Listen: Allen Kuharski and Barbara Milewski on the Lessons of "Chopin Without Piano"

Professors Allen Kuharski and Barbara Milewski discuss the North American premiere of Chopin Without Piano, a production that comes to the U.S. from Poland this week on campus and later this month at FringeArts in Philadelphia. One of the College’s preeminent performing arts alumni, Michal Zadara ’99, will direct. 

Second Tuesday Arts & Humanities Cafes are a monthly series that highlight the intellectual relevance of humanities approaches to arts and culture, on topics ranging from visual narratives in Japan, to reflections on life and death in South Indian religions, to current intersections of theater, dance, and music performance in the United States. Events are geared for individuals with no formal background in the arts and humanities. The only requirement is curiosity.


Audio Transcript

Barbara M.:  So thank you for coming today. It is my pleasure to introduce you to this spectacular event that Allen and I have been working on basically for the better part of this year. The process started just after the winter break, in terms of writing a grant and so forth, and this is its final culmination, The North American Premier, which will arrive on campus October 24th.

 For those of you who haven't yet gone to the website, I thought that it would be a fun thing to do to just sort of open by letting you see a clip of the performance. The website is stenciled on the various pianos you may have seen already on campus, I hope. And we can talk a little bit more about the pianos, but I just want to first launch with the URL and letting you see a clip.

Woman:  [foreign language 00:01:02]

Barbara M.: Okay. So I'm going to turn the mic over now to my partner, Allen Kuharski, and take it away.

Allen K.:  What I'd like to do is also give you a sense of the scale of the grant and the combination of forces that came together that made this possible, which is significant for the college more broadly because if the grant and the project are fully successfully realized, we may be eligible for other such grants from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage going further. So this is the first such grant the college has ever applied for that we're aware of and under the current guidelines for sure, and it's very significant.

So the project budget is actually now $425,000, of which $328,000 are supported by the Pew Foundation. Another 77 or 8,000 from the Cooper Grant, which is the largest grant the theater department has ever requested. It's actually comparable to the grant needed to bring Pig Iron Theater Company's "Twelfth Night" in 2014, if any of you remember that event. The Cooper Grant alone was enough to cover that entire thing. This budget is maybe five times higher. And then there's another piece coming from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, which raises it to 425 overall.

So just on how these grants work from Pew. The grants can only be applied for following an invitation, which we received in the departments of theater and music and dance in September 2014. And actually the process began earlier than Barbara said. I had early meetings, made the pitch for this project, and had to write a preliminary application over the fall semester. So we're actually a year into it if you account those first discussions and the preliminary application that was due in November 2014 last year.

These invitations are prompted partly by suggestions from those who've already received grants from Pew, which in this case included assistant professor Matt Saunders, our resident set designer for the department of theater who is currently a Pew fellow.

This is one of two dozen such annual grants given by Pew to support projects in the Philadelphia region, and it's specific to the Philadelphia region. The size of this grant is typical for this category of grant, and those are the figures. You have the figures already from me for the scale of it. There were 24 to 25 such grants distributed throughout Philadelphia. We were one of those.

While professional not-for-profit arts organizations, theater companies, art galleries, musical ensembles are the typical applicants for such grants, and local companies, theater companies, such as Pig Iron Theater Company and New Paradise Laboratories are regular recipients of such grants to do entire productions often from scratch, they have also been given recently to academic institutions in the region, such as Brinmore College, Drexel University, and Arcadia University.

This is the first such grant awarded to Swarthmore, and does potentially open the door to other such grant opportunities for the arts and humanities at the college. We'll have to see how that dialogue continues with Pew going forward.

The complexity of the online application process, according to Tania Johnson who's kindly with us today in the college's development office, is fully comparable to current government grants in the natural sciences. And this application process appears to be the way of the future for major grants in the arts and humanities. That's probably why it was so long and so complex to complete, and it actually required the hiring of an outside grant writer to complete the application process. When Pew and we realized that, unlike professional arts organizations, we did not actually have a designated paid staff person to draft the grant. We were professors, not grant writers. So that was a very important learning curve for us as individual faculty member and for the institution what it took to get through that process.

