I was almost born in a movie theatre. My mother went to see Jean-Louis Barrault’s beautiful film, “The Children of Paradise,” one afternoon in July on the outskirts of Prague, in Czechoslovakia. I was born that evening.

I grew up in a world of music, fantasy, and imagination. My mother’s family had been on the stage as musicians or actors for at least five generations, and probably dating back to the eighteenth century. My mother Anna Hodková played the piano and sang, wrote television and radio scripts, and translated Dostoevsky. I remember being taken for the first time as a very small child to a famous Puppet Theatre. The artistic director backstage recognized her as a dear friend, the founder J.Skupa. After the show he manipulated the puppets just for us; he made the puppets come alive. I was mesmerized. By the time I was five years old, I could quote the lines from the show. I was a bit of a loner as a child, but later when I started to go to school I made many good friends. They called me “Cricket” – I guess I was talkative and cheerful. My half-sister’s father introduced me to the professional theatre; I was eight years old when I got my first role. The actors became my extended family, and I felt the warmth of their camaraderie. Like many young actors, I loved the smell of the mastic glue for moustaches, the air filled with excitement, the lights beaming onstage, the connection with the audience. I joined a children’s drama club when I was six, did amateur productions as a humanities student in the “Gymnasium” (an advanced secondary school), won a poetry competition by reciting Whitman( quote above). I was asked to audition for DAMU , the dramatic arts academy and enroll, but I was too young. A year later, I did enroll there 1972, even though my mother and father were against it.  Although we were from a theatrical family, there was a feeling that there would be a curse on anyone who wanted to go in the theatre business.

Still, when I found out that a famous actor at the National Theatre was my great uncle, Ladislav Pesek, I contacted him, saw him perform, met with him, and visited him at his home. I got a blessing from him for my theatrical journey: a kiss on the forehead to protect me from all evil! (I also got a gift from my father, the historian Karel Pichlik, a book he wrote on the family’s theatrical roots, dedicated “To Lenka for her journey.” He did not know then that I would one day move far away from him and his book would become even more special to me. He did all this research for my mother, because she had lost both of her parents by the time she was six.)

Prague in the 1970s was filled with theatre. You could go almost every night! I would watch and learn. Later, I performed as a guest artist, although still a student, with my colleagues in the National Theatre. I got roles in the famous Vinohrady, Realisticke, and Cinoherni Klub theatres. I had an opportunity to play wonderful roles in movies and perform in my native Czechoslovakia as well as in Germany. I graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1977. It was a very important year for the dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. My father was involved in a movement called Charter 77, which tried to get the government to obey its own promises on human rights. My father was one of the first people who signed this document. He had to stop working as a historian; my mother lost her job, writing for TV.

Somehow, I was allowed to work and make movies, and by some miracle, I was accepted in the same Children’s Theatre where I started as a nine year old. I was also cast in the main female role in a film, The Trumpet's Song, which won the first prize international festival at Monte Carlo. I had great opportunities to work with foreign actors from East and West Germany (Rolf Hoppe) and Poland (Leon Niemczik). I even happened to be on front pages of magazines for a while. I began learning classical pantomime after auditioning for the company at the Balustrade Theater – I had been fascinated with mime since I was a young girl, and remember, I was almost born during “Les Enfants du Paradis,” which is a film about mime and acting.

But the problems of the time closed in on me. The director of the Czech TV called me in and told me I was being blackmailed and had to stop working in my profession for ten years. My contract in the mime company was also not going to be renewed, because I refused to join the Communist Party. It was just then that a friend of mine in Vienna (her family had stayed abroad after the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia) asked me to come visit her. We went with friends to Venice. There, I met an American college professor who would become my future husband Marcus Burke. We spoke German with each other. We were married in Prague a year later, but I had to wait another year and pay back all the money the government said my education had cost before they would let me go.

That is how I arrived in the US in 1982 speaking very little English. I quickly started to learn this new language, taught pantomime, joined a Czech émigré Blacklight company in New York, traveled for a year with them across America and to France, got a part in 1983 in an international show which we rehearsed in Mexico City and toured in Texas. We moved to New York, where I played roles in the Theatre for the New City and the Dramatists’ Guild and taught pantomime at SUNY Purchase. I met the great pantomime master, Marcel Marceau, and joined his summer workshops, receiving endless inspiration and working to meet his high expectations – sometimes we forgot to eat, but the work with him was food for our souls. Marcel Marceau was the best teacher I ever met. I had other great teachers, though -- Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof at the HB studio, Brad Douriff and Frantisek Daniel at Columbia University. I found a theatrical agent in New York.

A bit later, we moved to Dallas. Dallas was a challenge, but I got an MA and joined Actor’s Equity at Theatre West in Fort Worth. I got an agent, did some print work and commercials, and performed in Chekhov, Ibsen, and Wendy Kesselman. I created a “mimodrama” about “Medea” – going back to my beloved Greek Mythology. We came back to the East Coast, and I started to create shows for children, and had two children myself. In the late 90s, I became an adjunct professor at several universities on regular basis and began to write a one-woman show. At first in America, I felt more comfortable on stage than in front of the camera, but I have gotten used to acting for the camera in English as well.

I am drawn to the theatre because I love to be moved to the inner core of myself, feeling connected, and focused. I try to stay creative. I like to read and work with children. A great source of inspiration for me is the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann. I have met her two times and felt almost like being her sister, admiring her amazing approach to art and life. The disciplines of the Theatre Arts have always been essential in human culture, because they allow every person to discover new qualities in him- or herself. Those of us in the Theatre have a marvelous opportunity and even a responsibility to share deep insight into the human condition, but also to bring joy to our audiences. As the great German director, Max Reinhardt, put it: “I believe in the immortality of the Theatre. It is the most joyous hideaway for all those who have secretly put their childhood in their pocket and gone off and away with it to play on to the end of their days.”

Lenka as Masha

Lenka as Masha in Chekhov’s "The Seagull"