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An original play created by Blessed Unrest (USA) & Teatri Oda (Kosova). Baruch Performing Arts Center, NYC, April 25–May 11
131 backers pledged $15,081 to help bring this project to life.

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WHY THIS STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD

Albania was the only country in Europe with more Jews at the end of World War II than at the beginning. 

Why? Besa.

The virtually unknown story of Albanians welcoming and protecting Jews, even when under Nazi occupation, is a reminder of the best of human nature and a call to action. Albanians across the Balkans took in people with whom they did not share language, religion, or culture, sheltered them as honored guests, and defended them with their lives. Not one Jew was taken to a concentration camp from Albania during the war.

The Albanian tradition of besa – the ethos that led them to welcome thousands of Jews fleeing from all over Europe while others, including the USA, were turning them away – flies in the face of the current rise of right-wing populism, xenophobia, Antisemitism and scapegoat politics. 

An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world today have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. (Data from UNHCR)

During the war, the Albanians did not know that the Jews would be killed if they turned them away. No one knew yet. They helped them because it was a matter of honor. We have no idea whether those we turn away today, wherever we are, will survive tomorrow. Our performance of Refuge asks: What would you risk?

"Doruntine", 1st prize winner at Secondo Festival, Switzerland. Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda. Photo by Alan Roche.
"Doruntine", 1st prize winner at Secondo Festival, Switzerland. Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda. Photo by Alan Roche.

THE STORY WE’RE TELLING

Award-winning ensemble Blessed Unrest teams up with renowned Kosovar theatre Teatri Oda and acclaimed musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer for this world-premiere play based on real events in which thousands of Jewish World War II refugees were harbored by Albanian families, many of them practicing Muslims.

In the play, a young Jewish woman embarks on a journey of discovery to a remote Albanian village. What she finds reveals both the truth of her family’s escape, and those who risked everything to provide them with refuge. 

Directly after the war nearly all the Jews left for Israel and the USA, and Albania was taken over by a repressive communist regime. All connection with the outside world was severed, and people who had been living together for years as family lost communication completely. After the fall of the communist regime in the 1990s families began making contact again, exchanging precious heirlooms and nearly-forgotten narratives. Refuge is based on those narratives. 

Photo by Maria Baranova
Photo by Maria Baranova

We are hosting four Kosovar artists from Teatri Oda in New York, and the cast will feature artists from both of our companies. Musicians from NYC’s Metropolitan Klezmer will join us onstage, digging into the common roots of Klezmer and traditional Albanian music and providing a through-line of music and song to express things which cannot be spoken.  

With our Post-Show Engagement Series, we will invite audiences to share their own stories of having given or received refuge in Moth-style Story Slams, and to engage in round-tables discussing the history and where we go from here. A guide to activism will be included in every program.  

Refuge will premiere April 25 – May 11, 2019 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street, NYC.  

Follow our process on Instagram at: blessed_unrest   

Photo by Alan Roche
Photo by Alan Roche

ABOUT OUR COLLABORATION 

We believe that artistic collaboration has the power to break down cultural barriers and build international bridges. Refuge is the third original play created by Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda since 2005. We have toured together six times through the Balkans, in Western Europe, and in New York, including the first-ever US/Kosovar theatre project in the United States, and a First Prize win at the 2016 Secondo Festival in Zurich, Switzerland. 

Blessed Unrest’s plays with Teatri Oda are among the work we are most proud of in our 18 year history. There is a depth and groundedness to Teatri Oda’s work, perhaps drawing on the strength of their community and the adversity they have overcome, having themselves been refugees fleeing genocide during the war with Serbia in the 1990’s. This is coupled with a sense of humor, openness, and relaxation in rehearsal and performance. Working with Oda pushes us to create from a deeper place and use humor and metaphor to bring audiences in closer. We push them to connect physically and use dance and abstraction in storytelling. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. This unique cultural exchange allows both companies to have a voice in the room, while still allowing plenty of space for cultural misunderstanding, mispronunciation of words, unintended insults, and general hilarity.

The artists of Teatri Oda feel like family and we are thrilled to be welcoming them back to NYC for the third time. 

Blessed Unrest is a physical theatre ensemble that has been creating original plays in NYC and touring internationally since 1999. We create safe environments where dangerous things can happen, producing dynamic, disciplined, and exuberant new works for the stage with our diverse ensemble. We teach our approach to physical and devised theatre at universities across the country. Among our awards are five New York Innovative Theatre Awards (sixteen nominations) including the Cino Fellowship for Sustained Excellence, the LPTW Lucille Lortel Award. 

