10: Horizon

“A good ending always conjures the feeling of a new beginning.”

 

One month ago today, Kim and I arrived at The Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka without the foggiest sense of what was about to happen. All we knew was that we would have rehearsal space, a dramaturg, some actors (maybe), and a rusty old ship. We swore that no matter what, in three-weeks time, we were going to put up a play. And so we did.

You might be wondering what the hell went down. To be honest, it’s hard to say; we’re still reeling.

We started this rehearsal process as a multi-generational group of strangers from four different countries, struggling to communicate across three different languages. But, using the mythic lives and legacies of Tito and Kennedy as our launch pad, we managed to create something out of nothing.

When we lost Galeb, we faced a moment of reckoning. Within that moment, we realized that what our ensemble had made thus far had legs. We had set out to make a piece of theatre that would breathe new life into a rusted, wrecked ship. At the last minute, our concept changed, but only slightly. We realized that it wasn’t just a piece about activating memories lodged deep within a specific space; all along, we had been making a piece about the ephemeral nature of memory itself.

Or, as my friend Elizabeth so eloquently put it after the show, “It was supposed to be about a ship that’s haunted by theatre, and instead, it was about a theatre that’s haunted by a ship.”

Here’s a detailed play-by-play of what happened on the evening of Wednesday, July 19th.

 

***

 

8 p.m. Port of Rijeka.

We had planned for the audience to meet us in front of the fence overlooking Galeb. But as we approach the port, we confront two glaring mistakes. The first is on us: the sidewalk is too small to fit more than ten people, and now the crowd is spilling onto the street. The second mistake is on the Theatre’s box office. We had repeatedly requested that the Theatre admit no more than twenty people outside of its own staff, due to limited space. This crowd looks like easily forty, maybe even fifty in number. We’re trying to keep cool, but our nerves are getting the best of us.

We usher folks to the opposite side of the street, out of the way of traffic, and I pull out the letter we received from the city’s Bureau of Shipping. I attempt to read it in Croatian. I get three words in and give up—everyone laughs. I hand the letter over to Nataša, who reads it aloud, so that the audience can hear for themselves the Port’s list of reasons for prohibiting our use of the ship. “Come on, we were on Galeb three years ago!” someone yells out from the crowd. The security guard aboard Galeb stands on deck, staring down the mob. His posture suggests he’s ready for trouble.

 

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We ask the audience to follow us to the theatre. We lead them through the artist entrance, up to the second floor, and into a tiny rehearsal room for a quick briefing. I explain that they should treat this experience as they would a museum exhibition; that they may wander and follow characters as they please; that there will be places to sit, but the best way to experience WRECKED is to explore.

 

8:15 p.m.

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We file everyone through a narrow corridor into a sepia-lit hallway and head towards the first space: the lounge. Inside there is a television playing post-WWII footage of Tito and his wife Jovanka aboard Galeb. Beneath this looping video we hear continuous audio of Jackie Kennedy, sourced from nine hours of interviews she gave in 1964, just one year after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

From behind the audience, an actor emerges. She weaves her way to the front, ghostlike. She is our First Lady. She cycles through a sequence of silent gestures beside the screen, moving to the sound of Mrs. Kennedy’s warbling voice.

 

 

20228921_1014069962029973_2739260830334665530_n.jpgShe storms out. Simultaneously, a Servant appears behind the bar. He, too, moves almost mechanically through a circular sequence of gestures, as though in a trance. He exits, and the audience follows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8:30 p.m.

This second floor is now pulsing with life. Audience members siphon through five unique spaces, which include a Presidential Suite (the foyer), the First Lady’s lounge, the Servant’s bar/kitchen, Elizabeth Taylor’s dressing room, and Tito’s private quarters (set in the central opera box). A soundscape of documentary audio floods each sequestered locale, suggesting character not through dialogue, but through atmosphere and ambience.

 

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The isolated figures begin to weave through one another’s spaces, crossing paths in the hallway. Whenever their tracks intersect, they improvise movements from a pallet of gestures, defining their relationships in spontaneous moments of ecstatic synchronicity.

 

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The music morphs into a big band swing number. The tone shifts from lyrical and grim to farcical and irreverent. Opera box doors swing open and slam shut, with characters filing in and out, pursuing one another like characters in an episode of Scooby Doo. Sometimes a door opens to reveal something scandalous inside. Who doesn’t love to imagine world leaders being a little naughty?

