The tradition of literary evenings held in English in Prague goes back to the early 1990’s, when a group of expats began the Beefstew readings, briefly in Anděl and for many years held in the downstairs of the Radost FX Club. Beefstew was an open-mic for prose, poetry, theater, music, storytelling or any type of performance. It wasn’t just a melting pot of talent, it was the glue that held the community together, long before Facebook, Twitter and smart-phones.
Initially begun by David Freeling, it was later organized and hosted by a string of writers including Anthony Tognazzini, Willie Watson and my husband, Jim Freeman. I ‘discovered’ Beefstew through friends sometime in 1993 and attended almost religiously for the next 11 years. BeefStew took a real hit when Anthony Tognazzini, who then hosted it, and another nine regulars left over the course of a single summer and it never recovered well, so it was finally abandoned.
In 2001, Ken Nash, one of the core ex-pats from the early 90’s and a BeefStew regular, returned to Prague to live. Being the unique person he is, he bought a ticket for a flight on 9-11, so he showed up a week late. Before settling in Prague, Ken spent three months with us at our home in the mountains near Liberec and that’s where we begun to hatch plans for what became the Alchemy Readings and Performances Series.
The community here had matured and it was time to upgrade the format. Ken suggested featuring published authors and established performers as guests, followed by an open-mic. The very first Alchemy evening took place on July 17, 2002 in the grotto of Havlickovy sady (or Grobovka) park. The park was, at that time, still unreconstructed and the “ruins of fake ruins” provided a perfect backdrop for an artistic happening on a summer evening.
The first ‘proper’ Alchemy then waited until mid-September and was hosted in the then newly opened Shakespeare & Sons Bookstore and Café in Vršovice. The same location now known as Café V Lese. Alchemy was conceived as a community volunteer effort and has been presented by a number of hosts: Ken Nash and Laura Conway (founders), Patrick Seguin, Kirsten Weights, Jim Freeman, Chris Crawford, Bonita Rhoads, Scott Nixon, Sarah Borufka and, currently, Annie Brechin.
With more than a decade behind it, Alchemy Readings & Performance Series continues well past a hundred evenings. Having been at its cradle, I witnessed most of these evenings and must say that the amount of talent we saw come through our door astounds me. Also, the format of bringing in new voices as features, well balances the up-and-down nature of open mics.
In 2010, Louis Armand asked me for help in research for his anthology, eventually called The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance, 1990-2010. I went back through my archives and found photos, chapbooks, event-fliers, pamphlets and magazines published over those twenty years. It may have been the first time I realized why I’d kept it all.
Louis opened a lid of a bubbling pot, looking for what others overlooked. As it turned out, all these casual artists who came through Prague now worked on careers, published books, taught at universities and had much to share. After a monumental personal effort, Louis ended up with a book of 960 pages that he put together over the brief course of four months. Amazing.
In those 20 years, Prague became known as a hub of multicultural exchange. Some of it happens at the top level with people like James Regan reading for Presidents and Ambassadors. But the reason Prague was nicknamed the ‘Paris of the 90’s’ were the writers and artists who came here to grow and for whom Prague became a ‘threshold,’ as its name suggests. I feel honored and lucky to have been here to witness it all and happy to see it still vibrant today. More about that in the Alchemy Labs section.
For current program and complete history, visit www.alchemy-prague.com