ISSN 2451-2966


Jakub Kłeczek

Osvobozené divadlo and Teatr Symultaniczny: Two Unrealised Theatre Projects in Central and Eastern Europe as a Research Subject in Media Archaeology

Design of Liberated Theatre, Prague (1926-1927, unrealised), Josef Chochol. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

Design of Liberated Theatre, Prague (1926-1927, unrealised), Josef Chochol. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

Read Abstract
The purpose of the article is to discuss two unrealised avant-garde designs for theatre buildings: the Josef Chochol and Jiři Frejka project for the company Osvobozené divadlo, and Teatr Symultaniczny, conceived by Szymon Syrkus and Andrzej Pronaszko. As Jakub Kłeczek proposes in the article, these projects can be interpreted today from the point of view of present-day theatre professionals’ interest in new technologies influencing the quality of staging. The method allowing for such an interpretation is media archaeology, devised and applied by scholars including Siegfried Zielinski and Erkki Huhtamo. Media archaeology enables the examination of neglected or forgotten technical developments and artworks. Rather than understanding media history as a sequence of ever-more perfect solutions, media archaeology is mindful of the cyclical emergence of certain characteristics of media. ‘Dream machines’ is Huhtamo’s proposed term for unrealised structures and devices. The term also encompasses forgotten, eccentric works of individuals prevented by unfavourable circumstances from bringing their projects to fruition. In the present article, the author depicts the projects named in the title as examples of dream machines: initiatives aiming to change patterns of communication in performative arts.
Osvobozené divadlo and Teatr Symultaniczny: Two Unrealised Theatre Projects in Central and Eastern Europe as a Research Subject in Media Archaeology

The well-known (and well-researched) Total Theatre, devised by director Erwin Piscator and architect Walter Gropius, wasn’t the only example of a visionary, techno-enthusiastic theatre/architecture project to come into being in avant-garde circles of the 1920s and 1930s. While German-speaking countries comprised the core of the theatre avant-garde, other ‘theatre of the future’ techno-utopias developed in parallel. The work of two pairs of Central and Eastern European professionals with strong links to theatre – architect Josef Chochol and director Jiři Frejka, and architect Szymon Syrkus and stage designer Andrzej Pronaszko – belongs in this category.

Their projects ooze techno-optimism, and are testaments to an urge to renew theatre with the help of new structures and technologies – both of which traits are familiar from contemporary performative arts. In the past few decades, many theatre artists have been driven by their faith in renewing art by means of new technologies. The techno-enthusiastic work of artists and artistic collectives including the Wooster Group, Stelarca and Merce Cunningham, having originated in the latter half of the twentieth century, is historically related to the achievements of the first avant-garde: the work of poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and artists Enrico Prampolini, László Moholy-Nagy and Oskar Schlemmer.1>

As we note the cyclical and lasting nature of such interests, however, we are not destined by fate to think of the latest examples of digital performance as merely perfected versions of the work of modernist theatre artists. In this context, media archaeology comes up with an interesting alternative. Proponents of this method of writing the history of communications technology have not been oblivious to the cognitive advantage of comparing old and new media. Knowing as we do today a good deal more about new media – their uses, their role in art-related communication and the implications they may have – we are able to take a different view of past phenomena, and perhaps examine those more thoroughly.

As the Finnish media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo has argued, a culture-influencing medium doesn’t need to assume any material form; it may be but a concept instead – albeit one that has resonance in society. ‘Dream machines’ is Huhtamo’s term for these kinds of media projects – unrealised but represented in discourse and conceptually effective.2 It seems that Pronaszko and Syrkus’ Teatr Symultaniczny [Simultaneous Theatre] and Chochol and Frejka’s Osvobozené divadlo [Liberated Theatre] can be regarded as theatre dream machines.

Osvobozené divadlo

The term osvobozené divadlo is much better known today than is Chochol and Frejka’s project of the same name, as mentioned in the introduction above. Osvobozené divadlo, or Liberated Theatre, was the name of their avant-garde theatre company in 1920s Prague. Frejka was a member, and a building designed by Chochol was to be the company’s home. Today, that name, Osvobozené divadlo, is more likely to bring to mind performances by actors Jan Werich and Jiři Voskovec, who appeared as a pair of clowns in popular early 1930s shows.3Yet the theatre company Osvobozené divadlo had been launched a decade earlier, as the theatre wing of Devĕtsil, a union for modern culture.

Devĕtsil was a union of 1920s theatre artists, including Chochol and Frejka. The eminent Czech-modernism scholar František Šmejkal called Devĕtsil ‘the ideological centre of the Czech avant-garde’.4More than sixty individuals joined the union, which operated throughout the 1920s. Members’ views evolved over time. Starting in 1922, a left-wing apotheosis of technology and the progress of civilisation, alluded to in the project of Chochol and Frejka, became a prominent strand in Devĕtsil’s activity. Union members were practitioners of a wide variety of art forms; they were influenced by virtually all major trends in the European avant-garde: Dadaism, futurism, surrealism, constructivism, Bauhaus, magic realism, globalism, interculturalism, purism in architecture, new typography, cinema, photography and machine aesthetics. Multiple sources testify to an interest in these trends and developments – among them Disk and ReD, Devĕtsil magazines edited by the writer Karel Teige.

