The Prague-based Cimrman English Theatre is taking their successful and very funny production of The Stand-In (Záskok) to America. It is the first time audiences in the US will be able to see the English-language production. Performances are to be held in three cities (from April 19 to 28).
Ahead of the US-run, I spoke to two of the main actors, Brian Caspe and Peter Hosking. Brian began by talking first about the first reading a few years back (Brian is from the US, Peter is the gent with the Australian accent).
Brian Caspe: “Our first stage reading of it was in 2014, so three years ago.”
Peter Hosking: “This is being 2017, good arithmetic…”
BC: “I am actor but simple addition and subtraction I am still pretty good at!”
What was the whole idea to do Cimrman in English all about, how did it come together? Obviously, generations of Czechs know the plays very well… it also seems like a kind of turning point for your troupe, as actors, as well, as well as others involved in the English-language theatre scene in Prague.
PH: “The original translation came from Brian Stewart being introduced to Cimrman through his girlfriend at the time. She provided him with a translation and he rejigged it so that it became much more relevant to English-speaking audiences and we met a bit of resistance at first from the establishment about putting it on. Once they saw it they were swept away and it’s been great. It has been fantastic to be part of that whole mythology of Cimrman.”
People didn’t believe that it could be done in English, or thought that it would lose something?
“The humour in Cimrman is more dry but it is just as beloved and as iconic to the Czechs as Monty Python is to Brits.”
PH: “That’s right. They felt that their humour would not translate well into another language when in fact it’s pretty damn universal!” (laughs)
BC: “And actually if you go onto the message boards, because we are now getting a lot of press about the upcoming tour, you still get people posting in Czech about how it can’t be done, can’t be translated, it’s not gonna work. The good thing is that now you have Czechs who have seen the show counter-posting and saying ‘Actually, you should come and see it because it really does work’. That’s changed.”
For audiences awaiting to discover Cimrman, what kind of theatre is it? What kind of a character is he? He is a fictional character who was voted Greatest Czech of All Time, yet disqualified at the same time because he is not real. Who is Jára Cimrman?
BC: “The way that I like to think about it is, if you think about Monty Python, with John Cleese and Eric Idle and all the others, imagine if they said actually, all of this work that we are doing was written by a guy called Monty Python, we are just performing it. It’s kind of that sense. The humour in Cimrman is not that absurd, it is much more dry and it is much more straight forward but it is as beloved and as iconic to the Czech culture as Monty Python is to Brits and other English-speakers.”
Is Cimrman this forgotten genius? Someone who was kind of behind the scenes and was everywhere first in a way?
PH: “Yeah, he’s the Czech ‘everyman’, the guy who would have been famous BUT… the kind of guy who got to the patent office right after Edison, with the same invention. Of course, if we are talking about audiences who don’t know about Cimrman yet, we should point out that the character never appears in the plays, he is the author of the plays. And the first segment of the show is lectures by ‘learned men who know about Cimrman’ and ‘explain’ his work so that it can be appreciated when the play is performed in the second half of the show.”
BC: “It is not very common for the first half of the play or the evening to be a seminar where people are standing at a podium reading texts about a mythic figure. But what happened is that when the creators of the plays, Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, wrote the first one, they hadn’t quite completed two acts right before the premiere. So they decided to create these seminars to fill the time so they could reference Cimrman but also set up some of the jokes that come later. So that is how all that worked out.”
“Cimrman is the Czech ‘everyman’, the guy who would have been famous IF ONLY… the kind of guy who got to the patent office just a second too late.”
Does Cimrman have ‘US connections’ as well? There was some mention of something like that on the website ahead of the upcoming US tour?
BC: “Well, now that you mention it, there is a reference that he met with Nikolai Tesla in America and that is something that Zdeněk Svěrák just recently discovered through extensive research! That is something that has just come up but I don’t think is part of the original cannon.”
PH: “Of course, Cimrman travelled extensively, even to the North Pole!”
The beauty of it is, is that it is a living mythology, a story that continues to develop, including in your own interpretation and staging…
BC: “One of the great things about being a part of this company is that we do have the support of the original creators. It is so close to so many Czechs’ hearts that do this play without the involvement of Mr Svěrák but also his daughter Hanka, who was integral in the translation and made sure that the essence of the play was captured.
“Not only that, but the eldest son of the late Mr Smoljak, David, is going on the tour with us and shooting a documentary, so that brings a whole other level and gravitas to the project. It’s not just a bunch of English-speaking actors taking Cimrman on tour but we are now threaded into the story. For me it is a real honour to take this beloved piece and to shepherd it onto the international stage.”
Which cities are you going to be performing in, in just a few days’ time?
PH: “We are going to be performing in New York City at the Bohemian National Hall…”
BC: “At Hostelling International on April 21, at the Bohemian National Hall on the 19 and 22 and then we load up into a bus and go down to Washington, D.C. where we will be the guest of the Czech Embassy in Washington…
PH: “President Zeman may be there at around the same time…”
BC: “Yeah, so it is going to be a busy time. We don’t know if Mr Zeman will come to our show in Washington, maybe he will bring Trump, we don’t know. But the expectation is out there, we shall see.”
“It is a real honour to take this work onto the international stage.”
PH: “And after that we will head to Baltimore.”
I was thinking about who might attend, we remember the US vice-president attending Hamilton…
BC: “Yep, interesting days…”
This is a big project: would it have been possible without crowdfunding?
PH: “We were originally hoping for a ministry grant but that didn’t work out. So we went to plan B.”
BC: “It has been quite extraordinary. Because we didn’t know, I mean, we knew we had fans but the campaign itself was very moving. People felt very strongly about the project. We thought that most of the donations would come from the Czech diaspora in America when in truth most of the donations came from Czechs living in the Czech Republic. Then, David Smoljak also ran his own campaign for the film and that has gotten a lot of support, so we are really excited to go.”
Tell me a little bit about ‘The Stand-In’ for those who will be coming…
PH: “After the seminar on matter Cimrman we will get into the actual play, in which a struggling touring theatre company have to replace a husband-wife team who have run off suddenly and left them in a lurch. And we bring in Vavroch, who is really kind of past it, I think!”
You guys have been performing this play for a while, how much of it is now set, or is it still an organic process? Do things still changed?
PH: “Yeah, we always put the mistakes in a different place every night! No, it does morph and change as any play does over the season. The difference here is that under regular circumstances you do a four-week run and it morphs over that period. Here, we have been doing it for two-and-a-half years once a month, so the process is more gradual and we see it more clearly the more often we rehearse. So yes, it is by no means a static production.”
We should mention…
BC: “I just want to say that people on the East coast who want to see a performance, you can go to cimrman-in-america.com and find all the information there, both about tickets or if you want to donate. For example, we will be setting aside donations for possible future tours. We’ve had interest from other parts of the US and we would love to keep taking Cimrman out of the Czech Republic. So that’s involved. Like us on facebook, get involved get in touch!”