 

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Up until this point, the characters have also been passing a sealed envelope. Whom it’s for or what’s inside remains a mystery. At this point, the presence of the letter is apparently incidental.

 

8:45 p.m.

The action crystalizes in the Presidential Suite (i.e. the foyer space), where the letter takes on new significance. For several minutes, we watch the actors improvise through kinesthetic response, using their pallet of gestures, tempo, repetition, floor patterns, and the passing of the letter as their only vocabulary.

 

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And then, WHAM: a kitschy dance number set to the 2005 pop-rock hit “Lisztomania.”

 

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Halfway through the song, the letter reappears, abruptly killing the mood. Our Tito figure opens the envelope and reads it aloud in direct address to the audience. He recites the text in Croatian. You can read the contents of the letter in English, here. (Don’t worry; it’s only a paragraph.)

 

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One by one, the characters silently start to move through their sequences beneath the recitation of text. When it ends, they freeze in tableau before taking their bows.

 

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…And then the theatre congratulates us with some hard-earned bottles of wine.

Anyway, that’s the gist. Just like you were there, right?

 

***

 

We spent the rest of the night drinking with the cast, reminiscing about the insanity of the process and getting to know each other in ways one never can when burdened by an impending performance. That’s the perpetual irony of making theatre: it demands profound intimacy, but the relationships you forge are ultimately transient. No matter how powerfully the ensemble has bonded, it’s only when the thing is over and you’re saying goodbye that you really start to see one another.

While it is indeed bittersweet to say farewell to Rijeka, we hope that there will be a future for WRECKED. Based on some unexpectedly great press in Croatia’s Novilist (in print) and the Italian paper La Voce, such a future seems possible.

A good ending always conjures the feeling of a new beginning; like when you look out at the horizon and wonder what lies just beyond the limits of your sight. As we crossed the stage for the last time today, Kim took this picture of me. “You’ve been my photographer this whole time,” he chided. I stood where he told me to and looked up at the faded figures that Gustav Klimt once painted on the ceiling, straining to decipher their faces through the dark.

 

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And then we left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

09: Party Time

 

There’s always one moment in a creative process—and it’s usually right at the last minute—when everyone looks around at what you’ve made together and feels the same thing:

“Uh-oh.”

But then you look at it again, and again, and again. And pretty soon a shape comes into focus.

We couldn’t be more excited to share this weird, wonderful thing we’ve made. Today, we make our mad dash to the finish line. All we can do now is hope that tomorrow, and in the long run, we’ll look back on today not as a last leg, but as a mighty first step.

Tonight, we invite you to join the party.

There will be enough room for a handful of people aside from the Theatre staff. Tickets are free, and are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. When you go to the box office to reserve them, you will be told how the performance works, and where to meet. It will begin at 8pm sharp, and won’t last for more than an hour. Afterwards, we celebrate. (Read the official announcement here).

 

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…See you at the show!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

08: Rerouted

“There’s still a good chance that all of this could blow up in our faces.”

 

So, we lost the ship.

But we haven’t lost faith. With five days to make something happen, we feel confident that we can adapt WRECKED to our now locale. In lieu of our dear Galeb, we have resolved to use some unconventional locations within the centuries-old labyrinth that is the National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc. The concept now is completely different. But…

 

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…there are worse fates.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from working here, it’s how to be aggressive in asking for what we need. It’s an incredible honor to work under the auspices of a government-funded arts institution. But as everyone here knows, government funds often come with innumerable strings attached. Here, the main managerial issue we find ourselves combating is complacency. Our immediate collaborators and supervisors are hard-working and committed, but the lines of communication between them and the folks who make stuff happen easily break down. We show up on time for meetings, and no one is there to meet us–maybe a crisis came up, or maybe they forgot–either way, no one bothers to let us know or reschedule. We are told we will have actors for twelve days; it turns out we only really get them for six. We plan for months to do a piece aboard a ship; one week before the show, we lose the ship. And when we complain, people just shrug their shoulders and say “Yep. Welcome to Croatia.”

Fortunately for us, the people directly involved with WRECKED–Marin; our company manger, Ana; Alan, our technical director; Nataša, our dramaturg; and of course all of our marvelous actors–have been bending over backwards to set us up for success.