However, as Šmejkal has pointed out, Devĕtsil was informed by two conflicting concepts of avant-garde art: one leant towards poetism while the other showed constructivist affinities. Teige was the first person to distinguish between those two trends within the group.5 As Rostislav Švacha has observed, poetism had been Devĕtsil’s original contribution to the global architectural avant-garde.6 Poetism was informed predominantly by the work, thought and ideas of Baudelaire and Apollinaire – and the concept of magic realism. In architecture, it was thought, the task of poetism was ‘to sing the praises of the metropolitan street, with its cafés, shop windows, advertisements, beaming lights and modern communication’.7 Although he wasn’t a practising architect, Teige madea significant contribution to poetism’s conceptual propositions in architecture; his manifestos outlining ideas of the ‘Magic-City’ and ‘the magic cities of new poetry’8 shaped the imaginations of 1920s artists.

Regard for functionality in art and architecture was another tendency in Devĕtsil’s experiments. Teige, who saw poetism and constructivism as opposites, argued that architecture should be part of science rather than art, and should be based on scientific information and laboratory practise. This outlook was inspired, among others, by Le Corbusier’s thought and by Soviet constructivism – particularly the work of OSA, the Organisation of Contemporary Architects in the USSR.

Devĕstil architecture features elements of both poetism and constructivism, and things are no different when it comes to theatre. In Teige’s view, drama leant towards poetism, while architecture and stage design were closer to constructivism. However, as Šmejkal has observed, the work of Liberated Theatre offers a perfect synthesis of the two movements, in that it references:

theatre-related Soviet constructivism (particularly as represented by Meyerhold and Tairov)in directing and art on stage – while the dramaturgy and lyrical mood of stage productions – full of fantasy and merriment – are a full-blown manifestation of poetism.9

Chochol and Frejka’s unrealised project may be regarded as another attempt to combine constructivism with poetism.

Chochol, the elder of the two, had started his work before the war. He is known particularly for his designs for cubist buildings (including cubist housing in Prague). Because of Chochol’s seniority, Švacha calls him ‘a honorary member of the group’.10 In the Devĕtsil period, Chochol’s interests included purism, the thought of Le Corbusier and – in the late 1920s – Soviet constructivism and industrial architecture in the USSR. This latter fascination is evident in Chochol’s design for the Liberated Theatre headquarters,11 a decisive break with the decorative cubist architecture of the pre-war period, and a turn towards other ideas.

Functionalistic design for Liberated Theatre subordinated space to needs of an avant-garde actor. Josef Chochol&Jiří Frejka, 1925, archive of Jiří Hilmera. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

As for the Liberated Theatre project, Chochol’s work on the design coincided with a period of intense development. The company’s inaugural season was being planned, the acting ensemble was expanding rapidly, and there were plans for an affiliated drama school. Director Jindřich Honzl became managing director of Liberated Theatre (founded in February 1926). Honzl and Frejka had divergent ideas about the direction the new institution should take. Barbara Mytko-Brun has characterised Frejka’s vision as ‘comedic constructivism, his own variation on [Aleksandr] Tairov’s style’,12 tending towards ‘a new kind of comedy, liberated from fantasy, changing rhythms and lyrical précis’.13 In the end, Frejka’s regard for Meyerhold, Tairov and the Dadaists became the stumbling block in his relations with Honzl. In spring 1927, Frejka left the company to start his own [Moderni studio, the Modern Studio]. In the same year, Honzl stepped down as Liberated Theatre’s managing director and stopped directing there, for political reasons. However, actors Jiři Voskovec and Jan Werich kept the company going. They inaugurated a series of variety shows notable for their Dada humour. Werich and Voskovec, as mentioned above, appeared as a pair of clowns, and usually convened the performances.Satire (political satire included) prevailed in their repertoire in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. Liberated Theatre continued intermittently for over a decade (until 1938), but its formula diverged from the ideas put forward by Frejka in the 1920s.

In outlining the backdrop against which the project developed, it should be remembered that in 1926 and 1927, Liberated Theatre had to tackle the prospect of working in substandard conditions: first at the tiny Na Slupi theatre in the Prague district of Nove Mesto, then in the Umĕlecké besedy hall in Mala Strana. Thus the idea for Chochol and Frejka’s theatre building took shape at a time of the group’s rapid development, of Frejka’s intense experimentation – and of inadequate facilities.

The Liberated Theatre building design was presented publicly on 19 May 1926, during the opening of the S.M.K. Devĕstil exhibition.14 Frejka’s contribution – the conceptual premises of the project – was published in Fronta magazine in 1927.15 The design, which we can attempt to reconstruct based on a description written by Frejka, documentation put together by Chochol and academic research on the subject, has several characteristic traits.

