Poland, the chorus, theater, travel

The Belle of Something City

July 20, 2011
Dear Milo, and everyone,

I’m sorry I haven’t called, I’m sorry I haven’t responded to your emails, and I’m sorrier that I didn’t get to see you before I left. But I have left, although I still have an hour or so left in the United States. We will not see each other for some time. But I am going to try to be writing here.

I am sitting at a cafe table in Newark Airport, waiting for a flight to Munich. From there, I will take a puddle-jumper to Wroclaw, where I will begin a year-long program with a Polish theater, Song of the Goat (Teatr Piesn Kozla). I will be doing their in-house MA in Acting program, and training with them. This study is being funded by a Fulbright.

None of this has sunk in at all, BTW. Last night I was working on a grant for a theater company I sometimes freelance for, and I was rattling off the facts of their announcements. So many performances, so many audience members, X, Y, Z. That’s what it feels like for me to write “I’ll be on Poland for a year, on a Fulbright.” It feels like I’m describing someone else’s life, rather than my own. Someone who has it together—someone who isn’t wearing socks and flip-flops.

But it’s me, together or not together. It’s me, following the trail of the elusive Greek Chorus Beast, as usual.

I first saw SOTG perform two years ago. I was living in Chicago, after that year of freelance assistant directing, when my friend R. invited me to come to Wroclaw in the summer of 2009. I went, along with a group of other theater directors, to take part in Arden2’s US Artists Initiative as part of the Grotowski Year 2009.

We were guests in Wroclaw—I stayed in a building on the old Rynek (market-square) itself, and ran around in a swarm of directors, seeing two and sometimes three or four plays a day. We saw visiting productions from a royal flush of hotshot auteurs—Brook, Suzuki, Lupa. We also saw performances by the three Wroclaw-and-environs companies with direct lines of descent from Grotowski; Song of the Goat, Teatr Zar, and Maisternia Pisni. While I was in Wroclaw the first time, I kept a blog for the US Artists Initiative, and it talks about what it was like to see SOTG for the first time.

After I saw them, I was determined to work with them. That is why I am going back to Poland now.
Jerzy Grotowski was an influential theater director (more on him both later and sooner—oh, what the heck, there’s no putting it off) and because I decline to pay Boingo $7.95 for WiFi, I am going to try to remember what I can about him without consulting the Internet that makes us appear smarter. Without an understanding of this, none of the rest of it is going to make sense. Grotowski is a big part of why Polish theater is so good—and it is good. Really good. If you stop what you’re doing, right now, and take a survey of all the theater people in the room, some of them will know that Polish theater is good.

Everything I Remember About Grotowski: The Lazy Man’s Guide
He was, as you have gathered, Polish. He went to one of the state theater schools. I want to say he was born in the 40s, but I am not certain. (***upon checking later, he lived from 1933-1999.) He was given, by a far-seeing backer/producer/friend, (***Ludwig Flaszen) control over a small house called the Theater of 13 Rows in tiny Opole, Poland.

Interruption In Narrative, for a Scene in Pittsburgh, PA

I’m sitting at a bar in Pittsburgh, the night before I leave, with three of my cohort from intensive Polish. We’ve finished our intensive Polish language class, we’ve had our graduation ceremony, and we’re not packed. It’s not Gene’s Place—of the $1.75 drafts of locally brewed, delicious beer—but a more boring, overpriced
one. (They wouldn’t let our underage friend stay in Gene’s.)

My friends are P., from the O.C., currently serving in the US Army; A., cheerful of personality and Russian by birth, currently studying at the University of Washington; and N., months away from her twenty-first birthday, and excited to also be heading to Poland. It will be her first time leaving the United States.
I am telling N. that, on top of everything else, I have to learn a monologue and a song for a workshop with SOTG.

“Oh no,” she says.

“No, it’s OK, I’m not as stressed out about this as I was last year,” I say. (Last year, when I had to do the SOTG workshop for the first time—as an audition for the program I’m going to now—I way overdid this part.) “The hard thing is choosing the right song. It’s not supposed to be something from a musical—it’s supposed to be an old song with deep cultural roots. A folk song. Something your mother sang to you.”

1. Sumer Is Icumen In (ok, but a bit too slow-paced—it would be very hard to actually perform)
2. “The grub we get ain’t fit to eat, ship along to the big corral…” (too funny—one of the problems, or features, inherent in these Polish theaters is that you are not supposed to be making jokes in these exercises. The lapses into SNL-tinged, improv-comedy-driven humor that I am so used to from my years of American acting classes are beyond inappropriate. I cannot go into a converted 14th-century monastery, stand barefoot in a circle of chanting European actors, and sing, with my hands floating in front of me as if I were casting a fishing line, or a spell, “There’s lots of dirt and not enough meat, ship along to the big corral.” )
3. Clementine, until I developed an irrational fear of it. (also too funny)

1. Part Of Your World
2. I Dreamed A Dream (my first ever audition song—a bit too old for eleven, yes? “He spent a summer by my side…He filled my days with endless wonnnnnder…He took my childhood in his STRIIIIIIIDE…and he was GONE! When Autumn CAAAAAME!” Really, Dara? Really?)
3. Adelaide’s Lament (my second-ever, and last, audition song, after I burst into tears singing it in front of a workshop full of Harvard-Westlake actors. Oops. If at first you don’t succeed—quit for fifteen years!)
4. What Would Brian Boitano Do?
5. Birdhouse In Your Soul
6. Safety Dance
7. Drug Ballad
8. The Mob Song from Beauty and the Beast

I tell her about the song I did last year, “The House Carpenter.” There’s a great Dylan cover of that one. What hills, what hills are those over there…

“It’s supposed to be something with emotional importance,” I say. “Something that you have a personal connection to.”

