The Haunted Stage

Photos by Todd ThilleIt’s a sunbaked afternoon in mid-July, and I find myself in one of Szczecin, Poland’s hidden alleys, lured by the sight of fresh fruit and slippers being sold on racks outside a kiosk. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the old military paraphernalia — vintage medals and ribbons and the like — displayed in an antique shop on the other side of the alley. I walk into the stuffy shop as a talkative woman steps out. I’m the only customer, and the perspiration-soaked, silver-haired proprietor starts showing me objects he’s been collecting for decades. The first is a small cap stitched together from cloth triangles and decorated with shiny beads. He doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Polish. We talk in Russian — the connecting bridge.He explains that the cap is a yarmulke from Uzbekistan. He then pulls a dusty book from a shelf. It’s an illustrated Old Testament — half in Hungarian, the other half in Hebrew. It’s only then that I really study the man’s face and understand that this old collector is Jewish.“Is there a Jewish population in Szczecin?” I ask.“My wife, my son and me — that’s about it,” he scoffs.Then he shows me some jewelry, relics from World War II — a translucent glass pendant with a swastika baked into it like the footprint of a ghost. Ghosts have haunted the western port city of Szczecin since the end of the war, when Poles brutally grabbed it by attacking and driving out German families living there, as part of the reconfiguration of postwar Europe that FDR helped negotiate at the Yalta Conference.As I sit in a stuffed armchair, the collector places a photo album on my lap. Gusts of wind start to sweep through the alley, blowing dead leaves against the window. He flips the pages from back to front — Leni Riefenstahl’s portraits of Nazi parades, acres of Brown Shirts goose-stepping through 1930s Berlin, the Reichstadt draped in Nazi banners and flags.The wind outside is now so severe that fruit and vegetables roll down the alley, while the merchants across the street shutter their tin kiosks. The sky has turned black.He flips to the very first photograph — a portrait of Hitler.“Look,” he points. “Look there. It’s his!”Directly below the old man’s finger is a squiggle of ink — Hitler’s faded signature hand-scribbled onto what the merchant claims is a first edition of Riefenstahl photographs.At that very moment, the windows rattle from a clap of thunder that sends birds flying off in panic. The rain comes in torrents, a cloudburst that in a matter of seconds fills the alley with racing rivulets, and puddles quickly turn into ponds. Now I’m stuck in T-shirt and jeans, with no umbrella and a Palm Pilot in my pocket that mustn’t get wet.“You Americans have money but no time to spend it,” he says. “I have almost no money but all the time in the world. Sit with me. We’ll share a glass of schnapps until the storm passes.”He hands me his business card. His name is Marek. Zone of Silence, drowned synagogue I am in Poland with a small group of American academics and activists, and one documentary filmmaker, crossing the country to see various Polish theater festivals. A California-based nonprofit named Arden2 is hosting the trip in conjunction with local Polish contacts, who have set up meetings with artists and lectures on local history.After the Nazis rolled east in 1939, eviscerating Poland’s sizable Jewish population, and the Soviets rolled west a short while later, little Poland, stuck in the middle, accrued more than her fair share of angry and disenchanted ghosts. And that’s just during one century. The Poles have been suffering the slings and arrows of marauding armies for a thousand years. These ghosts haunt the psyches of Poland’s graying intelligentsia, but I’m interested in finding out how much respect the new generation of Polish artists and playwrights is willing to pay them in the face of a restless youth that desperately wants to escape the clutches of the past.Behind the imposing stone castle, lights from grids beam down on the performance of Blue, a late-night entry in Poznan, Poland’s Malta International Theater Festival, held in July. “Every time I feel the spirit, I feel afraid,” a character says during the play’s midnight staging just a few days before the bombs strike London’s subways and buses.An appreciative crowd of some 200 circles the action, the front rows sitting on blankets, the rest standing behind them. Blue is a joint venture between the Polish troupe Stacja Szamocin and Portland, Oregon’s finely tuned Hand2Mouth acting ensemble, staged by artistic director Jonathan Walters. Medicine men, stilt walkers, witches and conjurers cavort around rings of fire to the accompaniment of a meditative a cappella chorus in what have become de rigueur theatrical devices of European street theater aiming to stir up ghosts.The castle looming behind the performance was built in the early 20th century for Prussian King Wilhelm II, with all manner of Byzantine architectural flourishes. When the Nazis invaded, the Germans remodeled the place in Hitler’s favorite neo-Teutonic style, with candelabra emerging from slabs of marble. An upstairs study, still named “Hitler’s Library,” was redesigned just for him. It included an outdoor balcony with heated floor, so the führer could watch winter parades along the boulevard below without getting cold feet.When you enter Hitler’s Library, you’re struck by the creepiness of the monster ghost — at least I am, until I hear the docent explain that the bastard never actually showed up there.What?It’s moments like this, when an empirical reality crashes into a mythical one, that make you wonder how much of history is an invention. Had the docent not slipped in that small, significant detail, we all would have left Poland with the conviction, based on strategically vague promo materials, that we had been in the ghost-presence of Europe’s most notorious tyrant.The group is packing for Szczecin when news of the London explosions reaches us through the usual channel — CNN. In a panic, a grad student from UC Irvine calls her relatives in London.