The bewitching theater artistry of Riga

In college I had a friend named Patricia.  She was a graduate student in theater design and I was a costume designer so we’d work together to design plays and films.  Collaborating with Patricia was the first experience I had with someone with serious talent.  I mean, I knew a lot of talented people, but Patricia was a design alchemist.  She could take cheap materials and a tiny budget and transform a set into a new world.  Patricia was from Panama, and until she turned 18 she’d planned to be a nun.  This life change from Panamanian novitiate to theater design student seems bizarre, but if you were familiar with her work, it made sense.  Patricia’s productions had the sublime quality of a golden, incense and chant-filled cathedral.  The thing with her is that she never over-dramatized in way that a lot of young artists did: her sets were a little muted, with watercolor-style edges.

Patricia, like her art, could overwhelm you with subtlety.  With her frizzy hair and acne-scarred skin, she wasn’t pretty, but she was intensely appealing.  Patricia had an awe-inspiring attention span and despite that she never stopped working, she always seemed to be paying close attention to those around her.  Patricia was a real friend; she was kind and she heard me.  I hope I was the same to her.

After graduation Patricia moved to New York to be an assistant to a famous theater designer.   We’d call each other occasionally, but eventually lost touch after one of our many moves and phone number changes.  I’ve since searched for her online, but she had a common last name and has possibly moved out of the country.


Last month HOB and I visited Riga, a town that had me thinking constantly of Patricia: it could have been designed in its entirety by her.


Patricia’s signature as a lighting designer was to light from the sides of the stage.  In Riga,  the sun never rose overhead—it just shown sideways though the trees, casting dappled, tree-shaped shadows.


The sideways light made all the town’s details theatrical.


The Art Nouveau architecture of Riga is outrageous.  Bewitching and campy: the ornamentation encrusting Riga is heavy on screaming masks, bare chested maidens with flowing locks, gryphons and other fantastic animals.



Riga’s slanted light, flickering through tree branches, animated the faces, bringing them to life.  Patricia, like all skilled lightening designers, used this trickery to her advantage, even making actors seem extra vivacious.


Riga has that warm/cool/hard/earthy/slick/scrappy thing going on that all the greatest cities share.


I wonder if Patricia has been here, if she’d see watercolors paintings in the reflection of the windows.


HOB and I did not visit any sites in Riga.  We just walked and walked and loved everything.


I may never see my friend Patricia again but I hope, with all her talent, she is still creating and I wish I knew what it was.  We were quite young when we worked together and had a tendency to be (what I now recognize) as overwrought and cheesy.  Did we always have to put doll heads and angel wings in our films?  And why did we insist on actors with fake French accents?  Surely we could get together some day and have a giggle about the doll heads, couldn’t we?

windowI don’t know if Riga is always this theatrical and astonishing, or if we just arrived at the perfect time of the year.  I love Riga, but in a way I never want to go back.  I just want this time we had in the city to be like the memory of a youthful friendship, a perfect play, or a delicious meal: something to put away all golden and delicious, all mine yet all lost.



  1. Your text too is as bewitching as the delightful images you’ve included. I know what you mean by wanting to retain a memory of a place rather than revisit it and possibly be disappointed by an anticlimax; and I ached at the memory you conjured up of your lost friend Patricia. Lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Calmgrove. Where have you been that you almost loved too much to revisit?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lake Garda; Hong Kong (where I lived in the 50s); any locality where insensitive building development has ruined its inherent pristine qualities.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Always a pleasure to travel with your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grazie Maurizio!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, I love that last line ‘all mine yet all lost’ – beautiful. There’s something really interesting and hard to put in to words about the relationship between memory and place. I hope you find Patricia, perhaps someone from her previous work may know where she went next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words.

      After publishing this, I thought to google her under a different name (she’d gotten married and divorced in her early 20’s and changed her name a couple of times). Her pre-married last name was also quite common. I found someone with that name in association with a production design for a ballet. There is a photo of a enormously glamourous woman which may well be her.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I loved Riga, but I am a huge fan of eclectic Art Nouveau. Pity you didn’t go inside the museum at Alberta 12.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We did go to that museum, but only as far as climbing the (five flights?) stairs. The stairwell decoration alone was outstanding.


  5. I need to get to Riga, preferably at the same time of year. I hope you reconnect with your friend! No doubt she is glamorous now and would think you are too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh please do visit in late September—-that’s a treat you certainly deserve!


  6. Beautiful. In some ways it reminds me of Helsinki.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh GAH! Now I have to go to Helsinki, thanks a lot! 🙂

      (Also, is there any place you have been???)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Helsinki’s nice enough in summer. Although residents tell me of its beauty in winter, I’m not convinced.

        (Haven’t been outside of Asia-Europe-US, and hardly been to most of A-E-U. Isn’t that sad?)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful post 🙂 I wasn’t sure about a return trip to Venice, but I was glad we did, it was wonderful, far better than the first trip 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      How was the train ride to Venice? Did you take sleeper trains?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We had an interesting train ride to Venice, but we didn’t take the sleeper, we stayed over night in Munich on the way down and Zurich when we came home, It took ten trains to get there and back, plus a train trip to Florence from Venice……. it was an amazing trip, we normally go by car to Germany and Switzerland, so it was totally different 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Such a sweetness in your recollection of Patricia. Interesting how a place, light, smell can evoke someone. I feel like I know your friend too now. I hope you reconnect one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The interesting thing about Patricia is that she’s partially responsible for my relationship with HOB. We’d been seeing each other a short while and I told her that I really liked him but I wasn’t interested in having a relationship. She asked me two questions: “Does he say mean things about his mom?” and “Is he obsessed with his exes?” The answer to both those questions was no and she said “find a way to have a relationship with this man on your own terms. I can’t find a guy like that in all of NYC!”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Now looking forward to seeing the architecture. Hope you can meet up with Patricia someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s right—you told me you’d be in Riga for two days. Will you be visiting soon? Going anywhere else in the Baltics?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Next month – just pop in Riga for two days on the way back to Japan. I should see the beautiful countries in Summer!

        Liked by 1 person

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