Director Adolf Toman on four decades of Toronto’s New Czech Theatre

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The Nové divadlo (New Czech Theatre) was established in the Canadian city of Toronto in 1970. Since then it has enjoyed several high points: the great actor Jiří Voskovec appeared in one production, Josef Škvorecký wrote a play for the amateur group and it staged the world premiere of the Czech language version of Václav Havel’s Temptation. Recently the New Czech Theatre received an award from the Czech Foreign Ministry for its work in promoting the good name of its founders’ native country. After the ceremony, I spoke about its beginnings with one of those founders, director Adolf Toman.

“It was 1969 and we were looking to get together and create something. And of course there were five or six graduates of arts schools, especially in drama.

“I figured out we could put together some play, and we started with Lucerna, the old [Alois] Jirásek play. It was very successful. About 2,000 people came to see the show so we decided to continue. We started another show, which was Fidlovačka [by Josef Kajetán Tyl], and through the Czech classics we moved to plays by Škvorecký, Havel and other Czech playwrights.”

Adolf Toman
How has your theatre evolved over the decades?

“It has changed, of course. Now it doesn’t have that sense of being close to the Czech language, because people can go to Prague and see shows and all that. But I would say the Czech theatre company developed so many friends that we don’t have any problems – they still come to see our plays.

“And now we are bringing Czech stars from Czech theatre, from Prague, and we incorporate them as leads in some of the shows. It works too, so it’s fine.”

What names have you had from Prague in your theatre?

“Smoljak, Svěrák, Jirásková, Hrušínský…a lot.”

Tell us about language. Do you play only in Czech, or Czech and Slovak, or even some English sometimes?

“Well, I had…an English company at the Limelight Dinner Theatre and I did mostly musicals. So I was involved in the English professional theatre. The Czech theatre was usually done on Sundays. I would say every second month on Sundays there were performances in the Czech language.”

Today around how many members does your theatre group have?

“There are about 30 people who are really honestly interested in the theatre.”

Do you mind me asking, what is the average age?

'Closely Watched Trains', photo: www.divadlo.satellite1-416.com
“The age is moving up [laughs]. I’d say the average age today is about 45, 50. But there are young people who are starting to get involved, so I guess it will even up somehow.”

You mentioned the stars that come from here to appear at your theatre – were there any other changes that came after the end of communism?

“We were involved politically before. We were also doing shows against the communist regime, and we were involved in the Velvet Revolution – we sent money to Prague, we supported newspapers.

“That sense has been lost now. Now the repertoire has changed…It goes more towards friendship between people, it goes more towards comedy, so people can enjoy something. They can come home from work, they go to see the show and have a good time…”

Were there any roles with which you yourself were particularly associated, or any roles you’ve played many times?

“I was 90 percent directing shows…Of course there are some shows which I like. I like Hrabal very much. All the adaptations of his novels are really great, like I Served the King of England.

'Lucerna', photo: www.divadlo.satellite1-416.com
“Also I’ve done Čapek, The White Disease. It was done as a modern play about terrorists who infiltrate a virus and want to take over the government. That was very popular too.”

What have been the biggest hits with audiences over the years?

“Czech classics always work. But I think Havel’s play was a big hit. Lucerna we’ve played three times, and that’s always a hit.”

I know you’re based in Toronto – have you also travelled at all?

“Oh yeah, we take shows to Montreal, to New York, we go to Hamilton, Ottawa. We played each show about 10 times, I think. The last one we did was Closely Watched Trains by Hrabal. We played in nine times in Toronto and it was always sold out. I’d say some 300 people came to see each show.”

What about playing here – have you ever performed in Prague?

“No, we didn’t come yet, but we are planning to come.”

What is the theatre up to right now? And what are your plans for the future?

“We are planning to do Ballad for Bandit [the musical Balada pro banditu] and I Served the King of England. These are two shows we’d like to do in spring and fall next year.”

What kind of a role has your theatre played in the Czech community in Toronto?

“I think it’s the biggest meeting place of Czechs living in Toronto, Czechs and Slovaks. Not only from Toronto, but also from the surrounding areas. If some 2,000 people come, that’s a lot of people. People say to one another, I’ll see you at the next show. It’s a social thing also.”

Do you yourself plan to remain involved with the theatre for a lot longer?

“Of course, yes. I love the theatre, it gives me pleasure, I like to direct shows. How long I’m going to do it, I don’t know, but I will try as long as possible [laughs].”