‘Acting is an exercise in empathy’: Thoughts from an ex-student

Prague Youth Theatre graduate Isi Klvanova is currently interning with us. She recently took some time to reflect on her experiences as a student and how it was about much more than acting….

Once we’re standing backstage and the audience murmurs die down… There’s a split second when it’s completely dark. Everything is still. And then the stage lights are turned on.

I still remember my first day at Prague Youth Theatre. The door doesn’t always immediately open. I have to jiggle the handle to get in. As I walk into the theatre, a familiar feeling of being the new kid comes over me. I am too shy to take part. But my nerves quickly fade, as I realise that I am in the company of weird kids like me, who enjoy theatre and pretending just for fun.

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My first play was an ensemble comedy, ‘The Musicians’.  I played the role of second clarinet, which consisted of two jokes about Dr Zhivago. It might have been the last time I cared about having so few lines. I had so much fun finally doing drama in group that was as passionate about theatre as I was. As time passed, PYT grew too big for Divadlo Kampa, and so we moved to its neighbour, Divadlo Na Pradle. The time spent together also shifted. We would start midday at Na Pradle and occasionally end hours later at the Smichov KFC.

Dress rehearsal is filled with lots of expletives and running nerves. Scenes of backstage chaos and phrases, like ‘I-forgot-my-cue’, are interspersed with poignant moments when one of us nails our scene. This is followed by two-second celebrations as the accomplished thespian enters backstage with the smuggest expression a teenager has ever worn. Our jittery energy can be felt everywhere, and I swear to God I need to pee but my scene is coming up and what if it’s just the pressure, because I haven’t drunk anything in the past hour just in case… oh my God did I forget my prop in the changing room?

The more time I spent on stage the better I got at it. I once overheard a Prague Youth Theatre student saying that when she steps on stage she gets this feeling of ‘this is what I want to do.’ Everybody gets this, when everything goes and all there is a certain in-the-moment presence. I sometimes felt that at rehearsals, and then decided I want to be able to do that consciously. So I signed up for LAMDA lessons. I started to learn the basics, learn how to focus, how empathise with my character, to imagine their backstory, to think about what they’re going through until there wasn’t anything I didn’t know about them. I started to gain a basic grasp of the mechanics of acting, something that was always at the back of my mind, and I was finally working on it.

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We’re all slowly gathering at Na Pradle. We’re not really that scared… at least not yet. Our performance is in about seven hours and as we’re stuck in a black theatre room with no change of places or people, that’s going to feel like ages. But I don’t mind. It is a good moment to be in. I’m quite an impatient person. Lines and waiting times get me frustrated. Still, I’m sitting with my feet dancing over the edge of the stage, leaning back on my palms and the person next to me is pulling out her costume to show us her wardrobe. This little theatre bubble is the only world that exists right now. This is my favourite kind of waiting.

My acting career goals faded around the time I got into my final year of high school. Movie cliches like college applications and exam stress turned into a stress inducing reality of my life. I quit both PYT and my LAMDA lessons, but regretted it any time I’d see my friends having fun on stage. During my final year in Prague, I helped out backstage and selling front of house tickets on performance night. Prague Youth Theatre is no longer simply just memories from a drama club but memories of how I grew up and anchored myself through puberty.

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I don’t need to remind you of being a teenager, how the changes around you suddenly become amplified by the mess of emotions in your head. The constant refrain of ‘What do they think of me?’ Followed by ‘Why do I care so much?’ was never followed by satisfactory answers. In his TED Talk, the actor Adam Driver explains how his Julliard training helped him fully reflect on his experience as a former US Marine. I don’t want to make silly comparisons between teenagers and soldiers, but the idea of ‘moments of great emotions’ and the comfort of finally being able to ‘put words to feelings’ is something that resonated with me. Acting is an exercise in empathy, and as we all spent hours familiarising ourselves with the strangers that became our characters, I got to understand myself better.

I wave goodbye and open the heavy doors as my family and I step into the night chill. I couldn’t hide the smile on my face even if I tried. My parents loved the play that Adam chose, “the writing was so good, and you guys are such great actors. Of course you did great Isi, no, we’re not saying this just because we’re you’re parents… really, you messed up? I didn’t even notice”. The content happiness that I’m feeling doesn’t allow for disbelief, as I’m too busy creating this memory. The lights, the nerves, the waiting … and on our way home orange streetlights illuminate the Prague night.

 

Prague Youth Theatre

Prague’s only English speaking youth theatre. Empowering students aged 3-17 to connect with one another, develop confidence, and create impactful stories. www.pyt.cz

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