Westmont Magazine Four Portraits
by John Blondell
Professor of Theater and Founder of the Lit Moon Theatre Company
The morning after our final performance at the Young Open Theatre Festival in Skopje, Macedonia, in 2007, Lilia Abadjieva, the festival’s artistic director, caught my eye in the bar-restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel, where we were staying. I had just finished breakfast and was heading up to our rooms with my family.
“John, I would like to introduce you to Blagoj,” she said. “He was the costume designer for my production of ‘The Marriage’ that I directed for the Bitola [Macedonia] National Theatre.”
Roughly my age, Blagoj had an open, friendly face, and he started speaking to me in accented, although fluent English. “I’ve been to Santa Barbara,” he said. “During the fall of 1996 I spent six weeks in the Department of Dramatic Art at UCSB, invited by a professor who has since died.”
My body shuddered, an electrical current running from spine to toes and up again. “Bob Egan!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” Blagoj smiled broadly. “I designed costumes for a production of three David Mamet one-acts that he directed for the Bitola National Theatre.”
“Yes — I remember him telling me about it,” I said, my head swimming. I felt dizzy and couldn’t focus.
“Yes,” Blagoj said. “From what I can tell, he was the only American to direct in the history of the Macedonian theatre.”
I couldn’t believe it and thought back to my first conversation with Bob. Early one bitterly cold February evening in 1983, the phone rang in the house I was sharing with four other undergraduates in Winona, Minn. At the time, I was trying to decide where to attend graduate school. “Hello, John,” a voice said. “This is Bob Egan, the graduate adviser for the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We would like to invite you to our master’s degree program in drama.”
After speaking with him for a few minutes, I hung up the phone and shrieked, “I’ve been accepted!” I ran into the snow, and jumped in the nearest snow bank, followed by my roommates Hedgie, Richard, Goob and Bernie.
In May, I visited UCSB, and Bob Egan was the first professor I met. That day, he introduced me to other professors, and they all indelibly shaped my academic, artistic, and professional life: Robert Potter, Bert States, Stanley Glenn, John Harrop. At the end of the day, Bob dropped me off at the Hollister Inn on the corner of Hollister and Fairview in Goleta, where I was staying. I slammed the door to his car. He waved and drove off. I ate a burrito at the Taco Bell that still sits diagonally across the intersection. Later I lay awake deep into the night and wondered about the future ahead of me in this place so far from home.
Bob taught and mentored me for many years. He was a gifted, generous teacher, a meticulous and imaginative director and a dear and now much-missed friend. He led, and I followed. His adaptations of literature led to my own: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Through the Looking Glass,” “Pinocchio,” “The Master and Margarita,” “Frankenstein,”and “A Christmas Carol.” While preparing for my master’s degree — and ultimately my doctorate — I took Bob’s seminars in acting and directing, Shakespeare and tragicomedy as well as his undergraduate courses in dramatic literature. It was Bob who deepened my understanding of Stanislavski and Brecht, who introduced me to Brook and Artaud and who taught me to love Shakespeare. His description of the opportunity in Macedonia (I remember now — I hadn’t thought about this in years) kindled new desires for travel and adventure, for making a life through the theatre, not necessarily in it.
Sadly, Bob died of lymphoma in 2000. His was the voice that called me 25 years ago, and his calling will be forever tied with my own as I continue my life and career. Are these inter-related destinies the product of circumstance or providence? Of God’s plan or happy accidents? As Alonso says in “The Tempest,” “This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod/Some oracle must rectify our knowledge.”
“The Tempest” was one of Bob’s favorite plays. He wrote a book about it, and I first encountered it in his Shakespeare seminar. Years later, I directed “The Tempest” for the 2006 Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival. After its premiere in Santa Barbara, the production has played in Podgorica and Kotor, Montenegro, and at the Youth Cultural Center in Skopje, Macedonia.
Later that day, as Blagoj and I ate lunch together at the theatre, he said that Bob had finished an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” for the Bitola National Theatre, but it was never staged. There’s talk of me directing something for the Drama Theatre in Skopje in the future, or perhaps a production sponsored by the Young Open Theatre Festival, under whose auspices we had recently performed. If this materializes, there is a good chance Blagoj will design the costumes for the show.
