Poland, theater

Of course we were pretentious–what is youth for?

Off to the university library for some Polish class homework. One of the pleasures of a new city is navigating the different routes to your destination; I’m not at the point yet that I know the best routes from hither to thither, so I try new buses and things. The 118, the 503, the 105, the 128…

The library has a cafe on the ground level where you can get a cup of tea for 4 PLN and a bowl of soup for 5. (Again, divide by 3 for USD.) I’ll camp out there and do review homework until class this evening.

This morning, organizing logistics for some upcoming interviews with people, and realizing my October and November are getting quite full. In the next four weeks, I’ll be going to Wroclaw twice, Krakow once, and Lublin once. I was trying to make a list of available evenings in Warsaw when I could conduct an interview, and was surprised to only have a handful of them.

Later tonight, I’m going to go to a party at the house of a friend of a friend, in a hitherto-unvisited neighborhood, near the Muranow metro stop.

Julian Barnes wants to take over for a bit here:

Of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for? We used terms like “Weltanschauung” and “Sturm und Drang,” enjoyed saying “That’s philosophically self-evident,” and assured one another that the imagination’s first duty was to be transgressive. Our parents saw things differently, picturing their children as innocents suddenly exposed to noxious influence. So Colin’s mother referred to me as his “dark angel”; my father blamed Alex when he found me reading The Communist Manifesto; Colin was fingered by Alex’s parents when they caught him with a hard-boiled American crime novel. And so on. It was the same with sex. Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)

This particular quote makes me realize there are some similarities in Barnes’s project in this book to that of Donna Tartt in The Secret History. Intellectual coming-of-age and corruption. But Barnes, unlike Tartt, leaves the young people behind quickly to go to looking back at them from the point of view of an older character.

There you have it. I really liked The Sense of an Ending. I could read the entire thing over again, right now.


For the past few days

I’ve been caught in the schedule changes of the rehearsals for the show I’m trying to observe, and unable to watch more of what they’re doing. I only have two more days to try. I leave for Wroclaw again Sunday, to see BROTHERS KARAMAZOV at the Dialog Festival and Teatr Zar’s ANHELLI.

This is my fault–I missed the beginning of the period of time in which I was supposed to observe because I was sick for a couple days coming back from Wro. last time, and once I managed to get into the room, they were so busy barreling towards opening that it was hard for me to establish a comm link with anyone.

I may or may not get back into the room in the next 48 hours. If it works out, that’s great. If not, c’est la vie–I feel very fortunate to have seen the four hours of rehearsal I did, though a bit strange to have spent the entire week sort of lurking at the edges of a process.

It’s also true–and I understand this–that these last moments before a show opens are really not a great time to have an outsider wandering around. Again, glad to have seen what I did.

Second day of my Polish language class yesterday, as well.

Poland, theater

half moon day

It was unseasonably warm today. I refused to not take my jacket. You never know. Most of the Warsovians/iennes were overcompensating; shorts, T-shirts.

First day of observing rehearsals for a big show at a large theater in Warsaw. I’ll be coming in and out all week. The show opens in a few days and they’re in the midst of tech committments–press photographs, fine-tuning of blocking, itd.

Sitting in upholstered red velvet seats, miles away from the stage, listening to the muttering of designers over their tables. It made me think again of the year of freelance ADing, which was the last time I was in such large houses so regularly–or that there were designers–or designer tables. Even though I can’t understand everything they’re saying, just watching how they work is fascinating.

Also the first day of Polish language class at the University of Warsaw’s POLONICUM program. I’m the only person from the US in my group; my classmates are German, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Coming home, got lucky with the subway-to-tram connection. Made it from Swiętokrzyska to Namysłowska in ten minutes, and managed to pick up some groceries at the Dworzec Gdański station, during the transfer. I really like these in-station mini-marts, and the food they sell is much healthier than what you’d find in the US. At the larger stops, there are bakeries and fresh fruit/vegetable stores–inside the stations.