“Don’t worry,” one of the Polish guides tells the nervous Americans. “You’re safe in Poland. Nobody cares enough to bomb Poland.”A week later, I break away from the group to see the British theater company Forced Entertainment (coming to UCLA Live! this winter) premiering its newest work, Exquisite Pain, at the Theater der Welt in Stuttgart. The company’s artistic director, Tim Etchells, tells me that the festival director had asked if the company might wish to cancel its performance in light of the attacks on London.“What for?” Etchells says, scratching his scraggly beard. “How exactly would us canceling our show in Stuttgart help the people of London?”According to Etchells, the festival director asked him if he’d like to say something before the performance.“What could I possibly have said?” Etchells tells me. “More people die in Iraq every day than were killed in London.”With its impolitic candor, Etchells’ remark suggests that when any person or nation marches around the world killing innocent people, for whatever cause, the ghosts of the dead will eventually rise and haunt. Ask Shakespeare. Travel Agency's alfresco Macbeth Lines of youth wait behind a fence to get into Travel Agency’s cinematic alfresco adaptation of Macbeth, also playing at the Malta festival, featuring black-leather Nazi military chic, characters arriving on motorcycles, still more stilt walkers, and more pillars of fire. SRO crowds huddle in the rain to see Teatr Usta Usta’s satanic Sympathy for the Devil — more fire, even in the drizzle, and a character being tempted, in a Faustlike fashion, by sex and glory, plus the devil’s leggy dancing girls parading, with a slo-mo, fetishistic eroticism, around the bullring stage, to the accompaniment of heavy metal. Yet visual spectacle isn’t the only drawing card. One-person standup shows also play to overflow crowds of youth — youth still living at home in their mid-20s, youth sick to their eyebrows of hearing about the heroics of their parents defying martial law and bringing down communism, youth wanting to be as chic as young Germans and Spaniards in a world of iPods and BlackBerries, youth furious at baby boomers for hogging all the good jobs, youth hungering for a kind of theater that expresses their rage and distinguishes them from their parents.In America, the land of graying theater audiences, institutional theaters send playwrights and plays into the schools, hoping to build a new generation of theatergoers. The kids react politely, as though to the visit of an aging, eccentric aunt. They applaud, or scribble out a play of their own, and then forget about it.In Europe, the alternative theaters have built a far more effective generational bridge. The new theaters, made up of recent college grads, befriend teens and put them to work both on and behind their studio stages, providing them with a home away from home. This is how the aesthetic of rebellion gets transferred, and why Polish theater has such a huge following among the youth, who often belittle stories and aesthetics that predate them.Theater of the Eighth Day made its name in the late 1980s with an ensemble, mostly still together, now in their mid- to late 50s. They caught the attention of the world with a brand of overtly political street theater satirizing Poland’s crumbling communist regime in an era of official censorship and arbitrary imprisonment. As the authorities tinkered with their passports, the actors found themselves either locked in or locked out of Poland. In one memorable moment from that era, during a performance inside communist Poland, actress Ewa Wójciak (now artistic director) confronted a suited man in the audience, saying, “You’re the secret service, get out.”While her theater continues to tackle themes of oppression — now born of globalization rather than communism — Wójciak complains that there are few interesting companies emerging from the universities, but there is some mutual disdain between the generations. I am with grad students who, referring to Theater of the Eighth Day’s penchant for hammering at social and political themes, complain that the company is “stuck in the past.” Such indignation is very unhip in Poland’s young circles. Irony is in with the younger set, even when it involves what local historians call “the shame of Poznan.”