I sent a quick e-mail to Meredith, Bob’s wife, after meeting Blagoj. I put them back in touch with one another after many years, and relayed my/Alonso’s amazement over this “strange story.” She responded quickly, happy to hear from me, and happy to be back in touch with Blagoj.
She wrote: “It’s times like these that challenge my lack of faith.”
In September 2007, we traveled by bus in Macedonia from Skopje to Ohrid. My wife, Vicki, and our three sons came along for the ride, joining me for a semester-long sabbatical in Eastern Europe where my Lit Moon Theatre Company presented two productions at three theater festivals, one in Poland, one in Montenegro and one in Macedonia.
An old city and center for tourists, Ohrid sits on the third-oldest tectonic lake in the world. About 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, Lake Ohrid borders both Macedonia and Albania. I’ve never seen such visibility in a freshwater lake, more than 60 feet.
The city is filled with hundreds of churches, located in caves, on promontories and in the woods. Some were reconstructed on fourth-century remains, others await renovation and some are new, based on traditional models. All use the same building methods, alternating red stones with tiles of a lighter color to create the characteristic Orthodox shape and form.
We endured a long wait at the Skopje bus terminal and couldn’t find five seats together on the nearly full bus. Blondells were dotted throughout the vehicle. I took a window seat halfway back next to an implacable, dark-haired woman. We left Skopje amidst rain. We started the climb over the mountains toward Ohrid. I napped; it rained some more, and the sun finally came out. Vicki and I spoke intermittently, and the children slept.
The woman next to me suddenly spoke. “English?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “American, from California.”
She raised her eyebrows. We started talking, and I learned she was heading to Ohrid for a pharmaceutical conference.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Prishtina,” she said. I raised my eyebrows.
About 10 days earlier, we had left Montenegro for Macedonia, and I hadn’t realized until that morning that we would travel through Kosovo. I had been nervous, wondering what I was doing. Just the previous day, we had strolled through Kotor, a beautiful city on the Adriatic with a walled town reminiscent of Dubrovnik.
We started our drive toward Macedonia, leaving the capital city (reputedly the hottest in Europe) about 9 a.m. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, and I relaxed. The leaves were starting to change color. We passed through some checkpoints. Joko, our driver, was obviously tense, then it seemed like we left Kosovo. I relaxed completely.
But soon the landscape changed. Traffic increased, and we were driving fast. I realized we hadn’t exited Kosovo at all. Every six cars, I saw some UN peacekeeper: Italian, French, British, American and others. We passed bombed-out houses and buildings along bumpy, curving roads, where we saw mass roadside graves, turned into memorials. Trash was everywhere. Small fires along the highway provided a constant gray haze. We passed a massive, dust-colored factory on the left, hovering on the horizon for miles. It was empty and still, collapsing in on itself, returning to dust.
We came to the outskirts of Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital. The masses of tower blocks looked like some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Traffic and exhaust fumes engulfed us. I noticed another peacekeeper and thought of Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man.”
“What is your name?” I asked the woman next to me.
She was a dentist who had just finished school and was trying to set up her own practice. She had no patients. Her husband was a driver. They could scrape enough money together for food, but had nothing for a car or a flat.
“Were you in Prishtina during the war?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said. “My children were 3 years and 1 year. I stayed in our flat for three months without leaving. I saw nothing horrible, but it was…” She trailed away.
Nazmiya wore a black, conservative skirt, black stockings, a red blouse and a trench coat. She had black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and olive-colored skin. Her bearing was regal.
Our drive continued, and I peppered her with questions about Kosovo. She told me, in hushed tones, how it had been taken away from Albania after World War II, how it was part of ancient Illyria, how her father’s life was hard but happy but hers was hard and unhappy. She drew pictures and wrote down important dates in the history of Albania and Kosovo.
Ignorantly, I asked, “Why don’t you move to Albania?” She recoiled and audibly exhaled. “Politics,” she said. “Besides, life here is hard, but life in Albania is far worse. And this is my home. I was born in Prishtina. My father was born and raised in Kosovo. How can I leave? But it’s very hard.”
She searched her purse for something and pulled out some Orbit sugarless gum. She offered it to me. I refused out of misplaced politeness, and she looked offended. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Of course I would like it.” She seemed happy she could give me something. I searched for something to give her, and she clutched my Westmont card tightly.
“During the war, some doctors from California sent us some boxes with clothes and toys,” she said.
