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Travel Blog

The American Smile

Jessica Litwak

The Polish, the Czech and the Ukrainians tell me there is such thing as an "American Smile". They tell me that it is an oft used term that signifies fake happiness and forced enthusiasm. When someone grins insincerely or offers unwarranted praise, or just tries to convince you of something with a bright expression, or smiles with (as one Eastern European gentleman explained) "too many teeth", they are labeled as having an "American Smile."

Cultural competency is a requirement for International Arts work. To be a successful theatre artist-activist (teacher, writer, director, organizer) out there in the wide world, one must be acutely aware of where she is and who she is talking to. One cannot lapse into lazy, familiar assumptions on the road. I am hyper-vigilant about my behavior out in the world. So I was surprised to run into trouble recently for an insensitivity I didn't know I possessed.

In my world praise and the cheery expression of gratitude are usually always welcome. These high energy tactics can often transform resentment and resistance to acceptance and warmth. I can usually make someone like me by complimenting them with gusto. I am not lying. I always find something true and then embellish it into a gushing response. I can imagine this trait can be mildly annoying to Westerners, but it is positively infuriating to Eastern Europeans. I did not do my research about this. I took my energized American smile like a Passport, without thinking. And then, being a global citizen of conscience I spent a great deal of travel time apologizing for smiling.

I directed a show in a very small theatre space and a lighting designer with a dark look in his eyes helped me by hanging five lights and pointing them at the actors. He seemed moody and put out so I smiled and thanked him profusely. He was so furious that he complained to several people: "Why did she thank me?". I heard about his rage from various sources. He felt that I was thanking him for something small, below his pay grade, and that my grovelling happy smiley face was somehow dishonest,  insincere and very American.

You might think this is silly but it really bothered me. I have spent lots of my adult life (and much of my hippy youth) feeling guilty about being American. Being American has caused me to have terrible stomach aches, feeling the tight grip of shame in my belly. American greed has made me ashamed in Palestine, American foreign policy has made me hide my face in Iraq, I have felt shameful about the colonization of the word Americanin Mexico. But I have never felt ashamed of being nice. So I had a good hard look at what bothered me and discovered this:

1. Being kind is different from being nice. Listening to others isn't just about hearing words or music. Matching myself to the rhythm of the room is an art form far more useful than interpretive dance. I can teach and perform Viewpoints all over the stage, but if I am out of step and kinesthetically dead to the people I am dealing with in everyday life, whats the point of awakened improvisation? So I can't force my smile where it isn't wanted. I have to blend my energy with the country I'm in. Forcing my niceness isn't that much better than forcing my aggression.

2. I am tired of being so hated. If Trump wins the election I will carry even more National Shame in my suitcase. It's time to embrace my upbringing, forgive my parents for birthing me on U.S. soil, and put the battles where they belong - in the battlefield, not in my belly.

And finally

3. If I stop smiling and praising, stop finding gratitude under hard rocks and behind hard eyes, how will I survive? I don't think I have an American Smile. But I think if I do, it is better than having no smile at all...

Or is it?



Brno, CZ

Jessica Litwak

The Horse of Brno

I arrived in Prague and took a lovely train ride through the Czech countryside.

I arrived in Brno, whichis a charming city where I am teaching acting at the University. The city is filled with statues.

And Beautiful Buildings...

And markets and fountains and men hugging dogs.

Sadly, some of my countrymen have come here before me...

But none of that bothers the Horse

The Airport Bar

Jessica Litwak

This a picture of airport in Iraq. Def no bar in that airport. But here at JFK in Le Grand Comptoir wine bar, I can drink wine and listen to Big Sean on my headphones and feel cosmopolitan and worldly. Traveling is strange. I never want to leave home. I hate the drive to the airport. I hate security. I hate the mean angsty travelers and the cops. Then I get to this wine bar. IF I am traveling internationally and this wine bar is so indulgent. They sell wine in ounces - you can choose how tipsy you want to get and how poor before you get on the plane. But this nice couple next to me- about my age and obviously in love or posing in love ordered a $24 blob of tuna tartar and two glasses of Rose and I just loved it. There is something so comforting in American excess. But airport bars always remind me of Joni Mitchell and that wonderful song she wrote about the Priest...The Priest sat in the airport bar he was wearing his father's tie...she touches the transience - it is palpable. and I feel sitting here drinking 5 oz. of way too expensive white wine that I exist most truthfully in airports where transition is the norm and I can feel kinda proud that I am going to Central and Eastern Europe to make and teach theatre for social justice. Nobody in New York may care, but here in this airport drinking wine by the ounce and listening to the music of my heartbeat, I am interesting and purposeful. I wish I had a nice grey haired husband like the lady sitting next to me but in lieu of him, it is right now perfectly fine to be alone. I feel hopeful that I will find something on this trip that cracks open my mind and fills my heart with new learning. But for the moment I think I will order three ounces of Rose and some 12 dollar olives.