The amount of the grant is actually comparable to a proposal I submitted in 2012 for a National Endowment for the Digital Humanities grant, which I prepared with the support of Nadine Colera. But the application process for this is significantly more complex, especially when the necessity of completing and institutional profile for what's called The Cultural Data Project is included, which is a requirement for applying and completing the grant. For the grant to be considered to be successfully realized and completed is to complete this profile, which takes a while to explain. And there's a lot of complicated things we discovered in how the Cultural Data Project's ... The data they request and how it does and doesn't align with the actual flow of resources, audiences, schedules in our academic environment of presenting.

It's become a mutual learning process for both us and the Pew Foundation to find out how to partner with universities, and I think they reached out to us partly because they are very interested in partnering with universities around these major events and they see us as a strong potential partner. And the Cooper Foundation on campus is one of the assets we bring to the table.

Okay. Yeah.

Barbara M.: You may see a lot of this back and forth, sorry. I'm going to take this out if I can, because I think it'll be easier for me to move around.

So Allen and I thought we'd ... Now that you understand a bit of the sort of insanity of even trying to get this grant, and then actually getting it, we thought that we would share with you some of the insights we have about kind of working with each other.

I can say for myself that, as a historian, I have not collaborated on this scale in this way with these capacities ever before in my life. So you can imagine how much more money I've been spending on therapy since the summer. Basically, I thought I would share with you what it's like to step out of ... what it was like for me to step out of my silo, and to join forces with Allen in theater, and get to learn more about this whole world of theater people. It's true, they're crazy. They're absolutely crazy. No, really. They're really crazy.

What I've learned, Allen, is that what's really been fascinating for me is how much more direct contemporary theater can be in the way it engages our audiences. That's been my biggest takeaway. As a music person, we're constantly battling artifice, right? Think concert black. Performers communicating through instruments. The operatic voice. What's that? There's a whole bunch of stuff one has to translate to get beyond what we're trying to convey as music.

Theater has the advantage, and I would even argue that in some ways dance has to sort of work with the same type of artifice, right? We have to translate all of that movement into something that we understand that has meaning. Theater is so fabulously interesting because it's really just us on stage communicating to us.

For me, I think what I saw as an opportunity when Allen approached me with this project and asked if I wanted to partner with him was like the ask of the century. An opportunity for a music historian to be able to talk about the thing that I try to communicate all the time in my classes with my students. To be able to communicate it in a medium now that was much more direct, much more unmediated if you will. That required, I think, less translation even, I would argue, though we have to actually translate this from Polish. I think that that task is somewhat, frankly, easier than trying to convey or translate the language of music for the uninitiated. Which is what we're often doing in our classes with students, and I certainly am doing it quite a bit as a historian.

So my takeaway really has been that theater is such a fabulous vehicle for us to engage around the performing arts. It doesn't require the kind of flexibility that we sometimes need when we're dealing with classical music.

That's my takeaway. Would you like to talk about what you've learned, Allen?

Allen K.: I think one other thing, just to finish the details about the Pew grant, is the reason Pew went for this project when I pitched it was their priority right now, clearly, is for cross-disciplinary work in the art as ... So this was everything they were looking for, which was a theater/music combination not a pure just theater event or just music event. And then the international exchange was important for them. There were many levels of bridge building that they were concerned with, and also the academy working with professional arts organizations, the suburbs working with Center City. All these directions are very much explicit in their thinking about what is a good project. And we had to foreground all of those things as we went forward, but the project naturally fit those things.

So for me, as a theater person entering as a really lucid, concise, responsible theater person who defies anecdotes and stereotypes about theater people, that ... much less, well, we'll talk about other groups with stereotypes and anecdotes, but ...

I entered the project in a really surprising way because Michał Zadara is my former student. We stay in touch. Our working relationship after Swarthmore may be more significant than our relationship even as student and professor when he was at Swarthmore. But it was that, I would say, people that I continue to work with, including people at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute that I've worked with over the years on various projects when they were in other places.

