The Hummingbirds

The Internationalists World Tour—Bucharest & Berlin

My play The Hummingbirds won the Internationalists Global Playwriting Contest. The award grants at least six different presentations in six different countries over the course of the next year. My goal is to attend each of them and share my experiences on HowlRound through this series.

The Hummingbirds is about two special unemployment counselors who assign you a job when you’ve been out of work too long. It may not be a job that you’re qualified to do. It may not be a job that’s safe for anyone to do. But you have to do it. The play concerns domestic terrorism, strippers, and weaponized hummingbirds. Any two actors of any age, race, and gender can perform the play. This is the third of a series of posts. You can find the full series here.

Third Presentation Friday, October 5th : Bucharest, Romania, World Premiere Saturday, November 17th: Bucharest, Romania

As mentioned in my last post, on Friday, October 5th, the Doctor’s Studio presented a protest presentation in Romanian in support of Green Hours (the first independent theatre in Romania) that has been struggling against a take-over of their space by some not so legitimate “business” people. I was upset to miss this, but it just wasn’t possible on such short notice to make it. The protest has raised some good attention, but the situation with Green Hours is not resolved yet. It looks like there’s a court date in February, and I’m guessing there will be a lot of Romania’s top theatre and entertainment industry stakeholders in the room.

The Doctors Studio is made up of a few actors, including Laurientiu Banescu (ONE) and Daniel Popa (TWO), or Lau and Dan for short. The actor/director Florin Piersic Jr. was in the audience for the presentation in October and he had a mind to create a full production, so they decided to go for it. For those of you at all familiar with the name Piersic, Florin Jr. is the son of Florin Piersic, the most famous actor in Romania (that’s the reaction I got whenever I have mentioned him to a Romanian). Florin Jr. is quite a talent himself and had a vision on how to stage it and shape the piece for a Bucharest audience. So instead of scrambling to go to a reading, we set a premiere date of November 17 and I made my plans to go.

I left my house on Thursday at 7am, flew from San Francisco to Chicago to London to Bucharest and made it to Bucharest at about 4pm on Friday. Lau picked me up and we went to Dan’s place where I was staying. I got to meet Dan and his girlfriend Summer Wood, who is American and Dutch, and we had a lot to chat about. Dan, Lau, and I then went and toured a bit of downtown, and stopped by Green Hours. We had dinner, where they served Goulash in a bread house. Here we were also were joined by Peca Stefan, who had just moved back to Bucharest from New York. When Dan and Lau headed to rehearse at 10pm, Peca and I had drinks.

When we got to the Godot Theater, we learned that the cast hadn’t rehearsed at all yet because the music event from earlier in the evening was still going strong, with encore after encore. They were a Polish group playing Dixieland Jazz and they were fantastic. The next day I learned they were, “Electric Party Songs” from the Workcenter of Jerzi Grotowski and Thomas Richards. I read the Richards book about Grotowski in college and it meant a lot to me, so it was a nice coincidence.

Perhaps I should explain what I understand about the independent theatre scene in Bucharest. Bear in mind, I could have it all wrong. The venues tend to be cafés and bars, where you go to see a band or a play, and the theatre may schedule two events an evening—getting two admissions and several rounds of drinks out of the patrons. Your play may have just one night at a venue, and if it goes well, another night at the same or another place. If all goes well, you may also move to one of the more established venues for an extended run.

The next day while everyone was rehearsing, I did some sightseeing, went to the museum, wandered into a health and beauty expo at a convention center, and had some breakfast and lunch. I took a cab back to Dan and Summer’s place and took a nap to rest up for the night. Later, after dinner I headed over to the Godot to watch the closing numbers from a German a capella group. The previous crowd emptied out and our audience entered. Peca introduced me to many of the theatre folk in attendance. The show was at 10:00pm and it was sold out. This version, in Romanian, seemed to focus more on bureaucracy, whereas the Spanish, Mexican, and Berlin presentations focused more on unemployment.

Dan and Lau were masterful. I think Florin really gave them confidence through his direction. They controlled the audience—allowing laughter at all the right moments and seriousness where and when it needed to be. I was crying at certain points, and I don’t speak Romanian but I know what’s going to happen. It was funny when it should be funny, and then gripping and moving—a highlight of my life that I will never forget. Summer served as the costumer and set designer too, and she did a fantastic job. She had to go to Bucharest’s Chinatown to find the shoes that look like regular black shoes, but in fact are clown shoes. I guess they have a Chinatown pretty much anywhere. And like Chinatown in San Francisco, you can get anything there. The costumes were fantastic, with brown suits (altered to look awkward), orange shirts, and green ties. They really looked like bureaucrats.

