Tbilisi, Georgia – October 15, 2006, 1:37 AM
Someone just woke me up. Probably another festival artist arriving. These crazy airline flights all arrive in the middle of the night! I could hear the electronic lock spinning around and around until it arrived in the right position. Then they took a shower. I could hear the water running. As I tried to fall back to sleep, a number of things came to mind which I forgot to mention in my previous email.
Today the festival opens. There’s a press conference at noon which I am expected to be a part of. The newspapers will ask me questions about American politics, I’ve been told, and I will talk about the unity between our countries through the arts, the importance of freedom of expression, and I’ll say that as an artist I’m not political.
Paco Pena and his dance company will open the festival at the opera house tomorrow night (tonight), which I’m very excited about. I LOVE flamenco. Keti and Nina said he’s now the foremost flamenco guitarist in the world, and his dance company is the best.
On Tuesday, I will perform Lilia! in the same theatre where I saw (the first two acts of) The Cherry Orchard last night. It’s a beautiful theatre with a couple of huge lobbies with art exhibits. Beautiful art work. I’m told this theatre, “M. Tumanishvili Film Actor’s Theatre” is the third most famous in Tbilisi. It’s really lovely with red velvet seats. It doesn’t have typical theatre style seats. But very wide upholstered chairs with wooden arms and legs. The style of the furniture here is unlike anything I’ve seen. Lots of curvy lines of wood, velvet and brocade.
There are thick velvet curtains on all the windows I’ve seen – in my hotel room (no problem with light leaking in), at the restaurant downstairs where I ate lunch, in the lobby of the theatre. I commented about this to Nina and she said it’s the Russian Influence. Russian windows are always covered with thick velvet curtains – especially in the Hermitage.
She also explained that the style of acting in The Cherry Orchard is considered pure Stanislavsky. She summarized it with: “I don’t believe you.” He was constantly questioning whether his actors were being truthful from the inside out, every moment.
Oh, and this was interesting. Last night when Andro picked me up at the airport, he spoke English so well that I asked him whether he was an interpreter. He said, “No, I’m head of the newspaper here.” He was very young. He said he was one of the organizers of the festival and that he’d been to New York a couple of years ago with Keti when she got a Fulbright to do her one-woman show there. They had 3-month visas to stay in the United States, and when they returned to Georgia after two weeks, the officials asked them, “Why did you come back?” Apparently, it’s unheard of to get a 3-month visa and only stay for 2 weeks. People either stay for the full three months or else don’t come back at all.
I asked him if he knew Ronald Rand from last year. He said, “No, I didn’t work at the Festival last year. I was in the Peace Corps. Training began the day after I returned from the United States.” I asked where the Peace Corps had sent him, and he said he worked in the Georgian countryside. I wish I’d asked him more specifics about that.
* * *
Ylena and Nina explained that although Christianity is the national religion of Georgia, the surrounding countries are Muslim – Turkey, Azerbaijan and to the South – Iran and Iraq a couple of hundred miles away. They said “Here in Tbilisi, we have in that direction a Mosque and in that direction a Synagogue. So we are a multi-cultural country with many different peoples and religions.”
Okay, back to sleep I go — into the drafts folder this goes.
I’m going to send this before breakfast.
Tbilisi, Georgia – October 14, 2006
Greetings from Georgia!
The hotel is lovely and I slept a good solid 7 hours, before taking a luxurious shower. Great water pressure, hot water, clean, fresh.
I’m still practicing the word for thank you which sounds like: “gmadlopt.”
Let’s see – impressions. Where do I begin?
Last night, I stepped off of the plane – the airport in Tbilisi doesn’t have gates. A bus took us from the runway to the airport building where we went through immigration. It was 4:20am. I bought some Georgian currency before getting online for the immigration. No one asked me any questions going through. My passport was stamped. Easy. I got my luggage, and exited the airport.
“Taxi?” A man asked me. “Just a minute, I have to see…” I looked for a sign with possibly my name on it. There was a man holding a sign that said “GIFT.” I was overjoyed! His name was Andro, and he spoke excellent English. He welcomed me, took me to the car with his driver waiting. We loaded the trunk, and they drove me to my hotel.