At the centre of the design is a circular stage, to be entered via a system of bridges, lifts and passages. The Liberated Theatre building was envisaged as the opposite of the apron stage, as that failed to meet the aspirations of constructivist directors and stage designers. The aim was to design a ‘universal stage’, which would enable the stage set to be changed easily, and the stage to be adjusted to different kinds of performance. Unlike pre-modern theatre architecture, the design was not to cater to ambitions and aspirations of the owners’ class, who wanted theatres stately and grandiose. Instead, both stage and auditorium resembled an arena and weren’t intended to segregate audience members in keeping with divisions in class.16

As Šmejkal has observed, the exterior of the building resembled a transatlantic passenger liner: the model example of mobile architecture and a source of inspiration for a significant number of modernist architects17 (the Schaubühne building in Berlin is an example). A roof lantern on top of the building (perhaps a variation on the lighthouse theme) was one eye-catching feature of Chochol’s drawings and projections, calling to mind artist Zdeňek Pešánek’s light-kinetic experiments.18 A globe above the entrance was another – in reference to ideas of globalism and inter-culturalism, which were very much alive at the time. Modern materials such as glass and steel were to predominate in the building’s structure.

Functionalistic design for Liberated Theatre subordinated space to needs of an avant-garde actor. Josef Chochol&Jiří Frejka, 1925, archive of Jiří Hilmera. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

The building met Devĕtsil’s architectural principles, readily boiled down to the phrase ‘form is subordinate to function’.19 The building interior was to be a ‘free space’. As Švacha has noted, a similar rule ‘is in place in the work of ship and plane makers, and builders of modern American factories’.20 But, as evidenced by designs including the one for Liberated Theatre, architecture as understood by Devĕtsil wasn’t simply about formal imitation of modern technological projects – it was about adherence to the principle that structure was to be strictly goal-oriented. This philosophy of design is reflected in the architect Jaroslav Fragner’s manifesto, composed of catchphrases and showing Devĕtsil artists the way:

Communication, organisation and hygiene of use in projection

Economy of human labour

Light and freedom

Making use of sun and air

Glass – concrete – bricks.21

Looking at the Chochol and Frejka design, we can see that Devĕtsil’s architectural postulations have been satisfied. Had it been built, the theatre building would have enabled stage action to become ergonomic. According to Frejka, the building would have met the needs of the bioergonomic actor.22 The purpose of the multiple-entrance system enabling performers to reach the stage was to influence the organisation of stage movement. The tall, open stage would most likely give technicians a good deal of variety when it came to lighting solutions. We can also envisage the impact of the building on the audience, with its principle of ‘making use of sun and air’ in the vast, open space.23

In Frejka’s view, the new kind of stage would make the dramatic action more dynamic. It would enable him to do the sort of work that was of interest to him, where the stage set would feature moveable items, colourful geometrical figures that were part of the drama. Frejka argued this solution could lead to the actor becoming the object, and an object becoming the subject of a performance. He endeavoured to achieve something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, in his own practice as a theatre professional: constructivism featured prominently in his stage-set solutions, as he alternated between imaginary forms and absurd realism.

Let us now take advantage of the fact that we’re quite conversant in contemporary experiments combining performative arts with media technologies – and use this skill to examine Frejka and Chochol’s project. In Liberated Theatre, at least three concepts can be discerned, recurrent today and developed under the banner of multimedia theatre. These are the use of film projection and perspective as a feature of stage structure; aiming to endow the stage with a universal quality; and making actors’ work more dynamic by introducing mobile solutions in stage sets and architecture.

The stage at Liberated Theatre was to be equipped with state-of-the-art technological equipment, including film projectors. For a theatre production to encompass a film projection wasn’t new at the time. Sergey Eisenstein and Erwin Piscator are but two of many creative professionals who had employed this solution in the early 1920s. But this was also a time when Frejka could but fantasise of possibilities offered by films screened from different projectors at different angles. He was aware that an arena stage would be more suitable for this sort of experiment than its apron counterpart. As Jan Grossman has noted, the Liberated Theatre building would have given Frejka the opportunity of combining film projections and live acting. But in Frejka’s view, film as part of the performance wasn’t to be a stage-set substitute – rather, it was meant to enhance the poetic aspect of theatre work. In this context, Frejka mentioned producing poetic images by engaging in optical experiments and combining the fanciful and synthetic aspects of stage action. Liberated Theatre’s arena-like stage would enable projections to be screened on planes that were angled differently (which meant, for instance, that experiments with anamorphosis would be possible). With these kinds of solutions in place, the audience would be given the opportunity to look at visual material from a multitude of perspectives, making use of the variegated dynamics of ocular sensations.24

However, projections were only one of many means to be available on the Liberated Theatre stage. As Frejka has observed in ‘O univerzálním jevišti’, when they designed the Liberated Theatre building, he and Chochol did not seek to come up with a single-sided or centrally located stage – what they aimed for instead was a universal stage, ‘offering infinite possibilities’. In his short article, Frejka is quite outspoken in his criticism of the apron stage, depicting it as a relic of the Renaissance, poorly adjusted to modern times: to ‘new life, new sensibilities and new art’. In Frejka’s view, it is appropriate that open spaces should be developed not only at the front but also from all possible sides of the theatre building.

