Jacob Sampson, a student at the University of North Texas, won a two-week residency at the Theatre Academy in Prague based on the contest for the best play on the theme of Vaclav Havel’s artificial language Ptydepe from his play Memorandum. The residency was prepared by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation and DAMU – Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
The experience that I was awarded for winning the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation playwriting competition was, hands down, the most eye-opening, fulfilling and inspiring opportunity that I have ever had the pleasure of enduring. I knew that a two-week trip to the Czech Republic was going to be a once in a lifetime experience for me, especially considering that I had never once flown across an ocean before, but I could never have expected how impactful this trip would be on my perception as a writer and my outlook as a human.
Months ago when I was presented with the idea of participating in this contest, I didn’t know very much about the city of Prague and I had never even heard of Vaclav Havel, but with the encouragement of my professor, I decided to give the competition a shot. Upon reading the play “The Memorandum” and researching more about the life and career of Vaclav Havel, I found myself deeply moved by the impressive and ground-breaking work of such a motivational person. I couldn’t believe that my peers and I could be so uneducated about a genius like Havel, especially considering how influential and relevant his written works still are to this day. I found myself enraptured and inspired by the tone and style of his plays, and soon I was writing my own interpretation of his concepts for me to use as a submission to the contest. The play that I wrote, entitled “The Essay”, was the first full-length play that I’ve ever written, and although writing it was daunting and exhausting, it was also immensely rewarding and I owe all of my gratitude for the inspiration to Mr. Havel himself.
The trip itself was life-changing for me because not only did it help validate my own perception of myself as a writer, it provided countless unique theatrical experiences that I am never going to forget. I was offered tickets to attend about ten different performances around the city throughout my residency, and each and every one gave me valuable information as a writer. Most performances that I saw were entirely in Czech (besides one that was in German and an opera which was in Italian), and because I do not know any language other than English, I was presented with the rare privilege to view the shows from a fresh, new angle. Without any knowledge of what a character is saying, one is forced to analyze other aspects of the performance to interpret the story. I viewed actors as I never have before; such as their presence on stage, their energy and their connection with the other actors. I absorbed small details in the setting, lighting and sound design that I may have otherwise missed. I honestly feel that getting to be a spectator for so many foreign stage performances changed my entire perception of theatre. I was really given a chance to dissect what makes for a captivating performance and I will never watch any stage play the same way again.
Living for two weeks in the city, and getting to learn so much about the culture of such a traditional and historical place was eye-opening in itself. I was fortunate enough to get to be detached from America during our presidential election, so I was given a chance to learn about perceptions from the outside. Stepping out of my American bubble and being integrated with the students in Prague was a huge wake up call. The realization of how sheltered I have been as an American was like a refreshing slap in the face and is one of my biggest takeaways from this trip. I have always known that one of the best ways to grow as a writer is to listen to other people’s opinions and to learn about different outlooks on life, but until this residency, I have never been exposed to so many beautiful, new and important ideas.