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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