Behind closed doors, we all said among ourselves the last thing we wanted to be identified with in promoting Polish culture was Chopin. The last thing. It was the hidden code. We never, ever talk about Chopin. That's how we promote Polish culture in the post-communist 21st century. And there's lots of complicated reasons for that - over saturation, association of Chopin with really conservative and often odious political forces that are not Chopin's fault that he got identified with those things after his death. But that's how we've all often experienced it. And also, against stereotypes and anecdotes attaching to Chopin that become stereotypes and anecdotes about Poles.

So how do we get out of all of that? And the piece is a really brilliant catharsis of getting out of every box of being Polish and artist and musician 19th century, 21st century, all those things. That for me is a huge step of having Barbara as a colleague, able to also check in with in an expert way to say where are we with this Chopin project and where are we crossing really into ridiculous places.

And what's amazing is these artists from Centrala, who are all active in the classical music and opera worlds, as well as theater, have become experts on Chopin. They have done so much homework in preparing this text and this performance. They are now, without being academics, as expert as many people who have written and otherwise done work. The homework they did was extraordinary. What we would call the production dramaturgy of the piece is extraordinary.

And the other thing I would say to just frame what I ... my takeaway of entering this extremely exciting, and I'd have to say that it's a privilege to be working at the level of the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra as a partner. Which is very much thanks to the work of Andrew Hauze in the music department who co-wrote and co-signed the Cooper grant with me for that piece of this, and has been our liaison with the Chamber Orchestra from day one. It's an amazing organization, a pleasure to work with, as is the music department as well I have to say.

But I'd say there was a high road and a low road that I feel is where everything comes together in the project. The high road is back to what made this piece in the first place, which is contemporary artists seeing their fullest artistic expression requiring cross-disciplinary creation and performance. Meaning, in this case, bringing theater and music together. That's these artists' highest current political or artistic project is to work in this way. It's their highest aspiration.

And this aligns with things that are currently happening this year in Philadelphia in surprising ways. Pig Iron Theater Company did this big collaboration with an indie rock band called Dr. Dog called "Swamp is On" and it was this historic, foundation supported, bringing experimental theater together with indie rock music, a commercial indie rock music band in that case.

There's the Philadelphia Opera just ... I thought one of the most successful things at the Fringe Festival this year was the Andy Warhol Opera, which brought together the Philadelphia Opera Company, a very fringy group called The Bearded Ladies in Philadelphia, which is like twenty-somethings in the alternative performance scene, and a bunch of people from the art world. And the audience, when I went to see it - and it was a big critical popular success, it sold out way before the shows were maybe even open - I would say was a third the art world, a third the music world, and a third the alternative theater world in Philadelphia.

So the low road, and I'm not even sure if that's the right word, but the pragmatic road, the less exalted road is all the anxiety in both the classical music world and the more mainstream theater world, the repertory theaters like The Wilma, the Arden locally would be in this category. The huge anxiety about the graying and shrinking of audiences, and how to literally rejuvenate audiences. How can we bring younger audiences, under 40's considered young. Okay. Under 30 is the sweet spot. How do you bring under 40, under 30 in critical masses to these performances? And I have to say, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia there was zero resistance. They got it so fast. They understood exactly what the opportunity was. They understood the aesthetic of it. There was zero resistance at any point that I experienced in any meeting. Barbara gets credit for The Lost Pianos promotion, it's her brainstorm. I knew we had something when those people got up and saluted so fast to that idea in the meeting it made my head spin.

So everybody's struggling with this question of how to broaden, diversify, and rejuvenate audiences in different parts of the performing arts world, and that's the pragmatic, programmatic agenda. That's also linked to what I would call the highest road of these artists seeing this as their kind of biggest, most significant project for themselves as people making new work today.

And it's also important to note about Chopin Without Piano, it's a new play. In my program I say, that's published with the piece, it's called "This is Not Chopin," and that's part of what the essay is about is do not mistake this for an adaptation. It's not a concert kind of tricked out, or ... It's really there's a new play that Barbara has very carefully worked with the authors of, which are Wysocka, the actress and Zadara, the director. It's a new Polish play, and I would say one of the most important new Polish plays written so far in the 21st century. It's a major thing in Poland and it's a text worth knowing beyond the concert and the performance kind of provocation of the setup. So, okay.

