Parallel Lives

„It is, therefore, possible to live without almost any memories, even be happy, as is shown on the example of animals. But it is quite impossible to live without fogetting or – to put this topic even more simply: there is a certain degree of insomnia, chewing the cud, sense of history in which everything live gets harmed and eventually dies out, whether man, nation or culture.“

Friedrich Nietzsche
(free translation)

In his short story Funes, the Memorious  Jorge Luis Borgés describes the unusual ability of Ireneo Funes which he had obtained after an accident – after a fall from a horse he became lame, but obtained an infallible ability to perceive and an impeccant memory: „We can cover three glasses on a table with one glance. Funes covered all offshoots, bunches and berries on the wooden lattice overgrown with vine. He remembered the shape of all clouds in the sky on 30 April 1882 at the dawn and could compare it, in his memories, with the fibres in the leather binding of a book he had seen just once, or streams of foam left by the paddle on the surface of Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of Quebrach. Mind you, these were not simple memories. Each of his sight perceptions was associated with feelings in his muscles  or a feeling of warmth, etc. He was able to recollect all dreams and images he had when still half asleep.  He reconstructed the course of the whole day twice or thrice. He had no doubts about it, whatsoever, but each of these reconstructions required a whole day. He told me: ,I, myself, probably remember more than all the people that have ever lived since the beginning of the world‘. And he also said: ,When I am dreaming of something in my dreams, it is the same as when the rest of you are awake‘. Almost at dawn he also said: ,My memory, Sir, is like a big rubbish heap‘“.

Remembering and forgetting are basic cultural mechanisms. We create pictorial images and recount stories to avoid amnesia which would mean the world decay. Stories and images, as memory supports, enabling us to recollect the absent again at any time. Another reason why these supports are inevitable is that cultural experience cannot be genetically inherited. Storing it in memory is thus an inevitable strategy of cultural survival.

Memory offers the only method how to establish links with our ancestors and even ourselves – it is nothing else but a memory which creates a link between a toddler and an adult and makes him or her authentic in childhood as well as in adulthood. We often think of memory as a treasury, a treasure, a „thesaurus“ made of the most precious matter constituting our lives. Following the accident, Funes was given the gift of memory, due to which the world, in its boundless segmentation, became a revelation to him.

Funes, an uneducated basket maker, survives thanks to the accident „conversio“, he leaves the sleepy world and is elevated to the state of mnemonic mercy. He is a beneficiary and reminds us of a superman, but, as Borgés  writes, despite everything, he describes his relentless memory as chaos. Funes’s thesaurus has been turned into a rubbish heap. The world memory has become a storage of junk. The world annals have become an archive of decay because, although Funes could remember more than any other person, he could not share his memory with others and could not communicate its contents. Funes is not able to abstract and perceive words as general notions – he cannot understand why a dog that was running along the street at 3 p.m. can have the same name as the same dog sitting in front of his master’s house at 6 p.m. and, therefore, invents his own language in which he gives a name to each individual matter in each state. In Borgés’s words, „to think means to forget the differences, how to make generalisations and abstractions. In Funes’s overcrowded world there were just details, almost first-hand details.“

Occasionally, our present situation recalls that of Funes. Thanks to memory media and networks we have all the world information at our disposal on our desk, but to make use of it is becoming increasingly more difficult. As we do not receive the information in live exchange (communication), we feel insecure, we cannot estimate the degree of its trustworthiness and significance and lose the ability to relate stories from our own culture. Perceptions of a man who is burdened with a host of information and taken out of communication (and also associations generated by them) strip the phenomena of their identity, make them hollow and change their names. They are turned into memories of future past: the past of decay and rot. Isolation saturated with information has a similar effect as amnesia. The motion, the time and the space are swallowed by the endless set of gears. We are in for a nuclear fission of matters, disintegration of reality into several parallel ones. The theatre is a unique communication medium that can embody a memory, i.e., a word, analyze the methods of memories creation and point out the discrepancy between the body and the word. In our common presence it can recall the non-existent again. In fact, only thanks to our common presence.

