Expat lives: Chicago to the Czech Republic

How did a budding American theatre director make her way from Chicago to Prague in 1993, set up her own business, and put down long-term roots?

Nancy Bishop belonged to a number of “storefront” theatre groups – small companies performing in unusual venues such as shopfronts and industrial spaces – in Chicago during the late 1980s.

“At the time I was directing The Memorandum, one of Václav Havel’s plays, and many of us, young artists in the theatre, were signing a petition to get Havel released from prison. The cold war was a constant backdrop in that period, but I must say I was barely aware of Czechoslovakia until we started to read about Havel,” says Bishop.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bishop began to make contact with Americans who had settled in Prague.

“In 1993 Black Box Theater, an English-language theatre company based in Prague, invited me to direct a play there. When I got to Prague, it just seemed too interesting to leave. I directed a succession of plays and eventually took over as artistic director at Black Box.”

In the first half of the 1990s Prague attracted an influx of young westerners who were drawn to the city’s atmospheric old town, extensive cultural offerings and reasonable rents.

Meanwhile many Czechs were trying to find their feet in an emerging market economy and deciding on the direction their country should take. On 1 January 1993, in the so-called Velvet Divorce, Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech and Slovak republics.

Bishop created a successful business in what was close to the perfect storm of an appealing urban landscape, relatively low wages, and longstanding knowhow in film-making and post-production.

Setting up as a casting director seemed to Bishop like a logical step. “Because I was the artistic director of a theatre company, I knew a lot of actors. By 1995 or so, Prague was becoming a prime shooting location for many international productions, including American studio films.”

Nowadays Bishop’s main input in a feature film or a made-for-television drama is to identify scenes and roles that can be cast on location, as well as auditioning and contracting actors. She has kept her business base in Prague but now works across much of Europe and books actors in the US, notching up credits on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Identity among other productions.

Starting a business in a fledging market economy with only a rudimentary knowledge of the local language (today, Bishop describes her Czech as “functional, I still make quite a few grammatical errors”) was always likely to be an uphill struggle.

“Things have improved but when I first arrived, Czechs often didn’t really see that business could be done to the benefit of both parties. When cutting a deal, I used to find quite a few situations where Czechs were more interested in ripping you off once rather than ensuring you would come back again,” says Bishop.

“I started to get used to a different way of negotiating – sometimes it involved bringing a bottle of rum to meetings.”

Bishop has also had glimpses of life under the communist system: “In a building where I was renting an office, I was driving out of the courtyard on one occasion, and the woman at reception told me that they would be checking my trunk when I left the following day because they were changing the heating system. I couldn’t figure out what one thing had to do with the other. Later my assistant explained to me that under communism, Czechs would take every opportunity they could get to score something off the state, so they assumed that people who worked in the building would be stealing the radiators.”

Bishop stays in the Czech capital as much for the lifestyle as for the casting opportunities on her doorstep.

“I can walk out of my home and go shopping the old-fashioned way, at street vendors, butchers, bakeries, vegetable shops and farmers markets. Most Americans live isolated from each other, and have to drive to get anywhere or meet someone. In Prague, there is the opportunity just to go out at the last minute and meet friends at a pub or café without any forward planning,” says Bishop.

“I can also take my dog anywhere. Sometimes it appears that Czechs like dogs more than they like people and Leni always gets served first. She even comes to the theatre with me. She’s seen at least three different versions of Hamlet.”

For Bishop, home is a period apartment in the Vinohrady district, 10 minutes’ walk from Wenceslas Square. The unit has high ceilings, original hardwood floors and a south-facing balcony overlooking a cobbled street.

“I have flower boxes and a table out there where I eat breakfast on summer days. But I’m the only one in my building who uses the balcony. I’m told that this is another vestige of communist times when people were paranoid, and sometimes for good reason, about their neighbours spying on them.”

Bishop shares the virtually universal gripe of North American expats in Prague about the unsmiling service in some shops, and misses the proximity to the ocean of her native New England. “Back home, it’s also much sunnier. Central Europe has very grey weather,” says Bishop. But she has taken up the local pastime of hiking in the uplands and wooded valleys of Bohemia and, like many Czechs, drinks the sulphurous water that bubbles from the springs at Karlovy Vary during her annual visit to the town’s international film festival.

Is Bishop in Prague for the long haul? “I tried to leave Prague on several occasions,” she says, “but each time I returned ... Franz Kafka wrote to the effect that Prague is like an old crone, she doesn’t let go.”

Buying guide


• Prague’s dining scene has improved and diversified in recent years

• The historic city centre was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992


• Despite Prague’s popularity with Russian investors, its property market is stagnating after the average price for secondhand apartments fell 4.6 in 2011

• Although violent crime is rare, overseas residents and visitors are often fall victim to pickpockets

What you can buy for ...

£100,000: A studio flat in a renovated period building within walking distance of the old town

£1 million: A 200 sq metre, three-bedroom duplex apartment in a prime position close to Charles Bridge

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