Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remembrances of Václav Havel

Sometimes, you are lucky.
William Niederkorn and Václav Havel

Sometimes, the man you meet is equal to the man you imagined.

I don’t remember the first time I heard Havel’s name.  Perhaps during a news broadcast.  Perhaps when I read Martin Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd.  I do know that I had read and fallen in love with his work by college, and I was overwhelmed by the idea that an absurdist playwright led a revolution and became the president of a nation.

His play, Audience was the first I directed in New York, the first New York production of my theater company.  For twelve years after that, I admired him from afar.

Then I came up with idea, called the Havel Festival.  My idea was, we would do every play he had ever written.  People now knew Havel the politician so well, I wanted to remind them about Havel the playwright.

I approached his agents.  We scheduled it for his 70th birthday.  By lucky chance, Gregory Mosher was planning a residency for Havel at Columbia at the same point, which meant he would be in town for the full length of the festival.

Havel with the cast and crew of The Memo

He came.

I met him for the first time at a reception being held by Columbia for his arrival.  I remember chatting with Oliver Sacks, another hero of mine, as I stood about four feet away from him, waiting to shake his hand.  Havel turned and graciously shook my hand.  I tried in the noise to introduce myself, and he nodded pleasantly, but seemed too tired to pick up exactly who I was.

Halka Kaiserova, the Czech consul general, explained it to him.  Suddenly, he beamed.  You don’t know what it means to an author, when you do all of his work, he told me.  Thank you.

I saw him at various functions over the next few weeks, and he would always greet me with a beaming smile.  He assured me he would be coming to see the production of the Memo I directed.  Some others, too, he said at the time, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.

Robert Lyons, me, and Havel at The Ohio
When he arrived at the Ohio Theater, he was surrounded by flashing cameras and attending by an entourage of secret service and dignitaries.  The flashing cameras didn’t affect him.  He was used to it.  He assured me his secret service members knew how to behave in a theater and would not disturb the production.

I remember when I watched him laugh.  It was early on, a small visual joke I had put into the script.  I sat anxiously in the back row and watched him with great relief.  And he kept on laughing, all show long.

He came back again, soon after, to see his plays Audience (which I had remounted) and Protest (directed by Robert Lyons, who runs the Ohio).  He was loved them both and was particularly taken with the actor Richard Toth, who appeared in Protest.

Havel and his wife Dasha with cast/crew of Temptation
He came back again.  And again.  And again.  Till he felt like a fixture in The Ohio and The Brick, where many of his other plays were being produced.

Throughout, he exuded a genuine warmth and a genuine enthusiasm about the work.  We had some celebrities who participated in the festival, but he was not impressed by celebrity.  He was as gracious and giving to every actor as he was to Kathleen Turner or Dustin Hoffman.  He did not care whether he was in a small theater or a large one.  He cared that we cared about the writing.  And we did, deeply.
Henry Akona, me, and Havel

On the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution he came again, and listened as Trey Kay’s band, Uncle Moon, did a tribute to the Velvet Underground.  He brought Madeleine Albright with him and they sat in the tiny Brick Theater and drank and celebrated with us.  At one point he same to the microphone and made a speech in Czech.  Halka Kaiserova translated:
Havel with Trey Kay of Uncle Moon
“There is no place I would rather spend the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.” It was in a small theater like The Brick where the revolution started, after all.

Havel and me at Joe's Pub
We were able to spend the last evening of the Festival at Joe’s Pub together, as Uncle  Moon played again, and Havel regaled me with tales about Lou Reed and his early experiences in theater.  As we sat together it suddenly occurred to me anew that this was a man who I had idolized from afar, whose ideas and writing had changed a whole country.  But now, he felt like an old friend.

We saw each other occasionally after that.  In London, in Philadelphia, in Prague, and most recently in Brno, when he flew me out the see a production of his newest work (or his reconfigured old work) The Pig.  Somehow, every time I saw him, I suddenly had this fear that this time, I would be disappointed.  This time he wouldn’t live up to the ridiculously high expectations that I had for him.

Havel in Brno (in sunglasses) watching a production of Audience
But when he saw me and welcomed me with a beaming smile, those fears melted away.  For Václav Havel was more than a great leader and a great writer and a great thinker.  He was a true and kind person, who lived the philosophies he preached.  He was the man who would beam at me every time he saw me.  He was a friend.

I will miss him very much.


William S. Niederkorn said...

Thanks to Edward Einhorn and Untitled Theater Company #61, many actors, directors and theater artists who worked on the Havel Festival shared in the good fortune of meeting Vaclav Havel. It was especially lucky for me that Edward asked me to be the festival's composer and music director. I had long admired Havel's work, having seen many productions over the years, Richard Foreman's brilliant "Largo Desolato" and Kevin O'Connor's definitive enactment of the role of the brewmaster in "Audience" being among the standouts. To participate in a festival of productions of all of Havel's work was an undreamed of dream come true.

From the start we knew Havel would be in New York during the festival, for the Columbia residency, but it was not clear that he would have time to see any of the plays. Everything changed when he attended a performance of "The Memo" and saw what a serious effort and high artistic aims were being brought to his work. Then nothing could keep Havel away, and he came to one production after another, watching with obvious delight a majority of the 18 plays in the festival and staying around afterward to meet the artists, sign actors' scripts and festival programs with his heart signature, and appear in photos with casts and crews.

There are moments that I will never forget, like seeing his obvious pleasure at hearing the rock album of "Songs for Vaclav Havel" I wrote for the festival, performed by the Mendoza Line, and getting to meet Madeleine Albright and give her a CD of the music after a performance of "Temptation," directed by Ian Hill at the Brick, after which Havel was heard saying to his wife, the actress Dagmar Veskrnova, words to the effect that this was a better production than the original in Prague.

Other great moments were my introducing Havel to the underground playwright Jim Neu and the lighting designer Carol Mullins after a performance of True Comedy Theater Company's staging of "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration," directed by Yolanda Hawkins, and drinking beer and chatting with him at Joe's Pub, answering his question about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton by explaining how the Republicans had embarrassed the country with that hypocritical and sanctimonious travesty.

A year later, when we took our production of "Increased Difficulty" to Baltimore's Theatre Project and it was named the best stage play of the year by Baltimore's City Paper, it was very gratifying to read in the Czech press Havel's characteristically modest reaction to that development.

What a heady time the Havel Festival was for all of us, and how fortunate we all were to have had that time with Havel. It has been and continues to provide a tremendous inspiration and to instill a great sense of responsibility to try to live up to, in any small way, the standards that Havel set as a person, as a citizen, and as an artist.

Richard Harrington said...

I too was lucky to have a small part in one of the shows in the festival, as an actor. Havel didn't come to see it, but I did sit across from him at another play, in which the audience were all seated on the stage around the playing area, in a circle. I watched him during the show and kept thinking, what would he have thought if 25 years ago, sitting in prison, he could have imagined this scene at the Brick Theater? Drinking a beer, watching some young Americans revive his entire body of work. He really looked like he was enjoying himself immensely.

After the show I went up to him and he greeted me warmly. I said a few words to him in the little Czech I had picked up on a theater tour in 1999, which got his hopes up, but he was clearly disappointed when I turned out not to speak the language at all.

He graciously signed my script, though. I still have it somewhere, along with my fond memories of Havel.