To build up a community means a common use of memory. To use the memory, one must, inevitably, find a way, how to recount its content, or embody it, or create a story or an image that can represent the past in the present, establish a contact with ancestors and oneself, eliminate the existence of parallel lives. Six drama stagings in the Parallel Lives project analyse six ways of theatre ability to create „memory supports“, in other words, speak and narrate concrete stories. Stories that have been hiding in the archives of secret police, stories that were to be recounted differently, in order to confirm the existence of a big ideological story of the day. Stories covering ordinary human lives rather than supermen such as Funes. The project has given rise to original stagings by artists who have made it their job to create stories of the marginalised and the excluded, just to return them to the present and the future. Or enable stories that should be forgotten disappear into the past, but, as they have no name, it is not possible. If these stories remain unknown, obscured in the chaos of archive rubbish heaps, they can, on different stages, be repeated any time. Just as our lives can be disintegrated into parallel lives any time.

Ján Šimko, curator of the Parallel Lives
the 20th Century through the Eyes of the Secret Police project


On the margin of the Parallel Lives project

How did the idea of the Parallel Lives project come to being?

The idea of the Parallel Lives project probably comes, and is nurtured, from at least three sources. The first one is the increased incidence of various forms of documentary theatre in Central and East European countries that has been recorded in recent years. We have hosted a number of such projects at our festival. The second are the different ways of coming to terms with the past that we have experienced in our countries since 1989 and, last but not least, our idea of the dramaturgy of the International Festival Divadelná Nitra and the development of a prestigious line of our own productions.

Maybe it is caused by the crisis of narration, mistrust of classical stories and their presentation in the theatre, or the emptying of some narrative structures applied by the drama which we have been witnessing in recent years, since their recent overuse by TV and other media. Or, maybe, it is an effort to re-invent authenticity, a new version of theatrical realism, which is associated with the increased interest by theatre staff and viewers in working with documentary and authentic materials. I, personally, believe that the theatre in East European countries is re-inventing and restructuring its social position. It is, partially, in this area that one can see the association with the work of small author theatres from two or three decades prior to 1989, which, as they were not quite official, or, better to say, not administered by the state, ended up slightly outside the reach of the censorship and within the circle of their viewers were able to reflect topical social issues. These theatres occasionally worked with such materials, of course, in a different form.

Our so-called coming to terms with the memory is a real comedy, sometimes a very black one. Since 1989 a number of efforts to come to terms with the past have been going on at different levels of society. The word “come to terms with” itself, once and for all, put it behind us, preferably draw a bold line. It does not quite work, so that each effort of the so-called coming to terms with the past brings new problems again and again. Our totalitarian past has had all kinds of labels – mistake, trauma, golden times, something to apologise for, something that does not affect us, a source of sentiment, a good reason for our present failures, an object of trade and politics. I don’t wish to be cynical, because the criminal regime, in which we had lived, cost many innocent people lives and has enabled many others to exploit their former power positions until now and live at the expense of others. We permanently fail in the so-called issue of coming to terms with the past at many levels – starting from documents and acts constituting our state up to legislation, cultural policy, historical discourse and education. With this comedy we cause suffering to many who have never been (and maybe never will be) rehabilitated or compensated, who will never see their torturers and murderers, or those of their loved ones, as well as thieves of their property punished. And this comedy has also had a devastating effect on the rest of the society, on those, who were not involved in it or had not lived yet. We don’t pretend to have some “saviour” ambitions and know that our project will not resolve the situation but in this “dialectical struggle of an individual and the society” even the theatre can help in his own way. What seemed important to us was also the fact that, 24 years after the fall of the regimes, the views of the next generation, people who were children in 1989, (or, respectively, did not even experience it), get into the public debate. As they do not suffer from any sentiments like those who remember it, they can look at many phenomena of those times differently, usually very critically. What we are interested in is not only what happened prior to 1989 but also (and maybe even more) how we are coming to terms with the heritage of the past today. Thus we have, on the one hand, a still active group of those who remember also direct agents of pre-1989 events and “revolutions” or changes and, on the other one, a new, critical generation which creates an interesting tension.

