Don’t forget to come down to Cooper Union’s Great Hall (7 e. 7th street, New York, New York) for our 5pm staged reading of Tess Berry-Hart’s SOCHI 2014, followed by a 6pm panel on Sport and Art in a Censored Society.
The panel will be live streamed by the online theater journal HowlRound at HowlRound.TV. During the panel, you can tweet questions and comments to #PropFest2014 and we will bring them to the panel for you! Wherever you are, JOIN THE CONVERSATION!
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You will also be able to pre-order Gessen and Huff-Hannon’s upcoming book Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.
THIS EXCLUSIVE #PROPFEST2014 PROMOTION ENDS WEDNESDAY AT MIDNIGHT—PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS NOW.
“You cannot see the face when face to face”
From my early childhood I felt enchanted by the moment when my actor parents and their fellow actors whom I had known since I was a small child completely changed before going onstage. Just a minute ago they had been so familiar—but now they were completely different people, ethereal creatures from another world. And since my early childhood I have been frightened and at the same time bewitched by the very moment of this transition, this state of uncertainty when you’re neither here nor there. And only then, when you step aside or even go to the auditorium, you understand the make-up artist’s intention and see how what seemed smudges of powder on actors’ faces become works of art. For as the Russian genius Sergey Yesenin wrote, “you cannot see the face when face to face”.
It never occurred to me that one day I would experience this state of “being neither here nor there” myself. That I will be balancing between two worlds, floating from the past to the unstable future like my favorite puppet called the Jester.
I emigrated from Russia in the year of horrible explosions of the Moscow houses. There were the times when we learned the meaning of the words “cyclonite”, “terrorist attack,” “identification.” And nobody knew whether those who did it were terrorists or our own secret service.
The very first house, half of that was torn out by the explosion, split my life in two: life before the attacks and life after them. Life before the escape and life in the strange land.
At first it seemed that going without looking around would be enough. Going for good. And then, when you did that, when you feel free at last, you realize that there is an umbilical cord that connect s you with your country. When you were younger, you had no idea it existed and thought you were independent and self-reliant. And then you decide to tear it away and live without it. And so you tear it and soar up and forward, and you fly away.
But then you still turn around.
… you cannot see the face when face to face, and only from the distance you can see the most important…”. Sergey Yesenin was right saying this.
Distance makes everything different, from the distance good and evil change places. It turns out that you were living by touch, and it took an escape abroad to see things as they are.
You grow older differently, not like your peers in your country, and it has certain bitterness. Maybe because it is very convenient to have the umbilical cord that connects you with your homeland. Because real responsibility tastes bitter, too. Even the freedom itself tastes bitter. You fill in the electricity bills, stand in long and tedious queues to the Austrian officials, build your life anew, on a waste land, feeling like you are going to cross the abyss to the frail bridge. For being responsible always means being alone. You also realize this only after parting with things that were part of you all those years before the emigration. You must part with what seemed to be most routine and essential part of your being, too. You must part with the habitual you and recreate yourself piece by piece, like a puzzle.
And only then, when you at last become independent from the country where you were born, you can understand whether you need it. You can realize what it means for you. And the realization gets you right when you begin to feel assimilated within your newly obtained world.
When white émigrés were leaving Russia, they got a feeling that they were taking the old Russia along. “I brought my Russia with me”. This is a very special feeling, when you sense that there is no Russia and no Russian culture after you. That you were taking all of it. That you were the last. Maybe the feeling is familiar to everyone who leaves their country. We all think about our Russia we brought along with us.
But white émigrés were burning bridges after themselves, whether on purpose or they just couldn’t do anything about it, and nowadays emigration is different. Almost every émigré knows that they can come back if they want to, sooner or later. In earlier days those leaving Russia were deprived of such luxury – the country they were leaving was lost for them for long decades. But they also didn’t have a mammoth task to juxtapose the Russia they had brought along and the actual country that still lived. The country that lived a different life, life is unknown to them and undesirable.
For example, let’s take Moscow. It resembles quicksilver in its changeability. If you haven’t been out for long, you can think something in is gone forever. Moscow can be frightening and gloomy doomed city where entire houses and stores blow up and people watch every stranger with utter hostility. And it can instantly turn into a world of affluence, bright lights and festivity. Moscow is the city of the friendliest windows and the rudest doormen. City of warm evenings and teapots under the coziness of a lampshade, and city of police stations full of officials with impenetrable and fastidious faces.
At first you don’t know what to do with this real country – and how to make up with it. For you can’t help comparing the two countries. And you see that somewhere something is better. But at the same time you see that everything is interconnected and nothing exists independently. For example, take the famous cordiality and hospitality of Russians that often turns into a too short personal distance that is always a bother. But at the same time you realize that if you make that distance more acceptable this openhearted warmth would be gone.
And you also realize that all the good in another country is done by those who live here and who had striven and worked to make it that way. That’s what is called the civil society – it’s a society where you make your country look like you want it to by yourself. Only then you understand the difference between a country and its system, between a homeland and a state. And if the first ones are sacred by themselves, the latter you can – and ought to – change. Your parting with your country didn’t estrange you from it and you still can’t be indifferent to what happens there.
But you are still alone in this awareness. You don’t properly belong to any country. You feel that no one understands you right, because you absorbed the two worlds that mixed up in you and made you a complete alien.
And it all results in words and texts. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the issues of transition from “here” to “there.” I want to write that we are all strangers in this world, we all are but guests in each and every country, having once left your own homeland and stuck in time and space. And I feel akin to those who are different from the others and who live a life of soul solitude because of this. I’m like them, and my Jester from “The Jesters’ Cap” is like them, too. It is about the combination of things that cannot be combined. About the bitterness of growing older and getting free. It’d like you are on a night train and your station is far behind. And you don’t even know your destination.
Although there’s no subjunctive mood in our life, I don’t know whether I took up writing if I didn’t leave Moscow. I would say no. Because to write always means to walk the line. Everyone does it their own way. I did it with immigration. I learned from it to watch my home country from the distance and at the same time so closely. Immigration taught me not to take up social issues, but ponder about what is above any society.
You cannot see the face when face to face. And which is more – you cannot find the strength to mold into words all that is to become a story.
translated by Anna Loginova
CATHY CURTIN joins our staged reading of SOCHI 2014 by Tess Berry-Hart on Sunday, January 19th.
Ms. Curtin most recently was seen on the hit Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black, but is no stranger to both film and stage. You can catch her in The Guiding Light, The Bourne Legacy, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, 30 Rock, and The Naked Brothers Band. In the theatre world she has appeared at The Wild Project, The Village Theater, The Active Theater, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Rising Phoenix Rep.
Propaganda is thrilled to have Masha Gessen, journalist and NY Time International Opinion contributor, making her first public appearance since fleeing Moscow at our panel, Sport & Art in a Censored Society, January 19th.
Masha’s most recent NY Times article, “A Whiter Shade of Envy,” focuses on how current tensions in Ukraine have actually sparked hope for the future in Russia.