“The shame of Poznan” concerns a synagogue on Wroniecka Street, which the Nazis converted to a public swimming pool after evacuating Poznan’s sizable Jewish community. Decades later, the communists — never fans of organized religion — let the swimming pool be. It’s now been 16 years since communism’s collapse in Poland. There’s been considerable fanfare over the restoration of Catholic churches, yet this synagogue remains a swimming pool.A local young theater troupe called Zone of Silence, specializing in site-specific performances, chose to stage a production in the pool, after six months of preparation. Said co–artistic director Adam Stanislaw, two days before the first performance, “The historical context of the space doesn’t interest us, we’re more interested in the qualities of the light and the sound,” which is a bit like showing your house to a buyer and pointing out the beautiful, baroque chandelier while ignoring the half-ton rhinoceros standing directly underneath it.Stanislaw certainly has his eyes open to irony: “Though the Jewish community owns the building, they’re still fighting among themselves — all 12 of them — over what to do,” Stanislaw explained. “The Jewish community keeps denying that there’s a pool inside their synagogue, while the pool-maintenance company pretends there’s no synagogue there.”When our American group enters the building, through double wooden doors, past the conspicuous Star of David on the façade, we’re struck by the incongruity of the gym-hall echoes and the smell of chlorine, while our guide, Paulina, goes into nostalgic ecstasies: “Oh, this brings back my childhood! I used to swim here as a girl!”I find myself standing on the top plank of a bleacher with no support railings, in a tier high above the pool, fighting bouts of vertigo. Floating in the pool is a Styrofoam replica of the synagogue’s front façade, so that when the front doors are open, you see water inside. Zone of Silence actors dive in and out of that front door and, with great fanfare, scoop water out of the faux synagogue. A fisherman stands poolside and snags the legs of a mannequin, causing some amusement in the young crowd as he hoists the legs out of the pool. In another scene, two guards sit on poolside beach chairs, each accompanied — tellingly — by a live German shepherd guard dog. An actor wearing a rubber swan head urinates into the pool — which draws screams of laughter.Now my head is really spinning: How can a piece so politically charged be greeted so flippantly? Or is the response a consequence of the director’s calculation to mix “the sacred with the profane”? Are the young locals simply tired of the guilt, tired of the stories their parents and teachers have been telling for 20 years? After all, there have been many somber, candlelit ceremonies at this site honoring the Jews of Poznan. Perched high in this synagogue, I find myself bereft of context, clutching my knees, struggling for balance. On a warm July afternoon, our student guides, Paulina and Stanislaus, and their professor, Juliusz Tuszka, from the Cultural Studies Department of Poznan’s Adam Mickiewicz University, escort our group via tramway to a small, secluded house called Rozbrat, a bungalow that the local anarchists call home. Our host, who goes by the name Sancho, sits at the head of a very long table, around which the group sits, sipping water or juice. Sancho’s hair is cropped almost to the skull. He speaks in Polish, quietly and slowly, while professor Tuszka sits to his right, translating. Beautifully painted posters of famous anarchists hang on the walls: Pierre Proudhon, Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin, Buenaventura Durruti. (Sancho later unrolls a poster of Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been lodged behind a couch.) The anarchists took over this abandoned house in 1994, their third “squat” since communism collapsed in 1989. They’re trying as a group to live as a commune, without the hierarchies or power struggles that suffocated the communist regime.In 1996, neo-Nazis broke in, trashed the place, stabbed a young woman and virtually destroyed the anarchists’ commune. Now, having secured the property with barred windows and locks, the anarchists persevere with weekly discussion meetings — open to everybody on any subject of concern.As Sancho talks quietly and seriously about Poland’s transition to a new capitalist system, which is an eerie repetition of the old communist system — “the diminishing right of everybody to shape their own reality” — I find myself fixating on the olive-skinned beauty of our guide Paulina. A Polish Sophia Loren, she’s sitting on Sancho’s left, leaning back languidly in a thin cotton dress, gazing out a window. Paulina is trying with every force of her will to contain yawns that eventually overpower her.I’m in a backroom, perusing the anarchists’ library, when I look outside the window and notice that our group is walking away. After scurrying to collect my camera and other equipment, I try to open the front door, but it’s bolted. I try every contortion the locks will allow. Nothing budges. I’m alone and locked in, abandoned and imprisoned like the servant Firs in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.With Emma Goldman and company staring at me from the walls, I try to jimmy open the windows, but they’re barred. There’s no escape.Finally, I notice an open back window with a vine crawling through it. I shimmy out, landing waist-high in dusty foliage, and hike back to the streets of a city I don’t know, amid people who speak a language I don’t understand. Nor can I make my plight understood to uninterested passersby, so I just walk in one direction, hoping it’s the right one, as the sun draws lower in the sky. I wander onto the grounds of a hospital and approach the security guard, a man in his 60s.