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Brno’s new English language theatre (BEST divadlo) will open the 2018-2019 season with the popular romance “Love Letters” by the famous American playwright A.R. Gurney at Kabinet Muz on 30 and 31 August and 1 September. The group draws extensively from Brno’s ex-pat community for both its audience and its members. Photo credit: BEST divaldo. 

Brno, Aug 27 (BD) – One of the interesting stories behind the current production is the participation of Jim Comerford, a retired US businessman with a theatre background. Comerford spends most of his time in France and the Czech Republic and will be playing the male lead in “Love Letters.” He talks here about his journey from America to the Brno stage.

Jim, you were reared in a very rural part of upstate New York…

Yeah, by the Canadian border. There were more cows than people there.

Sounds like a peculiar atmosphere for developing one’s creative impulses.

Well, it was a child’s paradise. Many of the families in that area had lots of kids and, yes, I would say the whole environment fed the imagination. And we definitely engaged in our own form of theatre making. Like any group of kids, we’d invent scenarios and play different characters. But we did take it a step further…

How?

First of all, our theatre stories would go on all day sometimes. And costumes! We outfitted ourselves in costumes cobbled from cast-off clothing. That became a bit of an obsession. My Christmas wish list was always more and more costumes.

Sounds like self-consciousness wasn’t an issue.

I wouldn’t exactly say that. When I was 5 my grandmother put me in fashion shows and had me strutting up and down on the models’ cat-walks. As I recall that helped eliminate a lot of whatever stage fright I had at that age (laughs).

Photo credit: BEST divaldo. 

But you left it all behind for a business career?

Actually no. I was in the theatre program when I attended the State University of New York. By then my passion for performing ran very deep. I studied acting formally at university and was cast in a number of productions. One of my most memorable roles there was as a villain in the show “Morning.” Today we’d consider it politically incorrect. But this play specifically called for white actors playing a black family. The Civil Rights movement was just beginning to gain steam, so emotions were high. We played the final dress rehearsal in front of an all-black audience of students, who had heard about the production and wanted to see it, to decide whether it should be shut down as being disrespectful. We apparently passed the test, and ended up taking the play to competition where we won best show, best actor and best actress among 20 different productions that were competing.

So you didn’t really trade theatre for business until you graduated?

Not right away. For a few years after graduating, I worked as an actor in a touring children’s theatre. We performed on a kind of “showmobile” – a mobile stage, hauled around by a truck (laughs). But we got around. Between the US and Canada, there were around 80 different locations where we did the show. There were 6 of us that set up the show, played the roles, took everything down and then moved on to the next location. It may have been the hardest job I’ve ever had. It was like being married to five people at the same time. But it was rewarding. We were bringing theatre to children, many of whom had never seen a play in their lives. In fact, some of them thought we were real puppets. I remember a few crying when they found out we were people! Haha. And I’d have to say, one of my favorite roles was one that I did back then – the Sly Fox trying to lead children astray in “Pinocchio.”

Another villain?

That seems to be the character type I find myself frequently cast in. Even in Brno, I enjoy portraying Mikula’s strangest devil during the holidays.

Never found yourself in a romantic role? That would be useful for “Love Letters?”

Well I’ve combined villainy and romance. I got back onstage in France, years later, in a musical production of “The Three Musketeers”. Because I’d spoken English all my life, the accent was deemed useful for the role of Lord Buckingham, who tries to seduce the French Queen. After the show, we met with the audience who would look at me, gasp and say, “You really DO talk that way!”

Speaking of surprises, I heard that although your given name is Jim, you go by the nickname “Kuba”…

Yup. It’s an extension of being here and feeling comfortable with Czech traditions and environment. My own name, James, translates to Jakub in Czech – short form “kub” becomes “Kuba.”

Speaking of culture, you’ve lived in seven different countries, visited 50 or so. And yet your biography in the program for “Love Letters” mentions that you’ve spent most of your adult life “looking for Brno.” Can you talk about that a little bit?

Sure. You know, whatever culture we’re exposed to, if we’re open to it we learn to integrate new ideas and new appreciations. I emigrated to France almost 30 years ago, and that’s home for me. But if you ask where I fit best, it’s Brno. One of the things I’ve learned in life is that there is no ‘best place’. There is, however, a ‘best fit’. Brno for me was a place that fit me like a glove. If I could invent the ideal place for me it would look almost completely like Brno. I first came here for a job 15 years ago when there really wasn’t much of an ex-pat community. The advantage was that I had to integrate the best I could into the local culture. And I found what I had been looking for my whole life: A place where I fit.

… and where you fell in love with the local culture?

Not just the local culture. I love the entire Czech culture and values, their love of theater and the arts in general, the calmness of character, the forests and the dogs. Ah! The dogs!! I have always thought that dogs are the best judge of human character. The dogs in Brno are the happiest and most well-adjusted that I have seen anywhere. When I saw that dogs give this place such a big thumbs up, I started to listen. And I agree with them. (laughs)

But Brno has changed dramatically over the last 15 years.

It has. It’s become an IT hub in Central Europe. The ex-pat community has grown by leaps and bounds. And in my view the ex-pat community here is very special. Mostly when you meet professional ex-pats in Brno, they are not people who want to go somewhere else. The typical reaction that I hear is “Yes I could earn more money somewhere else. But can I get this quality of life?”

The biggest hurdle for foreigners trying to integrate in Brno is the Czech language. I admit, it is the hardest thing that I have tried to learn in my whole life. Our Artistic Director with BEST divadlo likes to joke about saying to his Czech friends that this is the safest country from any invasion – and their secret weapon is the language. I think I could have learned 3 other languages in the time it has taken me to learn Czech. In truth, most Czechs sympathize. They always try to understand you, no matter how hard you’re struggling. And they never laugh at you when you say something completely wrong.” But trying to struggle with Czech shows a respect for the people and the culture that is very strongly appreciated. I have several circles of friends who only speak Czech. That is how I became Kuba. Easy name for people to remember, and I enjoy very much having my local identity.

Do you attend theatre productions that are performed in Czech?

I’m an avid theater goer. There are very few shows at the Mestke Divadlo (the City Theatre) over the last few years that I’ve missed. Yes, I struggle to understand sometimes, but I do okay even at the Shakespeare performances. Of course, in those cases, it helps that I’m familiar with the scripts.

*******

Jim discovered BEST Divadlo through reading Brno Daily. When asked his impressions about the new theatre company, he says, “Well, first of all, I’m very grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me to perform in this wonderful show. But the big picture? English theater in Brno? It’s just an excellent idea. It’s a no-brainer in a theater town like Brno with a growing population of both ex-pats and locals eager to be exposed to the English language.” He was present for the opening performance of “November,” where he met Gene Terruso, and was astounded at the high quality of the acting and directing. “Well I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is Brno after all. A symphony orchestra, a ballet, a musical comedy theater, and at least a dozen other theaters. You bet, there’s room for an English-speaking theater. And the talent to make it successful is already here.”

The article is based on the materials provided by BEST divadlo. Special thanks to Gene Terruso.

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