Teatri Oda was founded in 2002 in Prishtina, Kosova (aka Kosovo), shortly after the war with Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb forces and the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Kosova, which officially declared independence in 2008 after nine years as a UN protectorate, is predominately ethnically Albanian and is closely tied to the neighbouring nation of Albania.) Teatri Oda was the first independent arts organization in the region, and is committed to building a strong cultural foundation for coming generations and contributing to a democratic and open Kosova. Oda has gained notoriety across Europe as a vital voice in the establishment of their new nation’s cultural identity.

The cast of "Doruntine" winning 1st prize at Secondo Festival, Switzerland. Photo by Poppy Liu.
The cast of "Doruntine" winning 1st prize at Secondo Festival, Switzerland. Photo by Poppy Liu.

Baruch Performing Arts Center is an acclaimed performing arts presence in the heart of Manhattan presenting renowned classical music, opera, jazz, theater, dance, discussion, film, and innovative cross-genre programming. BPAC has presented over 1,000 cultural programs in its 5 spaces since 2003. Its curated season of 40 programs annually emphasizes new work experienced in intimate settings, the diversity of American culture as exemplified by Baruch students (who come from 130 different countries), and work that lives at the confluence of art and social justice. 

Metropolitan Klezmer, now celebrating their 25th anniversary, has performed from coast to coast and on the air from NPR to HBO. They have released five albums and their multi-media concert "Music from Yiddish Cinema" has drawn overflow audiences to Lincoln Center and beyond. Their wide-ranging neo-traditional as well as original repertoire ranges in style from Albanian to Latin Jazz to Zydeco. In addition to numerous honors from NYSCA, Sparkplug Foundation, OUTmusic, and NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs, Metropolitan Klezmer has enjoyed surprise guest visits from Paquito D'Rivera, and has been awarded support from LMCC's Creative Engagement for their "Jubilation!" octet concert series throughout Manhattan.

We are honored to be partnering with the following organizations for community outreach: Consulate General of the Republic of Kosovo in New York; Baruch College Wasserman Jewish Studies Center; Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee; The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect; Together We Remember; and Besa and Shalom, Bringing Albanians and Jews Closer Together. 

"Doruntine", 2008. Photo by Alan Roche.
"Doruntine", 2008. Photo by Alan Roche.

 WHERE IT ALL BEGAN 

Besa: a promise that cannot be broken.

I (Jessica Burr) took a boat to Albania when I was 19. While studying in London with one of the first students to have gotten out of the country after the fall of the communist regime, my new friend would tell me stories about Albania interspersed with ancient folklore. It made no sense— this place in the center of Europe living 100 years in the past. When he invited me to stay with his family over the holidays, I got on a ferry. 

Arriving in the port of Durrës after a sleepless night, the sun was rising over an expanse of mud surrounded by chain-link fence. The customs officials laughed when they saw my US passport and offered to exchange it for an Albanian one. When my friend emerged, we piled into a jalopy and drove to Tirana. At the restaurant in town, as onlookers gathered, they placed before me the national dish: heart of calf. Not eating themselves, they waited expectantly.

This was my first experience of radical hospitality. Many more followed. The very little that people had they would always try to give to me, the guest. 

Not enough food to go around. Electricity for two hours a day. No hot water. No paved roads or traffic lights. No traffic laws because cars had previously been banned for all but government officials. Donkeys on the street next to Mercedes smuggled across the Swiss border, the only vehicles able to withstand the terrain. No jobs and no hope for a job. At night the city was pitch dark.

We ran rampage through Tirana with bottles of black fernet, sharing with every acquaintance. We played hide and seek among the rafters of the National Theatre. We wandered the cobwebbed attic and kissed. “We will destroy each other,” he said. And we didn’t. “If you leave now we will never see each other again,” he said. And we didn’t. But I was changed. 

I had not yet learned of besa, but when I boarded the ferry to leave Albania I made a promise to myself. I swore to someday bring something back to say thank you to these people who had given me so much. An inadvertent besa

In 2009 I was able to bring Doruntine, Blessed Unrest’s first collaboration with Teatri Oda of Kosova, to the National Theatre of Tirana. In 2013 we went back with The Sworn Virgin, and in the next couple of years I look forward to bringing Refuge to the people who provided shelter to so many, both in Kosova and Albania.

