2011-02-22 – Spotlight: Monica Hunken – Culture Project

Spotlight: Monica Hunken

The Wild Finish

Women Center Stage

February, 2011

The Wild Finish is the story of your journey through Poland in search of your grandfather. Who was he, and why did he inspire you to travel across his homeland?

My grandfather, Leonidas Dudarew Ossetynksi, was a powerful man. He was a prince from a royal family in Wilno, Poland. When he had just begun his acting career and was studying at the Sorbonne, World War II broke out and barred him from the nation he loved so dearly. He joined the Polish exiled army, was caught by French Nazis and sent to a concentration camp in Casablanca. His Norwegian wife, Nancy, helped him escape on a ship to NYC, their story eerily mimicking that of Lazlo and Ilsa in the film ‘Casablanca.’ He continued to fight for the Polish cause across America, bringing over Polish artists like physical theater innovator Jerzy Grotowski, composer Roman Maciejewski and others, acting in films and then began his own theater company in LA in the 70s into the 80s when I came into his life. When I met him, he was already enfeebled by cancer but remained the strongest presence in the room, commanding a cult- like devotion from his students, family and anyone else who happened across this tall, handsome man with a God-like beard and an imposing thick accent. He was a figure of constant intrigue in my childhood and reflecting on his dark soul as a grown artist makes me continually question how much of this darkness is needed in the creation of great art.

My fascination with using family as source material began with a journey up the California coast in 2006 to research my father who was a scientist and died from chemical exposure where he worked at Hughes Research Laboratory. Hearing stories from his co-workers, friends and family was healing for me. It set his truth free and when I decided to create a play about it, Reading the Water, the act of re-telling his story has not only brought me a greater understanding of my family and myself but also continually brought audience members to me sharing their own stories and wanting to connect.

I went next to my grandfather, the only other theater artist in my family, because he has always intimidated and scared me but I also found his gypsy artist life thrilling. As I grow older, I find myself more and more choosing a similar path to his and I wanted to trace back through his life on the land itself, to not only discover how we are connected but also to see if I relate to my Polish roots and I found that I very much do.

This journey was ventured on your bicycle– much like your travels across the Middle East for what became your last play, Blondie of Arabia. Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Time’s Up, and what encourages you to continue your work on two wheels?

I have now biked across six countries; Poland, Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and I have experienced the pleasure of biking in countries like The Netherlands where bike culture is strong and flourishing and then in The Middle East, where women are discouraged from riding bicycles altogether, lest it compromise their decency or even virginity. And as I have biked across more and more disparate lands, I become convinced in the necessity of increasing the use of this fun, healthy and sustainable form of transportation.

I bicycle across countries and sleep on the street and stay with strangers and have no money because I believe that convenience kills possibility. When I am riding through a land I feel a direct connection to the landscape and to the people. I am made completely vulnerable and it is that vulnerability that leads me to the deep connections I have with people along the way. They recognize that I have nothing to lose and that I trust them. I am at the mercy of their land. I do not want to protect myself from it or rush through it; I want to feel every grain of sand fly past my face and every raindrop bounce off my helmet.

New York City is a perfect city for bike riding. It is mostly flat and everything is relatively close together. It is also cluttered, congested and asthmatic. We need more bike lanes just as we need more parks, gardens and public spaces. I have been volunteering with Time’s-up! since the 2004 Republican National Convention when there was another surge of crackdown on bicyclists in NYC. I work with Time’s-up! because we celebrate the joy of biking and reclaiming public space for the people. We create roving dance parties and themed bike rides drawing attention to saving community gardens, protecting bike lanes, keeping Wal-Mart out of NYC and other local issues. We use our bodies as the means and the message. By powering ourselves we are less reliant on the destructive overuse of fossil fuels.

Your performances at The Living Theater will not be your first– can you share with us a little bit about your work with them, as well as with Reverend Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping and your many endeavors into the world of political theater? Why do you think performance and social and political issues should be meshed?

My first performance with the Living Theatre was on a tour of Mysteries and Smaller Pieces in Quito, Ecuador in 2006. We also created a street performance with locals that addressed their struggle with globalization and US influence. After another Mysteries run in NYC, I performed in Maudie and Jane, a two-woman show opposite Judith Malina, which was a startling and humbling experience to say the least. Each night before the show, Judith would regale me with tales of arrests and performances that would knock your socks off. And now I am currently performing in Korach about the first anarchist who rose up against Moses and rehearsing Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism late-night after Korach performances.

I began working with Reverend Billy after I watched an action at Astor Place with a bunch of people dressed up in prison stripes singing “I’ve been workin’ at the Starbucks all the little long day!” about Starbucks using prison labor.

After September 11th, 2001, my first day of theater school, I was seeking a way to respond in the street, to use my theater experience to inspire revolution in the only way I knew how. When I stumbled across the Rev. in 2002 I knew that I discovered something uncanny, something tapping into a deeply spiritual theatrical form that cuts through the power of fundamentalism and capitalism with ritual, revival and humor. What I love most about this diverse radical community is the joyous way we work out the difficult question of how do we become better citizens in this world by what we do and don’t consume. I also love our work in the street and inside stores and shopping malls. We step into a hypnotized zone where people are just meant to play the role of consumer and we interrupt that space and liberate it. We have traveled around the world exorcising cash registers, blessing local businesses and saints with song, reviving lost souls who believed the product is everything.

Chants and marches with cardboard signs have their place but I find them disturbingly dismissible. A passerby hears the shouting, takes a look and immediately labels and passes on, hoping to avoid an onslaught of propaganda. Theater can create something mysterious, something un-definable that first captures the imagination and then works its way into the reasoning mind.

I am a storyteller and for me, the most interesting stories to tell are those whose stories we don’t hear. No one could tell my father’s story because my father died and his company hushed it up. Fox news won’t bring you the intimate conversations I’ve had while biking along the Nile in Egypt. If I have the opportunity to travel this great, wild world, I will do everything I can to collect the stories of those I meet and bring them back to my community so we can again and again realize we are the same.

Why do you believe this story is an important piece for your audiences and our community to hear today?

The past few weeks have seen extraordinary upheaval in some of the worlds most oppressed societies. Governments are being challenged and dictators overthrown. The people struggle for their rights and the right to be heard and violence erupts. This violence is absorbed into their bodies and will inevitably reverberate throughout their lives and their children’s lives. My grandfather lived from 1910 to 1989. He experienced the turmoil of Poland as wars ripped the nation apart and he survived concentration camps and lived to see freedom in America. But he was never at peace. War and violence continued to vibrate through him and has been passed down to his family and to me. When I returned to Poland on my bicycle with only his old address book to guide me, I stayed in Anarchist squats along the way and saw the impoverishment of Polish people, the rise in Neo-Nazism and their attacks on foreigners and on the punks who housed me. When there is an economic depression and war wounds scar a nation, its victims will not end with that generation. History may not always repeat itself but usually it rhymes. Investigating how violence is handed down through generations is the first step in releasing it for good. Now more than ever the world community is teaching us this.

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