I asked Andro about the situation with the Russians. He said Georgia has no problem with the Russians. It’s the Russians that have a problem with the Georgians. He said all flights, trains and mail have stopped between Russia and Georgia. He said the Russians refuse to allow their artists to participate in this festival. The festival still has excellent relations with the Russian artists, who wish they could participate. He said all Georgians have been deported from Russia, and Russia has requested their nationals to return. There are many mixed marriages – Georgian-Russian, and the spouses have been separated and may not be reunited for 5 years. I’m not sure where that 5-year figure came from, but that’s what I heard him say.
There was no sense of alarm in the tone of his voice, or in the voices of others I’ve met since, when they speak of the situation. It’s more of a sigh and a shrug. Maybe not a shrug, more a note of irony, almost humor. Not humor. Just kind of a “Yeah, can you believe it? I know it’s terrible, and over there is a statue of [some famous warrior who defended Georgia in the 17th Century].”
* * *
This morning, I came downstairs to the hotel dining room. There were no patrons, no menu. I walked in, a staff member pointed to the room full of empty tables, indicating I should sit down, then disappeared into the kitchen.
After a while, I wondered if the kitchen was even open, because no one came out. I poked my head in, and several people working away motioned for me to go back and sit down.
Quite a while later, they put a huge spread in front of me – fresh tomatoes, cucumber, a soup of rice, potato, carrot and dill, and some kind of sausage with french-fry-looking things. Everything was delicious.
I have no idea what time it is here. My ears and eyes have been peeled since my flight arrived, waiting for some hint of the local time. There are no clocks ANYWHERE and no one announced it on the plane (at least in English).
* * *
I’m typing this message from the computer at the front desk of the hotel. The man working at the front desk went over to the restaurant/bar across the lobby so I could use his computer. It’s wild using a keyboard with Cyrillic characters, where the keys are in different places. Anyway, there’s no internet access in my room. No wireless anywhere nearby. So much for Skype!
I was invited to use this computer any time, but it means displacing the front desk person. I was told I could bring my laptop down and hook it up to their internet connection to send and receive messages.
Tonight, I’m going to see The Cherry Orchard with Keti Dolidze, the Artistic Director of the festival. Her daughter-in-law is on her way here now to pick me up and drive me around for a tour of the city.
The next message I’ll type from my computer and bring down to send.
* * *
Just arrived home after ducking out of The Cherry Orchard before Act III. I was nodding off like crazy, incorporating the stage action into my dreams, unsure of what was dream and what was the play.
My new friend Nina, who took me around Tbilisi today, along with Ylena (Keti’s daughter-in-law), sat beside me whispering translations into my ear. I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying with her accent. I was embarrassed to have my eyes closed when she turned to me, but my semi-conscious state didn’t stop her.
At intermission, I told her not to worry about translating for me, because the relationships and action were interesting enough without.
She said, “No, no problem, I don’t mind.” I could see it gave her great pleasure to do it, so she continued through Act II, as I continued to nod off. At the second intermission, she asked if I was tired. Yes! So she called for Keti’s driver to take me home, and here I am.
* * *
The Georgians are very connected to their history and the legends of those who established their country.
This afternoon, Ylena and Nina took me through some narrow little streets with stores and restaurants. We went into a souvenir shop. Everything there was handmade in Georgia.
There were a number of little paintings of saints, which I asked Nina about.
“Those are icons – St. Mary and St. George, the two main saints in Orthodox Christianity.”
A haloed St. George was pictured riding a white horse with an upside down dragon at the horse’s feet, and a gold leaf sky backdrop.
“Why is he riding a horse, and why is he famous?” I asked her.
“He’s famous for defending Christianity and going into Turkey, a Muslim country, to spread Christianity. Eventually he was tortured and killed by the Turks.”
“Was he famous for slaying a dragon?” I asked.
“Well, I shouldn’t say this out loud, but the dragon represents the [religion of Turkey].”
As Nina and Ylena led me through the streets, they explained how Georgia is a mix of Europe and Asia because it’s located plunk between the two. They pointed out the Persian and European architecture side by side. Fascinating!
They drove me by the big fortress walls on the hill. They told me how Georgia had been a country already in the 6th Century BC, and how it was constantly under attack. For 2600 years, Tbilisi has been attacked and seized again and again. For thousands of years, the people of the city have run up the hill to hide behind the walls of the fortress whenever there was a new attack.
Yet, despite multiple millennia of being overtaken by aggressive forces, Ylena and Nina were proud that Georgians had managed to maintain their own unique culture, heritage, language and alphabet. They said there are only 14 alphabets in the world, and Georgian is one of them.
