Black Light Theaters: Where tourist trap meets tradition

By Myla Arumugam

Black Light Theater
Photos by Lyndsey Matthews

“Please silence all cell phones and take your seats,” a voice demands in English, then Hebrew, then Spanish. The play is about to begin. In a country as proud of its heritage and language as the Czech Republic, the lack of Czech translation can mean only one thing: a tourist trap. Black light theater is not at all new. It dates back centuries to ancient Chinese black cabinet performances, which used light and the contrast of black and white to create visual tricks. However, the “Czech tradition” of black light theater is more recent. Since 1989, black light theaters have popped up around the Old and New Towns. The performances take place every night, and tickets are sold on what seems like every other block in the center of Prague. The first black light theater in then-Czechoslovakia was created in 1959 by Jiri Srnec, after he was inspired by a black cabinet show in Brno.

Originally called the Black Theater of Jiri Srnec, he later added the word “light” to avoid any racial confusions after one American tourist asked, “How come you have five black theaters in Prague when we’re lucky to have just one in Detroit?” Srnec recalled in a Prague Post interview.

The many black light theaters of Prague, and imitators of Srnec (including his ex-wife), have been popular since the Velvet Revolution. There are 13 black light theaters in a city of 1.2 million people. Some of the better known include the Image Theatre and Ta Fantastika, located across the street from the Charles Bridge. Even the state has capitalized on the black light tourist craze by establishing Laterna Magika.The shows are a wordless interpretive dance under black light that illuminates the actors’ dyed costumes and feature plots, which range from epic to fairytale. In a current show, two clowns pursue the goddess, Venus. “The theatre has the unique privilege of presenting the whole of a lifetime in a single night,” the official website proclaims. Josef Svoboda is the director of Laterna Magika. The critically acclaimed, internationally known stage designer and director brought Czech theater to international importance. His innovative and sophisticated use of light and abstract stage metaphors of the 1950s and ’60s have influenced black light theaters ever since.Although Laterna Magika is a specific niche, theater in general is a critical component of Czech cultural identity. It’s no coincidence that Vaclav Havel, the first post-communist president, is a playwright along with many other dissidents. When tourists started flocking to Prague after the fall of communism, local entrepreneurs adopted the world-renowned Czech theatrical traditions to foreign tastes.

Josef Svoboda’s light tricks and the centuries-old craft of puppeteers and marionette making became a hit with visitors.

State Theater, Prague

Prague’s state-run black light theater looks like a massive ice cube from the outside. Thanks, Communist architects!

While Srnec and Svoboda may have begun the Czech black light theaters as an innovative form of expression, today they are only after one thing: tourists’ money.

“It’s become a complete rip-off,” said David Peimer, a professor of theater at NYU in Prague. “It’s a parasite from Czech traditions thrown into a fruit salad of kitsch for tourist consumption.”

When he came to Prague seven years ago, Peimer had heard of this “typical Czech” form of theater and was lured by the black light performance of Don Giovanni. He was disappointed in what he saw.

“We were trying to do something classic and local,” said Sydney McGrane, 20, who went with her family to Rock Therapy, a medley of Beatles songs with psychedelic scenery, at the Animato theatre. “I convinced them black light theater was this fabulous, unique theater experience inherent to Prague and totally worth the 25-buck tickets. But, it was such a waste.”

While many black-theatergoers emerge disappointed, the theaters do have something to offer tourists. The non-verbal spectacles play off popular literature and music to woo the audience into a comfort zone they would not otherwise possess. Even if one can’t immediately get into the visual insanity, the music entertaining. The lack of words makes the show accessible to non-Czech speakers, who make up a majority of the audience; visuals like disembodied hands, flying inanimate objects and bright colors grasp viewers’ attention.

Not every tourist feels the same. Elizabeth Pauker, 19, a student at Brandeis University, said black light theater was something she had to try because it seemed such a part of Prague.

“Overall I had a good experience, and if nothing else, it’s something to look back on and laugh about with my friends,” she said.

For a tourist interested in getting a taste of Czech culture through theater, there are other options. Get tickets to the National Theater; recent performances of Giselle sold for $20. Or if you’re looking for an original Czech performance, non-verbal theater has been on the rise in the last 10 or 12 years.

But the temptation of the black light theater is sometimes too great. According to Peimer, this is the price of a democracy. “So long as they’re making money, it will be around,” he said.


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