Warsaw: Prison in the morning, film stars in the afternoon

by | Nov 14, 2007 | From the Road, Uncategorized

Warsaw. October 24th, 2007


The ride out turns into cobblestone roads past urban country railroad tracks, there is rust in driveways; a forbiddingly long railcar hangar scarred with dark overhanging; a graveyard pit where heavy ancient wrenches cranked and creaked, and railcars hibernated briefly before charging down the almost straight rails of yesteryear. The ancient illuminated by nearby newness of a larger structure, halogen light bright insides, the sheen of aluminum white walls topped by muddy turquoise roof façade.
Our white VW travel van, not used for prisoners, crosses series of tracks, with yards of coupled rail cars on the horizon, past a rundown neighborhood of roadside businesses, finally leading to a small gathering of parked cars. The entrance to the prison is a small brick building, around which long lines of wire and chain linked fence stretch out, defining a wide area of surveillance intensity. Airport security machines as we enter. Behind a small glass hole in the window, we slip passport cell phones and cameras, in exchange for a small numbered disc corresponding to a slot in a wooden box.
There is no clang of heavy prison doors but a series of chain linked doors opened by a succession of buzzes leading finally inside a rundown building and a beige hallway decorated by occasional framed assembled puzzles of Monet paintings. The paint on the walls is thick and dull, not just with age. A succession of dark brown closed doors with extra locking mechanisms and a sense of forbodden hidden inside.
There are paper signs in slots defining each purpose, on red construction paper, in Polish of course leaving my curiosity uninformed as to the nature of activities hidden inside. Down a T at the end of the corridor to an open door, same drab colors inside the empty room, one table naked alone in a corner, fifteen women holding stools file in along the outline of the wall, and sit down in slightly un orderly fashion. There are quips and comments jumping out of their present minds in staccato bursts, in Polish of course. In a moment’s eye contact, I offer a humorous gesture. A little snicker of response, a dominos line series of quips and comments travels amongst the women dressed in normal clothes, obviously theirs, no evidence of prison uniform in any direction. Another group of women come in which I play on as they file in looking for humor in the call and response amongst the two groups of women as they settle in.
The show is already in progress in an informal way, looks and responses jumping around the room that quiet down as our accompanying prison official gives me some kind of introduction. No way of knowing if she is telling them the appropriate rules, or explaining the nature of my presence and what I have to offer.
I carve open a few roads, broad pathways of communication amongst the women sitting against three sides of the wall. I develop interaction amongst them as they quip back and forth about situations and exchanges that develop between my play and their presence. I beckon a younger woman to help recuperate a dropped coin from my position standing on top of my suitcase. She refuses generating significant laughter, and corresponding quips. I have no idea what the words say, but the tone is playful, and the subject undoubtedly something not meant for my ears. A small squirrelly elder woman, in faded home knitted sweater takes the relay to respond to my plea. She has short boy cut hair, her face telling wrinkled stories, darkened submitted eyes telling of late night struggles crossing many boundaries of innocence. There is a little sense of play in the way she scurries away. Diverse energies are bouncing off the walls. There are two very clear couples In the room, strong alpha’s alongside prettier counterparts. One twosome in the corner are in strong physical contact and conversation, only halfway engaged in the show, perhaps this being their meeting point.
Later I find out that these women are all prisoners waiting to be sentenced, or go to trial, women accused of lesser crimes, hence the informal atmosphere and casual security of the room that slowly fills with warmer spirits and laughter. I beckon the elder woman’s help a few more time, each time drawing her out a little more out of her tortoise shell, a little hunch which she never fully drops. Playful interaction leads to me admiring one of the macha woman’s buzz cut, my hand running the top of her head, finally plucking one of her hairs to attempt to paste it onto my bald palate. She plays along.
My attention gets caught by a stout blond woman sitting almost behind me, a matronly strong woman, her face is full of very present not afraid energy, a bully perhaps. She is sitting nearly behind me and it is only a good part through the show that I hone in or her non committal gaze, an impenetrable arms crossed leaning back on the wall stance despite considerable levity surrounding her. Wanda could her name. I start knocking on Wanda’s door purposefully looking for a little love and affection. No success after some ten minutes now. Not a crack in the ‘don’t even try’ face despite several choice asides.. Approaching the end of the show, I pull out the ukulele. My uke has an untraditional shoulder strap allowing me to move around with greater ease. Launching into ‘Love is a Rose” a country folk tune, I choose a choice moment saddling up next to Wanda against the wall, getting down to one knee, singing “ I want to go to an old hoedown, long ago in a western town; pick me up when my feet are dragging, send me a lift and I will hay your wagon; love is a rose…” . Wanda cracks open a big smile, then playfully flirts back. She fakes an amorous lunge which sends me scurrying to hide next to my elder helper. Laughter fills the room. The women give me a standing ovation afterwards, and good humor floats out of the room with the women as they single file out, stools in hand. The beige and brown walls enamel gleam walls in the green fluorescent light remain. It’s back out through 5 security gates, clown nose now out of the pocket, looking for the opportunity to clown the prison yard rigidities.


