Guest Blog: Anna Fishbeyn – A show of assimilation

The solo piece, My Stubborn Tongue, began as a poem I wrote for my grandmother during a Solo-Workshop Class at the Barrow Group Theater in NYC. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman who survived Stalin, WWII, KGB interrogations, the Communist regime, immigration to America and life in America. Before she died, she asked me: what is the point of life – we suffer there, we suffer here, we suffer when we’re young and we suffer when we’re old.

I started the poem with the question, “what is the point?” This question remained as the pivotal theme in my show during its off-Broadway run at the New Ohio, and its run during the United Solo Festival this past fall. The primary focus of the show was to tell the stories of my family members as they struggled with assimilating into American society, and to contrast it with my own journey – because I came to America as a young child I was able to pass as an American.

I interspersed the story with Russian and American songs performed a cappella, but when I completed the two runs, I longed to take the singing and dancing to a new level, to give the show a more musical texture. My family was always performing for people and after dinner, and their lost dreams of performing were always the comical center of the show.

When I got the opportunity to perform the show in the cabaret space at the Soho Theatre, I jumped at it. I was nervous about reworking the show but at the same time, I felt that adding music would make the show incredibly exciting. I decided to work with Adrian Roman, a New-York based director from Romania because he understood my text and brought an Eastern European flavor to the show that I was looking for, and he felt that transforming the show into a cabaret would infuse new life and irony to the piece.

The first logistical question was whether we could find an actor in London who could play the piano, and also appear as the Professorial Voice. We sent out a few casting calls, but there were no responses. Through my contacts in the Russian community, I was happily introduced to Konstantin Soukhovetski, a renowned pianist, who happens to speak perfect Russian and English, and is an actor as well, a rare combination.

Once that problem was solved, we set to work on the piece, but because we have not yet seen the theatre or been inside that space, we are working essentially from the floor plan and internet pictures, which is a challenge in itself. During the rehearsal process we’re constantly re-envisioning the space.

There are numerous other logistical complexities that accompany taking a show to another country, such as how do we spread the word about the show, hand out postcards, speak to people at parties months in advance, and most vitally, will anyone be interested in a show about becoming an American?

New York is a city of immigrants, and when I performed the show for the first time at the New Ohio, I remember people from Japan and Korea and Sweden and many, many other countries come up to me afterwards and say, “you captured my experience” or “I also really wanted to fit into American society.” How can I make this show more appealing, more universal?

But now that I am in the thick of the rehearsal process and I return to the text daily, I’m always reminded of my grandmother, of the hardships she went through during WWII, and of the perennial question she asked at the end of her life, what is the point. I realized that at the heart of My Stubborn Tongue is this universal question, that it runs like a blood vessel through the music and the dancing, that it embraces larger questions about our existence, and that realization made me suddenly feel impatient and excited about performing My Stubborn Tongue in London.

My Stubborn Tongue is performing at Soho Theatre 16 – 17 April. For tickets click here