Miloň Čepelka: Trying to ignore the cameras, and to overcome shyness and fear, was the hardest for me

Miloň Čepelka

The Gala Opening of the documentary about the co-founder of the legendary Jára Cimrman Theatre, Miloň Čepelka, who will celebrate his 85th birthday this year will take place tonight.

What’s your attitude toward being filmed? Are you trying to take influence on the final appearance, or do you give the director free reign?

No no no, I told the director quite clearly: I am all yours, do as you please. When I first heard from Ms. Sluková about this plan of Messrs. Ulrich and Svěrák, I was aghast at first, then I was afraid, and then I sat on it and thought it through. When the offer came, in personal communication from the creators themselves, I was still engrossed in thought. I made no promises. Only after Zdeněk Svěrák wheedled me and told me I shouldn’t be afraid, did I assent (though I was still afraid). I had no preconceptions about the documentary, but I was pleased to learn that it wasn’t all about the theatre but that there would also be a bit about my writings; I trust some activities related to music have also made it to the final cut – music from my favourite genres, such as brass band or chanson. 

How did it feel to return to the region of your birth, to relive your personal history?

I still own my parent’s little house here, and in this sense never left the region. Of course, talking about it all is quite a different animal. I’d say it was more challenging: while I enjoy my trips there, those moments don’t normally feel all that exceptional. For this here, I needed a different mindset. A pleasant one, mind you – the creators were kind to me. It was hardest for me to try and ignore the cameras, overcome shyness and fear, and speak my mind on the things they asked me about. 

Do you personally enjoy biographical works?

I do; when I was young I loved and devoured written biographies and enjoyed watching biographical films. I never participated in any documentary, and I am in fact curious to see how I’ll come across in this one. We filmed so much material, only a fraction of the footage will make it to the silver screen (or television display).

You founded the Jára Cimrman Theatre as Czech philologists, as teachers rather than actors. With the benefit of hindsight, what’s your assessment of this different approach in contrast to troupes formed by actors and theatre people?

From the beginning, it was important to us that our writing duo S + S adhere to certain standards in producing their texts, to make sure the language wasn’t just correct Czech but would make use of the rich possibilities which Czech offers linguistically. We also take pains to preserve the canon through the ages. If anything is added to the text, be it inadvertently or by design, if any one of us contrives a little extempore highlight, it’d better be good if it’s to enter the canon. The language needs to be on the same level of sophistication as in our previous plays. 

What changes have you observed in the audience, as one generation of viewers makes room for the next?

We’ve been observing a marked drop in basic general education, especially with respect to whether people have some familiarity with Czech literature. In Dumb Bobeš, we’d incorporated numerous quotes from Neruda’s poetry, which used to elicit belly laughs in the audience thirty, maybe twenty-five years ago. Today, they meet with stony silence, because this literature is no longer taught, or pupils are oblivious to it, and current theatre-goers no longer know it. 

You once said Záskok (The Stand-in) was your favourite play. Do you still stand by this assessment?
I do, because The Stand-in is the best!

Tell us more about your double role in bringing Cimrman to the general public – i.e., your involvement both in Jára Cimrman Theatre and the Salon d’Cimrman!

When Jirka Šebánek established the Salon d’Cimrman – he had felt a bit pushed into the background, truth be told, and wanted to further develop this character whose co-creator he was after all – he made it clear, and I agreed, that this project was not meant to be a competitor to the Jára Cirman Theatre. That it was not a counter-project born out of hurt pride. It is true that this understanding was not universally shared by both parties in the beginning. Consequently, for quite some time, I fell between two stools, which wasn’t all that pleasant at times. The theatre did not accept my decision with as much understanding as I would have wished. But I argued, and I want to believe that this argument was accepted, that the original creator of Jára Cimrman as a character is fully entitled to develop it further to his liking. Consider: if he were an actual figure from real life, he’d still be interpreted in various ways, and different scholars would look at his legacy from different vantage points. Anyone who puts their skin in the game needs to be prepared for conflicting interpretations once they are no longer among us (if their work is interesting enough to warrant attention, that is). 

And how did you end up between two stools?

For a simple enough reason: When Jirka came to ask whether I was aboard, I said I was. I couldn’t see the two Cimrmans in opposition to each other, getting into each other’s hair and calling each other’s existence into question. For me, they were simply two views of the same character. Aside from myself, Vašek Kotek of the Theatre also occasionally appeared at the Salon, because he managed both troupes.