Another Journey Begins

Jessica Litwak

It's always hard to leave town when the creatures you live with try to lure you to stay by making packing impossible. I am heading to Prague today, then to Brno to teach acting at the University and to begin rehearsal preparation on a new play: The FEAR Project to be produced in Prague later in my trip. I will write from the road and tell the stories of my journey. And then hurry home to Max (all this will occur if he'll get out of my suitcase)


Jessica Litwak

Five weeks
Six trains
Seven airplanes
Eight cities
Nine beds
10 workshops
18 plays
19 languages
And finally here I am
Traffic shouting swearing singing garbage pizza dogs Christmas music

Combatants for Peace

Jessica Litwak

Chen Alon and Combatants for Peace are doing the most risky, vibrant and gorgeous political theatre work on Israel and Palestine. It was a pleasure to reunite with them and work together once more.


Jessica Litwak

The Theatre of the Oppressed Festival in Rotterdam was so deep, so multi- layered and so profound that I will have to wait until I get home to process and write about it. I loved the city with its port and its bridges and its sculptures. The festival was beautiful and I am very grateful to Luc and Irma of Formaat for bringing together people from 19 countries, especially the companies from Mozambique, India and Israel/Palestine.

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Prague Reunion

Jessica Litwak

It was wonderful to return to Prague on the last night of this long voyage to see a puppet show at Archa done by an 80 years old woman who manipulated the gorgeous carved puppets her 86 year old husband had created. To eat dinner with the wonderful artistic directors of Archa and brainstorm about future projects, to reunite with 6 of my students who came to meet me and finally to be invited to a holiday party at the wonderful Alfred space where we talked and laughed and drank hot punch until late into the night. I head to the airport soon to return to the United States with mixed emotions. Yes, great to see daughters, dogs, own bed. But somewhat hesitant to return to the land of Trump - facing the realitiy of the U.S. where I am both lonely and at home. And knowing what I have experienced here in Europe these last five weeks has been life changing and profound.


Jessica Litwak

Home away from home. With My dearest Bidmeads, Ros, Chris and Evie - a walk through my old stomping grounds in Hampstead and a marvelous chicken dinner cooked by Evie, I feel so relaxed and welcomed and grateful for long term friendship and lovingkindness. When I got into London on the train from Brussels I was greeted by a giant XMAS tree of stuffed animals. As I walked through Hampstead I watched a man making a dog of sand.


Jessica Litwak

A city is only as good as its people. These are my wonderful friends and colleagues in Brussels with whom I spent four great days working and playing.

A city is only as good as its people. These are my wonderful friends and colleagues in Brussels with whom I spent four great days working and playing.

In Bruges

Jessica Litwak

This beautiful medieval city is magical and peaceful if you look between the throngs of tourists to the majesty of the ancient stones and fertile gardens.

This beautiful medieval city is magical and peaceful if you look between the throngs of tourists to the majesty of the ancient stones and fertile gardens.


Jessica Litwak



Angst essen Seele auf

by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I ran to the Maxim Gorky Theatre to see this wonderful Fassbinder play which is so timely and fullof irony and pathos and wild character work and lovely music. I saw the film Ali, Fear Eats the Soul - the film version of this play back in the early 80's and it was seminal. Fassbinder and this film in particular held such importance for me as a young artist. I was inspired by the ensemble. I was tickled by the weird kinkiness of it and I was deeply touched by the humanity, the politics and the love. It was great to revisit the themes of this play when we are in this time of fear (which does eat the soul) when refugees are being either welcomed or shunned, and everyone is looking at each other with strange and careful eyes. This play is brave and funny and should be seen again and again. The film is even better. And I want to find it, and watch it again and again- reawakening Fassbinder in my life (not the drugs and the booze, but the art and the courage and the company)

Happiness ain't always fun,  happiness is not always merry

Germany,the 1970’s. The stench of war has by no means worn off. The so-called migrant workers have been streaming into the country for the past 10 years. Meaningful sounds of Arabic music, full of longing, stream out of a bar onto therained-out street. Cleaning lady Emmi Kurovsky dares herself to tread into the bar. She wants to know what they are singing and who these people dancing to the music are. There she meets El Hedi Ben Salem M’Barek Mohammed Mustafa. But everyone calls him Ali. He is 20 years her junior, comes from Morocco, works as a mechanic. Their alleged inequalities turn out to unite them. They fall inlove and get married, in defiance of all jealousy, animosity and lack of understanding from neighbours, colleagues and relatives. Emmi and Ali will fight for their love.

An evening full of humour and live music from Daniel Kahn about extraordinary, painful happiness and a love, that has been blossoming for 40 years.


Jessica Litwak

I have known Gayle for 35 years have and performed in several plays with her. It is just wonderful to witness her success firsthand. She is a true star in Berlin. People stop her in restaurants and on street corners to praise and applaud her. And her power on stage is breathtaking. She is generous, brave and beautiful. A real Diva. Full of energy and youth but stage presence: Old school.

