’s rock Horror Band (Concert or Dracula, Franken Stein and One Lady) with effective film shots (1995) or The Medusa’s Head (1996) by the pataphysician and trumpet player Boris Vian under Lasica’s direction.
This was followed by Ypsilonka’s original and fresh adaptation of the well-known opera The Bartered Bride (1996), which was repeatedly and successfully staged abroad. It is performed with great success to this day, along with the previous The Medusa’s Head of the subsequent, highly attractive Schwajda’s tragicomic piece The Holy Family (1998) directed by Nvota, which was preceded by Poláček’s Everything for the Company or Father of His Son (1997) or Heart (1997) by Amicis and Goldflam.
After the Noose (1999) by Rustam Ibragimbekov specially translated for Studio Ypsilon (whose successful career worldwide was started by Ypsilonka in the 1970s by daringly staging his The Woman behind the Green Door) and the absurd piece Tomorrow, a Window on the Street by Grumberg (1999), the theatre staged the now iconic Schmid’s play Prague, the City of Hundred Spires, a strikingly branched out portrait of the Czech metropolis revealed in the associative flow of time, which was first performed in 2000 as a tribute to Prague as a European city of culture and continues to be performed to this day.
This was followed by Three Musketeers Coming or Wonderful Men Approaching (2000), created in a light-hearted manner with pure joy of play, Žito the Magician (2001) directed by Bočan, and a highly successful attempt, the long forgotten Hanzelín’s Comet (2002) by Skružný.
After this, Ypsilonka prepared another opera hit, the famous Czech opera about a water nymph and her tragic love for a mortal, Rusalka not only according to Dvořák (2003), which has also been performed ever since. Later, the theatre introduced, for example, Nvota’s The Arbor (2003) according to the dramatic text by Hermann Ungar (staged for the first time in Czech), detective comedy The Real Inspector Hound (2004) by Tom Stoppard directed by Havelka, or the cabaret-style Grape Harvest in Ypsilonka or Operetta Harvest Supper (2005), with various music pieces alternating.
In the drama series, the theatre staged Shaw’s Pygmalion (2006), the unleashed timeless Jarry the Supermale by Havelka (2006) or the interesting experiment The Journey of the Blind Snake in Search of Truth (2007) according to Ladislav Klíma and Franz Böhler.
The Czech premiere of Twain’s play Is He Dead?, performed at Ypsilon under the title Widow Against Her Will (2007), was staged as a great sensation in Ypsilonka. The play From Her Life or Cabaret Draught or Build Your Country and Strengthen Peace, Arnold! (2008) according to Jiří Just, announced as a “collapse back to the 1950s and even deeper” was also noteworthy.
Havelka’s mysterious Drama in a Nutshell, Attempt 2 (2008) also premiered and continues to appear on the stage even today. This was followed by the spectacular Faust and Margarete (2009), an opera by Gounod produced in the typical Ypsilon style with inserted pieces of the composer’s frolicsome biography.
Subsequently, the theatre introduced, for example, Goldflam’s Grandmother Returns (Dichtung und Wahrheit or the Embellished and the True) according to Němcová (2010), the biographical play with snippets of the history entitled T. G. M. or Masaryk between the Past and Present (2010), Holiček’s generational studio play Demo Democracy (2012) played on the small stage, and other plays from the current times written by Schmid: Man on a Branch or Party in the Mountains or the Primitive Communal Place in Bohemia (2012) uncovering the topic of plurality of time, memory, eternity and transience, or Ash Wednesday or Auntie from Halifax (2013) dealing with the topic of Czech emigration.
The theatre also staged the comedy New Flea Circus (Legacy for the Next Generations) by Milan Šotek directed by the author himself (2014).
In line with the principle of asking oneself questions about what is missing in the current times and what we lack despite everything we can do, Studio Ypsilon attempts to adjust the form of theatre in view of the nature of our present times and focus also on other ways of communicating, meeting and interconnecting. The current period called the THEATRE-MUTUALITY began to crystalize approximately from 2015 in reaction to the changing perception of the facts, and this has naturally been reflected also in seeking and selecting new topics and options for addressing these in a creative manner.
The musical series has been significantly enriched by staging Schmid’s play Get Mozart! – Musical Entertainment with a Flute, which is Magic (2015), a play unfolding “under the veil of freemasonry”, which uncovers in amazement things forgotten over time, relativizes pros and cons and builds on heterogeneity of worldview. This allows a quality specific to Ypsilon to emerge: the absence of the restrictions of genres, here even with free movement between opera and jazz. This is also what the Magic Flute is like in Ypsilon.
Arnošt Goldflam returns to Franz Kafka, this time in a different manner, in the play The Metamorphosis or Řehoř has had Enough (Variation on the Topic), in his own adaptation and direction (2015).
The musical and dance series is further developed in the original direction in Schmid’s joyfully spontaneous triptych with inner interconnections. This involves the play Swing Returns or About Happiness (2016), secondly the Variety Show of Fred A. or Catching the Wind (about seeking the Prague roots of Fred Astair choreographed by J. Onder; 2017), and thirdly The Die is Cast or Don Juan and Mainly Tribute to Jaroslav Ježek (2017) on the topic: “Each player individually has to have the rhythm of all others.”
In the series of classic titles, the theatre prepared Kesselring’s famous black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (2018).
The encyclopaedic and quite musical play to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Czech Republic 28th October 1918. Day after Day One Hundred Years Ago (about our History – with the Optics from the Red Seven to the Presence) was created in the same year outside the theatre’s dramaturgic plan as a unique “here and now” event. The play (by the authors Jan Schmid and Jan Kolář) directed by Schmid was only staged once, precisely on the 28th October 2018 in direct broadcast by Czech television from Grégr Hall of the Municipality House, in live events around the table, where the initial laws of the new state were adopted and the independence was cautiously declared. It is good to remember that.
The next already regular title is Feldek’s attractive adaptation of the operetta Mam’zelle Nitouche, Run, Miss Nituš! (2019), this time directed by Peter Oravec.
However, probably the greatest attention is currently being paid to Schmid’s opus, a jubilee performance Spálená 16 (2019), which is a complex, multilayer core play with the attractiveness of the real show uncovering the surprising history of the house and street that have been a home to Studio Ypsilon for so many years. The street that often pushes itself onto the stage itself with a film-like quality. This is a fascinating performance perhaps even offering to an individual lost in our time a manner how to look for himself in the past and thus, hopefully, begin to recognize himself in the chaos of the present. The play is like a river of time showcasing perhaps the greatest number of actors in the history of Ypsilon. Theatre-Mutuality. Theatre that surpasses itself. Theatre as an action debate (even with professional addenda of a real historian present on the stage), partly a teaching space and a symposium using the tactics of performative tractate, all that with a mindful reminder of man’s most fundamental questions.
(English translation Dagmar Cuno Hájkova, Michaela Pietaková)