I came home from the opening night of a show that I was working on, and by the time I grabbed a cup of tea, and changed my clothes, I heard some yelling outside my window. So I went over, looked out, and saw a man, who, to my mind, seemed very large and very angry, being beaten by two police officers. I don’t remember how long this went on. It felt like minutes, ten, fifteen minutes. It was probably really more like a minute. Time alters when you’re watching these sorts of things, right? So shortly thereafter, two more officers joined in—and I’m above the 7–11 Harvey’s parking lot—it’s now something different but then it was a 7–11 Harvey’s at College and Lansdowne. So two, then four officers began beating, punching, kicking an unarmed man. I saw him go from standing—to the ground—to the foetal position. The beating continued. He stopped;–he finally stopped moving.
Liza Balkan, interviewed by Guillermo Verdecchia for the Canadian Theatre Review.
So that’s what Liza Balkan witnessed down the parking lot from her appartment window. She flew downstairs and gave her first testimony to a detective. Later on, she read his account and realized he was wrong about her height, looks and age… Liza Balkan is then confronted with the whole question around perception, around what you see, while waiting two years before the preliminary trial (to determine if there was sufficient evidence to try the officers). When it finally goes to trial one year later, a total of three years has passed since the incident.
The four Toronto officers were eventually found not guilty and it was only three years after that, so six years after the initial event, that they held the coroner’s inquest.
From being a “witness” to this tragic event, Liza Balkan became a “participant”. Her responsability was to remember during six very long years, the horrible final moments of Otto Vass. A challenging journey she describes as “eye-mind-heart opening”. She had to tell her side of the story again and again as a witness in court, and this awful process became an artful tale, a poetic performance workout about a terribly violent memory she had to live with for the rest of her life. Throughout this ordeal, she had to ask herself essential and humane questions such as:
How do I remember this?
How do I respond to that as a witness?
How did I become a participant and how do I tell this-my-his story?
“Reading the transcripts about what happened as opposed to my experience of it, it shook me and forced me to ask lots of questions about what happened, what I saw, about law, about truth and what is truth and my own truth,” Balkan said to Curtis Rush for the Star. She was then determined to bring the death of Otto Vass on the stage. Out of the Window is one powerful piece of documentary theatre, and “this keeps Otto alive” said Zsuzsanna, the widow and mother of five.
I remember him standing
I remember him sitting with his legs out in front of him
I remember him lying on his side in fetal position being kicked -OK in the in the stomach?
But being kicked.
I remember a baton flying through the air – an officer running to it.
I remember two more officers running in.
I remember yelling STOP.
I remember turning off my lights so I wouldn’t be seen.
I remember calling my boyfriend three times, leaving blow by blows on his voicemail.
I remember jumping back.
I remember saying “No get back there and watch.
Ok I live alone – I talk to myself. …
I remember my boy friend finally calling me back.
He had erased the messages.
I remember having binoculars in my hand. Seeing closer. I remember talking to Vass’ widow, Zsuzsanna and her telling me all about the trip to Hungary they went on just a few short weeks before the incident. How they went dancing… ( pause)
But that wasn’t August 9th, that conversation was…? Days, weeks, months ago…whatever. You know, time…. Back to the night: I remember asking my boyfriend if I should go downstairs and talk to the detective that was now on the scene.
I remember his saying no. I DON’T remember walking down the five flights.
I remember approaching the detective.
I remember the light shining inside the truck, or the car…? I just remember the brightness of this light against the darkness of the sky and the artificial lighting of the parking lot. The shadow of this detective’s face. From 14th Division. The same division. I didn’t give my name or my address.
I remember a guy on a bike, on my right – stage right.
I DON’T remember walking back up the 5 flights.
I DON’T remember falling asleep.
I DO remember seeing the white truck down below. The SIU insignia.
I remember introducing myself.
I seem to remember a beating.
I remember a beating.
Excerpt from “I remember” by Liza Balkan
From being the powerless witness of the violent death of a defenseless person, she became a powerful participant in this tragic story by bearing the responsability of remembering his final moments in court. In a compelling and shocking play, Out The Window by Liza Balkan revisits her six year journey through the justice system. The creative writing process preceding the play mirrored the many twists, turns, surprises, and complexities of the very issues it explores, explains Balkan.
After living with the heavy burden of remembering a tragedy for so many years,
her testimonial task ended up becoming a project investigating memory, policing, witnessing, accountability, perspective,
mental heath, law and theatre. She transformed her experience into a performance, encapsulating “countless transcripts, (…) an unfathomable amount of research, (…) a multitude of interviews with an incredibly wide array of subjects.” And to carry this complex amount of information, she turned online, to share her brain with the rest of us.You can visit this living archive of the project’s source materials at: www.outthewindowcollective.com
The production was a huge success, its performances were sold out during the whole run and the discussions initiated by the play attracted artists, lawyers, activists, neighbours, doctors, police officers, friends and writers, all coming together on this urgent matter. How to remember what everyone wants to forget.
*Text provided by Director/Producer of Out the Window, Liza Balkan and threaded together by Imago’s Anne-Marie Lavigne.
Liza Balkan is a director, actor, writer, former dancer and educator. Directing and acting credits include endless theatre plays and has assisted directed numerous Festivals. Liza has also been a Resident Artist within Theatre companies as well as created and directed her first libretto. Dora Award Recipient and nominated for Betty Mitchell Award. Liza’s own shows, toured the Fringe circuit, and her short works have been produced by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. She was casting director on a Feature Film and Gemini award winning short. Liza is a busy acting teacher, coach and arts educator. She is also on the roster of movement instructors for the Birmingham Conservatory at the Stratford Festival. Liza Balkan is the creator, director and co-producer of the Out the Window play and online project. This past March, in a five-‐performance, sold-‐out run, Liza’s The Window Collective co–produced Out The Window with the Theatre Centre in Toronto. Liza directed a cast that included RH Thomson, David Ferry, Julie Tepperman and a few other very fine young actors. The company was blessed in its continued collaboration with designers Trevor Schewellnus, Thomas Ryder Payne and Michelle Ramsay, who have been on this journey since 2008. The tremendous volume of information associated with the development of the show continues to be captured, documented, and made accessible to the public via The Brain – Out The Window’s online companion.