A Memory of Warsaw

This blog began when I returned from Poland in the fall of 2004, and while one moiety of myself slowly returns from the warm waters of Subic Bay, another has yet to depart from the soot-stained corbelled brickwork of the Baltic Sea.

In Warsaw, I had myself a profoundly transcendental experience, one I know has marked me indelibly, and answers more and more questions as the months unspool. I know my own fanciful memory has imbued the actual events with some creative embroidery. These are my memories, after all, and the question of whether the events transpired quite exactly as I recall them, really doesn't matter in light of their impact. I remain amazed all the same.

I was in Poland, performing "Blue" with H2M Theatre and Stacja Szamocin. It was a very difficult work, as some of my previous entries will attest. And I'd just experienced, in quick succession, the ancient communities of Szamocin, Gdansk, Katowice, Krakow, Radom and Warsaw, and the Silesian Museum, and Auschwitz, and the Wyspianski Museum, and so very much more, all while touring a highly physical, deeply demanding work.

By the time we arrived in Warsaw, I was ready to leave. I was ready to leave not just Poland, not just the overwhelming memory of Eastern Europe, but my theatre, my narrative, everything. Wash my hands, put the chairs up on the tables, turn out the lights and lock it all away. I didn't know quite what this might have meant, I only knew how tapped out I was, spent of my passion for peers and substantive work, awash with emotions, lonely, indignant. I was tired of bleeding and timing and hunger and alienation, tired of being so isolated and out of my element, tired of being taken for granted--in short, tired of theatre.

[Auschwitz deeply affected me. How could it not? I have no words that will serve here. It hurt me physically, it penetrated my substance...]

Our Warsaw performance was our Closing Night. Any of you polyformites out there who happen to dabble in these infernal arts, you know what a terrifying relief of an experience Closing is, especially it's anticipation. Ours is a transient art, it leaves no monuments, we give everything of ourselves when we build our lovely sandcastles, and we walk away quietly as the tide takes it all away. But Closing--and, also, but differently, Opening--have Other Properties. Our memories of these performances tend to take on mythic proportions. We tell our stories around them, much like I'm doing right now. These are the Moveable Feasts, that change and hasten like fickle lunar cycles, following rhythms much beyond our limited ken. And Warsaw was all of this and more.

We'd been provided with a performance space in one of the old, vast industrial quarters of the city, still quite visibly scored with tattered remnants of the Soviet era, yet also incongruously marked with Eastern Europe Home Depot analogues and relatively new roads threadbare at the seams, like everything else Polish. Our space was a gravel courtyard in the center of an old power station, recently renovated into an exquisitely fashionable arts complex--a fully stocked bar with leather couches set amongst the rusting turbines, a theatre and studios packed in with the smokestacks and the railcars. Much the same way the Pearl District has been re-fabricated, here in Portland.

Outside, grey communist apartment blocks (with all of the rich smells of Paris' Metro) hemmed in the sky around and above us, into a narrow urban bowl. Our stage was built there, and covered bleachers held seats for our audience, in a typical proscenium arrangement, with thin outriders of seats on the sides in a half-hearted, disorganized nod to the original 'theatre-in-the-round' intention. (As I have said, by this point it had been a dreadfully ill-poised tour.) We arrived in the afternoon, built our stage elements and rehearsed, all immediately prior to the performance that evening, a grueling routine no matter how bloodied a Theatre Marine you may be.

I bought fuel at the Eastern European Home Depot Analogue, and built my torches, and the Wall of Tears, for the last time. We sang our songs, mismatched fragments of work songs from the Deep South and folk songs from the Ukrainian Steppe, none of which any of us really understood the lyrics or the meaning of. I felt them resonate off the serried grey ranks of windows, stirring people the way the wind stirs dry leaves. It was a bright, warm afternoon, with rainclouds scattered in the wind and the sunlight. There were raindrops on the stage, and the stiltwalkers were nervous on the gravel.

The audience was a glorious horde, the kind of Closing Night audience you dream of. Potentates and fashionistas sat side-by-side with country relatives. Extra chairs were scoured out from the deepest reaches of the gutted arts factory. The mood was expectant, smug, crowding and tense, everyone eager to see the kids the US Embassy had brought over, plus the ever-present tinge of vodka sharpening the breath. A wide spectrum of ages and dignities. For our purposes, a Perfect Audience.

