March 08, 2009

Bob's Six Brushes with Theater World

"The Professional" - First Brush

My first brush with the theater world took place over 10 years ago. But getting involved in theater was the last thing on my mind when I agreed to attend a premiere of a new play, The Professional, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. on January 10, 1990.

Back then, Yugoslavia was still a communist country.  So the theater was full of important government officials on the opening night.  I had just met the playwright the day before, who invited me to attend and said he would make sure I get a ticket even if he "had to take it out of the hands of a politician."

The play moved me to tears.  Here's what I wrote about that unforgettable experience six months later, on July 4, 1990:

"It was a typical cold January (10th) night in Belgrade.  At 19:30, Miodrag Perisic, editor of "Literary News," his wife Zhanetta, a teacher of world literature, and I met for a prearranged cab ride from Studentski Trg (the Students' Square) to the Zvezdara Theater.  Earlier that day, Perisic had given me a message from Dusan Kovacevic, the author and director of the play Professional."  He said he'd get me a ticket to tonight's opening performance "even if he'd have to lift it from the pocket of some high-ranking politician." 

At the time, I had no idea who this "Kovacevic" was, what the play was about, or why I -- an American and a Yugoslav emigre who had not been back to his country of birth for nearly 20 years -- should rank higher than a local politician.  I agreed to go to the premier basically for two reasons.  Because I've always liked theater, and because I felt a sense of allegiance with Perisic, the person who invited me and who, as I had just found out, like myself, faced Tito's Communist police and the army during the 1968 student uprising at the Belgrade University.

"Where is this 'Zvezdara' theater?" I asked the Perisic's.  Perisic's wife patiently explained the location to me as the cab driver swerved through the busy Belgrade streets.  "That must be close to where I was born," I said in bewilderment.  "Yet, I never knew there was a theater there!"  "It's fairly new," said  Zhanetta, as if trying to console me for my ignorance.  When I left Belgrade in 1969, it was at "Atelier 212" that one might have expected to see a play like The Professional," if at all, the latter being the more probable scenario.

As we approached the theater, I thought of something else I had just witnessed on this trip to Belgrade, which would have been unthinkable under Tito's regime.  It was a moving, first-ever televised Serbian Christmas service, broadcast live from Saborna Crkva -- one of Belgrade's best known and the most acoustic churches.  It is amazing, I thought, how simple things we take for granted in the West, like attending a Christmas service, can cause goose pimples among the peoples of Eastern Europe.  "I bet there wasn't a dry eye in Serbia today," commented a retired Belgrade university professor, as he telephoned me excitedly right after watching the historic service on TV. 

Our taxi pulled up alongside a busy sidewalk.  We got out.  Somehow, somebody (I think it may have been Milorad Vucelic, one of "NIN" magazine editors, later the head of the Yugoslav state TV network), handed me a ticket for the performance.  "You'll be seated right next to some government officials," he said.  "Whoopie-do," I thought to myself.  But "that's nice, thank you," is what I actually said.

The hallway leading into the theater was clogged by the crowd trying to check in their heavy winter garments at the wardrobe.  Eventually, I managed to make my way through the crowd, and found my seat, or my row -- to be more accurate.  As I recall, there were no preassigned seat numbers, only the rows were identified on the ticket.  But, a vivid conversation between the persons to my right and to my left, right across my tie, convinced me that I must have been in the correct section, anyway.  I concluded that the person to my right must be a member of the government from whom the person to my left -- probably a political business appointee -- was evidently seeking some favors.  

Later on, I was able to confirm both hunches.  The person to my right was a member of the Serbian Presidency.  The person to my left heads up a large Belgrade company.  He later became the Speaker of the Yugoslav Parliament, a position he had retained until the Yugoslav "revolution" of October 5, 2000.

The lights dimmed.  The crowd hushed itself.  On the stage, a blonde actor was seated behind a wooden desk.  "My name is Theodore Kry.  My mother called me "Teya."  So did my friends... while I had them.  My name probably doesn't mean anything to you.  I am a writer... I hope I am, anyway... I am 45 years old.  Until now, I've had two books published.  A book of poems and a book of short stories.  Depressingly little!  And I look as if I had written 20 novels.  Grandiosely badly!  Where are my unwritten books?..."

For the following 75 minutes or so, those in the theater crowd who had lived in Belgrade for the previous 20 years, may have seen, for the first time, their past played out on stage -- openly, freely, "warts and all."  But for me, The Professional" had another meaning.  I was watching my future!  The future I never had.  The future I had traded in for a life in America when I left Belgrade in 1969.  Just like Milosh did, years later...