I have known Gayle for 35 years have and performed in several plays with her. It is just wonderful to witness her success firsthand. She is a true star in Berlin. People stop her in restaurants and on street corners to praise and applaud her. And her power on stage is breathtaking. She is generous, brave and beautiful. A real Diva. Full of energy and youth but stage presence: Old school.

And then we worked in a gorgeous rehearsal studios on ideas and inspiration for a brand new piece. What fun.

On A Train Bound For Berlin

Jessica Litwak

On a train bound for Berlin saying Goodbye to Prague. Just passing through Dresden – big beautiful train station. Sitting in the dining car eating some sort of bad train version of a chicken salad. As Ibounce along the tracks through the hills and valleys of Eastern into Western Europe I am reflecting on the last three days. Pretty amazing.

I lead a very intense workshop with 29 people Two of them drove all the way from The Ukraine to take the workshop. There were students from all over the world: Palestine, Romania, Germany, America, France, Slovakia, Austria and more.The participants were diverse not only in nationality but in age, theatre backgrounds and experience with activism. One beautiful participant was so pregnant that we had no idea whether we would be assisting in her labor in the workshop

I had two goals: To teach socially engaged tehatre tools and to build an ensemble – to see if we could create a company in three days

We worked on Sociometry, Ritual and community building, Drama therapy techniques including introduction to playback and psychodrama and Forum Theatre Theatre. We worked on theories of performance and peacebuilding like Moral imagination and Paradoxical Curiosity. We studied and developed Theatre tools: The Voice Progression, Character work , Puppet Building, Viewpoints and Composition.

I was deeply moved by the heart and courage of the participants. I was pushing them and myself past the level of comfort into communication and discovery going back and forth from individual to community work, self care to selfless generosity, theory to practice, and theatre to activism and healing.

We welcomed the public in an open presentation which was participatory andincluded a 10 minute performance involving a chair dance, a puppet dance and a choral reading of a Vaclav Havel poem.

After the workshop we were all invited as guests of the Archa Theatre to the film of John a piece by D-V-8 a physical theatre company that was filmed at their recent production at The National Theatre. This piece is an incredible example of very hard core physical collaborative movement theatre that is as disturbing as it is beautiful.

The entire “company”” sat together during the film and then drank beer, talked and created an impromptu puppet musical very late into the night. People cried and laughed and hugged each other and made arrangements to stay in touch.

The going was tough in Prague, but the outcome of the workshop was beyond my wildest dreams and the human interaction was deeply inspiring once again reminding me that theatre CAN change the world one person and one community at a time.

West Berlin

Jessica Litwak

Tonight I saw this wild very funny and fearless ensemble piece. I couldn't understand a word. But I loved it. At one point I was very moved by a song and couldn't figure out why and then I realized they were singing a deconstructed German version of David Bowie's Heroes.


An evening by and with Rainald Grebe
World Premiere
Direction: Rainald Grebe

The island in the red sea, the shop-window of the West, the last bastion of western values, chosen destination of the West German youth: West Berlin. This city of never more than 2.23 million inhabitants existed from post-war 1949 to post-Wall 1989, encircled by the GDR. In order to support Westberlin, its inhabitants were freed of the obligation of military service, businesses received massive injections of investment from the Federal Republic of Germany, employees benefited from an eight percent wage top-up – the Berlin bonus – and couples and incomers could draw upon an interest-free ›family establishment‹ loan of 3,000 Deutschmarks. The city filled with draft-dodgers and committed left-wingers as well as students who, in the 1960s, grouped around the Free University and revolted. Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead, Rudi Dutschke wounded and the Red Army Faction and the 2 June Movement later became active. Kommune 1 was founded, houses were squatted, rents were cheap, people met in the courtyards of old buildings or at BBQs on the roof. There were countless alternative radio stations, women-run metalworking shops and bars without closing times where you could drink cheap beer. But there was also glamour and luxury: the Berlinale was founded, stars and celebrities paraded on the red carpet, people shopped at KaDeWe, drank champagne every night and ate caviar. What remains of Westberlin 26 years after it ceased to exist? In his first work for the Schaubühne, Rainald Grebe embarks upon a research trip into a lost paradise. 

Puppets and Lunch

Jessica Litwak

Today we started with sociometry and drama therapy, then voicework and ensemble work, then character work and Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. Then we had a small ceremony for one workshop participant who is baby is due in two days. Then we made puppets.


Then we ate lunch together and people introduced each other to the group.

And then all 30 workshop participants gathered for soup and sandwiches provided by Archa Theatre and we all shared ideas for changing the world through art and theatre.

First Day of Workshop

Jessica Litwak

Great first day. 30 people. Two drove all the way from The Ukraine. Wonderful energy in the room. So grateful to be in the presence of all these curious, courageous, and passionate souls.