Frejka regarded this universal stage as an opportunity to meet the demands of actor-work ergonomy. He notes that, at Liberated Theatre, stage work was to take place not only on the floor, but also throughout the theatre space, including the auditorium. The design included a system of corridors, lifts and floors, all of which would render the dramatic action more dynamic – these very solutions ensured that the building could cater to the needs of the biomechanical actor. For Frejka, this mode of thinking was also a way of blurring the boundary between stage and auditorium.25

Teatr Symultaniczny

Teatr Symultaniczny, or Simultaneous Theatre, would become another unrealised modernist project. The Polish architect–stage designer team of Syrkus and Pronaszko, who had set to work on the project in 1928, were aiming to reject theatre’s naturalist leanings, the tendency to think of stage set in decorative terms – above all, they sought to break with the apron stage, which they saw as obsolete and restrictive. The design for Simultaneous Theatre had been commissioned by Warsaw City Hall; in the end, however, it was never approved for implementation due to the lack of funds. The legacy of this ambitious and utopian project comprises photographs, plans, mock-ups, press coverage, entries in the creators’ diaries and their theoretical writings. Although Simultaneous Theatre was never fully realised, it had some resonance at international exhibitions and in the press.

Gropius and Piscator’s Total Theatre, mentioned above, was a major inspiration for the Warsaw project. Stage designer Pronaszko and architect Syrkus made three important changes to the German concept. The purpose of these adjustments was threefold: to make managing mobile parts of the stage more efficient, to increase actors’ expressiveness and to enable quick set changes. Additionally, Syrkus and Pronaszko proposed three solutions not included in the Total Theatre concept. Two moving conveyor bands were introduced as part of the circular stage: these ‘rings’, as they were known, were to move in both directions (with controllable speeds for the changes). Further, the rake separating actors and audience was removed to ensure that actor–audience member relations became more direct. Finally, the design included an option for parts of the stage set to be rolled underneath the amphitheatre, allowing for immediate set changes during a performance.26

Critics were frequently given to interpreting Simultaneous Theatre as little more than ‘a more modern version of stations known from medieval and Renaissance plays’. However, such readings fail to notice the techno-enthusiastic (and techno-utopian) facet of Sykrus and Pronaszko’s project, a facet distinctly present in their writings. Mindful of this written legacy, I would argue that it’s fair to interpret the team’s project in terms of present-day relations between media technology and theatre. Three themes are noteworthy in this context: Simultaneous Theatre’s affinity with contemporary multimedia,27 with propositions of media art and with Jennifer Parker-Starbuck’s concept of cyborg theatre.28

Design for Andrzej Pronaszko's Simultaneous Theatre, Szymon Syrkus with Zygmunt Leski, 1928. Collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

Which aspects of the Syrkus and Pronaszko project merit our attention when we examine it today? The task of Simultaneous Theatre was to inspire prospective playwrights to write ‘new drama’29 – the kind of writing that would correspond to possibilities offered by modern theatre and its technologies. Syrkus and Pronaszko sought to create a building whose shape would determine literary and staging solutions. Thus their focus was not on so much on producing the content of the work as coming up with media capable of generating or stimulating certain forms30 – much as media artists do today. As Zygmunt Tonecki has noted, Simultaneous Theatre was to be ‘the precursor of new dramatic art’.31 This was a time when members of the avant-garde brought about a radical change of perspective among theatre professionals: those working in theatre were no longer concerned with staging or with producing specific aspects thereof – what they wanted instead was to create a new performative art medium. The proposition doesn’t seem far from what we can observe in the practice of contemporary digital-performance artists.32 Pronaszko wrote about his colleagues in a theatre of the future, where:

voices, characters and lights are set in motion from a cabin, by pressing entire signalling systems. Scheduling for the day is thus completed. [...] It won’t be long now before it becomes evident that the role of an actor is that of a turtle carrying its shell: an enormous costume structure. I’d rather have the gigantophone, as it can speak for the actor; I’d rather have a machine: it can appear instead of him.33

As a stage designer, Pronaszko was therefore guided by the principle of systemic management of an actor’s work and her body. He referenced Edward Gordon Craig’s concept of the super-puppet and the ideas of Russian writer Valery Yakovlevich Briusov, who envisaged people on stage being supplanted by puppets with built-in gramophones, appearing on a stage fitted with spring mechanisms.