At the reception after the performance, I met Vucelic who looked like an expectant father who'd just had the first glimpse of his baby.  "What did you think?" he asked.  "I thought it was great," I replied.  "Then, why don't you congratulate me?" he suggested smiling cunningly.  I felt embarrassed.  "Well then, congratulations!" I said.  "But what for?"  "I am also the director of the 'Zvezdara' theater," he explained.  I did not know that.  Until then, I had only known him as a "NIN" editor.  But, it all made perfect sense.  Now I also understood why he was the one to hand me my ticket at the entrance.  I gave him a big hug.  "It was a great play," I said. 

And then, as I started explaining to him why I was particularly moved by the play, how I could have become "a Teya" rather than "a Milosh" -- had I believed Tito (as thousands others did) when he acceded to all our (rebellious students') demands in June 1968, tears started welling up in my eyes.  "Look," Vucelic said to Perisic who was standing nearby surrounded by a group of people.  "Bob's crying!"  I felt embarrassed again.  It seemed as if everybody was staring at me.  And they probably were.  But, there was no way I could stop the tears...

Before I left Belgrade last January, I called Perisic and asked him to tell Kovacevic that I would try to translate his play into English.  I said I wanted to do it as my personal tribute to a great artist who is already a household name in Belgrade.  But, just like I had never heard of him before, few other have outside Yugoslavia.  That's because writers are prisoners of their own trade.  While a composer or a painter can touch people world-over with his art, a writer can only reach the audience which shares his tongue.  I thought that if this Kovacevic theatrical gem were available in English, it could potentially touch a few billion people.

Before I left Belgrade last January, I had also called the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the American ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann.  I suggested to both of them that they ought to see The Professional."  The former, because he was a part of the play as the leader of the "new" politicians who had installed Teya in his job.  The latter, because I thought that he would benefit from seeing an example of the free speech which can now be heard in Belgrade.

As for myself, the freedom which The Professional" epitomized did more than just provide an entertaining evening.  It did more than my two-hour conversation with President Milosevic the day before the premiere, or several meetings with Ambassador Zimmermann which had also preceded it.  It showed me the part of my life I never had...

Second Brush

Nearly five months elapsed since that opening night, and I still had not even commenced work on this translation.  My computer business work had taken precedence.  I felt guilty about it, not just because I wasn't keeping my promise, but because I felt responsible for delaying potential Western readers/viewers access to this piece of art.  Finally, on a flight to Yugoslavia in late May, I began the translation.

I did most of the work and finished a rough draft while vacationing for a week on the Montenegrin Adriatic coast.  My wife and my (then) 14-year old daughter, who helped proof the original English draft, became the first non-Serbian speaking people to experience The Professional."  On June 23, our last night in Belgrade before returning home, Kovacevic invited me and my family to a reception at the "Zvezdara" theater following the play's 100th performance.  The cast, Perisic, his wife, Vucelic -- were all there.  I even recognized the politician who sat to my right last January.  It felt like a reunion.

As all of us sat around the table in an outdoor cafe next to the theater, my wife told Kovacevic how she particularly enjoyed the dog story.  Then Perisic switched to English, "because Kovacevic doesn't speak English, and he'd feel embarrassed if he heard what I am about to say."  Perisic, who as editor of the "Literary News" is a respected authority on matters of penmanship, proceeded to explain why he thought that Kovacevic was the best Serbian playwright of all times.  As Perisic finished his professional explanation, Kovacevic told him, speaking in Serbian, "by virtue of the fact that I understood 70% of what you'd said, you've already blown your cover."

At that moment, Bata Stojkovic, a famous Serbian actor and  the policeman in the play, approached our table.  He lifted his glass in a salute to Kovacevic.  He downed the wine in one motion and put the empty glass back on the table up side down.  "There is symbolism in what he had just done," said Kovacevic, who also directed his own play, and in the process got to know the chief protagonists quite well.  "It's been tough, at times," he confessed.  Then looking at me he said, "in your business world, you say 'two plus two is four,' and nobody argues with you.  But, in a theater, I say 'two plus two is four,' and there'll always be somebody who would say 'no it's not -- it's 140.'  In the end, I am lucky if I get them to agree that two plus two is 100."

Maybe that's the way things get argued backstage.  But, up front, where the hushed audience sits for 75 minutes inhaling The Professional's every line as a breath of fresh air, you won't get any arguments when you suggest that Kovacevic scored 100% with this piece of art. 

                                             Bob Djurdjevic,  Phoenix, Arizona, July 4, 1990

P.S.  Neither Milosevic nor Zimmermann had seen the "The Professional" as of June 23, 1990.  So much for their love of theater...

Third Brush

With my debt of translation paid to the author, I thought my brush with theater life was over.  But it was not to be.  God saw to it again.

