Historic Vinohrady theater turns 100 this month
Vinohrady’s námestí Míru is a lovely centerpiece to this leafy part of Prague. The square is full of architectural masterpieces, including the glorious St. Ludmila’s Church and the equally impressive Divadlo na Vinohradech, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this month.
“The theater was opened as a celebration, a great event, with speeches,” says Jindřich Gregorini, Divadlo na Vinohradech’s director. “The theater opened seven years before World War I, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Czech theater wasn’t the preferred type.”
But, as the decades passed, the building proved strong enough to withstand the test of time. The theater’s history dates to 1892, when the local council approved a proposal to apply for a permit to establish a playhouse. A public bid was announced in August of 1902 for “architects of Slavic nationalities.” There were 12 submissions, but it was Alois Čenský’s design that wound up with the council’s nod. Construction began in 1905 and, two short years later, the theater made its grand debut Nov. 24, 1907.
Up until this project, Čenský had been more of a neo-Renaissance guy, but the theater, designed in the Art Nouveau style, paved the way for many of his future projects. The Vinohrady cultural community was reportedly very excited about the prospect of a theater in the neighborhood. The local paper even dedicated space daily to the ongoing construction and other issues related to the theater. The first play staged here was a premiere of Jaroslav Vrchlický’s Godiva.
The theater has gone through a few changes in the past century, but they have been more like small facelifts, not major structural upheavals.
“In the 1960s, there was an idea to make it into a completely modern theater, but, in the end, it turned out [such reconstruction] would have taken four years,” Gregorini says. “That would have taken longer that the actual building of the theater, and that would have meant the end of the theater.”
The building is protected as a national historic site.
“Any kind of adjustment needs approval,” Gregorini says. “The historical preservation office won’t allow any changes, so you must consult with them over even minor changes to the building.”
Today, the outside of the theater is nearly identical to Čenský’s original design. Unfortunately, the building’s most identifiable features, the two statues sitting on either corner, aren’t the originals. A wing fell off one of them, so they were replaced about 10 years ago, according to Gregorini. The originals, however, are still being preserved, albeit in storage.
“Bravery and Truth are their names,” Gregorini says. “They are the biggest sculptures in the Czech Republic to be erected on a building.”
The interior of the building has gone through some transformations since 1907.
“The latest change was this summer, during the holidays,” Gregorini explains. “All the seats were changed and both balconies were renovated.”
One row in each balcony was eliminated for more space, and the theater now has 630 seats. This is a big change from the 1,450 seats the theater boasted when it opened.
“During the time of the early 1920s there was no television, and the theater catered [to] larger audiences,” Gregorini says. “They used to have 30 premieres in one theater season, and each play would run five or 10 times each.”
Originally, the theater had places for standing and a third top balcony, as well as an aisle down the middle. Gregorini says most of the changes were connected to advances in theater technology.
“The changing technology of stage equipment is the reason for most of the modifications,” he says. “The first recorder appeared here in 1956. Before that, we had live music or records.”
The lighting people were originally under the stage, but they’ve since moved to the balconies. The original layout also had an orchestra pit with room for 40 musicians. In the beginning, the theater showed opera and drama, but now it only stages plays.
These days, the theater is managed by the city of Prague, not the Culture Ministry, like many other theaters in town.
“After the revolution the city took over administration,” Gregorini says. “There have been some attempts to have it run by the Culture Ministry, but we’ve successfully fought that.”
“We are like the stage of Prague,” he says. “If we were run by the Culture Ministry, we’d be marginal, but now we are a special theater run by the city.”