Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Bohemian National Hall (aka the Czech National Building)

This weekend, the Bohemian National Hall in New York, alternatively known as the Czech National Building, finally reopened.

That probably doesn't mean that much to those who have not been following the saga of the BNH. But it means a lot to the the Czechs, who have been following its progress closely. And I hope that, in years to come, it will come to mean more to those of us in New York.

The BNH originally opened in 1896, and it was a gathering place for Czech and Slovak immigrants. The building is five stories high, and the spaces within it are vast and beautiful. After it fell out of disuse in the 1940's, it was rented to a number of groups. Perhaps most interestingly for the theater crowd, it was the original location of the Manhattan Theater Club, back when the MTC was a burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway company.

It then fell into total disrepair, occasionally attracting notice as a curiosity, but mainly a large, empty skeleton. However, the Bohemian Benevolent Literary Association continued to maintain ownership, and in 2001 the BBLA sold it to the Czech Republic for a dollar. There were grand plans. It was to become a theater, a cinema, an art gallery, a cafe, the home of the Czech Center and the home of the Czech consul general's office, all in one. The Czech government would do all the work on it, and the BBLA would then have a home and an office of its own.

Then the work began. Or rather, didn't begin.

I first encountered the Bohemian National Hall in 2006, right before the Havel Festival. One floor had been (almost) completed. But Halka Kaiserova, the Consul General at the time, was determined to have the space be functional. So she offered us the opportunity to have our opening there, a party in celebration of Vaclav Havel's 70th birthday.

It was exciting, and the event was highly successful. But a look into the old ballroom found a space in a sort of gorgeous decay, that made me feel like perhaps Peter Brook could take the space as is and make it into a functioning theater.

However, that wasn't the vision, although Gita Fuchsova, who came in to help make the BNH project function again, was able to use the raw space for a number of interesting cultural events.

But once again the space shut down for repairs, with the firm determination that this time, it must be finished - by the end of October, 2008, just in time for the 90th anniversary of Czech independence and the upcoming Czech presidency of the European Union.

It just made it. Almost. There is no cafe, still, that has to be built. But the rest is there.

The ballroom/theater is an incredible large, beautiful space, with a bar, a stage, and a huge area with high ceilings and a balcony all round that can serve multiple functions. How it works as a theater - well, that is to be seen, I suppose. I helped somewhat in the planning, but I was one of many voices, and much had already been set. And how a space functions in reality is always a little different than the theory. But New York has a new theater space, which is always good news (The elaborate curtained stage can be seen above).

And, as promised, there is a cinema on the ground floor, an art gallery on the second floor (with an exhibit about the BNH with pictures of it in development, an exhibit I recommend), the BBLA of the third floor, and even a beautiful roof terrace.

Untitled Theater Company #61 will have the honor of presenting one of the first programs there, Prague 1600, a look at the time of Rudolf II and the Golem. Our first event: A screening of the classic silent film The Golem, accompanied by live music from Gary Lucas. It will be in the main ballroom/theater, and it is worth attending just to see the space alone. But I can also say the Gary is an extremely skilled musician, and this is a rare chance to see his work absolutely free. Truly worth going to. Check out the clip on YouTube and see/hear his work.

After that, we will be having readings of Golem Stories (December 1) and Rudolf II (December 15). Go to all of them!

But even if you miss those programs (which you should not!), I recommend the visit to the BNH. It is a building truly worth seeing.

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