Perhaps the greatest problem, though, has been our own attitude. We’ve been training in New York for the past two years. And, being the overly-neurotic perfectionists we are, we seem to have come into this process placing too much pressure on ourselves to succeed.

So, having realized this too late, we’ve decided to revamp our concept around the themes of failure and transformation.

IMG_1655.JPGWe are now trying to find a way to incorporate our loss of the ship as a critical element. Instead of using theatre to activate a space that would otherwise be off-limits to the public, how might we use it to tap into the frustration that the public feels toward the Kafka-esque nature of its own impenetrable bureaucracy? We plan to have the audience meet us at the gate near Galeb, and to be extremely frank with them that what they are about to see was intended to take place there. We will simply explain that, due to an embarrassing fumble on the part of the local government, this view is as close as we will be able to get. It might come off as a curtain speech, but technically the show will have already begun.

What happens next must remain a secret for now, as there will surely be some folks in the audience who are tracking our progress. Suffice it to say that the event will be full of surprises, and that there will still be plenty of opportunity for the audience to explore. Who knows? Maybe this version will turn out to be even better than it would have been on Galeb.

There’s still a good chance that all of this could blow up in our faces. Then again, if the piece does turn out to be a true failure, we’ll have succeeded all the more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

07: Rock Bottom

“We still don’t know what will happen. And honestly, we’re terrified.”

 

When everything is crumbling around you, and you feel that all of your hard work has been for naught, sometimes your only option is to breathe deep and keep marching.

We’ve been anticipating disaster since before we arrived in Rijeka. We now face the very real and—gulp—more likely possibility that we won’t be able to use Galeb after all, due to the aforementioned bureaucratic glitch, which, the Theatre regrets, seems beyond even the Mayor’s control. With only six days until our scheduled performance, time has become an enemy, forcing us to make some unwieldy and uncomfortably quick decisions.

 

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When we first met with Marin, the Theatre’s General Manager, he encouraged us to create something scalable. That way, should some logistical concern arise, we could modify our concept. “If you decide not to show anything in the end, that’s totally OK,” he insisted. We dismissed that immediately. Spend five weeks working with actors at the Croatian National Theatre and NOT make something epic? Yeah, right.

 

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The rehearsal room is unbearably stuffy. It’s ninety-one degrees outside, and we work indoors all day without fans or air-conditioning. Our actors are stretched thin between several projects, and, though they’re sincerely enjoying our work, they’re exhausted. Kim and I, too, are burning out. We’re working overtime, not only as co-directors, but also co-stage managers, choreographers, producers, and designers. The temptation to quit and hit the beach is stronger than ever. Do we pledge the little energy we have towards this seemingly impossible final stretch? Or do we spare ourselves the struggle and let WRECKED die on the vine?

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Since we arrived, we’ve been telling everyone in town about what we’re doing. Opinions vary. We’ve heard everything from “Cool!” to “What is Galeb?” to “Don’t go on that ship; it’s going to sink any day now.” The unanimous consensus, however, is that the citizens of Rijeka are annoyed about the ship’s inaccessible location in the port. According to the locals we’ve met, it costs the city approx. €130,000.00 annually to maintain the ship and keep a security guard onboard at all times. Yet, when we went aboard two weeks ago, the only thing that the security guard seemed to be working on was his tan.

A barbed wire fence now separates the ship from the street. From the outside, €130,000 does seem dubiously high. “Babies here are dying of cancer,” our dramaturg told us when we arrived. “How do people here feel about Galeb? They feel pissed off that their tax dollars pay for it to sit there and rust.”

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We took this to heart at the outset of our process. The last thing we wanted was for the local audience to perceive our work through a contentious lens. We came here to build bridges, not to burn them. Yet now, ironically, we can on some level relate to the frustration the locals feel about this ship. Indeed, what is it doing here, particularly if no one is allowed to see it up close, let alone engage with its historical significance in any meaningful way? It’s a cool relic, for sure. But at a distance, it’s an eyesore. There are plans to spend millions of euros on renovations to make the ship a tourist destination. But the people here seem divided about whether or not that would be a good thing. For years the citizens have been paying to keep it afloat, just barely out of reach. “Why?” they ask. Why not chop it up and feed it to the fishes?