At the last minute, our director rushes around telling us that he thinks the US Ambassodor to Poland is in the audience. Now, the Embassy basically made this tour possible; everyone's stomachs implode.

The show begins, and every one of us feels it, it's the Best and Bravest we'd ever done. The pitches were just right, the energy was electric, the audience was hushed with open-mouthed wonder, the colors and the fires were superb, the sun went down just as the first torches were lit, and the stiltwalkers drew gasps.

And Then.

One of them, the White Bird,

falls on her ass.

There is a horrifying moment, when time stops, like when you're at a stoplight in your car, with cars in front and on both sides of you, and you're watching a truck coming up in your rearview mirror and you can see them not-slowing-down, and you tense to do something when there's absolutely nothing to be done but brace yourself.

For an endless moment, everyone freezes.

And then, we do exactly what we're supposed to do.

We who are nearest get her back up on her stilts (3 1/2 footers), in character, and then we realize we're supposed to be afraid of her and we dash away right quick. Meanwhile, the Bird never dropped being the Bird even when she fell, and this, I'm sure, is what saved us. Afterwards, audience told us how they thought it was all choreographed, it was so smooth.

And the show goes on.

By now, the energy of the cast is sharp and rattling, scared like roller-coaster scared when the roller coaster is lashed together with duct tape and there's an Indiana Jones boulder riding your ass, and the US Ambassador to Poland is in the audience.

We tumble through the scenes quickly, pacing ourselves into a whirlwind of heartrending songs and explosive masks. The fire tableaux continue to burn in our blazing voices and eyes. The desperation of Closing is burning in us.

I have a scene, where I play this Bear, in a brilliant mask and coat that looks like little more than rags until--and here I will indulge in a bit of a boast--I wear them, and I wear them well, and I am a Bear that both scares and enraptures children, and claims the stage forcefully, and holds everyone in my paw, because the art is pitched just so, I am an Actor that is a Bear, which the Poles accepted warmly. This night is no exception. I confront my antagonist, and he wrestles me with his bare hands, throttling me, and I bleed real blood from my nose, which ruins the art, I know, but this happened almost every time, anyway...

I die and I'm stripped of my Bear, and I'm carried off half-naked and bleeding.

And a scene or two later, I re-enter, as Elijah the Prophet, wearing a rag coat and shaking a beggar's staff. It's a simple scene. Using only gestures and half-grunts, I ask my antagonist (who has just killed me) for a coin which he doesn't have. He refuses me. Disgusted, I ask the audience for the same coin.

The first few performances, no one would dare meet my eyes. But by this time in the tour, like the Bear, Elijah drew people out because I'd learned to recognize this coin I sought. Some gave me change, some gave me beer, there was much laughter, there were bright eyes everywhere, it was a joy to play--and that joy, of playing, of being, this was Elijah's coin.

This night, Elijah drew out this Perfect Closing Audience only slightly. No one dared to tip their hands, as it were, in the company of the US Embassy and much of the rest of Warsaw's glittering diplomatic corps. I saw immediately that they needed something more to draw them out.

It opened in my mind like a flower. I began it even before I fully saw what I was doing.

My open hand reached out to the windows of the apartments above and around us, and suddenly our fiery world was nothing but a small, narrow bowl, but our stage had grown into the walls of the hemmed-in night sky, and the distant spectators in the apartment windows suddenly multiplied, and their voices grew excited and then hushed as Elijah reached out to all of them in turn, people literally coming out of their walls and crying out to us in our narrow bowl, and I heard sobbing in the audience. A pile of rags and a beggar's staff, and the stars came out over us in the night sky in Warsaw, and our proud, crowded audience was suddenly no more than a handful in the multitude, the lights of their open windows endless like the stars themselves.

It was beautiful.

The moment passes. The show goes on. Another stiltwalker falls, and again we get her back up on her feet. ("Yeah, when I saw that, I figured it wasn't planned," the audience member told us.) At the curtain, the audience claps in time when they stand, and this ovation is our highest accolade.

After the show, we learn that the Ambassador was not in fact in the audience, merely his Deputy for Cultural Affairs. We also belatedly recognize the reckless folly of gravel alternating with slick, rain-wet stage surfaces for our battered but brilliant stiltwalkers. That very night our cast breaks up for home, the Poles returning to their village and their cities in the south, the Americans for home, or, in my case, Portland, Canada, Berkeley, Vermont and the Philippines.

