Partners of a Prague Theater Kaspar Continue Revolution-Era Dreams

Actors Jakub Spalek (left) and Jan Potmesil in the performance of Vaclav Havel’s  Audience . Photograph by Michal Hladik.

Actors Jakub Spalek (left) and Jan Potmesil in the performance of Vaclav Havel’s Audience. Photograph by Michal Hladik.

Actors Jan Potmesil and Jakub Spalek star in Vaclav Havel’s Audience at the 2019 Rehearsal for Truth Theater Festival in New York City. They met in an acting school, the Velvet Revolution brought their dreams closer to reality, and then, a horrific accident left Jan wheelchair-bound. Acting did not seem like an option.

Life is a collage of events, one leading to another, ruled by the forces of chance and coincidence. The 1989 Velvet Revolution engendered the restoration of freedom for Czechs and Slovaks. As the Communist regime waned, unexpected opportunities arose for many, including young actor and aspiring director Jakub Spalek. However, these times shattered dreams for his schoolmate, preeminent actor Jan Potmesil, when a horrific accident left him wheelchair-bound. Yet the seemingly irreconcilable circumstances ensued a decades-long friendship and professional partnership in the Prague theater company Kaspar.

It all started in Prague, summer 1989. Upon a sidewalk edge in front of the Academy of Music Arts’ Theater Faculty sat acting student Jakub, sharing with his schoolmates, including Jan, a vision of starting an independent theater company. As promising as the twenty-one-year-old’s dreams may have sounded, at that point in Communist Czechoslovakia, all theaters still fell under government management and funding. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of a few months’ time that everything would change. 

Brno-native Jakub came to Prague to study acting. His experience onstage stretches back to when he began performing at a mere age of ten in his hometown’s legendary experimental theater, Goose on a String. He got involved in directing shows shortly after arriving in the Czechoslovak capital. In spring 1989, Jakub directed then-bannedThe Hour Between a Dog and a Wolf (1979) by Daniela Fiserova, a play that concentrates on Francois Villon, a parable of an artist’s encounter with power. Meanwhile Jan was enjoying his celebrity status as a film and stage actor who had made his way onto movie sets since childhood on an almost continuous basis. Towards the end of his college years, he was performing key roles in the most prominent Prague theaters, e.g. Vinohrady Theatre and Theatre on the Balustrade.

Enter summer of the troubled year 1989. Demonstrations on August 21 rallied on the 21st anniversary of the Soviet invasion. More protests followed, leading to the student marches on November 17 that resulted in violent police suppression on Narodni Street. University students consequently entered a strike and, together with actors, began to travel across Czechoslovakia to incite public demands to overhaul the authoritarian regime. One such journey turned out devastating for Jan. After his driver fell asleep at the wheel, their car drove off the highway, putting the young actor in a terrible, near-death state. Jan woke up after three months in a coma to learn that he would never walk again. 

In the meantime, Jakub’s successful production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac motivated him to form his own theater company, Kaspar, in 1990. Jakub made his dream come true—and he did not forget about Jan. The following year, Jakub unexpectedly asked Jan to join Kaspar and do theater together. Jakub was the first person, and the only for a long time, to offer Jan an acting job after the latter had been confined to a wheelchair. Jakub cast Jan in the new edition of The Hour Between a Dog and Wolf as a judge who recites lines while sitting in the audience. Kaspar has remained Jan’s “home” ever since. 

The Kaspar company has functioned for almost three decades as the manifestation of what the former schoolmates had envisioned. Jakub and Jan have engaged in theatrical pursuits for the entire duration. Jakub mainly serves as a director and producer, whereas Jan, despite his handicap, plays major roles that have thus far received an array of Czech awards, including the prestigious Alfred Radok Award (for personating Richard III in the eponymous play) and Thalia Award. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which Kaspar first performed in 1993, has seen over 850 reruns, all directed by Jakub with Jan playing the main character, Charlie Gordon. 

Audience, presented by Kaspar in the 2019 Rehearsal for Truth Theater Festival in New York City, is the only play that features Jakub and Jan side-by-side as actors and is very close to their hearts. The performance will be followed by a talkback with the actors.

Pavla Niklova