CAVIAR NIGHTS WITH IMPRESARIO EMIL VARDA

"Straight from the tin..."

By Sasha Haines-Stiles

All images by Ewa Kowalska, via Blackbook

Most know him as a legend of the New York restaurant scene, serving up strip steaks with a side of see-and-be-seen at his iconic Waverly Inn and Beatrice Inn. But to us, Emil Varda is a cultural omnivore with a truly voracious appetite for poetry, philosophy and Polish theater, and the city’s prime seats are in the front row at any of his provocative underground shows.

One recent evening, we were guided to our chairs in the subterranean Under St. Mark’s Theater by the man himself. (This being a Varda production, we were not at all surprised to notice a certain Academy Award-nominated actor sat just to our left.) There, over the course of several hours, we were transfixed by his new play All Roads Lead to Kurski Station, a loose adaptation of Venedikt Erofeev’s 1973 Moscow Circles – a touchstone for Varda and an all-too-relevant exploration of political oppression and personal despair.

We caught up with him afterwards – at The Waverly Inn, of course – to debrief on the show, enjoy some fine food and wine, and appreciate the dramatic irony of how a young actor-writer from Poland turned a New York eatery into world-class theater.

PS:
You are renowned for your role in the immersive experience known as New York nightlife. However, you also produce events of another sort. Can you tell us a bit about how you got your start in theater?

EV:
Theater is the most quintessential of all the arts, and the most complex. Although influenced by all other art forms, it is a completely autonomous art and not an illustration of literature. In my opinion, it is more like a picture composed by color, shapes and lines, and of course, music—penetrating social and political determinations in our history with grotesques and fantasies, which build drama and keep spectators in suspense and mystery, and make them think and reflect on their ideas and choices in life.

My involvement in the hospitality industry was absolutely accidental. I arrived in New York in May of 1983, when the city was completely different than now, on the edge of bankruptcy. Most of us were democratically poor and crime was soaring everywhere, not necessarily in the poorer neighborhoods. Overdoses on the streets of the East Village were a daily occurrence. So after trying and trying to make it in the theater—I produced two of my own shows, and I acted in [a] few others—reality and economics pushed me into the restaurant business … That was 1988.

My acting training and vision of theater was and still is very, very far from the mainstream. Just recently, somebody asked to place my vision/philosophy in relation to Broadway and off-Broadway. My answer was: “The West Side Highway.”

So, a job in a restaurant became a career, a way of life.

ablution

PS:
Intellectuals and artists played an important part in the dissident movement in Poland. (As they do in any such movement.) What kinds of plays were you reading, performing or perhaps writing then, and how were they intertwined with your politics?

EV:
In my case it was Milosz, Mandelstam, Gombrowicz, and Dostoyevsky. Before adult reading there was Proust, with his feminine eroticism, who taught me how to write with long sentences, but Milosz and Mandelstam are an everlasting influence.

Of course, there were plenty of others like Camus, Genet, Solzhenitsyn, and I can’t leave out William Blake. I learned English just to read Blake in the original English.

We did not read “play writers.” We were inspired by poetry and philosophy and ideas.

PS:
You were arrested and jailed as a dissident, and eventually came to the United States as a political refugee thanks to President Reagan. Were you relieved to leave?

EV:
I did not treat this as an adventure. I knew that this was forever, for life. Relieved? Quite the contrary. I left my family, my theater friends, my life in exchange for a big question mark. My comfort, my memory, my past, my everything for no promises. For just a glimmering pile of hope.

Gombrowicz says, “I believe that every self-respecting artist must, in many respects, be an emigrant.” But I was scared shitless. It did not matter that I could recite Blake. Blake was not enough to even communicate on the street level. To be an artist in NYC in the mid 80’s meant starvation. When an institution like La MaMa, which I admired at that moment, is turning its back on you, what you should do?

When I went to Ellen Stewart and her supposedly “open” and friendly place to ask for help, she said: “Poland? There is only Kantor and Grotowski who make theater there.” Desperate, desperate. And this is when [the protagonist of All Roads Lead to Kvrski Station] Vienya came to my rescue.

PS:
What was your earliest theatrical experience here?

EV:
After being rebuffed by Ellen Stewart, I acted in a one-man show, All Roads Lead to Kurski Station, at the 13th Street Theater, and again a couple years later in my co-adaptation of Fatal Lack of Color by Bruno Schulz. I acted in a few others, notably Lotto, by the late Glenn O’Brien—staged in, poetic justice, La MaMa Theater!

drowning-1

PS:
You are perhaps most deeply connected in many people’s minds to the famed Waverly Inn. What led you to join forces with Graydon Carter?

EV:
We both share a passion for theater, food and Vanity Fair.

PS:
It’s very interesting to think about the roles that food has played in your life over time. When you were a young man in Poland, the clashes between the dissidents and the communists were over rising food prices. Now, of course, you work in an environment where food and power converge in a very different way. Perhaps you could comment on the social dimension of eating and dining, as you see it?

EV:
Do you know what ration cards are? Ration books? At that time, food was the big issue in Poland. Basic staples were rationed, so you ate what you had. If you had those special ration tickets and were lucky enough to find the store that had the food for which you had tickets… I remember I was always moderately hungry… Hungry may not be the adequate description… I was insatiable. Yes, this is a much better description of my state of mind.