In early 1991, I got a call from a San Francisco journalist friend, who had passed on my script to a theater director in Berkeley, CA.  The director was so enthralled by it that he wanted my permission to organize a reading at a Berkley theater.

"A reading?  What's that?" I asked showing my ignorance and the outsider status.

The director explained.  I agreed.

So in June 1991, The Professional was "read" on a Berkeley stage (see the photo).  It was a historic event.  Because it was the first time ever that a drama written by a Serbian playwright was performed in English in America. 

The audience loved it, and I got a lot of good feedback on how I could improve my translation and adapt the play were it ever to be performed for  North American audiences.  

I gathered up all the materials, including the tape of the performance, wrote my own analysis of it, and sent it to the author in Belgrade.  Once again, I thought that was it.

Fourth Brush and First Premiere - San Francisco

But it was not to be.  In March 1992, I got a call from the director who organized that Berkeley reading in June 1991.  He said that some theater people in downtown San Francisco were so excited about The Professional that they wanted to stage a full production at one of the main theaters near the the SF Wharf.  

"Oh my God," I thought, "Now I will have to put in more time and adapt  my original translation for North American audiences."

We made a deal and I spent nearly the entire month of May doing it.  The producers hired a British director for the performance.  When he flew from London to San Francisco for the June rehearsals, so did I from Phoenix.  He and I spent some more time making refinements in the text here and there in my San Francisco hotel room.

The Professional opened at the North Beach Repertory theater on July 17, 1992.  It was the first Serbian drama ever performed in America.  During the following week, San Francisco theater critics were raving about it (see some clips).  

I felt like Alice in Wonderland.  Never did I dream about having anything to do with theater, let along becoming a part of such a huge success.  Once again, I enjoyed the moment in the theater limelight, but when it was over, I thought that my fourth and final brush with the theater was really it.

Fifth Brush and Second Premiere - London

But it was not to be.  I've mentioned already that Peter Craze, the director, was British.  Peter and I got quite chummy during the course of our collaboration on the play, with which he also fell in love.  So he said that when he goes back to London, he'd see if he could find a producer to stage in there, too.

He did.  By October 1992, we had the contracts signed.  But the London producer was lacking enough cash, so I was co-opted as a co-producer, in addition to being the translator/adapter.

The Professional opened in London on November 10, 1992, at the tiny Offstage Downstairs theater.  But the theater's size didn't bother the critics or the media.  Once again, we got raving reviews in the Evening Standard, the London Times, the Independent, and host of other British media (see some clips).  

The Professional's success in London was that much more important because London is arguable the greatest and the most important theater stage in the English-speaking world.  The City Limits, London's "official" theater rating magazine, ranked The Professional a No. 2 in all of London theaters for the week of Nov. 19, ahead of even Peter O'Toole's latest play.

Once again, I felt like Alice in Wonderland and could not believe what was happening to me, totally unintended on my part.  One British reporter asked me how many plays I had done before.  

"None," I replied.  

He seemed stunned.  "And do you intend to do some more in the future?", he asked.

"Not if I can help it."

Now he looked even more stunned.

Now, this has got to be IT, I thought after the London hoopla.

Sixth Brush and Third Premiere - New York

And it was.  For a while... 

I got a call from a couple of New York producers in the fall 1993, who said they wanted to meet with me to explore a possibility of bringing The Professional to New York, and to make it eventually into a move.  

We met.  And then proceeded to negotiate the terms of the contract of the next year and a half.  I am not kidding!  It took that long to finally sign the contract, in part, due to my "brinkmanship," as my lawyers put it.  Having basically done the San Francisco and London work on a "pro bono" basis, I decided that, if the play were to open in New York, I'd better make some money off of it, too.

And made some money alright, but didn't like the "final product."  The pushy and meddling of the New York producers demanded changes to the script of the playwright, and some new scenes added.  I would not have acceded to them if it were my play.  I would have argued, "if it ain't broke, why fix it.  We've enjoyed tremendous success in San Francisco and London, so quit meddling in a good thing."

Anyway, The Professional opened at the off-Broadway Circle Repertory theater in Manhattan in May 1995...  

It had some fairly good reviews, but also some critical ones.  My small bit of satisfaction as a relative amateur when it comes to theater that the critics picked on the same new scenes that I didn't like (unbeknownst to the critics, of course, that they were new scenes compared to the San Francisco and London performances).

"This has got to be it!", I thought after New York.  And it was.  Ever since, I've only been collecting some royalty checks for occasional performances in other U.S. cities, or republications of my translation/adaptation.

And so ended Bob's six Alice in Wonderland-style brushes with the theater world.


(click here to read the ORIGINAL script, as of May 1992, a PDF file)

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