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.
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.
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.
She 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
And then, WHAM: a kitschy dance number set to the 2005 pop-rock hit “Lisztomania.”
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.)
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.
…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.
And then we left.