The situation changed when they arrested me and put me in prison. The first two months were horrible. We had a veterinarian in our cell. We were served goulash with mashed potatoes, and different unrecognizable grains; the vet explained that our goulash consisted of cow’s urinary pipes, bull’s sperm pipes and such. Around April, it was obvious that martial law would have to end very soon and they loosened their grip. They moved us to much more “civilized” quarters, if one can call prison “civilized.” We were allowed longer “promenades” and, more importantly, they allowed international organizations to send us food. By then we were better supplied than most people in the “free” world, using soap and shampoo, which had disappeared from the market. I guess the Communists didn’t care about the hygiene of the general public. We were “buying,” for example, a radio from the security guards so we could listen to BBC and Radio Free Europe, so we had firsthand information about the state of affairs.

PS:
It’s very interesting to consider how your career in hospitality intersects with your passion for theater. For instance, I’ve read that Vanity Fair’s publisher said of Waverly that “it’s theater, only there is no line between actors and audience.” What do you make of that?

EV:
I like the restaurant very much because it’s like the theater: a new show every night,  improvisation every night, new superstars on every night… And I, me, poor refugee boy from Poland, is directing, making an unrepeated nightly spectacle… Amazing! Awesome! Goosebumps and butterflies in your stomach… Almost, almost… But it’s not the real theater, it is just a wonderful happening, what you would now call an installation.

That is probably why I’m still involved, and that’s why I can easily do both.

stage

PS:
As a host, your role is to make the guest comfortable. Would you say that as a theatrical producer who creates provocative, political pieces, your role is to make the guest uncomfortable?

EV:
Comfort food/comfort art? Lamentable! Only in our hedonistic, consumption-obsessed society is homogenized culture expected to comfort us. I understand people come to my restaurant for chicken pot pie, to relax and be comfortable and to have fun in our cozy atmosphere. But my art? It’s going to make you think, to reconsider. It’s supposed to wake you up.

I loved when, after this last show, one of my friends whom I consider a Manhattan intellectual elite called me and said, “If you wanted to shake and move me out of my comfort zone – congratulations, you just did it.”

Artists and intellectuals have a responsibility to seek the truth and to guard society against despotism and moral complacency.

PS:
What do you enjoy most about staging productions here in New York?

EV:
Enjoy? Nothing is enjoyable in theater production in NYC. I despise it! I do not want to go into the details, but thanks to producer Scott Griffin, hallelujah (God bless him!), I’ve been spared most of the pain of the theater production. Without Scott this show would not have happened.

PS:
In your recent production of All Roads Lead to the Kvrski Station, you offer a vivid picture of Soviet oppression that is undeniably relatable to politics in America at this very moment. At one point, your main character even appears as Trump. What do you hope the audience takes away from the experience?

EV:
The main character Vienya does not represent the Russian man only. Vienya is every man from every neighborhood of NYC or any European city. He struggles with everyday life; every moment is difficult. Vienya is looking for love, and the leitmotif of the play is the fatal lack of love. Of course, every Vienya lacking love seeks a cheap substitute: the one in Russia with vodka, the one from NYC with opiates or cocaine, or both plus vodka, or any other ersatz. So my Vienya is very cosmopolitan, very international.

It is a journey. It’s a cloudy promise that now will be better, that now will be the end of the misery. So you take more and more, you drink more and more... Like a marathon man, you have trained, you are in very good condition, in very good form… More and  more… Every day your portion is bit bigger, stronger…

The reason why I chose this book, this character, is because some time ago I was in this situation. I was Vienya… What happened? I was lucky… I was at the place where you still can take train back—at the station but able to return. I switched directions, I switched trains and I’m here to tell the story. A horrible, brutal, vulgar story, but very true.

PS:
Why is it important for us to attend a show like this, instead or in addition to being glued to our TVs gorging on news that is equally as ridiculous as anything the absurdists could invent?

EV:
Stop this! Who said that art should only entertain? Who says that art should consist of standup comedians and tearjerker melodramas? Artists are always making you think, making you to reflect on your way of life. We will try to change you, to open your heart to your neighbors, to reflect on helping the immigrant. Remember that your grandfathers or you great-great-grandfathers who emigrated here were foreigners. They killed many innocent natives. So please remember those who are dying on the sea or in the desert of New Mexico are very often running for their lives.

Do you remember what it says on the Statue of Liberty? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

PS:
In many ways, your life exemplifies the American Dream. But we now have someone in power who is quite adept at manipulating the American Dream. What do you make of that?

EV:
Definitely I’m a dreamer. Am I a part of the American Dream? I don’t know. But let’s dream and let’s let others dream as well. It’s hard to stop a tyrant. Read Professor Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. I believe that if we stand together we can stop the ginger-haired threat.

PS:
When may we expect to see your next theatrical production, and what will be the focus?

EV:
It is hard to say, because I’m very underground, producing very obscure theater and an unknown person. So, sometime in the near future.

PS:
It’s fitting that our favorite food is a bit dramatic by nature… We must end by asking: what is your favorite way of consuming caviar?

EV:
Straight from the tin, with my fingers.