Simultaneous Theatre, section, 1928. Collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

Pronaszko’s suggestions for a new kind of onstage subject had been another innovation by the Polish team which seems much more intelligible today. The idea was that Simultaneous Theatre would determine not only literary solutions, but also the work of actors. Pronaszko’s experiments extended into many fields: crucially, these included attempts to merge the physical aspect and that related to scenic art of a piece of theatre with the delivery of actors. Pronaszko was not satisfied with influencing an actor’s expressiveness by visual means, such as ‘costume and decor’. In his view, scenic art and the material aspect of the stage should compel the actor to behave in a prescribed way.34 As we learn from Tonecki’s piece on Simultaneous Theatre, the building was intended to be like a thinking machine: grasping the human being, distorting their equilibrium and dynamising them.35 Today, in the wake of experiments by performers including Stelarc, Marcel·li, Antúnez Roca and Bill Vorn, we understand quite clearly what it means to subject a performer to the power of ‘thinking machines’. Opportunities available to Syrkus and Pronaszko in their time were nothing like the opportunities of today – yet they seem to have had a degree of affinity with present-day digital performance artists.

The contemporary concept of multimediality could be another term for what Syrkus calls ‘simultaneity’. Along with others, Simultaneous Theatre aimed to enhance the expressiveness of a piece of theatre, with the view of adapting it to modern needs, pace of life, new forms of communication and the era of technological progress. As Syrkus and his wife, the architect Helena Syrkus, argued, this kind of modernisation in theatre was to come about by means of ‘multifarious and multifaceted’ MOVEMENT (their capital letters).36 At Simultaneous Theatre, that demand was to be met by the moveable conveyor belts mentioned above, and by set changes. The new building was expected to bring about a situation where ‘MOVEMENT features in a performance as an entirely independent component’.37 Constant and swift changes were achieved by means of different media: stage mechanics, as well as innovative lighting and structural solutions. The impact of all these items was to be simultaneous. As Syrkus put it:

I envisage a play where light and voice would act out – on a tiny section of a small revolving stage, or at different spots and levels of a huge stage apparatus – a new concept of   SIMULTANEITY.38

Simultaneous Theatre, projection of level, 1928. Collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

The idea of simultaneously affecting the senses of audience members by means of various stimuli was to correspond to the dynamics of new media. The idea was that stage work would be ‘analogous to the manifestations of modern life: film, photography, the wireless, the TV set, etc. – to be enable various cross-sections of the dramatic action to be shown at the same time’.39

Simultaneous Theatre aimed to arrive at new forms of stage communication, thus making it more efficient and adjusting it to a mass audience. It seems that Syrkus and Pronaszko were keen to extend the scope and scale of their message – much as multimedia artists are today.

Design for Andrzej Pronaszko's Simultaneous Theatre, Szymon Syrkus with Zygmunt Leski, 1928. Collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

The fascination in the 1920s and 1930s with technological progress had no spectacular follow-up in the Polish theatre avant-garde of the post-war period. When some theatre professionals of the 1960s found themselves mesmerised by the concept of a hybrid of performer and new technology, their attitude was sometimes considered a thing of the past. As director and critic Bohdan Korzeniewski argued at the time, one key aspect to the techno-enthusiasm of the avant-garde being rejected then had been:

the experience of the Second World War. It had shaken, and shaken quite heavily, our pride in the civilisation to which we contribute and should be responsible for. The robot has traduced us. It enhanced human powers to destroy what’s human. The myth of the modern Centaur has been shattered.40.

And in the 1980s, scholar Zbigniew Majchrowski contended that members of the Polish interwar theatre avant-garde:

defined an artistic creation as a structure, with the artist aiming to equal the engineer. [...] What the avant-garde wanted was ‘a theatre of the future’ – it seems, however, that the new theatre looks towards the origins of art, towards ritual and ceremony. [...] It is inspired not by technology, but by cultural anthropology, ethnography and ‘philosophy of the encounter’.41

Design for Andrzej Pronaszko's Simultaneous Theatre, Szymon Syrkus with Zygmunt Leski, 1928. Collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Source: Theatre Architecture in Central Europe.

In its quest for new means of expression, the experimenting theatre of post-war Poland is associated, for the most part, with the rejection of technological progress rather than a willingness to embrace it. However, this does not mean that new technologies had no impact on the performative arts in the latter half of the twentieth century. With that said, techno-enthusiastic works such as the 1963 sci-fi opera Teodor Gentleman by playwright Paweł Rewicz and Pożądanie [Desire], a 1968 ballet by the composer Grażyna Bacewicz (referencing 1960s ideas of cybernetics) were never very popular; nor did they influence the following generations working in theatre. Major figures in Poland’s questing theatre of the second half of the twentieth century were dismissive of new technologies as a means of inspiration. Tadeusz Kantor held the view that technology in theatre ‘had gone bankrupt’, while the renowned architect and stage designer Jerzy Gurawski, who worked with Jerzy Grotowski, was sceptical of modernist techno-enthusiasts, labelling the creators of the Total Theatre project ‘lunatics’ and expressing the view that ‘theatre did not like mechanics’.42 Views like these may have contributed to the fact that the Syrkus and Pronaszko concept and projects have fallen into obscurity.