Whereas the morning’s destination took me to a remote outskirt of Warsaw, on the other side of the railroad tracks so to speak, the afternoon destination is the 7th floor of a brand new building in an international development complex. The word ‘International’ is in big letters on a prominent sign of the outdoor courtyard, modern sculpture, circular driveway, amongst large glass surfaces in outlining buildings. There are cobblestones here too. Unlike this morning’s deep bumpy of ancient age, these are in smooth refined lines of beige brick and stone. Glass entrance doors graced with institution dark green plasticky push handles. A little chuckle inside as I notice black decals on the doors say “Push”, no Polish to be seen. Indeed a glance to the backside of the doors reveals little black ‘Pull” signs.
The hallways glitter with signs of 21st century architecture, brushed aluminum, polished steel, elevators by Otis. International Film Academy on the 7th floor a hotel like lobby sign proclaims. Their film school lobby walls house an art exhibition of striking black and white prints, models and actors. Avant Garde theater scenes. Well lit, young groomed faces parade, hover and discuss in earnest around coffees at a few of the tables populating the area. Glass enclosed offices and discreet doorways
My classroom echoes the morning room in only one aspect, there are chairs positioned along the walls around the room. Otherwise, there is not a sign of aged creamy paint, all is plastic and metal, shiny and new. There are floor to ceiling velvet curtains, gym mats and other accoutrements stashed along the walls, even a grand piano at one end. The students slowly fill the room. Many college age and a scattering that might occasionally break the 30 mark. It is a voluntary class I am told, and some 20-25 students have shown up. Quite a few are dressed in finery right out of the fashion pages. There are leather studded boots, skin stuck jeans, and provocatively cut blouses of young blossoming actresses. My mind flashes back to the train compartment heading down from Wroclaw, and the stack of glossy fashion magazines that two young women studied during the 5 hour train ride, page after page of camouflage tips. A few of these woman have stepped right off one of those pages.
I sense a bit of discomfort beginning the four hour workshop. I have only English in my language basket, almost all understand, one young woman looking like she stepped out of an diner in Utah doesn’t speak a word of English, another young woman will translate. I see a certain amount of arms folded what have you got to teach us attitude. Perhaps it is because I lack the Hollywood credentials. I give a little pep talk about the work I would like to offer this afternoon. My pep talk is not generating the anticipated enthusiasm.
Some of the group are not eager to get off their chairs when I propose to begin moving around the room. A young princess model in stirrup boots and black lust inspiring body clinging clothes balks at my request to take off her shoes. I am not prepared to work with her stiletto heels. I have unknowingly crossed some forbidden line, that has her quite uppity. The fashion scan clan become resistant to my requests as I put them through neutral walk paces. Perhaps it is kids play for a few of them. Most likely they came expecting to work with a Woody Allen on a brilliant approach to comedic acting, and I am a serious letdown clown. Who knows. It just doesn’t feel right, quite unlike yesterday’s workshop at the Montowia Theater, where I worked with a group of actors who delved right into that absurdist universe, creating quite a flow of ideas.

The response amongst the cinema crowd to what a neutral walk might mean is rather dismal, evidently, despite this being the land of Grotowsky, there is little physical acting in the curriculum here. I realize only too late, that the well dressed set are indeed the models, and already on their highway to superstardom Polish style. They don’t really have great interest in expressing emotions such as curiosity, or seriousness, with their own twist of humor thrown in.
One man glares at me openly as I actually attempt to correct his neutral walk, having asked for parallel neutral walks in the room. The boots woman is conferring in whispers with a girlfriend as they both look hesitatingly in my direction. A tall dark and handsome man who looks like he walked out of an esquire magazine has his shoulders hunched while throwing a questioning glance to the other movie man across the room.
An hour and twenty minutes into the four hour class, a woman interrupts to ask if she can take a bathroom break. I figure it is a good idea to take a break and reassess how I am leading this group. Obviously I have not won them over, nor succeeded in shedding light on the benefits of opening up their humor chops.

Indeed the break is a good idea, allowing a mass exodus to take place, a good portion of the students don’t return, the twenty something has becomes 12. The remaining group however discovers a syncopated harmony. We have a great time as they jump into creating, opening up channels of humor. The ones who have stayed are the ones that came with work clothes, and put on their dancing shoes. One young woman breaks down crying in the midst of a relatively benign exercise. She had been a bit stuck, unable to let go, something bottled up inside. The crying subsided, a little while later, her eyes are beaming bright, and she jumps back into the game, her inside smile all of the sudden broadcast for all to see. There is warm, friendly fun bouncing around the room, the students at the end jazzed and enthused. Is today is the only day I am coming to their school?
Later that evening, back at Andrzej and Malgosha’s house, I tell Andrzej, who has arranged my day, and indeed all of my Polish interventions, that I think that I bombed at the school, and was not able to offer what they thought they would be getting. The word back from the academy the next day is that they are looking forward to working with me the next time I come to Poland.

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