“Why don’t you do a Jewish song?” N. says.


“That might be something with too much emotional importance,” I say. “I don’t know how I feel about using those songs for theater. In Poland.”

She’s right, though. That is, in one sense, what I should do. But I’m not going to—not yet.

“I’ve thought of something,” I say. “You know this one, right? Da da da da, when I go home, the boys won’t leave the girls alone…da da da da, da da da da, but that’s all right, when I go home?”

“Yeah!” N. says. She recognizes it immediately. It’s very catchy.

“That’s the right kind of thing,” I say. “Simple, repetitive, not too musically challenging. Narrative-based. Not something too sad, on its surface. Not something with a specific ritual function. Not a wedding song or a birthday song. A story song, a song anyone can sing.”

I go back to singing it. I love this song, although I don’t really know the words to it.

“She is fair and she is pretty, she is the belle of something city…”

“Belfast City,” says P. “She is the belle of Belfast City. You haven’t spent enough time in bars in Northern Ireland.”

He’s right, too.

Being a citizen of the United States, a few generations (or more) distant from whatever country you came from to come here, means you spend an awful lot of time singing The Belle of Something City.

It’s time for me to go line up to board that flight to Munich. I never finished telling you everything I remembered about Grotowski. (This is a tradition—I began my US Artists blog by trying to explain Grotowski, and I also never finished it.) But this is the way it is, and this is the way it’s going to be. I’ll explain as much as I can, as often as I can. But some things you’re just going to have to roll with. In many ways, it doesn’t make any more sense to me than it does to you all. It’s just what I know I have to do.

I’ll see you when I see you.


PS. I’m going to do “Wagon Wheel” and/or “The Rain It Raineth Every Day” from the end of Twelfth Night. I think. Maybe. I have the flight to think about it some more. The monologue is Tamora from Titus: “King, be thy thoughts imperious like thy name.”

July 22, 2011

Dear Milo,

It’s been raining since I got to Wroclaw.

I arrived yesterday at about 1 in the afternoon and was met at the small Copernicus Airport by a taxi sent from the theater. I rode it into town, having rudimentary Polish conversation with the taxi driver. It’s easy to talk about the weather when it’s raining. This was the first test that I actually did learn something in Pittsburgh. I did. I can now have a conversation, even if a small one, and I sure am getting good at saying “Please excuse me, I only speak a little Polish.”

I spent a couple hours at the theater, met my roommates—M., from London, and L., Polish-American, also here for the summer workshops with SOTG—and then took another taxi to the flat. I’m staying with two other women in a seventh-floor room. My room is the living room, really, off the kitchen, with a wooden staircase spiraling up from it. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.

Outside, on our street, there’s a flower-shop and a drugstore, a fruit-and-vegetable store, and a grocery store. There’s everything.

Today, after sleeping for about 16 hours, I reviewed my monologues and songs for the workshop tomorrow, and then made a couple of rain-drenched trips to Galeria Dominiskaya and to the Feniks in the Rynek (market square) to buy things I needed for the apartment—sheets, towels, another blanket. It is cold. I’m wearing a sweater and corduroys. So much for the Pittsburgh / Baltimore humidity. My flip-flops will, I think, not see use again until next summer.

I then made three trips to the grocery store. Bottled water. Cucumbers. Pasta. Sandwich food. The next intensive workshop starts tomorrow, and we all have, I think, a feeling that we cannot have enough food for it. We’re all stocking up.

Shower; review monologues; bed. Tomorrow is the first day of a five-day juggernaut of training.

Thinking of you,


PS. Let’s try this again. Grotowski’s production history is often divided into periods: Theatre of Productions, Paratheatre, Theatre of Sources, Objective Drama, and Art as vehicle. Although I don’t pretend to understand all, or really even any, of these periods of work, one of the most important things to grasp before I or you go further with this training is that SOTG stems from the Theatre of Sources period.

Here’s Wikipedia on Theatre of Sources: “In this period of his work, Grotowski traveled intensively through India, Mexico, Haiti and elsewhere, seeking to identify elements of technique in the traditional practices of various cultures that could have a precise and discernible effect on participants. Key collaborators in this phase of work include Włodzimierz Staniewski, subsequently founder of Gardzienice Theatre Association, Jairo Cuesta and Magda Złotowska, who traveled with Grotowski on his international expeditions.”

The founders of Song of the Goat worked with Gardzienice before leaving to found their own company. Their work still draws heavily on the use of traditional cultural practices, including, most importantly, song.
It is here that I find the link to the Greek chorus, and this is why I want to work with this company. We are, in fact, going to conduct an expedition to hear and study traditional songs at some point during the year.

But Song of the Goat, unlike Grotowski after his first period, is still interested in performances within a theatre, centering around a text. I have also experienced other Theatre-of-Sources-derived performances, and not all of them have the focus on text that Song of the Goat does. This factor is also why I want to be part of this company’s work.

The roads of investigation of music and dance and text are many. Sometimes, to narrow the focus, text is removed from the map. In my opinion, we can’t really get back to being able to create Greek choruses unless we keep text as part of the field of inquiry. Beautiful work can be created with music and dance alone, but I do not think I am particularly well suited as a performer or maker of theater to create that kind of work.
MOH&H was as close as I ever got, and even that was based around a text, albeit a disjunct one. I want to create Greek choral-inspired work with beautiful music (and maybe even movement) that contains text; that is, in fact, centered on text. This is why Song of the Goat in particular is the theater I want to work with.

Enough. I’ll hopefully say this better, and more often, as I keep saying it. For now, the best thing I can do to prepare for tomorrow is nothing. Or, make dinner with L.

Good night.