We asked Artistic Affiliate Katarzyna Müller (Polish adaptation & consultant) and her sister Matilda Szydagis (dialect coach) a few questions. You can read their bios in PRODUCTION TEAM.

How would you describe your childhood, growing up in Chicago on the South Side?

KM: I moved from Poland to Chicago on a Friday, and was sitting in a classroom at the local public school that Monday. I was the only Polish speaker in the whole school. Although Chicago is known for its huge Polish population, it used to be very segregated. We did not live in a Polish neighborhood. Growing up, I had no idea that there were so many Polish kids just a few miles away.

Marquette Park was a working-class neighborhood with some tough characters. Some of our nicest neighbors were also convicted felons. Occasionally someone would disappear for a while, and I would hear that they were in prison. Then they came back, and they were mowing their lawns again. As a kid, you start to understand that people do desperate things when they feel like they have no other options.

Overall, we were outsiders in both language and culture. We also spent several years in poverty, which makes assimilation even more difficult. I wouldn’t trade growing up in Marquette Park for anything else, though. I loved the bungalows, the enormous park with the lagoon, the sound of motorcycles racing down the street on summer nights, bakeries, butchers, corner grocery stores. We walked everywhere and had a classic urban childhood.

MS: Gritty, working class, ethnically mixed, real. My first crush was on a little blonde boy named John in first grade and in fifth grade it was a boy named Mohammed.

Before our mom learned to drive, we walked everywhere, usually with a granny cart if shopping, as far as Zayre across the tracks by the drive-in, or the Sears on Western. Our usual stomping grounds though were mainly in Marquette Park along 63rd Street, Kedzie, and Lithuanian Plaza.

Coming from an immigrant family, hard work was distilled in us from an early age, so getting the best grades was very important. Lots of studying. And on the last day of school as a reward for a stellar report card, my mom took me to McDonald’s, Pepe’s, or later on, Red Lobster’s.

Summers were the best, checking out books in the ice-cold public library, swimming at the YMCA or the neighbor’s above-ground pool, riding bikes until dusk with the neighborhood kids, popping wheelies, catching lightning bugs in the gangways. Then after my mom washed my dusty feet and legs as I stood up in the bathroom sink, we watched Twilight Zone in our dark living room as the marigold light of the streetlamp spilled in through the screen door.

I wouldn’t change my South Side childhood for anything.

What was your first theater experience – as an audience member or performer?

KM: My mother enrolled me in a lunchtime drama program in school, because she thought it would help me to pronounce English words correctly. I fell in love with theater, and begged my mom to sign me up again, even after I became fluent. The cost was a big stretch for us. I had to justify it every year. We rehearsed and performed in an old school auditorium with wooden seats and red velvet curtains. I was so inspired that I wrote a play for my friends to perform during outdoor recess. I went from writing poems in Polish to writing plays in English.

MS: My first theatre experience as an audience member was at the Drury Lane Theatre in Evergreen Park. I was around five and I think we saw Snow White. It was dinner theatre, in the round maybe, and I remember sitting in the dark with the bright light of the stage on my face. I met the lead actress after, still dressed as Snow White, and I thought she seemed larger than life.

As a performer? Besides the speech contests I did every year, my first theatre performance was at Marquette School in 7th grade playing a screaming banshee in a Halloween play. I got to wear a white torn up sheet, whirl about the stage while screeching and trilling my lines, my hair all messy, and I was like, wow, this is so freeing!

And then there was my lip-synching performance to Prince’s Kiss the following year in the school talent show…..

What excites you about our world premiere of The Last Wide Open with Polish language?

KM: Chicago has one of the largest Polish populations outside of Poland. For many years, I wondered about the lack of Polish representation in the theater here. When Wendy contacted me about adapting The Last Wide Open, I was thrilled. I also love that the Polish immigrant exists in a love story. The focus is on his humanity, and his need to connect, just like everyone else. His ethnicity and language are a big part of him, but they don’t solely define him. It’s a beautiful play, and its warm embrace of a Polish character makes it the perfect play for Chicago.

MS: I LOVE that The Last Wide Open incorporates the Polish language as well as touching on the immigrant experience. So many people don’t realize that Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. It’s Warsaw, Chicago, then other cities in Poland down the list.

Have you worked with your sister on other theater productions?

KM: Yes! Matilda is my go-to director in NYC. She directed my first one-act and has continued to work with me on staged readings of new plays in development. She elevates the text to new levels. Plus, there is always a lot of laughter in the rehearsal room!

MS: Yes, I’ve worked with my sister Kathy on her short play Blue which I directed in New York City. Most recently I directed the staged reading of her play Red Line (Workshop Theatre, NYC). She was also script consultant for my short horror films (The Hoosac, The Ruins, The Dam). I love working with her! Always so incredibly helpful with her insights. I think she’s genius, for real.

What are you working on next?

KM: I’m working on a play inspired by my experience with severe Long Covid. It’s really hard to dramatize stillness and pain, so I’m trying to stretch my usual dramatic form. It’s a new challenge for me. I’m thinking about invisible disabilities in general, and what it means to navigate a world built for speed and wellness. It will first appear as a short play in this year’s Ripped Festival.

I also needed a break from serious issues, especially with the current political climate. So for fun, I wrote a play about Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski trial. I love Tina Satter’s Is This A Room, so this is a verbatim play with all of its crazy quotes and bizarre anecdotes. Behind the comedy, though, is a nice man who can’t accept his deepening dementia. So even with this fun play, it still leads me back to thinking about how our invisible illnesses affect our lives, even on the ski slopes.

MS: I just worked on a couple of short films and finished writing my first feature horror screenplay called Residue. I’ve started shopping it around, looking for a producer. As a Gen X woman and someone who has ingested the horror genre voraciously all her life, I wanted to write a horror movie that was inspired by 70s/80s horror films. Residue is a classically minded horror movie and the movie’s built-in audience is Gen X.  X-Files meets It Follows meets Jacob’s Ladder.

I’ve also written an historical novel inspired by my family’s experiences during WWII in Eastern Europe and their subsequent immigration to North America called Somehow It Will Be. I’m on my last round of edits right now and hope to start sending it out soon. And my next picture book is All Gnomes Speak Polish (a sequel of sorts to All Cats Speak Polish). Wish me luck!


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