Barbara M.: I thought I'd spend a little bit of time talking, returning now to the URL and giving you guys a sense of this young person objective in trying to lure our audiences and get them excited especially about classical music.

One of the ways we imagined we could do it best was by bringing our own resources to bear on this project. We turned to our own students, who really are entirely responsible for this beautiful URL. Our two students, Josh [Mclucas 00:19:28] in theater who just graduated-

Speaker 4:   Class of '15.

Barbara M.:  And Elliot [Nguyen 00:19:34], is how you pronounce it I believe. Elliot who is a junior this year in music. Josh worked on the actual formatting and sort of the layout and the design. Elliot did, really, the seriously challenging work of populating the site and getting all of this sort of information that you don't see on the main page but if you were to do a little bit of browsing, and I hope that you will on your own, you'll find that there's lots of information here about Chopin, about Centrala, and it's all within reach.

First, I'd like to show you sort of what Elliot focused on more than anything else. He thought this would be a terrific opportunity ... Sorry. I'm working with a mouse here, but ... There we go.

We're working with the assumption that this would be a terrific opportunity to let younger audiences perhaps who may not know much about classical music find out who Chopin is, why we're featuring him in this play, why we care about Chopin, and so we kind of designed things around, not so much as answers to the questions but ways for you to arrive at answers to the question, why Chopin?

Elliot did a little collage. We also provided some information about Chopin's contemporaries. Even though this looks obviously very 19th century, the text write-ups that Elliot worked on were intended to show you that this was kind of a rebel pack. These were the crazy, exciting, young up and coming artists of early 19th century Paris, so he worked to sort of feature their eccentricities. They're fun write-ups, I think.

And then finally, Elliot decided that he wanted to also educated audiences on what other types of music Chopin composed. And so this gives you an opportunity to listen to a couple of clips and learn about some of the genres in which Chopin worked. And then a timeline, a brief biography featuring some fabulous poster art that was featured recently for the Chopin bicentennial. We had a lot of fun choosing our favorites, and there's a little translation. This is Chopin is a Varsovian. This one's great, "Fryderyk come back."

The "Why Chopin" feature gives you some of this. In turn, we also populated the site with some more information about Centrala in a very kind of parallel form, trying to give you a sense of the kind of rebel group that Centrala is in Poland today, creating this kind of parallel. So what you'll see is a timeline there as well for Michał Zadara.

Moving through "Why Now?" This was what we had a lot of fun with as well. We really felt that we wanted to ... We really wanted the piece ... The piece asks so many large questions about the role of art in our lives. It asks questions about why we do we rehearse the same things over and over again? Why do we play these concertos? If we know them and we know the kind of feelings they're going to evoke, why go back? Those are a couple of the big questions, there are certainly more.

But we thought that it was really important for us to foreground how much Chopin's day is really still very much our day in that the uprisings and revolutions of Chopin's time are really still our uprisings and revolutions. And the kind of refuge that music played for Chopin in his life, is really now our own refuge. We go to Chopin's music for the same reasons he went to his piano. We tried to capture a bit of that by juxtaposing some of the unrest and turbulent times that we live in with that of 19th century Europe on the heels of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

And the finally, we tried to give a sense of another major theme in the piece, which is really that if we do not find ways to communicate the value of our traditions, if we do not find ways to tell our youngest audiences why Chopin is worth listening to, we stand to lose the relevance of that tradition in our lives. This was kind of another nod to the way that reinvent Chopin and all sorts of artists over and over, and try to find ways to capture their meaning in our lives.

"Chopin a la mode" is one of my favorites. But anime, and video games of Chopin, Chopin vodka, we find all sorts of ways to keep Chopin very much with us. I think, finally, we talked about why here and we talked about Philadelphia being an important place for sharing this kind of interdisciplinary work.

The whole mandate of the Pew grant was to really find ways to energize, to make connections not just between our own disciplines but also to make connections across audiences and to get folks who wouldn't perhaps go to see a classical concert to come in. Folks who wouldn't necessarily go to a contemporary theater piece to come to this. So the students had a terrific time working on this. I really enjoyed everything about the summer working with them on this project.

