English-Language Theater in Prague

Expats.cz

From the story unfolding live in front of you, to the raw emotion of the actors exposing the immediate reaction of the audience around you; from Broadway to Shakespeare, there’s nothing quite like the theatre. The Czech Republic has a strong theater tradition and Prague alone boasts hundreds of venues showing productions every night of the week. Theater however is obviously, language-centric. Unlike the symphony or ballet, it’s a cultural experience that requires knowing the language being spoken. For non-Czech speakers, alternative language theaters haven’t developed much in Prague. You’ll get an odd play here; someone doing something else there; but nothing on-going or cohesive. Expats.cz talked with some local theater companies to discover who they are, what’s coming up that drama lovers can look forward to, and most importantly, what’s the state of English language theater in Prague?

Brian Caspe is the Artistic Director of Prague Playhouse. Formed about seven years ago as a project orientated organization; they produced a show roughly every 6-8 months. In 2006 they organized the city’s first Playwriting Contest. The results of the 4th annual one are to be performed March 21, 24, 27 & 30, 2010 at Divadlo Ponec.

“The first Playwriting Contest was the start of something more solid for us; from that came a lot of subsequent projects,” Caspe said. “The feedback we get from people who’ve submitted and use it as a tool to work out problems they are having with a particular piece; the impetus to the writers, that’s been the real joy of it for me.”

Caspe said the original goal of the project was to get writer’s writing. He notes the winner of the 2006 competition, Richard Byrne, went on to have his submission, Burn Your Bookes performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. “That’s really rewarding as an organizer to see it having that effect,” he added.

Judges chose three 30-minute plays from the pool of entries and all three will be performed each night. The audience has a chance to choose their favorite, and an overall winner will be announced the final night. It’s a great opportunity to see original theater expertly directed.

Professional versus Community is a question that has been asked throughout the history of English language theater in Prague. Is the community in general large enough to support both ends of a production, from actors, directors, technical crew to the audience? And are the people involved trained, professionals or expats in need of something to do? It’s a question Caspe and the Prague Playhouse struggle with as well.

“I don’t know if there’s a consensus. My feeling is there’s not much money in it anyway so we should do it for the love of it and if we get paid, great,” he said. “I’m not pushing it as much as I could, there’s growth potential I’m not exploiting.”

Caspe added that there are about two or three companies regularly producing shows. Because the pool of people to work on them is small; it does have a community theater feel, which Caspe doesn’t think is a bad thing. But the quality is there.

“The people that we are working with are experienced, the shows we do are quality,” he said “Blood, Love and Rhetoric (another theater company) shows are quality; they are dedicated and trained people.”

The feel of community and “spirit of camaraderie” is what makes Guy Roberts, Artistic Director of the Prague Shakespeare Festival hopeful for the future of local English language theater.

“The wonderful thing about the community of English language theatre artists in Prague is that everyone is inclusive rather than exclusive,” he said. “I think the opportunity for English language theatre is both enormous and vital for Prague.”

PSF is dedicated to presenting classic, yet cutting-edge English-language performances of Shakespeare’s plays. In addition to productions, they also hold workshops, classes and lectures. In May 2010, they’ll be performing an open-air production of Romeo & Juliet in Vyšehrad. Roberts believes a bonus for Prague theater goers is the range of productions available.

“The performance offerings are wide and across the board from Shakespeare and classical theatre to modern dramas and comedies to musicals to new works,” he said. He also mentioned the English Theater in Prague Facebook page which keeps fans up to date on what a variety of local companies are doing. Its goal is to facilitate a social network of artists and audiences in Prague.

One of the participants in the Facebook page is the Black Snow Theater Company. Founded in 2008 by David Peimer and Nicole Grisco, with the help of Australian actor Peter Hosking, the company has put on two productions and is working on a first for English, and most likely Czech theater. Black Snow has been commissioned by Divadlo Na zábradlí to do the first English play on their stage. The theater is financing and producing, while Black Snow is staging and directing. The actors are an international mix of native English speakers and Czechs. The play will be performed in English, with Czech subtitles.

The play, A Couple of Poor Polish Speaking Romanians, will open June 3, 2010. Written by young Polish novelist Dorota Maslowska, the production is a translated adaptation of the original. Peimer believes the theater picked this piece because it will speak to young, post-Communist Czechs.

“It’s a generational play, dark humor, content that Czechs can relate to,” he said. “I think the theater thought it was the right time to take a risk. Divadlo Na zábradlí has a history of being experimental and innovating artistically.”

Peimer says the play is aimed at Czechs and he feels that English language theater needs to “break out of the English language bubble” in order to be successful.

“Who’s your audience? Who are your actors?” he asks. “You have to engage with the culture and with the people you are living with.”

Peimer believes being from South Africa, where 90% of the population speaks English as a second or third language, was good training for him when it comes to producing work in a language different from the primary one spoken in the country.

“There (in South Africa) it’s the norm to have mixed language audiences and actors,” he said. “The cultural nuances and differences made me more culturally sensitive and I think made it possible for me to do a production that second language people can respond to and enjoy.”

So what can theater fans look forward to in 2010? After the Playwriting Contest, Caspe said Prague Playhouse is planning another spring production and a musical for later in the year. The Prague Shakespeare Festival has a line-up of events scheduled, including Much Ado About Nothing in the fall and As You Like It in spring 2011. They are also thinking about a fall or winter repertory revival of their past productions.

What does the future hold for both artists and audiences in Prague? Roberts is highly optimistic.

“Soon I have no doubt Prague will join Berlin and Vienna and other European cities with their high-standards and professional productions of English language theatre,” he said.

Peimer offers a word of caution. “You cannot stay within an English or one language only bubble if you want to engage multi-culturally,” he said. “To be successful the interpretation needs to be there, to strike a chord for the audience.”

And keep in mind theater’s true purpose. “The original reason for the playwriting contest was to bring the community together and theater really does that,” said Caspe. “It’s an excuse to go out, be social and experience art.”

Next month, look for part two of this article covering more companies and places you can see English theater in Prague. Plus, we’ll introduce this year’s Prague Fringe Festival, one of your best chances to see entertaining, international English language theater in Prague!