The Trick is to Do as Much as You Can, as Fast as You Can Before They Throw You Out of the Building

Blog

Magda Koralewska, Co-Founder Chair of Beit Krakow—a creative Jewish community of Krakow and board member of several other Jewish NGOs in Poland is particularly passionate about social change and the intersection of learning and the arts. Thanks to the 2013 Micro Grant she participated in the Under The Radar Symposium of innovative theatre from around the world, organized in January 2014 in NYC.

The symposium “Under-the-Radar” is an annual event that brings together scholars, artists, practitioners, producers, facilitators, students and anyone who is interested in innovation in the world of performance. My personal interest for coming to the symposium had to do with the growing demands of both my professional as well as my NGO work, that consists more and more in organizing and producing artistic events—yet another skill I never had any education in and find myself having to understand and do well.

Under-the-Radar, which for over a decade now, has consistently been presenting the most cutting-edge-performance from around the world, seemed like the place where I could learn a lot. And it certainly was. From the model of the conference itself (which in a unique way combined performance and learning—a model which, in my long career of going to conferences, I had never experienced before but found incredibly satisfying and effective) to particular performances.

Most notably perhaps South-American work entitled "El Año en Que Nací" (view trailer here), in which eleven performers born the 1970s and early 1980s during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile retell their parent’s stories to each other using photographs, letters, cassette tapes, old clothing, anecdotes, and elusive recollections. Each of them remakes scenes from the erased memories of the past to use as portals to understanding an uncertain future. Performer by performer, scene by scene, the stories collect and converge until we arrive at critical junctures—the overlapping zones of reality and fiction, the encounter of one generation with another, and the intersection of national history and private stories. The experience of seeing the children of regime officials sharing the stage and making creative work with the children of those who opposed it or suffered oppression or death within it—from a perspective of someone like myself, living in a country where the legacy of the War and Communism and society's roles in it is still very much unprocessed—was a truly transformative experience that made me realize also about my own responsibility in facilitating this type of dialogue.

Interestingly enough, a year later I had an opportunity to involve myself in a work-in-progress Polish-Canadian threatre production that does just that, entitled "We Keep Coming Back", which already on the workshop stage seems to have incredible potential for inspiring the right kind of dialogue concerning Polish-Jewish relations in Poland. In a few days together with Michael Rubenfeld and Katka Reszke we will present the excerpts of the play at Limmud UK (more on the project here: as a prelude to discussing the next stage of Polish-Jewish relations.

I did not however expect the symposium to be also a source of my learning and growth in the area of leadership. Beginning from the history of the Public Theatre, NYC, where the conference is located: Conceived nearly 60 years ago as one of the nation’s first nonprofit theaters, The Public has served as a model, both in terms of mission and programming, for nonprofit theaters that have blossomed throughout the country since that time.

The founder and visionary of the theatre, Joseph Papp, produced Shakespeare free of charge at various venues—including churches, parks, and the company’s mobile theater unit—beginning in 1954. By age 41, after Papp had established a permanent base for his free Summer Shakespeare performances in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, an open-air amphi-theatre, Papp looked for an all-year theater he could make his own. After looking at other locations, he fell in love with the location and the character of Lafayette Street’s Astor Library. Papp got it, in 1967, at a reported one dollar yearly rental from the City.

It was the first building saved from demolition under the New York City landmarks preservation law. After massive fundraising campaign and extensive renovations, Papp moved his staff to the newly named Public Theater, hoping to attract a newer, less conventional audience to new and innovative playwrights. At the Public Theater, Papp's focus moved away from the Shakespearean classics and toward new work, creating a democratic platform of inclusion and innovation as a result, which changed the face of Americal Theatre and fulfills this mandate to this day.

Another highlight of the conference for me was a keynote address given by Joe Haj, the Producing Artistic Director of the PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina (entire speech can be read here). In his "From Where I Stand" address, Haj talked about the the eternal permanence of the Theatre with a capital "T", and the simultaneous fragility of theatrical organizations. What's more in his view, that fragility brings a great value to the table: "(...)So capital ‘T’ theatre, I have no worries about. That said…each of our individual theatres or presenting organizations are extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable entities, and dependent on the continued support of the communities which they serve. And I just wonder if that fragility, while anathema to our corporate culture, is exactly right for us. Be relevant, all the time, or go away. Every year, every day, to question whether we are relevant enough. Whether we are important enough for our community to engage with us and care for us. That fragility, somehow, seems right to me. And though it leaves us feeling anxious and destabilized, we have to stop acting like that fragility is somehow evidence of the failure of the art form or of the sector."

By replacing the word "Theatre" with "Judaism" and "theatre organizations" with "Jewish organizations" we have a statement, which in my view, can be crucial in understanding the very ecosystem of the Polish Jewish organizations today, although I had never before thought about it this way. The Polish Jewish community today, arguably one of the most exciting Jewish communities in the word, while still incredibly fragile and dysfunctional on a lot of levels, has nevertheless some unique qualities which perhaps are possible only because we cannot take things for granted. Perhaps that sense of fragility is precisely what makes our work in Poland so relevant.

I want to end on one more note from Haj, that I think also very aptly applies also to the work of us—the so-called Jewish entrepreneurs and innovators—within the Jewish community today. For the benefit of the reader I adapted the text to refer to Jewish organizations. For all of us who run a Jewish organization, we are going to be fired from our job, or we will retire at some point to the great relief of our organization and our community. Those are the only two ways out besides quitting or dying at our desk. People will come to despise us or at least grow tired of us, because that’s what people do. Our leadership career has a lifespan. And it may turn out to be (maybe should be), shorter than we’d like. And so faced with such career mortality, what are we doing? Peter Sellars once said to me, “The trick is to do as much as you can, as fast as you can, before they figure out what you’re up to and throw you out of the building.” And I think there’s something to that. Make as many high-quality events as you can now. Invite as many people into your building now as you can. Do the work that you have to do before they throw you out. I am truly bored with all of our orthodoxies and competition about who is making more meaningful work. I don’t want to argue about that. But the question I will pose to all of us is: “Are we doing the work that we most want and need to do”?"

References: here , here, here and here.