To give you a more detailed picture of what we’ve been making: we have been working with five actors—three men, two women—to create living, breathing, ghostlike installations in various rooms on this haunted ship. The idea is not to represent figures such as as Tito, Kennedy, and Liz Taylor in some literal way. Rather, the actors embody a range of these characters’ archetypes using a nuanced, physical language. These isolated tracks eventually coalesce in a final, climactic group scene. Spoiler: it involves a dance number.

The specific historical signifiers—the “documentary” elements of the piece, if you will—come from audio and visual elements that play throughout the space. We want the audience to bring their own stories and imaginations to the experience, and to let the historical material function purely as atmosphere, something to get people’s wheels turning. We have spent the last week discovering and refining this concept. Now, all of that might have to change.

We do, of course, have a backup plan. But when we pitched it to the actors yesterday, they were heartbroken. “All of this has been about Galeb,” one of our actors pleaded, close to tears. “How can we do it anywhere else?”

 

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We’re stuck. If we can’t use the ship, we’ll have to perform what we have using a few different rooms in the theatre and a hallway that connects them. But we’re worried that in this new space, the dramaturgy of the piece will fall apart. The public, too, is dying to see the ship. People have been calling the box office every day to inquire about tickets.

The only solution, as we see it, is to present whatever we have, and to find some clever way to incorporate the fact that wonky bureaucracy disrupted our plans. It would be one thing if we had two more weeks to navigate this decision. But with only four and a half more days of rehearsal, and only six days left to prepare, we’re starting to panic.

We are trying to remember that the secret ingredient to all great art is uncertainty. “All great art is about life and death,” a mentor once told me. “If that is true,” I often ask myself, “then how can artists expect to make great art unless, time and again, we fearless plunge face-first into the void, with no guarantee of survival?”

It is always easier said than done. We still don’t know what will happen. And honestly, we’re terrified. We are expecting to have a final answer about the ship by the end of the day today. If we don’t have one by tomorrow, we change course.

For now, we keep marching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

06: Violence is the Answer

“We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.”

Thursday, July 6th. 9:30 p.m.

We’re sitting in front of the theatre waiting to get punched in the face.

At least, that’s what everyone warns us will happen when this play begins. Conceived and directed by the notoriously controversial Oliver Frljić, TURBOFOLK is an artistic response to the residual trauma of the Yugoslav Wars. This is post-dramatic theatre in its purest form. What is post-dramatic theatre? Let me put it this way: TURBOFOLK can only ever run for two performances at a time, due to the very real damage the piece requires the actors to inflict upon their own voices and bodies.

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It begins with a sudden blast of raw brutality. As we file in, the actors are poised in an elegant tableau; then, out of nowhere, they’re dragging one another by their hair, throwing chairs at each other, shoving each other onto the ground, and screaming at the top of their lungs beneath a sonic onslaught of wailing guitars. For the next hour, they will sustain and transform this spectacle of real violence into scandalizing and politically incorrect images with mind-bending intensity. Every instant forces you to question whether or not you are morally obligated to intervene (“Is it fake, or is it real?” I keep asking myself). At least four audience members walked out within the first fifteen minutes. And yet hundreds stayed, unable to avert their eyes. Later, at the bar, one of the theatre managers tells me that in her opinion, the audience should leave this play feeling traumatized. “If they don’t,” she says, “then the show was a failure.”

We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Last night, we travelled to a nearby warehouse—formerly used as a torpedo factory—to see a very different yet similarly explosive monodrama: Lampedusa Beach, penned by Italian playwright Lina Prosa and performed by renowned Croatian actor, Nina Violić. You can read the full text of the English translation here.

 

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Unlike TURBOFOLK, Prosa’s play demands sustained stillness and athletic vocal control. She dedicates her play “to an actress who knows how to hold her breath.” The story is a fictional, first-hand account of one refugee woman’s failed journey to the promised land of Lampedusa, a tiny island located halfway between Tunisia and Malta. Standing alone in front of the microphone, Violić’s method of storytelling is as traditional as it gets. But the themes of violence, trauma, and irreparable damage done to the body in many ways parallel the atrocities we saw reenacted onstage the following night.

And despite all of this, audiences here never seem to complain that such stories are “too depressing.”

 

July 8th. 11:00 p.m. Nemo’s Pub. Kim’s Birthday.

IMG_2205.JPGThis first week of rehearsal has been surprisingly productive. Our ensemble—one student, one actor from the Croatian company, and three from the Italian company—has in just four days developed a shared language and mutual passion for our project. This comes as a huge relief, especially because outside of rehearsal, the logistics of this production have been a nightmare.