Universality and multimediality in contemporary performative arts

The techno-enthusiastic approach of the interwar theatre avant-garde has returned, and keeps returning, in many fascinating guises; and not simply as a straightforward expansion of the ideas forwarded by artists in the first half of the twentieth century. In that century’s latter half, then into the twenty-first century, avant-garde architectural and theatre technology projects, referencing the idea of simultaneity (or multimediality), differ from those put forward by modernists fantasising about ‘theatres of the future’. Still, there seems to be a similarity in tendencies.

In Death and Power, a 2009 opera by Tod Machover an MIT professor, mobile stage structures are a ‘thinking machine’ in a slightly more literal understanding of the term than was the case with the Syrkus and Pronaszko project. Machover’s protagonist, Simon Powers – a wealthy, highly influential and successful man – seeks immortality. To achieve that, he resolves to impress himself into his surroundings – or, to be more precise, into the library which is the principal item of the opera’s stage set. The lead actor disappears at the very beginning, and this is when the stage takes over – a ‘thinking machine’ full of moveable structures and mechanisms. The bookshelves, equipped with robotic mechanisms, move and make sounds. Each of the books is moved to the foreground and illuminated, while visualisations, and the manner in which the robotic bookshelves move, were to emphasise the main traits of the protagonist’s character. Machover’s project seems to show a degree of kinship with the ideas of the Polish theatre professionals seeking to operate the dynamics of multifarious and multifaceted movement, to personify stage technology and theatre architecture, and to use them to influence the audience.

On the other hand, the idea of the universal stage, so close to the hearts of Left-leaning theatre modernists in Czechoslovakia, emerges again today in, for example, the Burkina Faso–born architect Francis Kéré’s design for Volksbühne Satelite Theater, the renowned Berlin theatre’s new space located at the former Tempelhof airport. Kéré, who is known for his work to erase social inequalities and improve the quality of life in Burkina Faso, erected a temporary, mobile theatre at the site, where airline operations were terminated in 2008.

Kéré’s earlier work for theatre had been the renowned and controversial Burkina Faso Opera Village, in collaboration with Christoph Schlingensief. The Volksbühne project, meanwhile, is a rounded amphitheatre-like stage with seating capacity of more than a thousand. The stage is moveable, and can be transferred out from one hangar onto the airfield. Kéré’s design is the kind of theatre architecture aiming not so much to solidify divisions as influence relations in society. The site of the project is significant, too: since 2015, the Tempelhof airport site has been used as a sanctuary for refugees and a registration point for new arrivals. Volksbühne Satelite Theater is to act as a sort of ‘centre for creativity and dialogue’, based in its hangar.

The theatre designed by Kéré is composed of modular parts, adjustable to the size of the audience and the nature of the event – this is achieved by controlling acoustics in the room by means of special screens. As with Tempelhof today, Kéré’s theatre is concerned with intercultural connections. The stage of Volksbühne Satelite Theater is to serve as a platform for artists representing different disciplines and different ethnicities, with audiences hailing from different traditions, speaking a variety of languages and representing different cultures. The project was devised as a mobile structure, becoming a ‘performer’ in its own right within the industrial space. As with the artists behind Liberated Theatre, Kéré aims to ensure his stage is universal – not least by means of an extremely high ceiling, an uncommon feature in theatre architecture. These solutions, in turn, are intended to ‘foster a new type of theatre experience conducive to collaboration, improvisation and communication’.43 According to the project brief, ‘the barriers between audiences and artists should be metaphorically and literally dismantled’.44 What is more, ‘this new architecture will offer the diverse community a physical, tangible and direct experience of theatre, dance and music outside the boundaries of a traditional theatre setting’.45 Like modernist interwar avant-garde theatre professionals including those discussed above, Kéré is thus aiming to bridge the gap between performer and audience member.

The characteristics of the projects of Syrkus and Pronaszko and of Frejka and Chochol, outlined in this article, demonstrate an equivalence with today’s digital performances and, more generally, with performative arts relating to technological progress.46 Multimedia projections were a staple in experimental work by many companies. Since the 1980s, the Wooster Group has been well known for their creative onstage approach to new media. The same has since applied over the past several decades to the Builders Association, Dump Type, Troika Ranch and many other companies and performers. Their work enables us to take a different view of the techno-enthusiasm of modernist-era theatre professionals, and discern the cyclical nature of certain interests among performative artists.


The instrument that is media archaeology – interpreting media history through the perspective of the present day, and the broadening of its definition to encompass niche and unrealised ideas – enables us to present the work of the techno-enthusiastic interwar theatre avant-garde from a new angle. As digital-performance theoreticians including Steve Dixon, Chris Salter and Johannes Birringer47 have demonstrated, theatre architecture and the legacy of the modernist avant-garde are a vital reference point, granting us a better understanding the work of contemporary performative artists making use of new-media technologies. However, works by English-language theatre scholars, mentioned above, all but disregards projects put forward in Central and Eastern Europe. As this article has sought to demonstrate, those projects also deserve reconstruction and reinterpretation.