The moon outside my apartment building is the kind of half-moon that’s a little more than half.

How do I not know the word for “moon” in Polish yet? I know sun–słonce, but not moon. Excuse me while I consult the greatest online Polish dictionary ever, at my intensive summer program alma mater, the U of Pitt.


It’s księżyc.

Poland, theater

the Polish EU presidency

means that these months are jammed with cultural events. The Warsaw Film Festival is usually in October, as is Wroclaw’s DIALOG theater festival–but KRT (Krakow Theatrical Reminiscences) has been moved to the fall as well, to coincide with the EU presidency term. (It’s usually in the spring.)

There’s no way I’ll be able to see all of this, but I am planning a trip to Wroclaw around October 10th to catch one of the Polish performances in DIALOG, a version of Brothers Karamazov, and also to see Teatr Zar’s latest show. I also expect to see lots of Warsaw Film Festival events, since it’s right here in my home town. But I don’t think I’m going to make it to KRT. Krakow will have to wait for the Joseph Conrad festival in November.

So many festivals–I haven’t even mentioned the European Congress of Culture in Wroclaw, which was days before I was supposed to be back in Wroclaw for the Fulbright orientation, and which was physically un-schedulable for me.

Here in Warsaw, this feels like a Monday morning. I’ve never seen the tram and subway cars as crowded as they were today. Classes start this week at the University of Warsaw, which may be part of it.

This morning, I’m at a cafe on ul. Marszalkowska. I’m working on an article about the theater festival in Legnica that I saw last week–I conducted an interview in Polish and am working with a translator to get some quotes from it. This is simple enough. Translating the entire interview, however, which I still want to do, will be a much more time-consuming process.

Also this week, my own Polish classes start at U of W’s POLONICUM. I have to head over there to buy books today. I’m looking forward to it; taking Polish classes during the Fulbright orientation was really wonderful, and helped me to feel that I was making progress with the language instead of forgetting everything I’d learned in Pittsburgh.

Poland, theater

yesterday’s news

Antepentoday (day before yesterday): drinks with M. at Puzzle, before my last night in Wro.

Pentoday (yesterday): checked out of the culinarily named Cinnamon Hostel on ul. Kazimierza Wielkiego; Wroclaw Glowny; took the train from Wroclaw to Warsaw, during which time I reviewed the miejscownik case (locative) in preparation for the start of Polish classes at the University of Warsaw next week; arrived in Warsaw, mid-afternoon.

Made it from the train station to my apartment in Praga, with two enormous suitcases, in about half an hour (excellent public transit); unpacked; turned around and went back out for a 20:00 performance of chór kobiet’s second piece, MAGNIFICAT, at the Instytut Teatralny.

Wandered home in a slightly rainy night, past a weird display of eight-foot glowing neon plastic tusks in changing colors, springing from the sidewalk near Plac Zbawiciela, in place for a store opening.

I have much more to say about the CK piece, which is about the relationship of Polish women to the figure of Mary in the Catholic religion–but one sound that has stuck with me is a singer beginning the familiar line of “Ave Maria” but cutting it two syllables short, so that the audience only hears “Ave Ma–.”

CK’s work often plays on the idea of musical memory–what we know, what we expect–and presents something askew from our expectations.

Today, a much-needed day of rest or something, after the Fulbright orientation, the trains, the Festiwal in Legnica, and more trains. Lots of emails to be sent, lots of organization details relating to the interviews. I think of AB, a director who once told me when I asked him how to be an assistant director, “Be a stage manager.” He wasn’t entirely correct, but the basic idea–that learning to be organized is the most important skill a director needs–has never left me. The two shows I stage managed were the hardest jobs I have ever had, but I learned more from them than any others.

And now, having brought the organization of myself and everything I’m writing to a state I can leave it in, I’m going to absent myself from work for a bit.