“I’m lost,” I say, and he looks at me blankly, not understanding English. I repeat the phrase in Russian, which I know he speaks, while also realizing that Poles who were forced to learn Russian as children now resent the very sound of that language. Again, I ask for directions back to the castle. At first, he pretends not to understand, while I see in his eyes Russian tanks rolling through Warsaw, and whatever stream of abuses those fuckers dumped on the Poles, decade after decade. Finally, his eyes soften, and he volunteers concise directions to the city center.As the sun approaches the horizon, I find myself walking through Poznan’s Old Market, through narrow cobbled streets lined with medieval shop fronts and hotels, the old city hall with its giant cuckoo clock, as though I have stumbled into a fairy tale. The cloudburst is still flooding the alley in Szczecin as Marek pours a green liquid into two glasses from an almost empty bottle — kiwi schnapps — and assures me that it’s quite pleasant. And he’s right. “So, how’s business?” I ask.“Terrible,” he says. “Even the neo-Nazis don’t care about the past. They don’t know anything about the Nazis; they don’t know anything about the communists. They don’t know anything about anything. And then an American walks into my shop and starts speaking Russian. I don’t understand the world at all.”Marek is from Warsaw. The Germans invaded Poland when he was a child, so his family hid in a village. The SS came through that village, found Marek with his father, and an officer put a pistol in his father’s hand and ordered the man to shoot his own son. Marek’s father gave the pistol back to the German, and Marek watched the German shoot his father in the head.“Terrible, terrible,” Marek keeps repeating.Marek is still on my mind as I battle through a maze of underground and aboveground Stuttgart trains on a mid-July afternoon and stagger up the steps of Teatr Im Depot, where Forced Entertainment is set to perform.Its performance of Exquisite Pain is based on a diary written by French photographer Sophie Calle, who suffered through what she admits was the banal breakup of her marriage. She accepted a three-month grant to study in Japan. Her husband warned her from the start that he might forget her if she left. She ignored the warning, assuming he was just being insecure and controlling. They corresponded during her absence, and he even proposed a romantic reunion in a New Delhi hotel room. When she arrived at the hotel, she received a message that he had been in an accident, requiring a hospital stay. The accident turned out to be an infected finger, a sadistic ploy to avoid the reunion he himself had proposed. When she finally reached him by phone, she asked him if he’d met somebody else. He admitted he had. She asked if it was serious. He said he hoped so, and that was that.In her diary, Calle retells that story every day or two, hoping that the mantralike repetition of it — each time with subtle embellishments — will eventually dull the pain of her intense grief. Meanwhile, she has solicited stories from her friends about their most painful experiences.An actor and an actress sit at a table, each with a script and a bottle of water, swapping soliloquies. The actress plays the role of Calle, starting with, “[So many] days ago, the man I love left me,” and tells the story for the umpteenth time. Between her renditions, the actor recites the letters Calle solicited from friends, earnest sagas usually about the deaths of relatives. The cumulative impact is a pileup of woe so unrelieved and tender that, atop its profound beauty, it starts to take on a cruel humor.Of course, I am remembering Marek, and his telling me how he watched his father being shot in the head. When Marek told that story, he had the same earnest, objective tone as the actor and actress in Exquisite Pain, as though Marek, too, had told it so many times before that he, too, was carrying it around in a box, opening it for curious tourists, not so much to memorialize it as to put it behind him. Or maybe both.I don’t believe anymore that we tell stories to sanctify the past. We tell them to cope with the present, and to help cushion an unknowable future.This is why the youth of Poznan needed to laugh in that synagogue, and why that performance may indeed have been primarily about the quality of the light and the sound there, more than about the Jews of Poznan. Because it’s the light and the sound they now have to live with. Marek pulls out two crumbling documents that have been pressed and preserved in the pages of a heavy book, and tenderly opens them, as though they’re made of feathers. One of them is stamped “Auschwitz, November 24, 1943” — a concentration-camp registration form on which the inmate, born in 1903, has handwritten, in meticulous German, an autobiographical essay. The fading ink, precariously clinging to decaying parchment, provides empirical evidence — stronger than any story with a shifting plot — of somebody actually being here, in a stitch of time, snared by harpoons of war and pleading, against the odds, to be remembered. For about $20, I purchase the ghost’s story and bring it to America, where it and the author now live in a drawer. From a cardboard box, Marek withdraws some small glass rectangles, each enshrined in tissue paper.“Don’t touch the surface,” he warns.Squeezing from the edges, I hold one of the glass plates to the light and see the negative image of a photograph.“It’s about 120 years old,” Marek says. “That’s how they did it then, on glass.” Marek has about a dozen of them.In the glass, I see about six uniformed men with light military caps, which, in reality — whatever that is — would have been dark military caps, standing on and around a hill, a grave perhaps, in a pine forest. Some have mustaches, one holds what looks like a riding crop. “Poland,” Marek explains. “That’s Poland.”In a Polish forest, around 1885, a group of army officers posed for a photograph.I have the proof.Perhaps they imagined, in that moment, that they would live forever.


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