Translated by Joanna Błachnio


Birringer, Johannes, Performance, Technology, Science (New York: PAJ Publications, 2008)

Czartoryska, Urszula (ed.), Devĕtsil. Czeska awangarda artystyczna lat dwudziestych, trans. by Wiesław Miazgowski (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 1989)

Dixon, Steve, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007)

Frankowska, Bożena, ‘Architektura teatralna Pronaszki’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 1–2, (1964)

Frejka, Jiří,‘O univerzálním jevišti’, Fronta (1927)

Grossman, Jan, ‘Divadelní úlohy filmu’, Divadlo10 (1959)

Huhtamo, Erkki, ‘From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media’, Leonardo 30.3 (1997)

Jochmanová, Andrea, ‘Kontexty české divadelní avantgardy a tvorba Jiřího Frejky ve dvacátých letech XX. Století’,

Kłeczek, Jakub, ‘"Myśląca maszyna" – Teatr Symultaniczny Szymona Syrkusa i Andrzeja Pronaszki. Ku archeologii performansu cyfrowego w Polsce’, Didaskalia 139–140 (2017)

Korzeniewski, Bohdan, ‘Pożegnanie z Muzą’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 49–50 (1964)

Łysak, Paweł, Gurawski,Jerzy, ‘Teatr nie lubi mechaniki’,

Mytko-Brun, Barbara, ‘Awangarda teatralna międzywojennych Czech’,Studia Rossica Posnaniensia 22 (1991)

Parker-Starbuck, Jennifer, Cyborg Theatre: Corporeal/Technological Intersections in Multimedia Performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Paul, Christiane,Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008)

Przychodniak, Zbigniew, Tadeusz Krzeszowiak (eds.), Technika w teatrze a sztuka inscenizacji (Poznań: Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk,1988)

Reilly, Kara (ed.), Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology: Historical Interfaces and Intermedialities (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Salter, Chris, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010)

Schlemmer, Oskar, Visions of a New World, ed. by Ina Conzen, trans. by Bram Opstelten, Michael Scuffil (Munich: Himmer Publishers, 2014).

Strożek, Przemysław, Scenotechnika: Enrico Prampolini. Futuryzm, scnotechnika i teatr polskiej awangardy (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 2017)

Švácha, Rostislav, ‘Na czym polega oryginalność czeskiej awangardy architektonicznej?’, Dyskurs 3, 2005

Syrkus, Helena and Szymon, ‘O Teatrze Symultanicznym’,Pamiętnik teatralny 1–2 (1964)

Tonecki, Zygmunt, Architektura i technika teatralna w inscenizacji współczesnej (Warsaw: Towarzystwo Wydawnicze, 1935)

——‘Technika prekursorem twórczości dramatycznej. Teatr przyszłości’, Wiadomości Literackie 19 (1929)

Tymoszewicz, Jerzy (ed.), Andrzej Pronaszko. Zapiski scenografa (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1976)

Zemánek, Jiří, Zdenĕk Pešánek 1896–1965 (Prague: Národní galerie, 1996)

Zielinski, Siegfried, Deep Time of the Media: Toward and Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. by Gloria Custance (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 2006)

1. See: Steve Dixon, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), and Chris Salter, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

2. Erkki Huhtamo, ‘From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archaeology of the Media’, Leonardo 30.3 (1997), pp. 221–224.

3. Barbara Myrtko-Brun, ‘Awangarda Teatralna międzywojennych Czech’, Studia Rossica Posnaniensa, 22 (1991), pp. 119–131.

4. František Šmejkal, ‘Czeska awangarda artystyczna lat dwudziestych’, in Devĕtsil. Czeska awangarda artystyczna lat dwudziestych, ed. by Urszula Czartoryska, trans. by Wiesław Miazgowski (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 1989), p. 9.

5. Šmejkal, ‘Czeska awangarda artystyczna’, p. 9.

6. Rostislav Švacha, ‘Na czym polega oryginalność czeskiej awangardy architektonicznej?’, Dyskurs 3 (2005),, accessed on 16 April 2018.

7. Švacha, ‘Na czym polega oryginalność’, p. 195.

8. Švacha, ‘Na czym polega oryginalność’, p. 197.

9. Šmejkal, ‘Czeska awangarda’, p. 32.

10. Rostislav Švacha, ‘Architekci „Devĕtsilu”’, in Devĕtsil.

11. František Šmejkal, Rostislav Švácha, ‘Biografie’, Devĕtsil, p. 88.

12. Mytko-Brun, Awangarda teatralna, p. 124.

13. Mytko-Brun, Awangarda teatralna, p. 124.

14. Andrea Jochmanová, ‘Kontexty české divadelní avantgardy a tvorba Jiřího Frejky ve dvacátých letech XX. Století’, p. 311, Accessed on 16 April 2018.