Poland, theater

return to mleczarnia

Wee’reeee baaaack! Writing in this cafe is like writing in the Great Coffeehouse Time Vortex; I am simultaneously present at Groundworks (both the Cahuenga and the downtown locations), MoonBeans and the first floor of Meyer Library at Stanford, Carma’s and One World in Baltimore, and Ashland’s Key of C.

I have a new resolution for this blog; 100 words a day. I have been writing a lot of articles lately, and trying to get them posted or published in other news venues. This means that the feature of SOS relating to immediate reflections on the experience has suffered. But if I give myself permission to keep it shortish, then I’ll still do it.

So, I’m writing in Mleczarnia, in Wroclaw, eating a heart-shaped gingerbread cookie and staring at an unlit candle. Where to begin…

The Fulbright orientation ended on Saturday morning. During the orientation, I was very performatively engaged, more so than I expected to be–I saw a performance of Prokofiev’s R&J ballet at the Wroclaw opera house, the Pina Bausch 3D film, and two avant-garde puppet theater performances (one about Marlena Dietrich, one based on Racine’s Phedre) by my friend A. Articles in progress on all this except Prokofiev.

In addition to this, we had Polish language study in the morning, lectures on Polish culture and history in the afternoon, tours of Wroclaw and environs on the weekends, and socializing in the evenings. I made many new friends. The Fulbrighters are, as you would expect, a very cool and diverse group. We are now far-flung, from Lodz to Gdansk to Lublin to Szczecin–our trains dispersed this weekend–but I am looking forward to visiting all of them.

After that orientation, I took a train to Legnica, a smaller town in the southwestern Poland region known as Lower Silesia (a region that includes Wroclaw, and that has changed political affiliations many times through history). While there, I saw four performances and a concert as part of the Festiwal Teatru Nie-Zlego (lit. “festival of theater that’s not bad”). What I saw of the festival was characterized by work that has some interest in movement, dance, and music as well as text–but I only saw 2 of the 4 days. Many of the plays incorporated surrealistic elements and humor. I heard audiences laugh more in this festival than I have in any previous Polish theater experience. Articles, yes, in progress.

I saw one of my favorite Polish theaters, Teatr Cinema from Michalowice, who I’ve loved for two years but before this had only seen on video. They performed “Nie mówię tu o miłości” from their repertoire. The title means “We do not speak of love here.” I also saw three new companies (new to me, that is)–Teatr Witkaczego z Zakopanego’s “Bal w operze”–a Lithuanian puppet theater company, Teatr Lėlė z Wilna’s “Pozytywka (Muzikinė Dėżutė)”–and a collaboration by Teatr Dada von Bzdülöw & SzaZa z Gdańska called “Caffe Latte.” On the last night, there was a concert by Warsaw Village Band. Articles in progress, etc., etc. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the performance by the organizing theater, Teatr Modrzejewskiej w Legnicy, but I’m hoping to return for that later this year. Articles…

During the Legnica festival, I had a volunteer guide around town–a college student and Legnica native, K. She and her friends–self-proclaimed “theater freaks”–gave me a sort of Legnica 101. In return, I told them about Julie Taymor and Spider-Man, as well as “Shrek, The Musical.” I think they got the short end of the stick. I really enjoyed connecting with the students. Two of K’s friends are about to begin drama school in Wroclaw, and I’m hoping to stay in touch with this group of people as they conduct their training. I want to also get a perspective on Polish theater as it is taught at the universities. More articles.

In Legnica, I was also able to conduct interviews with three theater people in the town–directors, festival organizers, community organizers, artists–and am working on compiling those.

Night train back to Wroclaw yesterday after Warsaw Village Band, staring out the window and thinking about the large violinesque object with drone strings that the musicians from WVB found in a well, broken, and restored. “Violin” is a really hard word for non-Polish-speakers to say–“skrzypce.” There is a Polish comedy routine in which the comic makes fun of all the different ways to mispronounce it. He ends up saying things like “trzy pizzy” (three pizzas). I learned about this from my super-cool student friends in Legnica. They were incredibly informative. I wish I always had college students to tell me what’s going on.