Getting onto Galeb is proving much harder than any of our supervisors realized it would be. This is due to the ship’s current location in the port, which legally functions as an international border. That means that, in order to get on the ship, all of the actors—AND all of our invited audience members—will have to register their passports and sign paperwork in advance. Marin assures us that even the Mayor of Rijeka, who has officially endorsed our use of the ship for this performance, doesn’t seem to have much control over the situation. Basically, there is still a real possibility that all of this might end in disaster.

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At least the whiskey is cheap. It’s Kim’s birthday, and one of our new friends from our ensemble joins us for a drink after dinner. He and his girlfriend are incredibly charming, and, of course, before we know it, we’re all talking about theatre.

“Perhaps,” our friend suggests, “people in America wouldn’t respond so good to TURBOFOLK because most Americans haven’t really had to deal with wars on their own soil. Not recently, anyway.” This comment unlocks something for me. “Exactly!” I say. “The demand for theatre in America still seems to be driven by this need to escape—not to confront reality, but to run away from it.”

This is not a new thought. But as I look over the canal and see the full moon hanging over the street sign that reads “Tito Square,”  my mind wraps itself around this insight in a new way. It’s as though for the first time in my life, someone has effectively lifted the veil of my American attachment to comfort. I have been conditioned to believe that I am entitled to safety, to air conditioning and WiFi and water, to freethinking without consequence, simply by virtue of the fact that I was born there, and not somewhere else. This applies to so many raised in the U.S., and certainly to most of those who are wealthy enough or well educated enough to actually enjoy going to see live theatre.

We have officially been in Rijeka for two weeks. It’s 2 a.m. by the time we make our way back to the apartment. The air still feels like soup, but at least now there’s the tantalizing whisper of a breeze.

 

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All along I’ve been thinking about this blog as a space for us to figure out what it truly is that we, two artists, are trying to say. Now, as we wander past the empty bars and abandoned storefronts, I wonder how I might begin to reframe all of that. What if, now, we just stop worrying about what it is we’re trying to say,  or whether it will even happen? We’re here. And yes, we’re here to work. But also, and more importantly, we’re here to listen.

 

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05: Art and Life

“It’s easy to confuse one for the other.”

 

Don’t worry; we’re not dead (and yes, Kim still has all of his limbs). We’re feeling more alive and invigorated than ever. Now the real work of WRECKED begins. Here’s a recap of what we’ve been doing and thinking about over the past few days. We don’t mean to brag, but we’ve covered a lot of ground.

 

June 30th. 8 pm. “Rijeka Summer Nights” Opening Night.

We’re darting through the narrow streets of the old city, trying our best not to slip on the slick marble. But the rain is coming down in sheets, and my new shirt is officially soaked. Tonight is the opening celebration of the Theatre’s summer festival, in which our piece will be featured. The general consensus is that, due to this atrocious weather, no one will show.

 

One hour later.

By some stroke of miraculous fortune, the rain has stopped and left us with a merciful breeze. Hoards of people are pouring into the Theatre. Only some, however, enter through the front door. Tonight, the public will use the artist’s entrance.

 

K3006MG12_gallery_embed_item.jpgGuns, severed heads, and lines of cocaine are laid out on tables for all to enjoy (props, mind you). Ballerinas float through the grand foyer. Singers and orchestra members warm up in their dressing rooms. They leave the doors open. Folks of all ages line up for costume fittings and makeup. Five-year-old girls sit next to eighty-year-old violinists on stage as the orchestra plays through a classic score. In the office of Italian Drama, the Italian company manager is making a pizza.

 

K3006MG19_gallery_embed_item 2.jpgMarin, our host and illustrious General Manager, has titled this evening “The Theatre That Breathes.” The concept is simple: invite the public to see what happens inside every single space within this massive old opera house—every space, that is, except the auditorium. The event is free, and anyone who wishes to walk in, can.

 

K3006MG5_gallery_embed_item 2.jpgNo one dreamed the event would be such a success, Marin included. “Can you believe it?” He whispers to us, grinning madly amidst the travelling mob. “That man just got up on stage and started conducting!”

 

After the week we’ve had in Rijeka, we can, actually, believe it. If there’s anything we’ve learned about this place, it is that here, the boundary between art and life is remarkably fluid. It’s easy to confuse one for the other.