15. Jiři Frejka, ‘O univerzálním jevišti, Fronta, 1927.

16.Zygmunt Tonecki, Architektura i technika teatralna w inscenizacji współczesnej (Warsaw: Towarzystwo Wydawnicze, 1935).

17. Švácha, Architekci, p. 66.

18. Jiří Zemánek, Zdenĕk Pešánek 1896-1965 (Prague: Národní galerie, 1996).

19. Švácha, Architekci, p. 59.

20. Švácha, Architekci, p. 59.

21. Švácha, Architekci, p. 60.

22. Frejka was inspired by Meyerhold’s experiences. The latter’s fascination included the latest management techniques and Frederick Taylor’s ergonomics. Meyerhold argued that ‘The Taylor system will enable us to play in one hour what we currently take four hours to present’. See: Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward and Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. by Gloria Custance, (Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 2006), p. 242. The Osvobozené divadlo project was most likely based on similar premises.

23. A similar effect (though on a smaller scale) was achieved in constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov’s completed project, which today is the Roman Viktyuk Theatre in Moscow: Accessed on 16 April 2018.

24. Jan Grossman, ‘Divadelní úlohy filmu’, Divadlo 10 (1959).

25. Frejka, ‘O univerzálním jevišti’.

26. Bożena Frankowska, ‘Architektura teatralna Pronaszki’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 1–2 (1964), pp. 153–168.

27. Jennifer Parker-Starbuck deploys the concept of the cyborg to describe relations between the performer and her extensions, material and technological alike. She distinguishes between different tiers and kinds of cyborg identities in performative arts. Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, Cyborg Theatre.Corporeal / Technological Intersections in Multimedia Performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

28. Jakub Kłeczek, ‘"Myśląca maszyna" – Teatr Symultaniczny Szymona Syrkusa i Andrzeja Pronaszki. Ku archeologii performansu cyfrowego w Polsce’, Didaskalia 139–140 (2017), pp. 41–48.

29. Zygmunt Tonecki, ‘Technika prekursorem twórczości dramatycznej. Teatr przyszłości’, Wiadomości Literackie 19 (1929).

30. Christiane Paul, Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2008).

31. Tonecki, ‘Technika prekursorem’.

32. Dixon, Digital Performance.

33. Zbigniew Majchrowski, ‘Teatr i dramat w dobie elektroniki’, in Technika w teatrze a sztuka inscenizacji, ed. by Tadeusz Krzeszowiak (Poznań: Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Nauk, 1988), pp. 117–118.

34. In the context of Simultaneous Theatre, Pronaszko observes that ‘dress and decor are regulators, compelling the individual fettered by them to make certain movements and preventing him from making others’. Andrzej Pronaszko, ‘O teatr przyszłości. Autoreferat. 1928’, in Jerzy Tymoszewicz (ed.), Andrzej Pronaszko. Zapiski scenografa (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1976), p. 226.

35. Writing about Simultaneous Theatre, Tonecki observed: ‘theatre is not a cradle with a whimpering infant, and nor is it a coffin: it is a hellish thinking machine,grasping the human being, distorting his equilibrium and dynamising him’. See: Tonecki, ‘Technika prekursorem’, p. 1.

36. Helena & Szymon Syrkus, ‘O Teatrze Symultanicznym’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 1–2 (1964), p. 177.

37. Syrkus & Syrkus, ‘O Teatrze Symultanicznym’, p. 177.

38. Syrkus & Syrkus, ‘O Teatrze Symultanicznym’, p. 177.

39. Syrkus & Syrkus, ‘O Teatrze Symultanicznym’, p. 171.

40. Bohdan Korzeniewski, ‘Pożegnanie z Muzą’, Pamiętnik Teatralny 49–50 (1964), p. 7.

41. Majchrowski, Teatr i dramat, p. 120.

42. Paweł Łysak, Jerzy Gurawski, ‘Teatr nie lubi mechaniki’, Accessed on 16 April 2018.

43. ‘Volksbühne Satellite Theater at Flughafen Tempelhof’, Accessed on 16 April 2018.

44. ‘Volksbühne Satellite Theater’.

45. ‘Volksbühne Satellite Theater’.

46. I am by no means arguing that historic Eastern and Central European projects had an immediate effect on contemporary artists. Rather, I am striving to remain alert to artists’ areas of interest as these mutate and recur over history.

47. Dixon, Digital Performance; Salter, Entangled; Johannes Birringer, Performance, Technology&Science (New York: PAJ Publications, 2008).

Jakub Kłeczek

His Ph.D. thesis “Historycznomedialne przemiany scenotechniki, notacji i podmiotowości w sztukach performatywnych” was presented at the Institute of Theatre and Media Arts, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, in 2018. His scholarly interests include links between performative arts and new media, cyberculture and media history. He has co-authored Współczesny teatr i film wobec wyzwań nowych mediów (2015). His work has been published in journals including Didaskalia, Panoptikumand Teatr Lalek.