All the world's a play
John Johnston and Guy Roberts are a study in contrasts. Both are artistic directors of theater organizations; Johnston of the Classical Theatre Company (CTC) in Houston and Roberts of the Prague Shakespeare Festival in the Czech Republic. Johnston is the more reserved of the two, while Roberts seems more of a spontaneous risk taker. With his clean-cut looks, Johnston resembles a young bank VP, while the pony-tailed Roberts looks like he stepped right off the set of As You Like It.
OK, maybe he just did, read on.
Together, they are about to launch a pair of Shakespeare classics, As You Like It and King Lear, in Houston at Main Street Theater's Chelsea Market Stage on Thursday through May 1, then at Vyšehrad (Vyše Castle) in Prague, May 18-June 5.
"It's like performing Shakespeare at the Alamo," says Roberts. "It's an ancestral home."
A pair of plays performed an ocean apart is an ambitious project for these two small but stalwart theater troupes, yet things have miraculously fallen into place in time for this week's opening. Like everything he does, Johnston had a plan.
"Pairing a comedy and a tragedy makes for a nice mix, and then there is a theme that exists between both plays in that the characters travel into the wilderness to discover true love," says Johnston. "The truth is out in the wilderness, not bogged down in civilization. This return to nature is something that Shakespeare frequently hits upon (also famously seen in Midsummer and The Tempest)."
The two directors met while performing in the Houston Shakespeare Festival. Shortly afterward, Johnston invited Roberts to perform his One-Man Hamlet. Johnston grew up in the River Oaks area, while Roberts is from the Klein area. Both moved back to Houston to be closer to their families.
Although their styles may differ, a mutual passion for classical theater joins them. Both remain dedicated to providing work for actors as well.
Characteristically, Johnston looks a bit stunned at the grandness of the project ahead of him, while Roberts plows enthusiastically forward. I suspect their chemistry is working. As Houston natives, dreaming big may just be in their blood. In addition to directing both plays, Roberts plays Edmund in Lear and Adam in As You Like It.
The cast includes both Houston and European actors, including the Czech superstar Pavel Kříž, who just happened to also win StarDance IV (the Czech version of Dancing With the Stars).
"Pavel is the kind of artist who is always looking for new challenging projects," says Roberts. "I was delighted he was interested in working with our company, and we began thinking about roles that would be a good fit for him. We wanted something that would allow all of his natural charm and wonderful presence to shine, but not something that was so textually heavy he would be spending all his time worried about learning the lines in a foreign language."
The idea that this production may sound completely unique is part of the plan.
"Because many of the actors are not working in their native language, they have spent an enormous of amount of time rehearsing the text and working on pronunciations," Roberts says. "Some of them are starting to lose their accents – which I don’t want. Part of the charm of the productions is this wonderful collection of voices and dialects."
The Houston actors treasure their cross-cultural experience. They include Rutherford Cravens, Philip Hays, Illach Guardiola, Holly Haire, Jessica Boone and Thomas Prior, who has been in four CTC shows thus far.
"JJ (Johnston) strives for that meticulous approach," says Prior, associate chair of Theater & Dance at Sam Houston State University. "He really has his pulse on what matters, from attracting some wonderful designers to his choice of plays."
CTC was founded in 2007 to fill a niche in Houston theater. "There wasn't a year-round classical theater company in Houston," says Johnston, who defines "classical" as plays at least 100 years old. CTC is the only full-time classical theater company in Texas. The savvy artistic director's first production was Shylock, the Jew of Venice, adapted from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It created enough buzz for Johnston to continue to produce a steady crop of plays, including Antigone, Ibsen's Ghosts, Moliere's Tartuffe, and most recently, George Bernard Shaw's Candida.
There's a sleek polish to all the productions that have come out of CTC thus far; with every detail thought through. "I'd rather do fewer productions and do them very well, than mount a larger season," says Johnston.
Growth has been steady and carefully planned. This year, an extra play was added to the season, which expanded to a three-week run. CTC's 2011-2012 season includes The Triumph of Love by Pierre de Marivaux, Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, and The Tempest by Williams Shakespeare, starring Philip Lehl as Prospero.
Roberts traveled to Czechoslovakia on a grant to direct Macbeth while still running the Austin Shakespeare Festival. Soon after, he got the idea of forming the Prague Shakespeare Festival. His operation fills a need, too.
"There is a rich tradition of Shakespeare in English in the Czech Republic. Robert Browne's acting troupe perhaps played Shakespeare in English in Prague as early as 1596, and then certainly in 1603," says Roberts."In 1619, they returned to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector of Palatine. Shortly before that time, Czech aristocrats watched plays in the Globe and other London theaters while traveling."
To raise awareness and funds for the joint project, the team invited Tina Packer, founder of the renown Berkshire-based Shakespeare & Company, to perform her show, Women of Will, earlier this spring. Packer will be back to offer actors workshops. Continuing to train and hone one's craft remains high on both Roberts and Johnston's priorities.
It's remarkable to see two theater troupes take on a mission this big and this global.
"I hope that this project will be a landmark partnernship that inspires similar projects in the future. Not only for CTC, but the Houston theater community at large," says Johnston. "I truly believe that collaboration is the way of the future" Roberts gets the last word, "Shakespeare unites us all as human beings."
See Pavel Kříž in StarDance: