By Kylie Naughton
Walking into the rustic Jára Cimrman Theatre, it’s not hard to feel a sense of legacy. With corridors lined with black and white photographs capturing Cimrman’s 50-year history, the theatre is a window into Czech humor and culture.
Given the remarkable atmosphere, it’s almost impossible to tell that the theatre’s namesake—Jára Cimrman—never actually existed.
If you know anything about Cimrman, you’ll know that this is precisely the joke. But you may find yourself a bit lost unless you’re fluent in Czech. With productions full of wordplay, double meanings and clever references, even those who have studied Czech as a second language for years don’t always understand the sharp wit and linguistic nuances of the scripts at Cimrman Theatre.
But in recent years, a group of inspired, English-speaking actors have helped conquer the one key factor standing in the way of Cimrman reaching a broader audience—the language barrier.
It began as an unimaginable task. Due to its rich portrayal of Czech history, humor based in ref-erences to Czech culture and blurred lines between reality and history, the concept of an Eng-lish version of Cimrman’s plays was deemed impossible—even by its creators. In American and British terms, Cimrman has drawn comparison to Forrest Gump and the dry comedy absurdity of Monty Python.
But in 2014, at the risk of complete failure (but with the consent of Cimrman co-creator Zdeněk Svěrák), English actor and playwright Brian Stewart, alongside co-translator Emilia Machalová and Svěrák’s daughter, Hanka Jelínková, devoted over a year and a half to fully translating Cimrman’s “The Stand-In.”
“We beleive if you really want to understand Czech culture, you really need to understand Jára Cimrman,” explained Stewart.
After completing their translated version of the play, they gathered Svěrák and a small English-speaking audience at the Cimrman Theatre to test their efforts on the live audience. Immediately, the audience was hooked, to the relief of the cast and writers. The Cimrman English Theatre was born.
Cimrman Plays are divided into two parts. The first act is always given in a deadpan lecture-style format, with explanations and insight of Cimrnan’s work presented by experts deemed “Cimrmanologists.”
Of course, it doesn’t take too much to recognize this as a classic comedy set-up, preparing the viewer for the absurdity which lies ahead. The second half is the work itself—and always an adventure in the unexpected.
The current troupe is compiled of six featured actors hailing from the U.S., Britain and Australia: Brian Stewart, Adam Stewart, Michael Pitthan, Brian Caspe, Peter Hosking and Curt Matthew. The theatre puts on monthly (and nearly always sold-out) performances of “The Stand-In” along with their most recent addition, “Conquest of the North Pole.”
Suprisingly, the audiences aren’t always native English speakers. In fact, Brian Stewart said he believes it’s often filled with native Czech speakers, which he attributes to a mixture of curiousity on how the plays will translate and -Czechs with English speaking partners. In some cases, he said it may also be spillover when the native Czech performances are sold out.
Success over the past two years sparked a new idea—why stop with the English-speaking audi-ence in Prague? An ambitious plan now seeks to land Cimrman in New York City. Company manager and actor Adam Stewart says the troupe has focused their off-stage time on fundraising and planning, in one month alone raising over $6 thousand.
The troupe have three shows booked in New York City and two shows in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, all with promising expectations for turnout. In addition to the general public, Stewart says audience members will likely include embassy officials and other dignitaries eager to see Cimrman’s arrival in America.
There will also be a bit of Cimrman DNA on the trip to the states. David Smoljak, son of Cimrman co-creator Ladislav Smoljak (who passed away in 2010), plans to document Cimrman’s arrival in “the new world.” Smoljak will be filming a documentary for Czech Television focusing on the troupe’s journey to the United States, giving Czechs a first-hand view at how Cimrman is received on the international level.
From the time he was just eight years old, the younger Smoljak recalls Cimrman being a part of his life. As a child, Smoljak says he was sometimes jealous of the fictitious character’s demands of his father’s time and attention, but his later youth swelled with pride in seeing audience reactions to the works. He speaks of Cimrman like a close family friend he never met.
“Svěrák and my father often did their work outside of Prague in a weekend house our families shared,” Smoljak reminisced. “I can still hear the sounds of them working, with one sitting and typing while the other stood and made coffee.”
Smoljak embraces the idea of his father and Svěrák’s work making the transition to English, and it’s easy to see why. The passionate group of actors in the English Theatre believe in Cimrman beyond just its comedic genius, seeing it as a way to give English-speakers a peek into Czech popular culture.
“To be a part of this performance in the theatre home of Jara Cimrman is truly an honor and a pleasure,” said actor Michael Pitthan, ultimately speaking for the entire troupe. “Jára Cimrman epitomizes Czechs as the underdog, or the unrecognized genius. Cimrman came around in a time where you couldn’t say what you wanted, and Cimrman has since represented that kind of comedic relief that we all need. That is something we believe everyone should be able to witness.”
The Cimrman English Theatre embarks on their journey to New York this month, completely supported by the generosity of the public. There’s still time to chip in by visiting www.cimrman-in-america.com, with some pretty great perks for donating. David Smoljak’s documentary is also self- and public-funded, and donations can be made at www.hithit.com/cs/project/3392/cimrman-dobyva-ameriku.