Today, back in Wroclaw, I had a three-hour-long-interview with a scholar for another article in progress. Different subject. I also bumped into another Fulbrighter, a Wroclawian, in the Empik bookstore. Nice to run into people accidentally. Makes the whole country feel a bit smaller. Starting to have a network of friends.

I will return to Warsaw tomorrow, where I will see chór kobiet’s second piece, “Magnificat,” in the evening.

It’s good to be getting started. I know I’ve been in Poland since July 20, but having my first post-orientation days–and having them be so full of theaters and interviews–is a good feeling. I was here before, but now I’m here here. And there. And everywhere.

Poland, theater

before I forget


This evening, coming home, it was raining lightly in the plaza outside the Centrum metro station. A rock band with amplification–teenage girl singer, teenage girl rhythm guitarist, and older male rhythm section–was playing a song with some Polish words and some English words mixed together. The chorus was just a repeated “Hallelujah.” They had lighting and a tent, and some kind of creepy manager figure who kept walking in front of the band and mouthing the words of the song.

About 10 yards away, there was another musical act–one guy with a bunch of plastic tubs. He had been playing them a few hours earlier, when I’d come out of the station. He seemed resigned that he wasn’t going to be able to compete, but he didn’t pack up, either. He didn’t have a tent. A woman came up and spoke to him as if they knew each other. He had a big suitcase, like Harold Hill’s, for people to drop coins into. The tricked-up band had no suitcase. But they had a tent.

An enormous head of Rowan Atkinson on a movie poster, brightly lit and a thousand times larger than life, was above the bands. In the bad light and with my bad eyes, I thought it was George Clooney for awhile.

The singer sang better with her eyes closed.

(Watch this now! An image is going to turn into a STATEMENT!) The circumstances in which we perform are different. I’m sure the plastic tubs guy would have liked a tent, and the girl with the tent would have liked more confidence in her voice, or for her head to be as large as Atkinson’s, and Atkinson would probably like to be Clooney. But no one can make you get out of the plaza if you don’t want to. Just because someone else seems to have more of something doesn’t mean that you don’t still have something.


Poland, theater

No pictures

Long-suffering Milo, (can I call you “long-suffering”? I just did…)

You don’t know this, but I’ve never been very good at pictures. I take them and don’t put them up; I draw them, but don’t show them to anyone; I prefer, under almost every circumstance you can imagine, to use words instead. I should know better than to promise to share images. Sometimes I dutifully tote a camera around Warsaw, thinking of how happy it will make everyone to see some IMAGES instead of all this TEXT, but I always put off dealing with them as long as I can. So I won’t make any more promises I can’t keep, and I don’t feel like uploading the files right now–sorry–but I can tell you about Warsaw.

It’s taken me this long to write another post for one reason. Although I’ve been here since August 20, I’ve been staying in hostels the entire time–until yesterday. This was on the heels of months and months of uncertain living situations, and it finally caught up with me. I was unable to write while I didn’t have my own space.

But I do, now–I have a lovely room in a lovely apartment that I’m sharing with a lovely roommate (about which and whom more later) and I am finally in possession of brainspace with which to tell you how I got here.

So, to begin–after my visit to Teatr Cinema concluded (and I still need to write about that) I had about 48 hours to pack up, clean the sublet apartment, and get out of town. I did manage to have a couple of excellent Italian beers (Peroni? Why have I never heard of this before?) at Literatka na rynku, in the Stare Miasto, in the company of M. from the Grot Institute. We discussed future Wroclaw visits.

Even though my FB project is, from now on, going to be primarily rooted in Warsaw–I have moved to Warsaw, in case any one missed that–I will be coming back to Wro. frequently to collaborate with TPK and others.

My project in Warsaw now consists of interviewing theater directors and observing rehearsals. And writing articles. Many, many articles. It’ll be the same project when I travel elsewhere in Poland–Wroclaw, Lodz, etc.–but Warsaw is the base.