I asked Nina, who studied in Moscow, if both of her parents were Georgian. She said they were. I asked if her ancestors were all Georgian and if they too ran up the hill to the fortress thousands of years ago for protection. She said, “Yes.”
It’s so mind boggling to think of a culture and people that’s stayed in the same place and maintained itself for so many generations. In the U.S. we’re such a young nation, a “melting pot.”
I discovered that Georgia is still mostly an agrarian society. When all those shortages were happening in the Soviet Union during Communism and people lined up out the door for a loaf of bread, that wasn’t the case in Georgia. Families had their own farm animals and vegetable gardens.
Ylena and Nina are together in the same Masters degree program in Journalism at the University. I asked if the Georgians had ever attacked anybody throughout the centuries. “We didn’t have time! We were too busy defending ourselves,” they said. And that’s why Georgia still has a recovering economy.
Up until a hundred years ago, they said, Georgian girls were forced into marriage at age 12. If the husband found out the girl wasn’t a virgin, he would have her publicly shamed, sometimes even killed, similar to Muslim practices. Now that’s changing, they said, though chastity is highly prized in the Georgian culture – even today.
They said Georgian men love Russian women because chastity is a non-issue for them. On the other hand, Georgian men believe Georgian women are much more intelligent and interesting than Russian women.
Ylana said she was recently in Moscow riding the subway and every woman had silicon breast implants. “It was terrible. The same in the U.S. with the breast implants.”
I said, “Actually, very few women have silicon breast implants in the U.S. Those who do are mostly in Los Angeles.” (Interesting to hear foreign perceptions of Americans!)
I asked Nina if she’d ever been to the U.S. No, she said.
I asked if she’d like to go. “Well, maybe I’ll get there someday. I’ve traveled all over Europe, Asia and Russia. I’m interested in cultures and societies as they developed and were destroyed. I’ve followed the trail of societies in the order that they were created and destroyed throughout Europe and Asia.”
A natural curiosity for one coming from such an ancient culture!
* * *
My performance is Tuesday night at 6pm, and I’ve been informed that Lilia! has been completely translated into Georgian. There will be subtitles projected throughout the play. Isn’t that remarkable? Wow! I just got chills. Last year Ronald Rand’s play was not translated. He just did it and those who knew English got it, but half the audience didn’t. Keti Dolidze said to me tonight after she told me about the translation and subtitles, “It’s a very beautiful story – the story of your grandmother. Very beautiful.”
She asked, “Do you like the poster for the festival?” The poster has a photo of a little child sitting on the beach looking out over the wide horizon with this quote: “Not all the darkness of the world can put out the light of a single candle” – Assisi
Isn’t that beautiful? I told her I love it.
In 2006, Lilia! was performed at GIFT – Georgian International Festival of Arts in Tbilisi. That story was never told until now that we’re returning to perform Felicitas.
“If one tried to describe Georgia using one single word, the right word would definitely be hospitality… Wherever we had been in Russia, in Moscow, in the Ukraine, in Stalingrad, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and a great admiration. They spoke of the Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven. Indeed, we began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will go not to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die….It is a magical place, Georgia, and it becomes dream-like the moment you have left it.” . – John Steinbeck, 1947
It was the khachapuri that inspired me. In 2014, we were performing Felicitas at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village when Steve discovered Old Tbilisi Garden around the corner on Bleecker Street. Knowing I’d been to Tbilisi, he suggested we eat there. It quickly became our post theatre hangout. When the show closed, we went back whenever we were in the neighborhood. Then, we made special trips and brought all of our out-of-town guests there. The New York Times soon reviewed it and declared: “If there is one Georgian dish that could bring Manhattan to its knees, it is adjaruli khachapuri...” Steve’s favorite!
One day, as we boxed our khachapuri remains to savor for the next day, it occurred to me: “Why don’t we return to Tbilisi to perform Felicitas at the GIFT Festival?” I’d done Lilia! there in 2006. Steve would be able to experience magnificent Georgian food first hand. I wrote to Keti Dolidze, the festival director and the rest is history.
We leave this week for a performance of Felicitas on October 25.
I’d always intended to write about that 2006 Georgian trip. Today, I went back and reread emails I’d sent from Georgia. I will share them in segments to follow.
This story was originally posted on my Facebook page, May 20, 2016.
Word on the street is that Hamilton tickets are difficult to acquire. In mid-March, the box office said 4-14 tickets are released every day and sold at face value. The 10 or so people that day began lining up at 6am. A scientific method for obtaining tickets. Arrive early enough and you’re in!
