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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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03: Baby Steps

“For now, we just have to make it to tomorrow.”

 

Monday, June 26th.

It’s hot here—brutally hot. I was outside for just ten minutes, and the sun is already having its way with my skin. Seeing as we intend to work aboard a big metal boat with limited shade, this doesn’t bode well. And, after all the excitement of the ballet, the jet lag seems to have finally taken hold.

image2.JPGThis morning was a genuine comedy of errors. We’ve both been sleeping poorly, but I didn’t realize how out-of-sync I felt until I stumbled out of bed, and proceeded to drop my electric razor—it’s broken beyond repair—then stub my toe on the door. We did feel better after coffee. But when we arrived at the theatre to sign our contracts, we realized we had forgotten our passports, and so had to hike back to the apartment to retrieve them. One of us (who will not be named) almost forgot his passport twice. By the time we returned with passports in hand, drenched in sweat, the registry had closed, and we were told we’d have to try again tomorrow.

Sigh.

We’re adjusting, slowly, despite the growing pains. The people here are warm, generous, and curious about what we’re doing. On the grand tour, we discovered that Marin, our host, has an enviable capacity for multitasking. Throughout our first meeting he was making calls—switching between Croatian, Italian, and English—to connect us with various personnel. Of course, being the General Manager of the Theatre, he was also putting out fires left and right. In addition to the three hundred and fifty employees he manages, he is also directing the opera “Aida,” which is set to play at this outdoor theater in July:

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In spite of all this, Marin never seems to complain. We, on the other hand, are distraught that there’s still no WiFi at home. For now, we’re mooching off of café internet. We can at least connect in the Theatre. But of course, there’s no A/C in our office. Also, the room is filled with pianos.

 

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“Chin up!” we keep saying. But trying not to melt is harder than it looks.

***

“Aida” Rehearsal. Evening.

 A petite middle-aged woman is barking at people in Italian. Grown men cower in fear at this five-foot fireball in a red dress. In a harsh whisper, she excoriates them for the way they improperly roll the r in guerra.

“She’s the Chorus Master,” Marin tells us. He says she used to work with Pavarotti (yes, the Pavarotti) among countless others. When he introduces us at the break, she immediately drops her guard and collapses into an audience chair. “I’m only mean when they’re lazy,” she assures.

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“Aida” deals with serious issues—war, slavery, unrequited love—but the drama off-stage is turning out to be equally enthralling. Rehearsal happens in the three aforementioned languages. Four, if you count the erratic gestures Marin makes to the performers as they sing and try to remember their blocking at the same time.

 

“Stop stop stop stop stop,” he says. “We are going to do it again. And Vincent is going to walk slowly this time. Dobra.”

After the rehearsal, we grab a well-deserved drink. We’re sure we’ll get onto Galeb by the end of the week, once we’re registered and all of our paper work is processed. For now, we just have to make it to tomorrow.

It’s midnight by the time we finally arrive back at our flat. This time, I insert the correct key into the correct keyhole and hear a satisfying ca-chunk.

Small victories.

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02: Landing

“In Rijeka, you truly never know what will happen when the curtain rises.”

7:52 a.m. Frankfurt.

Still no word from Kim. He was supposed to arrive in Rijeka sometime yesterday, but he hasn’t been receiving my WhatsApp messages, nor my emails. In my mind this can mean only one of two things: Kim is either in Rijeka and asleep and/or without internet, or something HORRIBLE has happened.

I’m still on New York time (2 a.m.) trying to beat this long layover. The fluorescent lights and oppressively white walls are definitely winning.

I finally saw Jackie–thanks for the inspiration, Lufthansa Airlines–and wept silently to myself while a large German man snored beside me. I think our generation will look back on Nathalie Portman as the Katherine Hepburn of our time. I also think that, thanks to the stupendous storytelling magic that is this film, folks of our generation might actually go so far as to Google Jackie Kennedy some day. Maybe.

One can dream.

I hope Kim still has all of his limbs. And that all of his limbs are still attached to his body. And that his body is, in fact, in Rijeka.

 

10:22 a.m. Frankfurt.

I’ve just gotten word that Kim is in Rijeka. I think his limbs are OK.

I don’t know for sure, because I found out rather circuitously. The theatre’s company manager tells me that he was let into the apartment where we’re staying. She also told me that her car broke down on the island Krk yesterday, and that she wouldn’t be able to pick me up from the bus station. I also learned that I might arrive just in time to see the Theatre’s final performance of “Swan Lake” tonight. Normally I wouldn’t be so keen to see “Swan Lake.” But seeing as I’m running on less than an hour of sleep, and all around me German people are already drinking beer, jet-lagged ballet feels like a poignant next step.

 

11:50 a.m. Frankfurt. Boarding.