The other part of it was The Lost Pianos, which really came out of this brainstorming that I was doing about how do market this. How do we get our own campus excited ahead of the actual performance? We bring so many wonderful things to this campus, and I was feeling lately that there's just not enough time to see everything and do everything. And I felt like, could there be a way for us to really foreground, again, this experience as the experience of, besides the inauguration of course, could this be the event of our concert hall for the fall? And how do we start a conversation early about it, and get students excited so that they feel like they want to fight each other for the seats in the house?

As I started thinking about "Chopin Without Piano," I started thinking about pianos with Chopin. And where are those pianos? And where would they be if they were lost? So I thought that maybe I should look online and see if there are any pianos on Craigslist, and lo and behold there were lots of pianos on Craigslist. There's even a whole website devoted to adopting pianos that no one wants anymore. Those of you who follow pianos in our culture may know that recently lots of different newspapers had feature articles about the pianos going to the landfill. The New York Times did it a couple of years ago.

So I thought, geez, with all these pianos I can probably populate the campus, and the city, and then what do we do? So then this brainstorming turned into a guerrilla marketing kind of thing where we thought, wouldn't this start an interesting conversation? How would people react? Would they say, "This is scary. This is terrible. What are you doing to these pianos?" Or will they say, "Hell yeah. Kill them." We just weren't really quite sure whether they would be a magnet for community or whether they would give us a sense of displacement and alienation, which are also themes of the piece itself.

And we've, from anecdotes that I've heard, I think they've had a terrific response. You might know better if you've been talking to your students. I'm on sabbatical, so I haven't really interacted with too many students this term. But from everything we understand, the pianos have prompted the conversation that we were really hoping that we would have.

Let me turn it over to Allen, if that's okay?

Allen K.:  I don't know how many of you know, my father was a piano restorer and if he knew what we were doing to these pianos he'd be spinning in his grave. But it's exactly where we are. These pianos, their lives are all being extended by being a part of our guerrilla installations. They'll all go to the landfill.

There's a thing I've been thinking about lately, it wouldn't be abuse and neglect, it would be oppression and neglect that is a key part of the piece and it's in the material and the program we're preparing that there's a famous Polish poem called Chopin's Piano, which is about the fact that the Czarist forces destroyed the very piano that Chopin composed and performed the concertis on as a political act to show their domination of Poland in the 1830s.

So the destruction of pianos has a huge political resonance. It was also forbidden to play piano during the Nazi ... to play Chopin during the Nazi occupation in any way was part of the Nazi culture policies in Poland during the occupation, during World War II.

And then we're living in an era where that fighting point has now become neglect. Pianos are just being left to go to the dump. And what do we do with that? These are all pianos that my father could have restored if there was any market value in doing so, and today no one will by them for the investment that the restoration would involve. That's kind of part of ... And it's a whole question then about piano culture, classical music culture, all of it again.

But then I think this goes back to what I think is one of the most key brilliant parts of this performance, which is not just about the piano as an object but how do we reanimate the experience of the living presence of an artist like Chopin, which is the part of Chopin we cannot access after his death. He was a huge celebrity. He was a performer. He performed his own works. He was a brilliant improvisor, and there was a whole aesthetic of improvisation as part of the Polish romantic movement that he was part of.

This piece has this quality of accessing all these different things that are in Polish culture, but are also what we can't ... The hardest parts of Chopin to access is the physical, visceral presence of the living artist - their energy, their anger, their politics, their frustrations, their suffering, their success in the room. I think for me, that's the excitement of the performance is to spend an evening not just hearing the music, but as if you were in the room with Chopin and the music, which his contemporaries all experienced.

