Guy Roberts – Founder of Prague Shakespeare Company

Guy Roberts as Macbeth with Charles Frederick Secrease as Macduff, Macbeth directed by Guy Roberts. Photo: Kaja Curtis - Divadlo Kolowrat

Anyone interested in English-language theatre in Prague will do well to look up tickets for productions by the Prague Shakespeare Company, founded by the Texas-born Guy Roberts, who is also its artistic director. The company has a much anticipated production of Twelfth Night coming up at the Kolowrat Theatre as well as other plays on.

Guy Roberts as Macbeth with Charles Frederick Secrease as Macduff,  Macbeth directed by Guy Roberts. Photo: Kaja Curtis - Divadlo Kolowrat
I sat down with Guy this week to discuss the state of English-language theatre in the capital; I began by asking him how he first came to the Czech Republic.

“In 2007, I was running a Shakespeare theatre in Austin, Texas and the city of Austin gave me a grant to come to Prague and direct Macbeth with a multi-lingual company which was working out of a shed basically at Letná Park. And so I came and we did a very avant garde production of Macbeth and it was successful. I had what is a very cliché experience of walking across the Charles Bridge just my second day here and I was hit by this feeling of ‘Wow! I really want to live in Europe!’.

“So I decided to stay. I got the idea of forming an English-language theatre. At that time Prague was really the only city in Europe that did not have a regular professional theatre, like Berlin, like Vienna. So I thought there was a real opportunity. And what I wanted to do was to use Shakespeare as the cultural and artistic aesthetic, the base. So I resigned my job in Austin and moved here.

“For the first few years I spent about half a year here and half in Texas, but in 2012 we formed a partnership with the Czech National Theatre, and once we had that I knew I had to be here full-time.”

The National Theatre: that must have been a big deal.

“Yes, to my knowledge it was the first time that kind of partnership with an English-speaking theatre in this country. People also ask me what is it about the Czech Republic and part of the answer is that I think it is there somewhere in my DNA, my ancestors calling to me because my grandmother was Czech. So I am 25 percent Czech. Things really fell into place for me here and in a way I think my whole life I was looking for ‘pohoda’ [Ed. note: Czech for a feeling of well-being or ease].”

You are an Austin native?

“Houston, actually.”

But no accent…

“I can do one if you need me to (drawls). No, in this profession and with our focus on classical work the accent has to be dropped a bit. But to come back to the company, it is not just Shakespeare. The more we worked here, the more we realized there was a whole other need which wasn’t being served and we started branching out and began offering other works, we have been commissioning new works, we just did our first musical, Into the Woods. But Shakespeare’s work is what we always come back to. This year alone we employed more than 150 people from four continents and 14 countries, all coming together and working in this common language of Shakespeare.

Jessica Boone as Vanda and Guy Roberts as Thomas,  Venus in Fur directed by Guy Roberts,  photo: Kaja Curtis - Divadlo Kolowrat
“The reason we love Shakespeare so much is that anywhere in the world where theatre is being performed, they are also performing the works of William Shakespeare. He is absolutely universal and there is something that speaks to us and something that we keep coming back to. An example, is that the National Theatre is putting on a new production of Othello directed by Daniel Špinar. It is a very interesting production which examines new aspects and a good production will always bring something new or examine the work in a new ways. That’s why we can keep coming back.”

I used to know a bunch of actors and students of acting who lived and breathed Shakespeare to the point they would have a party and somebody would pull out a list of obscure or more obscure quotes from not just the plays but the sonnets as well and they would have a great time with that. But it was also a part of their daily lives. It was a curious thing.

“Many people don’t realise that we are ‘speaking Shakespeare’ all the time. He coined so many words and expressions that we use regularly: critic, fashionable, eyeball, assassination, bedroom, all of these words are part of our modern vocabulary. So when people say they don’t understand Shakespeare, it is such old English, it is not.

“One of the greatest compliments we get from students who see our shows after performances is that they thank us for ‘translating’ Shakespeare into modern English. But we actually don’t. We never do that. What we do is pay attention to the language and try and present it in a way that it is as accessible as possible. And when you pay attention to the language you realise that it is not this bizarre and archaic form of English but that 95 percent of the text is understandable. A few words are no longer in use, but you can understand them through the context.”

Is this also important given that you have many actors for whom English will not be a first language?

“Absolutely. But one of the joys we have discovered working with non-Native English speaking actors is that they have an appreciation for the way the language is constructed that Native speakers do not. They enjoy the sounds of the words, the way they are put together and really find the nuances of meaning. We found in our work, working with French or Slovaks and Czechs that a whole new resonance or meaning comes up.”

As both an actor and director, do you have a preference for the comedies or tragedies?

Jana Pidrmanová as Vanda and Václav Va¹ák as Thomas in Venus in Fur  (Czech version) directed by Guy Roberts and Jessica Boone. Photo: Kaja Curtis - Divadlo Kolowrat
“I am not sure. But if you take the greatest roles, like Hamlet, Hamlet is very funny. And if you take some the great comedic roles, like Falstaff, Falstaff is very sad. So, as an actor my preference are the roles which offer the greatest ambiguity and contradictions within the character. I think that that is what makes Shakespeare the best writer we have in drama: his great characters are fully-formed, three-dimensional human beings with flaws and terrific aspects as well. For me those are the most interesting roles to play and also, as a viewer to watch.”

Do you feel there is a big difference between American and Czech acting? When I first moved here, the acting, say in TV or film, seemed more ‘theatrical’…

“There is a difference but in style or tone only. I have been astounded by many Czech actors I have seen: many are fantastic. I would say that the Czech acting style is much more muscular, more vigorous and intense than you generally get in Great Britain or America, even though we have famous ‘schools’ of method acting and so on. The primary reason, I think, is because in the US there is a far greater emphasis on film and television and a particular style that is needed for that. But many of the great Czech actors also do theatre and you need different muscles, to breathe through your diaphragm, if you are at the Estates Theatre, playing to seats way at the back…”

You have to ‘project’…

“Absolutely, yet at the same time put on a ‘small’ performance. One of the greatest experiences I had when I first came here was seeing actor Jan Tříska in The Tempest. He was playing Caliban, the oldest Caliban I think I have seen, but he was so intense and the rapport with the audience was incredible. I realized there was something special going on here.

“Frankly, one of the reasons why I love this country is because of how much theatre professionals are respected. Theatre artists not just cast away to the side ‘Oh, that’s interesting… when are you going to get a real job?’ Theatre is thought of as a real job here and that is very refreshing.”

For many actors theatre remains their primary aim, the stage is known as prkna or the planks, it has a ring to it of a badge of honour…

“Yes. Certainly one of the things that is great about meeting actors here is that it is not first about what TV show they are in but you recognize them from a theatre production or you can tell what kind of work they are doing by the company they work in. There is really a wonderful tradition here.”

We have talked about Czech actors… there are other English-speaking companies here; are they the competition?

“I don’t see them as the competition. I think it is great if there is much as English-language work is possible, provided it is good. It widens the audience and raises awareness. Our work is pretty specific as well: the classics and we have commissioned a few new works, one on Smetana, another on Kafka. We are pretty much focused on the classical canon, so not competition. Anything that adds to the community, that’s great.”

Let me ask differently: do you all know each other?

“Oh yeah, there’s Brian Caspe of the Prague Playhouse, he’s been in a lot of our stuff. There’s David Fisher who runs Bear Educational Theatre, which I think has been around 20 years… so we do know each other and we try to go and see each other’s work when possible. But we are also quite busy with our own projects.”