Credit: Setkani Encounter

Interview: Jana Bejvlová, Former Organiser of the Setkani/Encounter Theatre Schools Festival

The Setkani/Encounter Theatre School Festival is returning to Brno from 16-20 April, this year with the theme of “The Storm”. 

The idea for the festival was born during the Velvet Revolution. In the early 1990s, the Theatre Faculty of the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts (JAMU) in Brno was restored and the renovated Studio Marta theatre space was reopened, providing a meeting space for students and teachers of the three Czechoslovak art universities: JAMU, the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) and the University of Performing Arts in Bratislava (VŠMU). Together, they initiated the creation of a new project, an annual event that would develop into an international event in the future. Representatives of these three schools were the first participants of the festival and still feature in the main program every year. The first event took place in 1991, and a year later the festival was named SETKÁNÍ/ENCOUNTER .

Since then, much has changed, both in the form of the festival and the number of participating schools. What hasn’t changed, however, are the organisers of the festival, who are still students of Theatre Management and Stage Technology. Here, Jana Bejvlová, a 2002 graduate of Theatre Management at JAMU, looks back at how the festival was run twenty years ago.

The festival was the motivation for Jana to travel to the Netherlands as part of her PhD studies, where she later began a career talent scouting for multinational companies. She currently works for KBC Global Services in Brno and is responsible for talent, communications and branding. She still occasionally collaborates on projects with JAMU’s Theatre Faculty, and is also a lecturer on the academy’s HR program.

Which year did you work for the festival and what was your position?

I experienced the ENCOUNTER Festival at the Theatre Faculty from 1998-2002 in various roles, including as a guide for participants, stage manager, fundraiser, and coordinator. I have experienced the joys and pitfalls of organising and running the festival.

Did you enjoy this position? Did you face any obstacles?

I have always enjoyed the festival. Of course, there were moments when you wanted to give up on everything, but they passed quite quickly. It made sense to learn everything on the fly, in real situations, and to have adventures in moments that you just can’t prepare for. There was certainly no shortage of them. I looked in my private archives (yes, I’m sentimental) and found this note: ‘The doorman is not cooperating and will not transfer calls.’ I believe that even today, communication is key to the success of a festival. In the days when faxes were faxed, cell phones were few, and landlines were fought over, communication still had this dimension, hard to imagine today.

What was the shape of the festival at the time of your studies? How did the festival week go?

The festival itself started on Tuesday with the opening ceremony and ended on Saturday with the awards ceremony. The work of the organisers was very intense the week before and after. The festival programme included, in addition to three or four performances a day, one big party, an off-programme, several workshops, discussions, and the ongoing editorial work of the festival newsletter. The festival seemingly didn’t start or end, there was always something going on. No sooner had the participants driven back to their respective cities than the new festival loves were narrated, the spiciest stories were discussed, the evaluations, the final reports, the billing, the date of the next edition, the thanks to the sponsors were already being written…

What did you get out of the festival?

I consider the festival to be the best education of my life. Everything that wise heads write in books about management, marketing, fundraising, production and about the organisation of similar events, one could experience in real life. It was also immediately clear what the academic sources don’t say.

Do you have any stories from the festival that you would like to share?

Every day you had to improvise. I remember a tense situation where a driver ended up in hospital one Saturday with a ruptured stomach ulcer, and I had to accompany him to interpret. These are chilling moments, but fortunately everything turned out well. Then I remember the first meeting with the Moscow students, when I took them to their accommodation and none of them believed me that you could call abroad from every phone booth in our country.

What problems (if any) did you face as a team?

From the first to the last year, when I participated as a student/organising team member, it was communication. Everyone also approached their involvement in the festival differently. There were absolute heartthrobs, pragmatic doers, unshakable “comedians,” rational pros, and philosophical bohemians. To reconcile everything in a way that suited everyone was not easy in tense moments. Everyone needed praise from time to time and for us to point out what should be done differently, better.

Did your year bring anything new?

Help from our festival sponsors has always been key. We sat in the studio one night and thought about how to entertain the sponsors to make it extra special. The sandwich and wine parties seemed out of place. The idea of a taster of what it’s like to study at the Theatre School was born, and the event “Master of Arts in 120 minutes” was born. We came up with a date, a program, and somehow managed to get a lot of teachers involved. So, the sponsors’ representatives went through sign language, ballet, theatre history, acrobatics, mixing desk work, singing lessons… and it all culminated with graduation and the awarding of a diploma. Everyone had a great time and I believe they remember the experience to this day.

Do you still go to the festival? Do you follow its activities today?

I haven’t been to a festival performance, I only follow the festival vicariously and I’m excited about how visible it is, how great its promotion and professional background is. The festival has grown and matured and from the outside looks perfectly run.

What do you like about the festival?

I admire the stamina, the ever-increasing standards, the incredibly packed programme, and the fact that it continues to remain in the hands of students even at this scale.

Does the festival still mean something to you today or do you remember it as just one of your school duties?

I have, do, and will remember with a great deal of sentiment and nostalgia. Every year was something of a first, and each time you encountered real situations that pushed you further. After the first year, we got an invitation from the Moscow students, which we accepted a few weeks after the festival and it was a fantastic experience. The last year for me resulted in an invitation to the ITS Festival in Amsterdam, where theatre school students, professionals, and audiences can come together to learn about new developments in theatre and the new generation of creators, where I then spent eight years. The festival will always be in my memory as a school of life that has influenced my path several times, and I dare say many of my classmates, guests, and teachers have been similarly influenced.

Do you have anything you would like to say or add to the article?

A festival is an organism that has the power to stir situations, experiences, emotions, knowledge… into an elixir that opens up unforeseen possibilities. I’m glad the festival is holding on. I wish everyone involved enough energy and perspective to give it their strength so that the festival can continue to open up new possibilities for everyone.

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