By Barbora Orlická and Tomáš Varga
It all began in 1965 in a small village called Cikháj when a nice lady from Scotland got an idea. She was none other than Jessie Kocmanová. Jessie arrived in Czechoslovakia after 1945 with her husband, a Czech airman Vincenc Kocman. She became a member of the Department of English and American Studies and she was also involved in a theatre production at the British Council in Brno in 1947. After it closed down in 1948, she turned her attention elsewhere. Eventually, her interest in theatre found its practical outlet during one of the intensive English weeks in Cikháj where she decided to chase away boredom with the very first production of the Gypsywood Players (although the name was adopted only a year later). “So on the spot she just decided let’s do a play. So she picked out a five or six actors and found a text of some kind and they put on this play there,” recalls Don Sparling. As it turned out, it was the most remarkable thing she could have done.
Don joined the group in 1977. It was in fact only two weeks after he joined the Department itself. The group left for Cikháj to rehearse Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Don’s beginnings were both humorous and a little frustrating: “Playing a Shakespearian clown is one of the most frustrating things in theatre because it’s filled with all sorts of puns that nobody understands… But anyway it was a great introduction to Gypsywood.” Despite the initial shock, Don immediately became close friends with Jessie and together they directed many of the GWP plays. He took part in seventeen different productions, Jessie in over twenty.
As of today, The Gypsywood Players is the longest-functioning student group at the Faculty of Arts. It celebrated its 50th anniversary this past March and more than four hundred people have already participated in the company during its long history. Many of the current staff members of the Department of English and American studies were at some point involved in the production, either as students of the Department or already as teachers, providing guidance to the younger generations.
The company has tried its talents on dozens of plays of all kinds. The first decade witnessed more traditional plays of Shakespeare or G.B. Shaw, whereas most of the later production up till now focused on modern pieces. There were comedies, tragedies, musicals, and other genres. At first, the company performed in Cikháj with a rerun at the faculty premises. Later on, the company started using the venues of local theatres in Brno and continues to do so now.
The long string of plays over the five decades was not without interruptions. After 1989 the student life erupted with opportunities and the company lost its central position. The students’ involvement slowly wavered and the company hit a dry spell in 1993. The fame was briefly rekindled in 1999 when Pavel Drábek and Ondřej Kyas created a unique performance of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Don Sparling considers this performance his favourite from those he experienced as a viewer. “It took two and a half hours and you felt you’ve been in the theatre for ten minutes, it was such an intense experience.” After seeing the play on different occasions in England, Don condemned the play as impossible to be put on successfully. The Gypsywood Players’ production convinced him otherwise. “The production here was amazing, it worked at every level.”
The play itself is a serious piece, styled as a Greek tragedy, but the GWP performance was framed by two St. George’s plays which helped to ease the artistic burden and create the right atmosphere. The play “is very difficult to stage, as it is dead serious and strangely experimental, even paradoxical at moments. And this mumming-like framing established the right kind of communication with the audiences,” recalls Tomáš Kačer who played a priest. The ensemble consisted not only of actors, but it also had a 20-member female choir (playing the chorus of the women of Canterbury). The music was originally composed by Pavel Drábek and Ondřej Kyas who then conducted the music on stage. The play was immensely successful and the company went to perform in Bratislava. Unfortunately, after the Murder the company fell silent again for a couple of years.
Another attempt for the company’s revival occurred in 2005 with A Bohavian Fairy Tale written and directed by Matthew Nicholls. Once again it was an isolated event and it wasn’t until the autumn of 2012 that the company finally caught fresh wind for its sails. Tomáš Kačer, then a fresh Ph.D. graduate, was approached by a student from the Department who initiated the resurrection. Tomáš decided to supervise the new project and created a link between the older generation of the Gypsywood Players and the young blood. The play was chosen and Tomáš went on to prepare the first auditions in seven years. More than 20 students signed up and were admitted into the group. The first revival play was Tom Stoppard’s comedy, The Real Inspector Hound. In autumn 2013, Jeff Smith came aboard and became the Artistic Director of the company. That year, the GWP performed Tom Taylor’s Our American Cousin and as a prequel, Jeff Smith’s own play Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln? In autumn 2014, Jeff directed the musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Since the revival, The Gypsywood Players have become an official course available to all students of the Department to enrol into. Needless to say, the students don’t participate merely for the credits. While the membership is purely voluntary and everyone who wants to participate is welcome, there is also a true dedication expected of any soul that decides to join the company. There is an immense amount of work involved in every production and the participation in the company allows students to experience the entire repertoire of roles necessary for running a theatre company. Not only acting, but directing, managing, lighting, and costume designing are vital roles that cannot be underestimated. Everyone becomes a piece of a puzzle and together they create a unique experience of amateur theatre. A lot of the current members have participated in two or more of the recent plays which suggests that The Gypsywood Players are once again a true theatre company. (And you never know, even a humble stage hand might eventually achieve the lofty rank of Company Manager).
Under the leadership of two skilled theatrologists the company celebrated two very important anniversaries in the 2014/15 academic year. First the company commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the very same play the company put on in November 1989, and a few months later they marked the 50th anniversary of the company itself by hosting a gathering of the former members.
The musical adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm was chosen as a celebration of both the Revolution and the company itself. When The Gypsywood Players performed the play in 1989, it immediately became very popular and they ended up translating the play into Czech, thus actively participating in the turbulent changes in the society.
On March 7, the company held a special performance of Animal Farm celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. The event was organised by Don Sparling, Tomáš Kačer, Jeff Smith, and Jeff Vanderziel with the help of the current student management of the Gypsywood Players. More than a hundred alumni and former members of the company attended the performance and the subsequent banquet held in one of the newly reconstructed buildings of the Faculty of Arts.
The Gypsywood Players seized numerous opportunities to go on tour. The most recent tours were to Bratislava in the Spring of 2014 and to Ostrava in the Spring of 2015. In Bratislava, the Gypsywood Players attended a small festival of English drama organised by ActofKAA – the theatre company of the Department of English and American studies in Bratislava – performing Our American Cousin and Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln? The event took place in P.O.Hviezdoslav’s theatre – the former venue of the Slovak National Theatre. The company had the honour of performing on the same stage as many of the most famous Slovak actors. In the Spring of 2015 the company performed Animal Farm in Stará Aréna in Ostrava. Despite the fact that their “farm” had to shrink to a quarter of its previous size, the company managed splendidly and the new space allowed for a unique experience for both the actors and the audience.
It all arose from boredom, but the company has never been boring! It survived changing regimes, missing actors, cancelled venues, lost props and many more disasters, but it has kept its place at the Department of English and American Studies and hopefully it will survive another half a century and more!