And finally our vision of dramaturgy. The Festival Divadelná Nitra has been working on a thematic basis for a number of years now. We continuously follow the work in different theatre houses in Europe, from big, renowned houses to independent authors, and each year try to draft a programme around a topic echoing in works that we consider significant at a given time and easy to communicate in our cultural space. This is the ideal ambition. With the Parallel Lives project the situation is considerably different – we do not choose from existing productions that would have attracted our attention but contact authors who we know could create a meaningful staging for the project Parallel Lives. There is a big risk in it, because the result is uncertain. Until the moment of the first night, the meeting with the viewers, we won’t be able to know whether our intention has been fulfilled. This approach, however, brings a little more humbleness vis-a-vis the viewer. If you offer something that has not been tried before, you feel a little more uncertain, but at the same time, it is your baby, you care a little more about it and the viewer feels it. I also feel more mutual respect within the team – we cannot rely on anyone else just us – in this case it is even more interesting because the team is international and rather big, since we have 6 productions. Lastly, before each premiere one is fully aware that, in no way, one can have a rational control of the world and must admit the existence of an occurrence and various other metaphysical “mishaps”.

Could you briefly introduce the project Parallel Lives?

The project Parallel Lives involves 6 theatre productions that have appeared as a result of research in the archives of political police corps operating during communist totalitarian regimes. They are very different as for their content but also the form, range and background. As far as the form is concerned, the productions range from a documentary opera to a theatre with authentic people on the stage. Naturally, each of the creative teams has its own special poetics. Moreover, the character of the materials, on which the productions are based, makes people search for a different kind theatricality. The productions are also different in the size of the team, which has rehearsed them, including both artists and technicians. When mentioning the background, we mean the environment in which the production appeared. Our project provided a meeting place for big operation theatre houses such as Staatschauspiel Dresden or the Opera House of the Prague National Theatre on the one hand, and independent theatres without their own space and regular grants on the other one. This was something immensely important to us – to bring together not only different kinds of poetics but also different “sizes”, ways of “production” of a theatre piece and its “operation” – in other words, different ways of approaching the viewer. In different backgrounds the contact with the viewer works differently, it is defined and structured differently. The viewers of operation theatre houses are, largely, quite a different group than those of institutions with independently created theatre pieces. A huge difference is also in the volume of finances, with which these two counterpoles work. The way in which the “background” sees a theatre piece, how it is made and presented, significantly affects also the thinking of the authors. In our project we wanted to have a representation of different approaches. It does not often happen in the theatre world. In the majority of cases, there are projects of “equal” partners. However, this approach has proved to be successful in visual art. The differences may not be so visible in the outcome, because all productions in the Parallel Lives project are of a rather chamber character and the viewers will see them in two acting spaces. The project was shaped in such a way that each production has its own co-producer who will guarantee that it will live long-term also outside the project. There are no “one-off” productions and their lives will not end with this year’s festival Divadelná Nitra. Each production is “self-sufficient” thanks to the existence of co-producers – it lives on in the repertoire or programme of its home theatre or production house.

What sort of authors did you invite to participate in the project Parallel Lives and why exactly this choice?

We addressed authors who had been working with political and social issues long-term. Many of them even repeatedly create productions based on archive materials. It is mainly Aleš Březina, Clemens Bechtel, Gianina Cărbunariu who directly worked with these topics in the past. The remaining authors regularly work out political topics in their productions. We perceive Parallel Lives not only as a set of productions but also as a platform presenting different ways of working with documentary and authentic materials which are present in the Central and East European space. What was important for us was that this jigsaw puzzle represents different kinds of poetics and genres. I believe there are many good reasons why to see all 6 productions – one, the viewer can get acquainted with the situation associated with project topics (past and present) in a number of countries, second, he can see different methods of working with the “same layout”. Ideally, the viewer will, in addition to powerful stories and an insight into the specific features of the situation in individual countries, take home from the theatre also an experience of six different narrative strategies with which the theatre is working. I see the project potential exactly in such a multitude.

What spectrum of stories will be presented in the project? Is this spectrum somewhat representative with regard to the stories of people who had been a target of political police corps?

In individual productions we will see stories from different periods of totalitarian secret service operations – the story of the priest Toufar, tortured to death, and the Číhošť miracle dates back to the 1950‘s, as well as the story of the Budapest psychiatrist R. Z., or mutual denunciations by top members of the ŠtB (Secret Police) in Slovakia. From the 1970’s and the 1980’s we have the stories of Mugur Calinescu, a 15 year old boy who sprayed the buildings in the Romanian town of Botosani with several tens of “anti-state slogans” one night, the story of Józef Schiller, a top SB colonel and Ada Grudzińska, daughter of a Polish dissident in exile, or the hitherto unclarified brutal murder of Přemysl Coufal, most probably murdered by the members of the ŠtB in his Bratislava flat. But also the story of Michael Schlosser, who had constructed a plane in order to fly to west Berlin, the stories of Peter Wachs, a Stasi collaborator, and that of the artist Jürgen Gottschalk, and several others who will be recounting their stories from the stage in the production My File and I. I don’t know how some criteria of representativeness can be met in an artistic project. I guess that the statements are sufficiently plastic and powerful for the viewer to get acquainted with the wider context, or be offered such an insight into the topic that the authors considered important. In individual productions the stories are part of statements about different aspects of political police operations, the functioning of communist ideologies and their impact on our present day lives. For example, for the SkRAT Theatre it was of key importance why Coufal‘s murder has not been clarified until today and what are the overall social consequences of this judicial failure. Some authors analyse the language functions of power structures and archive recordings and the nature and the complexity (or lack of it) of archive materials. Several authors are interested to know how these topics can be revived by the theatre in a public debate.

How about the composition according to countries? Do you think it is representative? Isn’t, e.g., Russia missing in it?

In the preparatory project team we had long discussions about the “participating countries” because we wanted to offer an “international” view. It seemed to us that we mostly perceive this topic as our “own past” and, therefore, it seemed, it might be interesting to break or enrich this stereotype. The most logical thing to do seemed to start with a deliberation of which authors in this area of theatre are the most distinctive. The topic is very wide and affects a large number of people; it has local as well culturally specific impacts. The approach of political police corps is different in relation to legislature (past and present) of individual countries. We have tried to narrow the topic so that our mosaic “doesn’t break up”. Therefore, we have focused on countries of Central Europe. The situation in the countries of former Yugoslavia seemed too specific to us, although, exactly in these countries there are a few artists we could cooperate with in the project. Similarly, we excluded the countries of the former Soviet Union, whereby we have lost the reflection of how the “mother” of all political police corps in the region functioned. But, first, in Russia the archives of totalitarian police corps are not accessible and, second, similarly, as in the case of the countries of former Yugoslavia the situation seemed so specific to us that it would need at least several productions and that would affect our composition adversely or exotically and would, generally be harmful.

What are further outputs of the Parallel Lives project?

The Parallel Lives project is mainly a set of 6 theatre productions. In addition, we will publish a “reader” of stories which attracted our authors in the archives and in 2014 publish, in cooperation with the Theater der Zeit publishing house, a theoretical publication reflecting on the work and methods of individual authors as well as the historical and theatrological context. With the director Adam Hanuljak, Dog Docs and Mandala Pictures we are drafting a series of 6 short documentary films in which the Radio and TV of Slovakia and other TVs will be participating as well. And, finally, there will also be an educational programme for secondary school pupils.

 Ján Šimko talked to the curator of the Parallel Lives project.


The publication Parallel Lives – A Documentary Theatre Project on Secret Police in Eastern Europe was published in 2014 by the Divadelná Nitra Association and the prestigious German publishing house Theater der Zeit. It was compiled by Parallel Lives project curator Ján Šimko and project dramaturgist Martina Vannayová. The book contains two professional essays and interviews with directors of the productions . The theatrological essay on the project and documentary theatre was written by foremost German critic and theoretician Thomas Irmer, and the historiographical part by Czech historian Jiří Suk who specializes in the history of modern Czechoslovakia. The second part of the book consists of interviews with stage directors participating in the project conducted by leading theatrologists from six countries.

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