 

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July 2st. Midnight. Glavanovo Beach.

There’s a large, balding man smoking a cigarette on the rock wall behind me. He’s completely naked. Kim and I are drinking whiskey from the bottle. Nataša explains to us that this quiet giant is the resident oddball of her friend group. Having spent four years at a liberal arts college in the woods, I’m feeling right at home.

People keep referring to us as “the foreigners.” I find the blunt edge of their English refreshing. Everyone at this party is an artist. I reflect on how hard it is to talk about big ideas with people when you share such a limited vocabulary. I take another swig.

Along the beach is an an enormous cliff face with a steep staircase carved into one side. On the hike back up, we all have to stop to catch our breath. Across the bay, the city lights are dancing on the water.

 

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…Pretty, yes?

 

July 2nd. 9 pm. Vienna, Austria.

 The bus ride took longer than anticipated—we stopped in Slovenia for doughnuts—but the schnitzel I ate for dinner made the trek worthwhile.

We’ve come to Vienna with the cast and crew of “Klotho,” a brand new Opera by Polish composer Martyna Kosecki. The opera will prove disappointing, but our thirty-six hours in this city will be impossible to forget.

After dinner, Kim and I stroll through Leoplodstat. We stumble upon an immaculate garden.

 

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Yes, the sky really is that magnificent. But in the background lurks something sinister: a large cylindrical structure that was built to house weapons for the Nazis.

We’ll spend the next day gallivanting around Vienna, marveling at the ornate architecture and incredible wealth speckled across the city’s surface. We’ll see the rare paintings of Egon Schiele exhibited at the Leopold Museum, and drink beer on the Danube Canal. But there is a troubling darkness that bubbles beneath the city’s white and gold façade. Here, as in Rijeka, there is a conscious fear that at any moment, things might go back to the way they were.

 

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In some places, art acts as a grave and necessary reminder.

 

July 4th. Rijeka. Evening.

No one here cares that today is Independence Day in the U.S. On our way back to Rijeka, I hear one of the company members say that Trump is “an endless source of comedy.” But today, I am not laughing. 

Still, we appreciate the time we’ve had to rest and recharge. When we return to Rijeka, we move into our new apartment with a view of the sea (not to mention WiFi, at long last). We’re christening the new digs by meticulously planning our upcoming ten days of rehearsal. After such a blissful escape, switching gears so suddenly is proving more difficult than we anticipated.

IMG_2140.JPG We’re hoping that everyone gets along. Coming from Columbia, we’re used to working with whatever resources and actors we can get. But we don’t know enough about our technical specs to plan for any serious light or sound elements, which is making the planning process a serious challenge. Right now all we know is that for this week we have four walls and the people in the room.

 

 

 

July 5th. WRECKED Rehearsal. Day 1.

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Lucky for us, we’re used to minimalist constraints. We spend the morning getting to know each other. We immediately sense a warm and generous energy in the group. People are focused and ready to jump into the void–they seem as excited as we are to make shots in the dark.

We start the morning off with some basic Viewpoints exercises. From these exercises, we can already begin to see our story and characters emerge. The research materials we’ve been steeping ourselves in for weeks are suddenly taking new life in unexpected ways.

We’re cautious about counting chickens, but by the end of today’s rehearsal, we felt confident that, after tomorrow, we will have found a solid, functional shell. From here on out, we’ll be using every tool we have to crack it open.

 

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04: Sea Legs

“We’ve had some breakthroughs.”

Wednesday, June 27th. Morning.

The sun is up and we’re glowing as we cross the town square. Today is the day. In front of the Theatre we meet Ana, the company manager, and Nataša, the Theatre’s dramaturg, who seem just as excited as we are to explore the stained planks and ominous crevices of Galeb. We fill our water bottles, lather our bodies with sunscreen, and off we go.

And then we stop.

IMG_1656.jpgThe ship is harbored in the port of Rijeka, which is closed to the public. We can’t seem to find our way around the gate. Nataša and Ana deliberate for a while. We keep walking until we reach a security checkpoint, where the guard confirms that we are indeed registered to board. The gate opens, and we approach the ship from the port side.

It’s massive, even more massive than I had imagined. I feel a rush of conflicting emotions; the kind of delightful dread one feels before a blind date. But the butterflies in my stomach suddenly turn into rocks, when, from the darkness, a creature emerges. He’s not wearing a shirt.