I fly west and begin this blog, and now here I am some months later, rehearsing, writing and creating, because of the taste of that Closing Night, which Opened something in me.

Most likely H2M is going back to Poland this summer, and most likely I will not be serving with them, which is as it should be. But I will always be deeply grateful for the privilege of that evening, as the months unspool and these other Moveable Feasts open like windows all around me, and the memory of Elijah wraps my scarred self like a pile of rags that becomes so much more when I wear it right.

I'm still rather fucked up, as the diligent polyformite will well know by now. As I said, these are only my memories, which are notoriously interesting in their workings. And not even Elijah can undo Auschwitz.


Those windows opening. My hand opening to the sky. Elijah's coin, in the eyes of my cousins. I continue to create theatre, almost as an afterthought, as a matter-of-course, for who can be truly lonely in such a multitude?

Thank you for reading this.



Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,

Thank you for reminding me once again why I put myself through sleep deprivation and absence from my beloveds (husband and cats) to do this thing we call theater. And thank you for sharing this memory.

You are now on my short list of Actors I Would Work on A Street Corner With.


The Lioness said...

I have no words, I truly do not. I wish I could tell you how much this post is pure beauty, how much of an exquisite writer you are, how afraid I was when I started reading bcs things aren't happy right now and your writing - well you know, and how grateful I am that I kept reading. nothing I can write will convey it, especially today. But do you know, we'll soon leave our doors open so Elijah can come in? He's never felt closer, and I'll be thinking of his coin, and the eyes.

Sallyacious said...

Whooosh. That's why we do this, isn't it?

paulmonster said...

Thanks, everyone.

I was, in fact, aware of the custom of leaving the door open for Elijah. Daydreaming about Passover and the wonderful legends surrounding the Prophet is what reminded me of this Warsaw memory to begin with. I mean, I've ever since carried this Warsaw memory with me, but I've often forgotten to actually write it down.

I'm honored to be shortlisted.

I'm glad you kept reading.

I find that I sometimes (truthfully, many times) forget to remember why I do this theatre thing.

The act of writing is already in so many ways essential to the act of acting (heh). By getting these memories out, I'm reasserting their reality, reasserting my why's and wherefore's.

Samuel Pepys said something about how writing lets you live everything at least thrice. First, as you actually live it. You live it again as you write it. And at least once more when you read it, and ever again as often as you read it. But each time is a new life of its own. One of the many wonders of this strange, strange world we live in.

Love and thanks to you all,


sirbarrett said...

What a great story. Sounds like you have an excellent performer-audience relationship, and presence. Mistakes can make a show magical if you adapt to them properly. Good job with the Bird. You painted my mind with little flecks of brushstrokes and stars and the audience. I know that rush/relief of doing a show to some degree but it must interesting/sentimental/different knowing you are physically leaving that place, and your pilgrimage is as transient as your art. Glad that you kept moving and that your curtains will open again. You are theatre.

paulmonster said...

Hey, thanks BC! I do what I can. And yes, I'm pretty proud about how we handled the Bird. To this day, S. (the woman who played the Bird [but not my roommate, who indeed has the same name S.]) says that her butt and her knee work differently ever since she Fell. (It deserves to be Capitalized, it's that kind of a Fall, like what Milton talks about in Paradise Lost.) But we try not to think about that too much.

Closing a show and leaving the country certainly heightens things. But as an Actor, I also notice it liberates, too. Equity Actors here in the US know this; more often than not, they get work in cities that they aren't permanently attached to--even of my friends in NY, a great many of them live upstate or somewhere along the NE corridor of railways, due to NY's obscene cost of living. But as a result, their work doesn't feel constrained to their personal reputations in those communities--since, say, I really don't have much to lose by humiliating myself in Poland. (I mean, I can humiliate myself wherever I damn well please, and it's true, I certainly do, all the time, anywhere, really, and don't you forget it.) (um.)

My point being that knowledge of leaving a place utterly then opens that place completely to you, and sometimes this can do wonders. I can dare to do things in Berkeley or Poland that I wouldn't dare to do on a Portland stage. Just the peculiarities of space, that.

This extends to other living actions, beyond Theatre. I know everyone sees things, hears things, says things, does things they wouldn't 'normally' do, given radically foreign contexts. Hence, the Philippines and Greece and the UK and France and the rest of my wanderlustful litany.

Anyways. Thanks again, BC.