Then Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer. Then the show broke records with 16 Tony nominations, of which 4 were for him. Michelle Obama called Hamilton: “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life.” Ben Brantley’s New York Times review suggests it “might just be worth” mortgaging your house and leasing your children to acquire tickets. People began camping out in tents on the street to acquire those 4-14 released seats. Professional line standers appeared. Rules cracked down. No tents, no chairs, no leaving the line, no substitute line holders.
Wednesday, May 18 was my Hamilton day. I wrote it into the family calendar weeks ago. Lin-Manuel Miranda was scheduled to perform. Warm enough to wait on the street for 14 hours with comfy, cushioned seat and snack foods packed along with a dense book (The Hare with Amber Eyes), I set off at 5am.
I arrived to find a line at 5:50am. The first 4 people had been waiting since 2:30pm on Tuesday. The next 4 had arrived at 11pm Tuesday night. Surveying the line, it was a toss up whether I should stay. I would have tickets 15&16, if that many were released on a 2-show day.
The guy in front of me, a student who left CT at 4:00am by car, convinced me that I had an excellent chance and that it would be fun waiting together. One of the women who’d been waiting all night bought bagels and cream cheese for everyone. A Russian grandmother from Brighton Beach joined the line at 6:30am. She saw the show in March, she said. After standing in the ticket release line on a freezing cold day, she was offered a single premium seat for $477. “I was jumping up and down I was so excited. It was for Orchestra row L which was very far away. But it was worth it.”
Uh-oh. What would I do if I was offered 2 seats for $477? Would I kiss $1,000 goodbye to see a play I could listen to at home for free any time? Not to mention the investment of a day of my life. Am I a lemming?
Then, my husband Steve joined me for the lottery which took place at 12:30pm for $10 front row seats. We didn’t win. At 1:55pm, the first 6 people got matinee released tickets. A couple of them were standing room (after being up all night) for $40 a pop. We were now tickets 9&10 for the 8pm.
Two of the people in front of us were professional line standers. With the new box office crackdown to eliminate professionals, the box office ended up releasing tickets after 7:55pm. At that point, it was too late for these guys to notify their clients. So at the last minute, they paired up to see the show together, which moved us to positions 7&8.
At 7:57pm, the first two people in line were ushered inside for tickets, then the second two. We were now positions 3&4. Then the box office asked for only the next person. One ticket left? Former professional line stander #1 went in. A minute later his partner in crime disappeared inside. Steve and I discussed. We were next, if there was a next. What if only one ticket was available? We can’t turn it down. No way! Who goes? He said I should go since I’d been waiting 6 hours longer.
“Next in line. Only one of you.” Steve pointed to me.
It’s 8:01pm. I go inside and approach the window.
“Two,” I hear myself say.
“$354 please.” I fumble for my credit card, give it to him, he hands me a receipt to sign, I sign. He gives me the tickets. I go outside.
Steve is waiting #1 in line for the next single ticket. It’s 8:02. I hold up the tickets and motion for him to join me. The Russian grandmother thinks I’m holding a ticket for her, too, while Steve hesitates, not understanding. I motion again. Confused, he follows me. “You got TWO?” Yes.
We rush in, hand the tickets to the usher at the entrance. “Sharp right.” We make a bee-line right. I expect to see stairs to the nose bleed seats. After all, these are $177 tickets. The door leads us to the orchestra. We must be in partial view seats off to the side, I think, as I hand the tickets to the next usher. She points to the Center Section, Row G. I drop my stuff, the 2 professional line standers are next to us. They’ve never seen the show.
I climb over them to get to the bathroom. The bathroom attendant tells me the show is starting. I return just as the lights are coming down. I’m in my seat as the first actor walks onstage. I’m breathless. I don’t know if I’ll faint or cry. I can’t believe these seats! Row G is raised above F so that not a single head blocks the periphery of the stage.
Act 1 is bliss. At intermission I can’t move. I stand up to let people out, still stunned by the experience. The lady behind us tells us this is her 23rd time seeing Hamilton. “I come every two weeks. I’m a little embarrassed when so many people can’t see it and I’m on #23. The presidential candidates should be required to see this show. When people ask me how many times I’ve seen it, I tell them, ‘not enough times.’ This is why I got rich. Some women buy designer high heels, some fancy cars. For me, it’s so I can come back and see this. At 3 o’clock this afternoon, my seats were over $3,000 on Stubhub. By 6:30pm, they dropped to $1,500, so I bought them. I do that every time.”
