mickdevine2007BalkanizationTour travel blog

A week can be a long time when your life accelerates; case in point, my life, this week.

I'm in Nis (pro. "Neesh", southern slavic for "I shrug my shoulders at you"). After my lightning raid on Belgrade I arrived with my Tommy Hilfiger shirts on Tuesday in Serbia's second city. I hustled over to the theatre before they could all escape and pretend it was a fantasy, and hooked up with Elva. She took me to the flat they have leased for me at the edge of the city centre.

It's really unfair. Elva is almost unrealistically beautiful, in a down-to-earth way. Which is fine and predictable for an actress. But she's the Technical Director. I was taken unawares (not literally, sadly). She has a degree in electrical engineering. All the tech guys in the theatre worship her. It's kind of fun to watch, because she's one of those serious slavic women full of vitality and compassion but with little patience for flirting or non-essentials. We're going to work well together.

Back at the theatre I was introduced to Ivana Madic, who is the Artistic Organiser (titles are, well, different at the theatre here). Also beautiful, also nice. Dragana, who is the true power behind the throne at the theatre, was overjoyed to see me...I think they were afraid I wouldn't turn up, after putting so much on the line. And I soon realised how unique this project is, in my experience, and how much they have put on the line. At the first reading Sasha Hadzi-Tancic, the DG, gave this little speech about what an honour it was to have me at the theatre, in Nis, and in Serbia. Whew.

The theatre is in the midst of major renovations from stem to stern. They will put a hold on the renovations midway through my rehearsals, so I can come in with the show and do a kind of preview opening late in the month (June). We're starting at the puppet theatre, though, once we finish the reading rehearsals. I have two days to tell them exactly what tech I need for the show - down to the actual lighting bars I will be using - so they can tell the construction crews what to leave behind. The actual opening will be in October. They were going to open in September, but will hold off to give me enough time to finish the job here and to see the show when I come back for a Belgrade conference in October.

So who feels special? Which in my world is of course an invitation to exert enormous pressure on myself and begin a cycle of critical self-abuse. I'll spare you the details as I progress from partially wounded to bleeding husk, I promise.

The translation was finished just in time by my friend and colleague Vesna. It's too literary, as I knew it would be, so the actors and I spent the first two days destroying it and rebuilding it for acting purposes. At least I expected it this time - when this happened in Sibiu two years ago it wasted time I'd allocated to other things.

The actors for my show were cast before I arrived. This was a necessity, and not always a bad thing. In this case it has worked out (at least from my initial impressions) spectacularly. They are eager, intelligent and well-suited for their roles. Dragana (a second one; Serbians share about six names, tops) plays Roxana. She is tall, nearly as tall as I am, willowy, a classic beauty who exudes a quiet refinement. She's quiet but good-humoured, the "good student" type of actor, already asking good questions. Marjan plays Cristian, the hunk role. He's got a couple of kilos to lose before he does the gym scene, but he is a great fit. He speaks excellent English and is easy to get along with. Aleksandar plays De Guiche, who in my version of the tale is a very complex and important character, the Count/Capitano type who ends up wiser for wear. Sasha watched me all the way through the first rehearsal, unaware that I was conscious of it. He is smart, very funny, easily dissatisfied, I think, but not high maintenance. He's not fat enough, but we'll fix that! Finally Vlada is both the swordmaster and Cyrano (Sirano in Serbian) for the show. He is almost a classically egocentric leading man, but he is also very ambitious for the show, both for the fights and for what he seems aware is a special opportunity, that of playing a famous role and having to do it through the character's affliction of cerebral palsy. He initially thought Cyrano would have "one good arm" (for his beloved fights, of course), but I soon dissauded him of that notion. His response was concern, which is good. It's a big job to make Cyrano both a convincing case of CP and an effective swordsman.

This is a big state theatre, and there are a lot of people whose roles I am becoming accustomed to. Nothing I haven't seen before at this point; more of a mix of previous arrangements in Hungary and Romania. The Stage Manager ("incipijent") shows up at the start of rehearsal...and then disappears. Maybe he takes attendance. There are four porters to handle the stage entrance (what non-theatre folks would consider the side-door), and the boss is the Director-General while Dragana Petrovic is the Artistic Director or a kind of equivalent. It was her pushing that ensured the show. She felt the theatre needed a show with romantic appeal that could reach a younger audience. That remains to be seen, of course, but the text messaging central to the show is a feature they can promote as theatre moves (at last) into the late twentieth century.

The theatre is an old building in need of the renovations which await it, but nowhere near as dire as the one in Uzice I worked at in 2005. I can go downstairs without anticipating the joyous squeaking of rats in need of dinner. The washrooms..well, let's just say it's one advantage of being a male that we stand and deliver.

My friends will understand when I say that in some ways this is a much bigger deal for me than getting my doctorate. Cyrano XXI is my play. I've done my own work at theatres in Hungary, Romania and Serbia before, but this is a more conventional kind of play and a great honking big state theatre that is throwing its full resources behind it, not doing it as some secondary project. It's a privilege, and I'm damned glad the play is standing up to initial scrutiny. Not that I haven't found things I long to fix; but that will come. I'm getting paid well, too. Not that that matters. (But it's nice.)

It's also great to have my own flat. It's one room with a bathroom, fifteen minutes from the theatre. In that single room there is a stove, a sink, a fridge, two bureaus, a desk, and a TV (which doesn't work). There's a washer in the bathroom. Tight but delightful. I can even try out my new yoga moves on the floor.

Yes, that's a newsflash: Michael has succumbed to the lures of the yogic sciences. Actually a lot of my flex routine seems to have been taught to me by yogis-in-disguise. Getting that one-minute breath down is a bitch, though. And I fear the "easy pose" will be, for me, the "permanent pose".

Second newsflash (I know, it's a lot for one entry): I have a cellphone!!! I bought this cute little golden clamshell Samsung (which I call Sammy, naturally) and I am busily learning the ins and outs of texting and actually making phone calls. Anyone who wants to break their budget with a call to me detailing their latest fantasies about me can call +381 064 945 0406. Anyone? No? Damn. It's free for me...

No gym located yet...actually I found one recommended by Elva but they took one look and said "no men". I guess I should be... flattered? So I've been getting used to the idea of running again. Not my favourite form of exercise, as it is not metabolically efficient and I keep getting passed by three-legged dogs, staggering drunks, and limping crones. I'd describe myself as prose in slow motion. At least there's a river, the Nisava, to run along. It's brown, but then so are the many heaps of garbage-strewn landfills. The Roma are picturesque in their horses and carts, but then at my speed I'm only catching a fleeting glimpse. I think they were laughing.

Final initial impressions of southern Serbian life:

1) Dean Martin deserves retrospective acclaim

2) Everyone remembers the NATO bombing. That would be...us.

3) Serbian men resemble a bunch of dazed, disbelieving lottery winners surrounded by stunning women who pay attention to them.

All for now. Big, thrilling manly hugs to all -

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