We wanted to tie off. We want to be sure we have time for questions. I don't know if we want to talk about the perils and exaltations on interdisciplinary work, which is how we wanted to end. I've kind of said what I have to say about ... I think, earlier, about the opportunities of it and I just would also point out that one of the struggles we're always having as theater people in the academy and so on is that we are, in our own eyes, an inter discipline already. And how we are understood, and that everyone in our faculty has a background in opera and dance to some degree, we already ... that's who we are already. We can partner ... It isn't a thing we need to cultivate, it's actually already there. Plus how we study and do the work is always comparative, and cross-cultural, and cross-historical. That's also built in.

I had a very interesting conversation with people in [inaudible 00:32:22] years ago when they didn't realize that every theater curriculum, every theater department in the nation teaches comparative literature and plays in translation. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to read Chekhov, or Ibsen, or the Greeks, or Moliere. So those are all things that are embedded in what we do already in theater as an inter discipline, a hybrid discipline, however you want to describe it.

And then how this works, when we actually do come around to [inaudible 00:32:49] project with our colleagues, in this case in the music world. And it definitely does serve these larger agendas in the funding world and otherwise around us right now.

Barbara M.: Yeah. I think I could only just add the slight peril in doing this type of work. And I think we all have to really be mindful of it. I feel like I'm grateful to Swarthmore for the privilege to be able to kind of jump off this cliff with Allen, because that's really what it's sort of been for me as an academic, as a researcher.

This is completely ... This is work that is absolutely unvalued in my professional spheres. This is the work of a quote unquote impresario. I will get absolutely no street creds for having devoted a year of my life to bringing this remarkable event, which I opened with, will do more Chopin and do more for our understanding of the value of classical music in our lives than anything I could possible write and send off to Oxford University Press.

So I am grateful. Tom Stevenson, are you here? I'm really grateful. I'm really grateful that my tenure allows me to take this kind of leap of faith and to say in my heart I feel that this is the right thing as a teacher, as an educator, and as a colleague to all of you to bring something like this that's really a very powerful piece that I really hope will resonate with all of you.

This is something that we have to be mindful of. When we put our thoughts to creating interdisciplinary work on campus, we have to be willing to make the commitment to that interdisciplinary work. It really has to come from us. It has to be sort of a ground swelling, and it has to be sort of matched, a top down kind of thing where we feel like the institution is supporting us.

We're grateful we have that here, and I think that as we do we should think about how we can find other types of synergies like this. It's in these moments, I think, where we really do the valuable that we've been trained to do. That really is what is keeping me ... That's getting me up in the morning, because frankly I'm really hoping October 24th were tomorrow because I want to go back to my little silo and I want to work on my stuff.

But really, it's really ... This is exciting. I am grateful, and I really hop that you can join us for the performance. We promise that it will be a terrific event.

Questions? I think that might be a good place. Yeah? Or would you like to say something?

Allen K.:  I think, too, that Barbara's anxiety is the anxiety of any and every theater person 10 days before an opening. We're all like, if only the damn thing were done. It's always like that, even for us.

 And also I think that we're in the age, and Barbara and I had a conversation about this over the weekend thinking about [inaudible 00:36:00], that ... I think it was Steve O'Connell who shared this some time ago in one of our faculty discussions about the difference today of doing his work versus the way he came to Swarthmore, which is the difference between team oriented research and development, which this absolutely is and that's part of the complexity of the Pew Project is to be working in a complex team and across disciplines, also other categories of discipline, than the 10 year book and the peer-reviewed article.

And the category that I took years to kind of forge as a rubric to describe this work that I've been doing for some time is performance curating. And performance curating is actually a well-defined job description in the museum world today. It's also in the theater festival, and presenting environments, and various arenas. It's understood, actually quite well, in certain arenas though it's not necessarily understood in the academy yet as a universal term. For Barbara, it's still a term she's getting used to, presenting herself as a performance curator, which is what this is.

I had a conversation with my mother over the summer explaining this, and to get it started I had to say, "I'm kind of a theatrical producer." But then that brings up everything it's just not, which is show business and Broadway and cigars and, you know, Hollywood and horror. But to kind of explain, it's how you bring teams together. It is [empresarial 00:37:27] in the sense of you're bringing talent together often. It's new work and then it's this bringing new audiences to an existing work, or whatever the curatorial project is. So curating audiences is things we talk about as well as curating the artist or the kind of work.