So. I took a plane from Wroclaw instead of a train–it cost the same, and I had far too much luggage. I felt like the Spaceballs princess at the terminal, but it was worth it.

When I arrived, it was a warm and bright afternoon. The place reminded me of Chicago, as I have already said to many people–in the wide streets and enormous open skies swept with enormous fast-moving clouds, in the strong winds, in the sense–part of the air–that a body of water is nearby, and most strongly in the packs of giggling young people hurrying down the street. I ate Turkish takeout food on ul. Marszalkowska, around the corner from my hostel, overlooking Plac Konstytucji, and was overjoyed to be in Warsaw. The only fly in an otherwise unobjectionable ointment was that my hostel, advertised as WiFi-enabled online, only had WiFi for PCs–not for Macs.

But I was not in a mood to be disappointed. It felt exhilarating to be in Warsaw. In my first days here, I went running around. I saw the Universal-backlotesque Old Town, reconstructed after the devastation of Hitler’s destroy-Warsaw campaign; the enormous Vistula, which I have already told my parents is as wide as the 405 (it is!); the statue of Zygmunt; the Chopin memorial in Lazienski park; the smaller Ujazdowski park with its statue of Paderewski. I rode the metro (the subway is just a line, not a loop) to see where it went. I even saw a play in my first 48 hours here–a Polish-language version of “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia,” by Albee, at och-teatr.

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Poland, theater

Day of the Blessed Mother of Herbs

August 15, 2011

Dear Milo,

I didn’t realize today was a Polish national holiday until I left the house. My favorite Piekarnia Familia was closed, as was every other piekarnia (bakery) on my walk to the theater. It was too quiet for a Monday, and the people I did see on the street were walking slowly, holding their children’s hands, taking photographs, or carrying little bunches of flowers and plants tied in green and yellow twine.

I still had to get some work done today, though, even though it was a holiday, because I’ll be taking the bus to Jelenia Góra tomorrow to spend some time (just a day or so) with the surrealist theater company Teatr Cinema.

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We were completely surrounded by critics

Dear Milo,

Raining? Sunny? Doesn’t matter; have no intention of going outside today, or at least, not beyond the courtyard. Today I have nowhere to be and I’m catching up on freelance work, cleaning off a desktop, doing laundry, taking out the trash, having space and time to reconnect the dots. I really needed this. Nothing makes you appreciate a day off like the exhaustion of rehearsal.

But it’s more than that; it’s the exhaustion of moving to a new country, the Polish language intensive, the graduation and the thesis, the final semester, the stress and sadness of leaving friends behind. I was and am well and truly worn out. Succeeding at something can be just as crazy as failing at it, and those two states can seem remarkably similar.

What’s the problem?

“I was trying to explain what the problem was, but what was the problem? I felt tears well in my eyes. We were completely surrounded by critics. The critics had opinions about everything, from the distribution of literary prizes to the advantages of a macrobiotic diet.

At some point we headed back into the rain. Although I had quit smoking six months ago, I paused to bum an American Spirit from a conveniently situated critic. “I thought you quit,” my agent said. ”

-That’s Elif Batuman, in the Guardian, on the stresses and crazinesses of having one particular dream come true; “Life after a Bestseller.” Via Explosion-Proof‘s site.

Getting what you want can be rough.

These bumps in the road are part of what the experience will contain, I understand, and I am getting used to it. I am grateful to everyone who’s been helping me navigate. You don’t have to look pretty in the ring; you just have to stay standing.

To get myself through said bumps, I have been writing lots. I did silly things, like creating (a year late) a properly designed triple-tracking submissions spreadsheet. I did some work in genres that have been neglected due to the prevailing influence of Planet Poetry. And I even found, under my computer cushions, an old post I’d been meaning to post since May.

So here’s something I wrote when I knew I was coming here but hadn’t gotten here yet. It’s a bit droopy, but perhaps you can understand, given the circumstances.

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