English-Language Theatre in Prague

After two decades of ups and downs, expatriate drama is still fighting for attention from native Czechs

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

After a month in Prague, I have mastered the art of smiling and nodding when an older woman happily engages in a one-sided conversation with me at an Albert supermarket. While one week of intensive Czech classes provided me with a decent set of survival vocabulary, existing in blissful unawareness has become the norm.

A recent trip to the theatre proved to be a surreal experience. After the routine stop in the coatroom, I was directed towards a doorway and a flight of steps. As I walked down the steps, I heard the quiet murmur of conversation and, all of a sudden, my ears perked up. What was that sound? It's something I understood. It's English. Everyone was speaking in English. After recovering from brief linguistic vertigo, I took it all in at one of the Czech capital's few theatre groups devoted to English-language drama: the Prague Playhouse.

On my first visit to the Prague Playhouse a few weeks ago, I saw a production of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross. The show is about four real estate agents fighting against each other and a struggling economy in order to keep their jobs.

The seven-person, all-male cast was dynamic and conveyed the intensity of the situation with honesty and raw emotion. The actors were strongest in several escalating argument scenes that kept the audience in suspense. The performance was sold out and the audience was very responsive. The originally planned run is over, but the Prague Playhouse is looking to extend the show with some March performances. Such success is not the norm for Prague's English-language theatre scene, which has experienced its share of ups and downs since emerging after the Velvet Revolution.

The early 1990s was a very active period for English-language theatre. Artsy expatriates were pouring into Prague, including actors seeking film, as the city temporarily became Hollywood-on-the-Vltava thanks to its gorgeous backdrop and cheap labor. But the burst of expatriate energy, like the cheap labor and low cost of living, was not to last.

"Two defections were happening simultaneously," says Steffen Silvis, theatre critic for the Prague Post newspaper, an English-language weekly. "There was a loss of artists who went home and there were many that learned Czech, found Czech partners, and entered Czech theatre." Not only did English-language theatre lose its actors, it also lost the majority of its audience when other English-speakers went home.

Nancy Bishop, a prominent Hollywood casting director based in Prague, knows the story well. From 1994-1999, she was the artistic director for the Black Box Theatre, later renamed Black Box International. Bishop believes that the key to successful English-language theatre is a strong audience base, including Czechs.

"It's hard to keep it going on a long-term basis because, ultimately, for [English-language theatre] to succeed, it has to have consistent local support," says Bishop. And how do you do that? "If I knew that, maybe I'd still be doing theatre."

Attracting a Czech audience is one of the major challenges English-language theatre faces. More Czechs speak English than ever before, but they are still not attending. According to Brian Caspe, the Prague Playhouse artistic director, "Czechs aren't so confident in their English." He knows a number of Czech people who speak very good English but, when asked, will say that they do not speak English. The comfort level for most Czechs with their English is generally not high enough to get them to choose English theatre, he believes.

This leads to the larger, more significant point about why Czechs do not go to English-language theatre. As Silvis said, "They have their own. Czech theatre is very strong."

The Czech Republic -- Prague in particular -- boasts one of Europe's strongest theatre traditions. Prague's tourism website lists 14 main theatres in the city, and this does not include theatres like the Prague Playhouse that do not have permanent performance places. Since the population is 1.2 million, this is one theatre per 80,000 people. Neighboring Vienna lists 10 main theatres on its tourism website for a city of about 1.7 million people. This is one theatre per 170,000 -- more than twice the number of people for Prague.

During the Communist era, theatre was completely state-subsidized, making it accessible to all. Today, many Czech theatres still get public money to fund part of their operations. Czech theatres also provided a venue for dissident underground performances during turbulent political times. After all, the country's first post-Communist president, Václav Havel, is a playwright.

When it comes down to it, the quality of English-language theatre is just not as good as the Czech theatres, some critics say. There are not as many actors, directors, performance spaces, or even the interest for it to sustain the best possible talent.

No one understands this dilemma better than Caspe. A trained musician and actor, Caspe moved to Prague in 2002 and appeared in over 30 commercials and several films, including The Illusionist, Young Hannibal, and Wanted. As the influx of movies filming in Prague lessened due to increasing production costs, Caspe looked for another way to keep his interest in acting alive. He saw potential in Prague's English-language theatre scene. He knew that it had previously been successful and saw an opportunity to revive it. In 2003, he founded the Prague Playhouse in order to work in English-language theatre. He is the artistic director and also teaches acting classes. But his job is not without its frustrations.

"The audience is really volatile," says Caspe. "One of the things about English-language theatre is that turnover [of actors, directors, and crew] is very high, which makes it hard to retain knowledge and knowhow for it."

In a city of 1.2 million people, there are only a few thousand native English speakers who are permanent residents. Others are students or English-teachers who stay for a few months or perhaps a year or two.

Like Bishop, Caspe also believes that involving the locals is the best way to increase English-language theatre's popularity. "One of the keys is having people from the home community involved. We want to involve more Czechs," says Caspe.

One of the ways he hopes to do this is by setting up educational programs in order to use the play as a language-teaching tool. He imagines having sessions for Czechs before the play during which they could discuss plot and themes.

This type of program would definitely be helpful for a show like Glengarry Glen Ross. The show is great, but has very little physical drama. In order to understand it, you really have to understand the words.

And for Czechs, even this may not be enough.

Pavel Kutaj is a resident assistant at New York University in Prague and attends theatrical performances about once every two months. When queried about the potential of English-language theatre in Prague, he was puzzled. "Who would English-language theatre in Prague be for?" he asked.

Kutaj sees potential in the idea of the plays as an educational tool for young students, but he believes they are first and foremost a tourist enterprise. "Those theatres are run by non-Czechs. They are for non-Czechs." Kutaj thinks that the theatres should focus their energy on attracting more tourists in order to boost attendance by working with travel agencies and advertising on tourist websites. "I think they've got to move their butt a little more and look for an audience."

Prague Playhouse Website

Christina Ng is a second-year student at New York University studying Journalism and Politics. She is from Cincinnati, Ohio.


READERS' COMMENTS


I can't say that I blame natives for not wanting to see English plays. It is the same in the U.S., English movies and plays do better than foreign ones, just a fact.

Jillian
March 21, 2009

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