We were reaching the outskirts of Ohrid, and the conversation shifted. “Look,” I said to the boys, “A castle.” Nazmiya started talking to some other travelers. “That is the fortress of Car Samoel. They tell me you should go there.” Three days later, the boys and I did.
The bus made several stops and Nazmiya got off.
“It was very nice talking with you,” I said. “It was very nice talking with you, John,” she replied.
I watched her get off the bus and start the walk to her conference at the hotel Metropole. She didn’t look back.
During the fall of 1996, I taught during Westmont’s England Semester, which begins at a kind of theatrical nirvana: the Edinburgh Festival. Literally thousands of theatrical and musical performances take place there every August. We had been in Edinburgh for a few days when we announced to the students (all assembled on the stairway of the Galway Guest House in Edinburgh’s New Town) that Vicki was pregnant. Our oldest son, Nicholas, was born the following spring.
A few days later, Vicki read a short review of a show in “The Scotsman” for a company from Bulgaria, Theatre Credo. They were staging a production of Nikolai Gogol’s hauntingly funny short story, “The Overcoat.” “We should see this,” Vicki said, so that evening we walked through drizzle to the venue of Richard Demarco, which focused on the work of theatre artists from Eastern and Central Europe. It wasn’t the first time that a seemingly innocuous suggestion by Vicki would change the unfolding of my life.
She wasn’t feeling well during her first trimester, and the smell of the damp, hop-infused New Town made our walk slow going. But we persevered, winding our way through dark streets, and eventually arrived at the basement theatre. The performance commenced with two clowns caught in a pool of light and trapped behind a kind of cage. They seized my attention immediately, wearing raggle-taggle clothes, oversized cloth shoes and big, black mustaches. It was my introduction to Gogol, and it began my indoctrination to things Eastern European. I absolutely adored the show and invited Theatre Credo to the first Lit Moon international festival in 1998.
In October 2007, I saw their most recent show, “Daddy’s Always Right,” based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, at Theatre 199 in Sofia. They used the simple material of white batting to create their costumes, props and puppets, thereby conjuring an entire world.
The clowns were the same, but the world was different. They were obviously older, and so was I. No longer were they some nameless group called Credo, but Nina and Vassil, who opened their home to us and who have slept in ours at 1052 Westmont Road.
When I saw the show that October, I sat in the fifth row. Nicholas was sitting next to me, to my left. To Nicholas’s left was Nina and Vassil’s 8-year-old daughter, Devina, who was translating Bulgarian into English for my 10-year-old son. To my right was William (1999); to William’s right was Vicki; to Vicki’s right was Simon (2002).
On stage: our friends performing. To my left: Devina translating and Nicholas listening. To my right: William and Simon laughing. I looked at Vicki. She was beaming.
A few days after arriving in southern Hungary, we went to the Baptist church attended by (what seems to be) the majority of the Ficsor clan residing in the Kiskunhalas and Kunferherto area. Adina, Phil Ficsor’s cousin, picked us up and we followed her to Kiskunhalas. Phil spent time studying violin in his native Hungary and now teaches at Westmont.
The church is relatively new, about seven years old. I gather from the pastor, to whom I spoke briefly following the service, that they moved from an old building in the center when the growing congregation couldn’t keep up with the aging building. The church has odd-shaped, angled windows that reminded me of Dick Van Dyke’s father in the film version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” We entered the modern, spacious church; coffee and goodies were served in an anteroom, and we were spirited into the sanctuary just before 10 a.m. It was a special Thanksgiving Sunday, although I never got the complete story of how, what and why.
The church was nearly full, and there were several special guests, including a famous actor from Budapest who, during the service, provided his testimony about how he became a Christian. Though the language was strange, much was familiar: several praise songs, accompanied by electric piano and guitar; readings from the Bible; several short sermons, one by the pastor; and communion.
Early in the service, a visiting choir from Budapest provided a hymn. The piano played a very familiar refrain, and the choir followed softly. I started mouthing the words in English, listening intently to the Hungarian for “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
I wondered how I got there. How was I in southern Hungary, singing this hymn that, unbeknownst to me, had become my favorite? I heard 19 years of colleagues harmonizing in my mind’s ear, and I thought of the first words of John. “In the beginning was the word.” The word wasn’t English, but neither was it Hungarian. “…it was God.”