After, I was brought up to the stage for a bow and since I was there, we had a brief talk back. I was worried I wouldn’t be understood, but they all spoke English, and it was very nice. Summer said I looked like a stand-up comedian—and I can see that, I’m familiar with talking on a mic. But I didn’t feel funny, I was just so moved. I kept thinking back to the previous March, when I was sitting in my room alone, taking shelter from the rain outside, and finishing the first draft of this script listening to Adele on repeat. And here I was in Bucharest, less than two years later with all these wonderful people making an effort to bring it to life. We drank lots of palinka (Romanian Plum Vodka—it needs to be imported!) and beer, and had a fantastic time, speaking with lots of artists. I met the Romanian voice of Minnie Mouse. And I heard a contemporary of Ionesco was there and that he said, “Who is this writer, why haven’t I heard of him? I must read everything he’s written.” That was flattering. Lots of people talked to me about how the show resonated with them as Romanians—government corruption was mentioned quite a few times.

Around 2:30am we went back to Dan and Summer’s. Dan’s mother had just visited so we got to indulge in homemade baba ganoosh, cabbage, egg salad, and salted pickles. Delicious—the perfect ending to a perfect evening. The performance went so well that Colibri (The Hummingbirds’ Romanian title) went up again on Monday, November 26th at the Godot. The plan is to keep running it in Bucharest and perhaps tour it around Romania. Later in the week, an audience member approached me and repeated “stripperu” (Romanian for “stripper”) in the particularly funny way Dan and Lau said it in the show, and told me how that word would now always have a special meaning to those that witnessed that night. I love that so much, so now, when I’m trying to push through my jet lag I just say “stripperu” and giggle to myself.

Fourth Presentation Sunday, November 4th: Berlin, Germany

The fourth presentation of The Hummingbirds happened in Berlin, Germany, at the English Theatre of Berlin. It was also part of the Velocity 2012 international reading series presented by LoNyLa via Live Stream. Technology makes the world both small and far apart. I was able to get up early Sunday morning in San Francisco (evening in Berlin) to watch live as German actors performed my play in English. It saved me a lot of money on travel, and I got to experience the audience enter, and could hear their reactions to certain lines. Unfortunately, the internet stream could not make me sense the audience in the room. All was going well, only to have my connection time out just in time for the talk back.

Prior to the reading, I had heard about the low state of German unemployment and that Germans love their bureaucracy. I wondered, then, would my play appeal to a German audience? I contend that the play is on its surface about unemployment, but is really about finding meaningful work. And as to bureaucracy, I don’t know enough about Germans to say, but it seems unimaginable that bureaucracy could be made so pleasant that it’s beloved. It would have been great to be there in person, but it looks like we’re headed to production in Berlin sometime in 2013. I’ll be there. We’re still working out if we’ll do it in English or German.

Updates on Other Presentations

New York, New York Monday December 3rd The Internationalists did a presentation at Playwrights Horizons starring Julia Brothers and Colman Domingo. Julia played ONE and did the very first public reading in June of 2011 as TWO. Colman, coming off of a great run at the Public, played TWO. It was a little San Francisco Bay Area reunion, as Julia, Colman, and I all know each other from when they used to live there and participated with PlayGround. More on this in my next post.

The Hague, The Netherlands Unfortunately, due to budget cuts for the arts in The Netherlands, it’s looking less and less likely that this presentation will happen at all. The original idea was to have it happen close to the Berlin presentation. I’m still hopeful, but the funding situation in Holland is looking a bit bleak. This is too bad for me on a personal note, as I have a lot of family and friends in The Netherlands.

Photos by Horia Petrascu. 

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A series tracing the journey of Garret Groenveld's play The Hummingbirds.

"The Hummingbirds" Internationalist World Tour 

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I just saw your play at Godot, in Bucharest, it was still a packed house, and it went just like you say it did back in November - a lot of laughter, followed by well-acted and well-directed poignancy. It was a real treat, it's rare that we get to see anything like it, i.e. mind-blowingly original, let alone actually feel stuff and relate to what's happening on stage during a rather low-key two-men show - so thank you :)

I love reading these posts about this project! So cool and interesting!