At this point I’m very curious about how she got so rich. She asks our names. We tell her. “I’m Rosie. This is my daughter and it’s her 3rd time seeing the show. What do you do?” We tell her. Violin is her favorite instrument. She bonds with Steve over the amazing violin in Hamilton. She tells me she produced a one-woman show downtown at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre. Had I heard of the show? It rang a bell. I’m very much doubting this lady got rich producing a one-woman show. She tells me she’s thinking of doing her own one-woman show. Her background is comedy, stand-up. She won a talent search award on TV when she was 20. She hosted a TV talk show for six years on VH1.
“Is that how you got rich?” I ask. Yes, she says. She’s made a few movies, too. Comedy. Next week she’s opening for Cyndi Lauper.
She tells us about “Hamiltome,” the book in which Lin-Manuel Miranda explains it all. “It’s like open source,” she says. “He does this brilliant work and explains how he did it so you can do it too. Incredible.” The show is starting again. We drop to our seats. The two pro line standers come back. They flip when they see Rosie as the lights come down. She promises they can have their photo taken with her after the show. They’ve already gotten shots of themselves with Steven Spielberg.
Act II is perfection to the millionth power. The show ends. Steve rescues a Hamilton memorabilia cup somebody left under their seat with half a drink. Rosie taps our shoulders and says, “Nice meeting you.” We head out into the night dizzy with wonder.
“Did you include the story about how Mother and I got out of Austria?”my dad’s cousin Julius asked yesterday over brunch at his house in Half Moon Bay.
Did I include that story? It’s the culmination of the play Felicitas I’m performing on Tuesday at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse about the life of his mother Felicitas Sofer, an infant nurse from Vienna. He will see the play for the first time Tuesday – the play in which I portray his mother, based on stories he told me, accompanied by Steve May’s mandolin music.
Felicitas Sofer was my great aunt “Lizi”. Her nursing territory included my Northern New Jersey hometown. In fact, she was the nurse who attended my home birth.
My mother describes how when she was in labor, Aunt Lizi instructed her to walk up and down the hallway of our home, periodically dropping with her hands around Aunt Lizi’s neck to hang with full weight dangling for a minute, then back onto her feet to walk some more. I was expected the same day as one of Aunt Lizi’s other baby clients, but conveniently waited an extra day to accommodate the other baby.
After writing two shows about Lizi’s older sisters – my grandmother actress Lilia Skala and great aunt, dancer Elizabeth Polk – it seemed hard to conceive of how a baby nurse might prove to be a worthy subject for the stage. Lizi’s work and life were very private. She never talked about her baby cases. I saw her only at Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. I couldn’t remember the sound of her voice or accent.
What was there to write about?
In 2007, I interviewed her son Julius hoping he might shed some light on her life. There were a couple of clues indicating she had a story to tell. One was that although she called herself Mrs. Sofer, she had never been married. Interestingly, the brief interactions I’d had with her on holidays were almost always about marriage.
“There’s no reason why you can’t marry a prince. Grace Kelly was an American girl like you and she married Prince Rainier. It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is to fall in love with a poor man,” she said.
When I was five, I remember mentioning that my feet were sweaty. “Your husband won’t like that in bed,” she warned.
It was only in junior high that my mother mentioned Aunt Lizi had never been married.
“But she has a son!”
“If I’d known about the skeletons in your father’s family closet, I would have thought twice about marrying him,” said my mother.
When cousins came for the holidays, Lizi pointed out that “it’s perfectly legal to marry your first cousin in many states.”
Aunt Lizi once bought a wedding dress on sale at Filene’s Basement for her 16-year old niece Grace, even though Grace had no thought of marriage and hasn’t married to this day.
Was Lizi so focused on marriage because she regretted not marrying?
“No,” says her niece Grace, “she was focused on marriage because that’s how you get more babies.”
When I asked Julius about his mother’s life, a fascinating woman of selfless nobility emerged. He filled me in with juicy details about what motivated her decisions, who his father was, how he left Austria with her in 1939. I recorded and transcribed everything.
And yes. These stories in addition to those from Lizi’s baby nurse clients will be revealed in Felicitas Tuesday night.
After years of hearing about the value of career coaching, I decided to take the leap and sign up for six months of coaching with iCadenza, a performing artist consultant group. Before beginning, I was asked to answer a number of questions to help define my values and mission so that the next steps would become clear. Here are some of the questions and answers.