David Nykl Czechs into the Prague theatre scene - actor/director - Interview
Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada,  Fall, 1995  by Joanna Norland
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He knows the lighting technicians will show up two hours late. Unless the bus breaks down and they cancel altogether.

They couldn't call to apologize even if they tried: the phone lines have been on the fritz since yesterday. When they do get through, rescheduling will be a nightmare. His agenda is already jammed with rehearsals for two shows, one in Czech, one in English, evening productions of three others, voice-training classes to hone his Czech accent, film and television auditions ... and he tries to get home by midnight now and then to work on film script translations.

Prague is no Paris of the 20's, says 27-year-old actor/director David Nykl, a bilingual Czech-Canadian national from Vancouver, B.C. It's more like a French-door farce. But a city taking its first tentative steps towards a Western-style service economy offers opportunities that make up for the mayhem. In the bargain, says Nykl, he's left behind the weariness and hopelessness which he feels are endemic to the North American theatre community.

Nykl's family immigrated to Canada in 1968 following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. He grew up in Vancouver performing in both languages. Later, he joined Bard on the Beach and the Pacific Theatre Tour, and appeared in the CBC film David.

These days, you can find him at the Celetne Theatre in the heart of Prague's theatre district, running lines in Czech with the Kaspar Theatre Company or mailing out flyers advertising Misery Loves Company, the English-speaking repertory troupe he co-founded last year." In Prague," says Nykl, "Our attitude is: No money. No resources. Let's get on with it anyway."

Nykl stirs sugar into his dark mulled wine, the staple drink of Prague's smoky cellar pubs. Wearing a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots, he looks like he belongs. It's hard to believe how much he struggled, a year-and-a-half ago, over the decision to relocate. "I got a phone call at three a.m. from Jakub Spalek, artistic director of the Kaspar Theatre Company," Nykl recalls. "I was in Albany, N.Y. working as a summer intern, and Spalek tracked me down. They had a part for me in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. DECIDE NOW."

Nykl had met Spalek the previous year, during a brief acting assignment in Prague: The Rokoko Theatre had solicited English productions, and Nykl's pals from Bard on the Beach had submitted a successful proposal to perform Waiting for Godot. Nykl assumed that visit to Prague - and the real-life drama of acting in the country from which his family once fled - was a one-time adventure. But accepting Spalek's offer, he now says, "meant I was making a commitment to join Kaspar, and to start a new life." Prague theatres operate on the repertory system, performing their plays for years, different shows on different nights.

Having made the commitment, Nykl stuck out the first frustrating months, although he felt like a cultural refugee. The conservative, classically-oriented style of Czech theatre was a hard fit. Unfamiliar cities are lonely and his apartment was the grim embodiment of the East Block housing nightmare.

Nykl remained motivated by "the will and spirit I saw in the Czech theatre community." Kaspar was established in 1990 by young graduates of the state theatre academy. The year before, they had helped organize the protests that brought down the Communist government. Stepping forward and starting the Velvet Revolution gave these students a raison d'etre, says Nykl.

The company's energy is rewarded by audience loyalty - for Nykl, a much-needed break from the apathy of the North American theatre-going (or, more often, not-going) public.

In the Czech Republic, state funding, a hold-over from the Communist era, subsidizes theatre tickets which sell for as little as 40 korunas (about two dollars). The Communist Party tried to use theatre as a tool of social control but companies found creative ways to project subversive messages. Czech theatre is by tradition, therefore, an affordable, populist, political medium.

"I love it that people in this city seek the theatre out," says Nykl. "I love it that we don't have to train audiences to see theatre." And Nykl learned to love living in Prague, once he discovered a network of ex-pats who share the drive of his Czech colleagues. A hundred-odd actors, directors and playwrights have begun collaborating in small, informal groups, seizing the chance to "invent English theatre in a city where no system of structure for it is in place." The market is ideal: the city's tens of thousands of ex-pats have little entertainment they can understand, and are eager for any contact with a familiar culture.

Nykl hit it off with North American performers Richard Toth and Ewan McLaren. In the spring they began rehearsing The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine by Canadian playwright Leah Cherniak. Soon after their June opening, Spalek invited the crew - now called Misery Loves Company (MLC) - to share Kaspar's new space at the Celetne Theatre.

MLC, Prague's only English language company with a permanent home base, now runs three shows in repertory and regularly hosts evenings of new works by local English playwrights. Nykl enjoys the freshness of the ex-pat voices. "Often our work is about explaining who we are, and why we're here right now, and maybe about poking fun at ourselves," he says. "We're not here to take ourselves too seriously."

Financial return for English theatre is negligible, explains Nykl. Ex-pats are not eligible for state grants to subsidize tickets. Nykl supplements lean earnings from the Kaspar payroll by translating Czech film scripts and appearing in the occasional film or television show. Most English actors and directors donate their time to the theatre, and teach English part-time.

So English language theatre is cranking up the volume and turning up the lights. About half a dozen companies have emerged. Names such as Black Box, Inside/out and Borrowed Robes reflect their no-frills approach. Last summer, ex-pats produced a two-month English theatre festival.

The growth of English theatre signals to Nykl the importance of another part of MLC's mandate: forging links between Prague's English and Czech communities. MLC productions attract almost as many Czechs as ex-pats. Their second repertory show, Nightingale for Dinner by Josef Topol, is a Czech work in translation. In The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, Nykl played opposite Czech actress Petra Spalkova, who "picked up the inflections for the English lines by listening to us speak." Collaboration takes effort, but "if we're going to coexist constructively, we have to find ways of working together and learning from one another," says Nykl.

Prague is at the crossroads of Europe, and in the course of history different cultures have influenced the city," he continues. "The current wave is Westernization, and the relationship between Czechs and ex-pats can be tense. But Spalek invited MLC to the Celetne because the Kaspar Company wanted to learn from actors trained in North America. We have to appeal to Czech companies and audiences, and to give them what they need."

The learning process goes both ways, he adds, and "the big lesson for me is that anything can be done. In North America we all wanted to work, but there were so few jobs and so many obstacles that none of us thought we could," says Nykl, recalling his regular cameo roles, between theatre contracts, as a waiter and office temp. "After a while you'd think - why bother trying? Here, everyone knows you have to bother. Work is literally all I've done since I got here."

As for North America, "I'll go back," he says, "when I can bring with me the success I have here, in acting and working. Right now, I consider myself blessed to be in Prague. We have a space. We have a voice. We have an audience ready to listen."

Nykl drains his glass of mulled wine, signals for the bill, and gets up to phone the lighting technicians. [section]

Joanna Norland is an Ottawa native who now lives in Cambridge, England.

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