Words of Tomorrow
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Words of Tomorrow

My Very European Experience of Becoming an Actor

Part one of how building my own website is taking me back, I guess

By MARTIN REZNY

To give you some context, I don’t have the scientific data for that, but the Czech Republic might be the world capital of community theater. You pretty much can’t throw a cat around and not hit an amateur acting society of some kind. Unlike debating, acting is also much better integrated into our education system.

Any kid interested in becoming an actor will be confronted with the possibility of participating in school plays or recitation competitions very early on. There’s a network of affordable basic-level art schools offering drama classes. If you live in a small town, it’s also hard to miss the town’s community theater group.

The short version is, I did all that. As soon as I could, as much as I could. I acted in, wrote, and directed school plays. I took several years of drama classes. I was the main villain in a community theater play, written by Milan Kundera for amateur actor societies. Most of all, I participated in recitation competitions.

Me playing St. Nicholas with my fellow actors from Studio Dum lead by late, great Eva Talska (on the right).

As I argued before, recitation was the key part of the journey for me. I started trying my luck at city and district qualification rounds from around age 12. I sucked. Like really sucked. It took about four more years until something suddenly (or I guess not so suddenly, in retrospect) clicked in my brain.

I understood what it means to interpret a text, not just say it. That year, I got into the regional round for the first time. Next year, I won the title of the Laureate at the national poetry festival, Wolker’s Prostejov. The funny thing was, it wasn’t explained to me by a teacher. I just figured it out, and then did whatever I felt made the story more entertaining.

I didn’t know what the judges were looking for, and I certainly didn’t try to psychoanalyze what the audiences wanted. I focused on what the author wanted to say, and on what I wanted to say. As long as I had fun with the texts, the audience seemed to be having fun too. The judges asked me to explain my method, and they agreed that this is the right approach. It sounds pretty obvious, but I guess it isn’t.

However, this immediate easy victory had a bit of a monkey’s paw feeling to it. I achieved the highest honor on the first try, what do I do from there? Winning over and over again, following the same obvious formula, would feel like stagnation. What does a success achieved with no effort teach you? That you’re pretty much already perfect? That clearly wasn’t the case. That everybody else sucks? Now that would be depressing.

I have participated in the tournament 6 more times, I think, and in two more poetry festivals and recitation competitions in Valasske Mezirici and Podebrady a couple more times. If for no other reason, the former was interesting because it was international, including Slovakian performers, and the latter because it involved semi-professionals, students of acting conservatories. Many of whom are now professional actors.

Through all those years, I have watched some performers win every time, with a variation on the same theme, something they were great at from the start. It did feel like stagnation. I never tried to win again. Instead, I looked for new ways in which I can push myself, to fail, if necessary. To the great frustration of many of the judges. For which I feel I should hereby apologize. It was the right thing to do, nevertheless.

A photo from my winning performance of Diane di Prima’s Memoirs.

Recognizing that I was effortlessly good at performing comedy prose, I switched to dramatic poetry. After learning that judges didn’t like certain Czech authors, and that they generally discouraged trying to perform one’s original texts, I of course tried to do both.

I took on very long texts, approaching the 7 or 10-minute maximum length limit, and then I purposely underprepared, risking I will forget lines and will have to improvise. Despite knowing that most judges are involved in all three competitions that I visited, I took some of the texts to all three of them. From any of these troll moves, I have learned much more than from my initial victory.

I have won some more honorable mentions and an award for translation, but that wasn’t what was valuable about it. I have learned how to better write my own prose and poetry by facing criticism of my own texts that I performed. I have managed to make one judge say that maybe more people should try to perform their own texts.

I have misremembered the longest and craziest text I ever performed (in my own translation), a meta-text by David Moser called This Is the Title of This Story, Which is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself, making some of the judges question whether I’m pulling some kind of performance art stunt on them.

Given that this is an experimental text written by a philosopher and not a normal author of prose or poetry, and given that it hadn’t been translated into Czech up until that point, none of the Czech judges knew it, or the author. Some of them therefore suspected right out the gate that I may be lying to them and that I have written it myself.

Then, when I was performing it for the first time, I forgot to say the first paragraph that introduces the only character of this crazy story, Billy. When Billy came up several minutes later, I stopped, realizing I have failed to mention him, and said as much, skipping back to that paragraph, as if it was intentional.