OUR CREATIVE TEAM

We are excited to have a predominantly woman-led cast and creative team that is almost entirely of Jewish or Albanian heritage. 

Refuge is created by Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda
Directed by Jessica Burr & Florent Mehmeti, with text by Matt Opatrny, Florent Mehmeti, and the ensemble 

Performers: (from Teatri Oda) Eshref Durmishi, Daniela Markaj, Ilirë Vinca (from Blessed Unrest) Nancy McArthur, Becca Schneider, and Perri Yaniv 

Clockwise from center left: Ilirë, Becca, Perri, Nancy, Eshref, Daniela.
Clockwise from center left: Ilirë, Becca, Perri, Nancy, Eshref, Daniela.

The Band: Eve Sicular, Ismail Butera, and Debra Kreisberg 

Left to right: Ismail, Debra, and Eve, Photos by Les Gold and Hank Gans.
Left to right: Ismail, Debra, and Eve, Photos by Les Gold and Hank Gans.

 Production Stage Manager – Darielle Shandler
        Set Design – Teddy Jefferson & Sonya Plenefisch
        Costume Design – Caitlin Cisek
        Lighting Design – Jay Ryan
        Sound Design – Adrian Bridges
        Assistant Director – Benjamin Peterson
        Assistant Costume Design – Sera Bourgeau
        Dramaturg – Julia Levine  

Clockwise from top left: Ben, Adrian, Darielle, Julia, Jay, Teddy, Sonya, and (center) Caitlin.
Clockwise from top left: Ben, Adrian, Darielle, Julia, Jay, Teddy, Sonya, and (center) Caitlin.

WHY WE NEED YOUR HELP

Making theatre is financially challenging, and an international collaboration like this is perhaps irrational. But sometimes rationality needs to go out the window in favor of a story that needs to be told.

Our total budget for Refuge is $83,500. That includes:

· Paying all of the actors, designers, musicians, technicians, and administrative staff. (And they deserve much more than we can pay!)

· Supplies for the set, costumes, props, lighting and sound.

· Materials for marketing, and hiring a publicist.

· Travel expenses for the four amazing artists joining us from Kosova including visa application fees, flights, per diems, and housing for 5 weeks in New York City.

Ticket sales will only cover 33% of this budget. (That’s the “non-profit” part.) Another 42% comes from:

· Government grants from New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the government of the Republic of Kosovo.

· Foundation grants from SHS Foundation, Ruth and Hal Launders Charitable Trust, and A.R.T./New York Creative Space.

· Corporate matching grants.

· Income from special fundraising events.

The last 25% comes from individuals like you. 39 donors have already given almost $6,000, and with the success of this campaign (our first Kickstarter ever!) we will be fully funded. 

THANK YOU to all the individuals and organizations who are already supporting us. Please join them with a pledge now. And please pass this along to others you know who would be interested in helping to make this project possible.

Photo by Maria Baranova
Photo by Maria Baranova

Risks and challenges

Digging into complex stories and delicate histories, then finding a dynamic and inspiring way to put them on stage, is our passion and our life’s work. We take it very seriously. We are steeped in these stories, and every time we’re in the rehearsal room the narrative gets deeper and more personal. We are humbled by the lives that we have the privilege to put on stage.

Making art via international collaboration is expensive, exhilarating, terrifying, chaotic, hysterically funny, and has resulted in work we are extremely proud of, work that breaks down language and cultural barriers. These artists from across the globe feel like family, and we can’t wait to show you what we are making together.

People like you, putting dollars together because you value what we are trying to do, will make it possible. THANK YOU.

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    Thank You!

    Thank you for being a part of the crowd that is making Refuge possible! We'll credit you in the Refuge program because we want everyone who sees the show to know your name. (Or you can remain anonymous if you'd prefer.)

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    A Shout Out and Our Reading List

    We'll list you in the program and give you a special shout out on social media. We'll also send you our reading and documentary-viewing list that we've collected over the course of our research process.

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    Party at The Russian Tea Room

    Join us at the iconic New York destination as we welcome the four Teatri Oda artists at an exclusive cocktail party, hosted by Ambassador Teuta Sahatqija, Head of Mission of the Republic of Kosovo in New York City. We'll see you and a guest at the party on April 10th, plus the above rewards.

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    A Backstage Toast with the Cast

    Join us for a private toast with the cast in the green room before or after a performance of Refuge. Tickets for you and a guest are included, as are the above rewards.

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Funding period

- (25 days)