 

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Believe it or not, he’s a security guard. He does not speak English, nor does he seem too keen to let us board. No one has communicated with him about our plans, and when our liaisons explain the situation, his response is not exactly friendly.

“He says it will not be possible,” Nataša translates, “because it is not safe.”

But Ana steps in and gives him the scoop. She explains that we are making a workshop performance for a small, invited audience; that we have travelled all the way here from New York; and that the Theatre has made an agreement with the Mayor of Rijeka to let us work aboard the ship. The man concedes, albeit reluctantly, and manually lowers the staircase with a crank chain. We have to make a little leap from the dock to reach the first step. Once we’re up, we immediately see why Galeb’s keeper was so perturbed by our request.

 

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This is an American stage manager’s worst nightmare. Fortunately for us, we’re miles from the land of red tape. As we begin to explore the vast metal terrain, I can feel my muscles relax. A flood of wonder crashes over me, quenching the anxiety that has been wrenching my brain for weeks. It’s even better than we had hoped.

IMG_1730.jpgHere, the past is present. The furniture looks like it hasn’t been touched, nor cleaned, in about forty years. The mattresses, bathrooms, and portholes are the very same which international icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, President Nasser of Egypt, Queen Elizabeth II, and hundreds of other political officials—namely Tito himself—would have known intimately during their stays on board. The ship was manned and maintained throughout the ‘80s, which are commonly regarded as the Golden Age of Yugoslavia’s socialist economy. But when devastating outbreaks of civil war fractured the Balkans in the early ‘90s, one decade after Marshal Tito’s death, funds for the conservation of such spaces became scarce. Mutual feelings of national pride became even scarcer. Today, the only surviving relic of unified Yugoslavia is this floating, rusted shell.

 

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Amidst all the excitement of exploration, I can’t help but ask myself: what are we doing here?

IMG_1767.jpgAfter our tour, Ana and Nataša treat us to espresso and pastries at a nearby café. We commiserate about the failings of our respective theatre cultures, and exchange anecdotes from our professional lives. I am struck by their generosity, as they compile lists of recommendations for places we should visit, dishes we should try, beaches to hit and parties to attend. We’ve only known them for a few days, but somehow, they’re already starting to feel like family. Within an hour after returning to our office, we receive an email from Nataša confirming the participation of five actors from the Theatre’s Croatian Drama Company. She assures us that they are all very talented and fluent in English. Tomorrow, when we arrive to work, there will be two pastries on our desk—a gift from Ana. What have we done to deserve such kindness? Are we missing something?

 

Later that day…

Back at the flat, we plop down in the A/C for a bit of work and a bit of rest. Now that we’ve seen the space, inspiration is flowing like water from a faucet.

We finally feel like we have a direction, and even the beginnings of a structure. We haven’t yet found our story, but we’re hoping that over the next few days of research—and through our reflections on this blog and elsewhere—the story will find us. But we’ve had some breakthroughs. Here’s what we think we know: 

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The ship itself feels like a character. It casts a powerful spell. We want to leave a lot of room for the audience to explore the space as much or as little as they wish. We hope that by thinking about scenes as installations—some static, some moving—throughout different spaces on the ship, the audience will be able to experience the sensation of constant discovery. Questions about how these installations might overlap, and whether and how they eventually coalesce, are paving the way for our next steps.

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On the technical side, the ship has no electricity, which means that for sound and/or projection design, we’ll need at least one generator. With or without electrics, we will definitely need music. Live vocal music is a must.

But perhaps our most crucial insight thus far is that we are not making a documentary. We’re not interested in explicating a past that people already know all-too-well. Upon gathering our research and interviewing folks here about life in the Balkans after Tito’s death, we are learning that we share more common ground than we had anticipated. We want to investigate what it means for a nation to feel haunted, not by the past, but by the terrifying uncertainty of what’s to come. How might we use this space to create an intimate and immediate experience of feeling alone, together?

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The bottom line? We’re still stumped, and probably will continue to be until we meet our actors and get down to business. On Sunday we leave for Vienna to assist with the traveling production of “Klotho,” a new Opera by Polish composer Martyna Kosecki. In the meantime, we’ll be slaving away in our office, researching like mad, and updating our archives whenever our WiFi permits. When we return, WRECKED will be all systems go.

Slowly, steadily, we’re gearing up for the big dive.

 

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