I scream silently to myself as I realize that my flight is filled with the largest, noisiest gaggle of 18-year-old Irish University bros I’ve ever seen. This is my personal hell.

 

12:20 p.m. Takeoff.

Bros are still yelling. The flight attendant seems to be very impatient with me for some reason, even though I’m being extremely cooperative. Does he think I’m associated with these pale-skinned, heckling devils?

 

5:30 p.m. Rijeka.

After an epically beautiful bus ride through the arid mountains between Zagreb and Rijeka, I’ve finally made it. As I step off the bus, I see Kim, and he embraces me (he gives THE BEST hugs). For the first time in two days, I truly know that everything will be fine. There’s no WiFi in the apartment yet, Kim tells me, so posting as frequently as I’d hoped might prove difficult for the time being. We stroll along the canal that runs through the center of the city towards our apartment, which the Theatre has generously provided. As we round the bend along the harbor, I spy Galeb out of the corner of my eye.

 

7:30 p.m. “Swan Lake.”

As anticipated, “Swan Lake” proves to be a dreamlike experience, but not only because of the jet lag. I am stunned by how, as we approach the theatre, hoards of invigorated audiences members are strolling about, mingling with the artists, drinking wine, and relishing the pre-show excitement.

 

This is nothing like I’ve ever experienced, and not only because I’m a naïve American. In Rijeka, the National Theatre is the epicenter of cultural life. Soon, the festival begins. Over fifteen productions will be happening in the theatre and around the city on an overlapping schedule. And unlike in the U.S., the audience here does not seem too old and withered. I remark how many children and young adults trickle in, dressed to the nines, as we file up the marble stairs to our box seats.

Oh, and by the way, this is no black box. It is an opera house built in 1805 (completed 80 years later), and it is beyond opulent.

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When the performance begins, I immediately understand why the folks outside seemed so alive. This is not your typical “Swan Lake,” featuring high-octane ballerinas moving on autopilot through rigidly wrought choreography. The music and story may be traditional, but the vision of this production runs on the same courage and passion that, in the early 20th century, fueled the first European Avant-Garde.

Actors dressed as ghoulish court jesters appear behind a translucent scrim and violently “Shh” the audience. The first act is filled with slapstick gags, gender-bending gestures, and costumes that look like they came from Tim Burton’s personal collection. The set, designed by Dalibor Laginja, is comprised almost entirely of mirrors—on the floor, the walls, even the ceiling—to suggest the setting of a lake. But there are no swans here. The choreography is deliberately sloppy, irreverent, charged with biting humor, and utterly human. In Rijeka, you truly never know what will happen when the curtain rises.

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8:30 p.m. Intermission

As we step into the lobby, we see Marin Blazević, the Theatre’s Artistic Director and General Manager. He is also our host. Marin introduces us to two of his colleagues, who are here visiting from universities in New York and Australia. We step onto the terrace that overlooks the town square just as the sun is setting. Marin tells us a story about the piece he and Director Oliver Frijlic toured last summer, which apparently got them into a bit of trouble with the Polish government. “Why?” we ask. “I honestly don’t know,” he says. “It wasn’t even that controversial. I mean, there was some nudity, some simulated sex, the Polish flag, the Pope, you know. But nothing that controversial.”

I think we’re going to like it here.

 

 

 

01: Tito and Kennedy

“We’re basically doomed.”

We're making theatre on Tito's old ship. Right now we're lost in a fog.

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Kim and I are a director-dramaturge team. He’s South African, I’m American. We recently received a fellowship from Columbia University to spend five weeks at the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc, located in the northern port city of Rijeka. The Theatre has generously offered us this 400ft. former military marine vessel as a space to showcase an original work-in-progress during their site-specific theatre festival in July. We believe site-specific art should always highlight the idiosyncrasies of the chosen space. But until we arrive, we haven’t a clue what/who our actual materials and collaborators will be. We have no plan, and we don’t speak a word of Croatian. We’re basically doomed.

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We know only a couple of things. Mainly, that we are investigating the lives and legacies of John F. Kennedy and Josip Broz Tito. We know that Kennedy hosted the deceased leader of former Yugoslavia at the White House several times. Kennedy, however, never boarded the marshal’s ship Galeb, which hosted over one hundred world leaders throughout Tito’s lifelong term. In light of JFK’s recent centennial, such insights are rich material.

imagesWe also know that we are fascinated with themes of entropy, natural processes of decay, and the brutal phenomena of physical law. Hence the working title, WRECKED. We’re not superstitious, but we do hope to learn which rusty door hinges, corners of peeling wallpaper, and spooky corridors play host to sleeping ghosts. With any luck, we’ll wake them.

Whatever happens, we’re determined to make something awesome. Even if it kills us.