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SWAN NEWS PRESENT: Bliss without Risk, SWAN member from Czech Republic

“It happened once that we lost all our main actresses and had to perform to a full audience. One girl had a drug overdose, the second got ill and the third one disappeared, nobody knows where. We face many practical problems. That was for a play about Loch Ness.’’


Hana Malinova is used to the pitfalls of directing plays; she has been involved in amateur dramatics for more than twelve years. But in the last twelve years, she has faced more than the usual obstacles, as part of her work with street workers in the Czech Republic.


One of the co-founders of Rozkoš Bez Rizika (Bliss Without Risk), a Czech NGO that provides healthcare and advice for sex workers, Hana started to put on plays with working girls in the lead roles in late 1995.


Several factors led to the generation of this unusually creative outreach work. Bliss without Risk had been founded in 1992 and originally employed only three full-time staff. Now in its fifteenth year, it employs four full-time and four part-time staff.


Back in 1995, Hana had applied to become a fellow of the Ashoka foundation. Based in Arlington, Virginia, this organization supports social entrepreneurs - ordinary people doing the work of government in providing social care and support. The way Hana tells the story, it was her announcement that she would put on plays with the prostitutes that swung her application.


She says: “There was a Brazilian lawyer nicknamed Maneto on the committee considering my application. I had written that I would like to do theatre performances with sex workers in the last sentence. He read through it, and there was nothing of interest until the last sentence, which he liked because his grandfather launched an amateur theatre in Brazil sixty years ago!’’


The idea had come from a friend of Hana’s - they were involved in drama together - and she was initially skeptical.


“She said: ‘Do with them what you do with us!’ and I said: ‘You think I can do it with them?’ and she said: ‘Why not?’ ’’


Hana received her first grant in September 1995 and the first play was performed in November. All the plays performed are Hana’s own work and the first one was Borgia or the Metamorphosis of Paid Love. Other works include Kumalo or A strange story from Africa inspired by Hana’s travels in that continent and Tragedy on the Mississippi. The early plays are fairytales but in more recent times Hana has not shied away from controversial topics. How about the men features three characters, two sex workers and a female academic who has come to find out about using vibrators. The play deals with estrangement between men and women and talking about it Hana jokes: “The end of the world will come not from AIDS but masturbation!’’


Each play receives its premiere at the annual AIDS, Drugs and Us Conference held at the Podebrady Spa, about 30km outside Prague. Anybody can come to watch and admission is free, although the audiences are asked for donations at the end. The plays include music and dancing and Hana not only directs them but plays the double bass in the songs. Her daughters have also acted in them, alongside the sons and daughters of some of the sex workers.


As her self-penned works show, Hana is not afraid of controversy. She argued with some doctors who worked with Bliss without Risk who said that amateur plays performed by prostitutes were not proper art. Her response was: “I don’t come to show you proper art, I come to show you how to work with clients.’’


Hana very firmly emphasizes that sex workers are really ordinary people and Petra Hamernikova, a social worker and co-coordinator for Bliss without Risk, believes the plays have a humanizing affect on the girls, both for their own self-esteem and the way others see them. She says: “The girls can feel a change from ordinary people when they perform. Acting in the play, they feel successful and the people who come to the plays see them as normal women.’’


Some girls in the plays have also been drug users and Hana views the plays as a form of therapy that gives a high better than drugs. She says: “If a girl can come on to a stage and say ‘shit’‚‘fuck you’ and get more pleasure than she does from drugs then why not do it?’’


Unusual as they are, the plays can only reach out to so many of the girls. Estimates vary wildly as to how many sex workers there are in the Czech Republic, but Petra says it could be anything between 6,000 and 30,000. It is impossible to know with certainty, as it can depend on how you categorize a sex worker. There are girls in nightclubs and there are those who base themselves in private apartments and so on.


Hana says: “I have some faithful actresses who are in each play. You have this core. The rest, they come, they disappear and are changing, but they all have good memories of the experience. They remember and they say it was a nice time and they really appreciated it.’’


Despite the difficulty in recruiting girls for the plays, occasionally, the effects of performing can radically change a life. Jana Heisslerova used to be a sex worker. One of her roles was playing a pirate in Tragedy on the Mississippi. She now works for Bliss without Risk. Hana met her through outreach work and asked her to try acting with them. Jana now the co-ordinates Bliss without Risks’s outreach teams outside Prague.


Inevitable, the plays make up only a small part of the services offered by Bliss without Risk. As well as offices in Prague, they run a centre in Brno and the previously mentioned outreach teams located throughout the Czech Republic. They also provide weekly advice sessions and clinics with nursing care. They used to run a mobile ambulance, providing medical examinations and rapid tests for HIV and syphilis. But they face a constant struggle for funding and are currently having to rent out their mobile ambulance to another NGO. According to Petra, they received only CZK 56,000 from the Ministry of Healthcare for the entire year. This is equivalent to about $2,300.


Hana says people are simply unwilling to give money to support sex workers because of the stigma which surrounds it as a way of life. She says: “It’s not a project that film or business people put on a T-shirt. Sex workers would like rights like other workers. But people are not able to accept them as part of the same society.’’


The plays seem to provide a path to normalization, but like any outreach work, their future is uncertain. Hana has been putting on plays for twelve years and has run out of original material. The last performance was in 2005. In 2006 she was in Holland and was unable to organize one. Will there be another this year? She doesn’t know: “Whether inspiration comes or not, you cannot say. It doesn’t listen to you.’’
Hannah Costigan

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