The judges had the text in front of them, but in this case, that didn’t help them very much, as I was jumping all over it at this point. One of the judges later told me that as the 10-minute mark was approaching, she started considering that they might have to drag me off the stage, if what I’m doing is some sort of meta-filibuster.

After my performance, both of the later winners in the younger and older categories told me this was their favorite performance. This taught me many things, including that failure isn’t a calamity, but an opportunity, and that preparing a meticulous plan and carrying it out perfectly is never the best an actor can do.

Our magnum opus at Studio Dum, Rozkrik. We all had to learn to juggle and throw knives for this play.

After trying out everything I could think of in the recitation competitions, I decided to leave them behind me, at least for a time. I started studying at Masaryk University in Brno, social science, not acting, but acting found me again. I was pretty much dragged into Studio Dum by a recitator friend of mine.

I have spent three years there. It was a semi-professional, acting school prep-type group, an actor incubator of sorts. It was led by Eva Talska, a demanding, well-respected Czech avantgarde director. There, I learned how actors learn acting. And singing, dancing, juggling, stunts, pantomime, the whole spiel.

What surprised me was that everyone could learn pretty much anything, if they did the drills and didn’t give up prematurely. I also learned from Talska’s approach to screenplays that there’s no such thing as a bad poem, only one used or performed inappropriately. And that bad acting is pretentious acting.

In about the middle of that, as I was approaching the end of my bachelor studies, I was considering switching to an acting school. After one of our performances, our singing teacher (of operatic singing at the JAMU conservatory) told me that I should go study acting at one of the academies of musical arts. Presumably, because she thought I possessed the necessary skills.

But our director, Talska, advised me not to. She kept putting me into starring roles, so she presumably also thought I was able to get into a school. Her reasoning was that there’s nothing important that I would learn there, as opposed to what I could learn elsewhere.

I had to agree with her. The reason I had to be dragged back into acting was that I assumed there’s no acting group where I could feel at home. I knew that Talska strongly disliked science fiction or witty satire, my favorite genres, and that I disliked most of her favorites, like commedia dell’arte or Bible stories.

But still, she immediately understood what type of actor I am, offering me roles I would hand-pick myself — tragic, crazy, and monstrous, but also sarcastic, saintly, and epic. She wanted me to play Lucifer and Jabberwocky one day, and St. Nicholas and Jesus the next. Her vision of theater was dark and genuine.

I didn’t think anybody in the Czech Republic was doing that. What I believed, and apparently what she believed as well, was that the styles of most of the other contemporary Czech directors were superficial. That they didn’t have all that much to say. And therefore, that they couldn’t help me figure that out.

Me playing Lucifer from Dante’s Divine Comedy at an outdoor performance.

What didn’t help was that, at least at that time, the whole Czech recitation and theater scene was extremely disconnected from the international, English-speaking world. One that I gravitated toward, including especially the ongoing fantasy and science fiction golden age.

I was always more interested in film acting, going from role to role and leaving them behind, rather than working at a theater, playing the same play over and over again. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much opportunity to get involved in that for me. Trying to get hired as an extra didn’t pan out, and I drifted away from my Czech actor friends, who never really shared my interests.

All of this had also happened before the advent of YouTube, so not many recordings of my performances were made, and none of them were widely published. I don’t actually own any of them myself. Perhaps I could track them down, and perhaps I will, but they’re also all in the Czech language, so putting them on social media now would probably also not achieve anything.

Already back then, in my recitation days, a judge once noted that while everybody in the country knew the best young singers at that time, through a televised competition, nobody knew who we were. For all intents and purposes, it’s as if my acting past never existed.

In a way, this is actually wonderful. I can start all over again, in an entirely new way, knowing all that I know now, thanks to all of this experience. I can create my image from scratch. Until I do something that works, I will simply continue not existing as an actor.

Maybe I never will become a known, professional actor. I have learned that success can be a trap, if you need it. At this moment, I’m simply open to opportunities, and to share what I know with others who wish to learn. If there is any creative project that I can help you with in any capacity, let me know. Or you can follow my acting experiments on my YouTube channel, Astrologon.

In any case, thank you for reading my story. I sincerely wish you achieve whatever personal success, or growth, you desire.

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A home for weird ideas, future visions, and mad ramblings. Open for submissions from anyone with something to say about where we’re headed or the nature of time or history. If you want to get added as an author, contact me via my Twitter handle @Nartimar.

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Martin Rezny

Martin Rezny

An independent Czech thinker, speaker, writer, and creator.

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