History of the Building
The first records of the place where the Theatre Na zábradlí stands today date back to the 12th century. The Chronicle of Royal Prague states that in the 15th century the building of today’s Theatre Na zábradlí was called Dům U zeleného kloboučku (House at the Green Hat), later Dům Milevských (House of the Milevsky family). In the 16th century, the house was owned by the Wallensteins, who also took possession of the neighbouring building and combined the two houses into a single unit. At the beginning of the 19th century the building served as a factory for printing cotton fabrics. In 1836, a major reconstruction was carried out here according to the design of the architect J. C. Vitek, during which a large hall was created in which printing tables for the card room were placed. At the end of the 19th century, the ownership was acquired by the Union of Catholic Apprentices, which provided free accommodation and food for ‘working craft youth’ from poor families.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the theatre industry boomed in the Czech territory – in 1913 the Union of Catholic Apprentices built a hall and stage for its amateur company in the former textile factory. In 1933 the troupe’s activities were interrupted by the war and in 1944 the house was occupied by the Germans. After the war, the Union briefly resumed its amateur activities. In 1954, the house was expropriated for the Czechoslovak state.
In the spring of 1958, the theatre space was given to four theatre professionals: Helena Phillippová, Vladimír Vodička, Jiří Suchý and Ivan Vyskočil. The hall that the young theatre artists were given to use was actually just a junk store full of dust and dirt. The founders named the newly established theatre after the alley leading from the riverside to Anenské náměstí, and despite the improvised operating conditions, the first premiere took place there on December 9, 1958, with Antonín Moskalyk’s production If a Thousand Clarinets. Incidentally, this musical production was the basis for the successful 1965 film of the same name by Ján Roháč and Vladimír Svitáček.
Until 1962, the theatre’s repertoire consisted exclusively of original productions by Jiří Suchý, Miloš Macourek and Ivan Vyskočil. In addition to the drama troupe, however, a pantomime troupe of Ladislav Fialka was founded in March 1959. Soon Fialka and his pantomime group became a phenomenon well-known and popular at home and abroad. Already in 1960 the pantomime group went on its first foreign tour to the GDR. In the following years, the group toured abroad regularly, performing in Cuba, the USSR, North and South America, Africa and South Asia. Moreover, in 1969 the theatre managed to organize the prestigious International Festival of Pantomime, which was attended by the world’s leading mimes – Marcel Marceau, Dimitri of Ascona and Pierre Byland. Pantomime was an integral part of the theatre until the 1990s.
From Grossman to Lébl
When Jiří Suchý and Ivan Vyskočil decided to leave the theatre after conflicts of opinion, director Jan Grossman took over as artistic director in 1962. Under Grossman’s leadership, the theatre began to develop the Czech form of the theatre of the absurd. During this period, Václav Havel’s plays such as The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration were premiered at Na zábradlí. Alongside them, however, the theatre’s repertoire was filled with world classics of absurd drama – productions of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or The Lesson, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were staged here under Grossman’s direction. Among other theatres, it stood out for its intimate atmosphere and its strong need to communicate and share a common topics with the audience.
Following the Soviet-led crackdown on the liberal Prague Spring reform movement in 1968, Grossman and Havel were forced to leave the theatre for political reasons. With the 1970s being a period of “normalisation“, meaning most of the outstanding directors of the time were forbidden to work, film directors of the so-called Czech New Wave, who were not allowed to work at the Barrandov film studios, were invited to work at Na zábradlí. The repertoire was thus shaped by personalities such as Juraj Herz, Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš, Jan Kačer, Ivan Rajmont or Evald Schorm, who between 1976 and 1987 managed to create another significant era of the Theatre Na zábradlí with his productions of Hamlet, Macbeth or The Brothers Karamazov. At the end of the 1980s, thanks to the gradual political liberation, some of the previously “banned” personalities returned. In 1989, Jan Grossman also made a comeback, subsequently staging his own productions of Molière’s Don Juan or Havel’s Largo desolato and Temptation at Na zábradlí, and in 1991 he also replaced Vladimír Vodička as director of the theatre.
After Grossman’s sudden demise in 1993, Doubravka Svobodová became the director of the theatre. Together with artistic director Petr Lébl, she started an iconic era of the theatre, which was ended by Lébl’s tragic death in 1999. Under his artistic direction, the theatre won several Alfréd Radok Awards and was named Theatre of the Year in 1994 and 1997. Lébl’s direction of Chekhov’s plays Ivanov, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya, Örkény’s Catsplay and the musical Cabaret are forever indelibly etched in the Czech theatre history.
Lébl’s death affected not only the lives of his colleagues and friends, but also the artistic course of the theatre. The artistic leadership was rather unstable during the first decade of the new millennium. Besides the actor Jiří Ornest and the dramaturge Ivana Slámová, the theatre’s key personalities included directors such as Jan Antonín Pitínský, Jiří Pokorný, Juraj Nvota and Jan Nebeský. A new, dramaturgically coherent period of Theatre Na zábradlí began again in 2013, with the arrival of a management that is still in charge today…
Since 2013, Petr Štědroň has been the director of Theatre Na zábradlí. Dora Štědroňová is the artistic director and Jan Mikulášek is the head director. Together they have formed an artistically strong managing group admired by the audience and appreciated by critics. The production Velvet Havel, directed by Jan Frič, was a huge success in 2014, winning all categories of the Theatre Critics’ Awards and earning Theatre Na zábradlí the title “Theatre of the Year 2014”. In the following years, director David Jařab and set designer Marek Cpin were also awarded for their creative achievements at Zábradlí.
The theatre’s dramaturgy is currently following the path of original productions (for example Hedonists, Hamlets or the documentary Discoland), dramatizations of novels (like Bernhard’s Woodcutters or Daňa Horáková’s autobiographical book About Pavel) and radical interpretations of classics (such as Balzac’s Lost Illusions or the adaptation of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy). In recent years, the theatre’s artistic management has been enriched by the widely acclaimed young dramaturgs Petr Erbes and Boris Jedinák, who have contributed fresh poetics of semi-documentary productions to the repertoire.
Divadlo Na zábradlí also regularly prepares various additional programmes for its audiences. Approximately three times a month, it organizes post-performance discussions or dramaturgical introductions with the creators of the productions, and it also produces two podcast series on different streaming platforms. The theatre life also includes a cosy café, which functions as a meeting place, a cultural space and a place to relax over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Both the café and the theatre foyer also provide space for exhibitions by allied artists or for community events such as Christmas fairs or the European Theatre Night. Since the 2022/2023 season, Divadlo Na zábradlí has been running a Patrons’ Club, providing special bonus programmes to its most loyal visitors who choose to support the theatre financially, building a theatre community based on shared experiences in both the auditorium and the backstage.
The ensemble of Divadlo Na zábradlí regularly performs on stages and at festivals at home and abroad – it regularly visits Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, but has also performed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Colombia, the United States and other countries.