Polish Theatre Today

Publikujemy wykład wygloszony przez Tomasza Miłkowskiego podczas międzynarodowego seminarium, zorganizowanego straniem japońskiej sekcji IACT/AICT w Tokio w dniach 17-18 marca 2006. W seminarium o kondycji współczesnego teatru na świecie wzięli udział jako prelegenci przedstawiciele Francji, Szwecji, Izraela, Argentyny, Turcji i Polski.

    Polish Theatre Today
    Sketch to the portray


Over 15 years ago (in 1989 exactly) in Poland took place the great  transformation – the theatre of the epoch of the real socialism had been final destructed. The artists recovered their independence – that was the times of euphoria, relief and hope. The political censorship disappeared and the times of the fantastic freedom have opened from one day to the next. Someone thought – there is the moment of the end of the social duties in the theatre. Now theatre would be neither the substitute of democratic institutions nor press or school.
The end of the cold war meant the beginning of the new epoch.
After the short time of enthusiasm and euphoria the artists observing the situation of culture and theatre in new times have sober up at once. New times – times of rebuilding of capitalism, rebuilding of the democratic system, rebuilding of the market economy – didn’t turn out happy for the theatre and cultural institution and its necessities. The theatre remained on the margin of the social life. Instead being the centre of the struggle for the new splendid times the theatre became a ballast (when it demanded the money) or the place, where one takes a rest (when it gave the pastime). For artists that have been often wrong treat and disrespect by communist authorities, but on the other hand lived safely under financial umbrella of power,  came hard times.
The first signal was the characteristic add in daily “Gazeta Wyborcza”: “Young professional actor is searching the work not only in his profession”. The hidden unemployment among the actors became open. Many theatres that government paid were closed or changed in a new form of  the impresario organisation. By the way such theatres as Rozmaitości in Warsaw and Theatre in Legnica were suspended. The first – Rozmaitości is now one of the most known Polish theatres in all over the word that is treated as a symbol of the young theatrical movement; The Theatre in Legnica is now very famous theatre too as a theatre which participates in active dialogue with the local audience and presents productions connected with the local history and the present time. This theatre belongs to the theatres that participate in  the revival of contemporary Polish playwriting.

Chapter one
The condition of the theatre report

The report connected to the condition of the Polish theatre was published two year ago. The big book was prepared by the group of critics on Polish Actors Union initiative. After the hard period of transformation, political, moral, financial and organisational perturbation today in Poland exit about 60 professional theatres, which produced about 4-5 new performances every year. These theatres were under an umbrella of local self-government and some of them (National Theatres) under government umbrella. Some of them are only impresario organisation but the most have professional artistic team (about 30 person each of them) and technical crew (about 60 person each). The production of the established theatres is only one of the side of the theatrical life in Poland, that consists too independent production, off-theatre, student theatrical movement, commercial productions, mono drama production and school performances (in Actors Studios). The theatrical festivals, very characteristic for Poland (about 70 a year, international and national) gave a chance for the best viewer to observe production not only in own cities. The most important festival are:International Festival Kontakt in Toruń, Dialog in Wrocław, Malta in Poznań, Shakespearian Festival in Gdańsk, Festival of the festivals in Warsaw, Festival of  Classic Plays in Opole, Festival of Actor’s Interpretation in Kalisz, Mono drama Festival in Wrocław.
For this huge production work a net of artistic schools: government theatrical academies in Warsaw, Krakow and Łodz (where is located film academy with actors department) and few private schools and studios connected with the theatres.

Chapter two
Generation change

Recently we observed in Poland very characteristic generation changes. Partly that was natural biological process; many famous Polish artists, which created new forms and directions of the art passed. They were artists that had memory of the period before II world war and the war period and after the war. In this period passed such artist as:
Tadeusz Kantor, legendary creator of Cracow Theatre Cricot 2, avant-gardist forever, unforgettable director of the great spectacle “Dead class”, dedicated to the victims of holocaust, that was very impressive over the world;
Kazimierz Dejmek, dead during the work on „Hamlet” in Theatre Nowy, that he founded in 50th, the most important representative of academic theatre and political theatre, always very sensitive on political and social problems, artist, that restored polish very old plays (mystery plays and moralities);
Jerzy Grzegorzewski, creator of very original theatre showing the spirit of the  intelligence, director of National Theatre, great post-modernist, the author of the only adaptation “Ulisses” by Joyce;
Tadeusz Łomnicki, great actor, may be the most important Polish actor of XX century, unforgettable Arturo UI from Brecht’s „Career of Arturo Ui” or too Salieri from „Amadeus” in direction Roman Polański.
His works in theatre closed splendid artist performer, Józef Szajna, former director and stage designer  in Warsaw Studio Theatre, that such work as pacifist „Replica”, connected with the war times and holocaust, and „Divine Comedy” by Dante were well known and respected in many countries. We can’t see new works in theatre of Andrzej Wajda. Among old master only Jerzy Jarocki, time to time Erwin Axer are active yet.
To the free place on the top of the artistic hierarchy appear new, very talented artist. The master class achieved the representatives postwar generation, Krystian Lupa and Maciej Englert, working in very different estethics, but close by the reason of intensive work with the actor, that they treated as a most important creator of the theatre. Lupa is the academic teacher too and his pupils now work in many Polish theatres. They belonged to the reformer of the polish theatre, its critics and destructor. Englert is the director of Warsaw Theatre Współczesny, marked professional theatre, which is the example of the high professional level.
Their patronage (positive or negative) framed the field of activity the young generation as the continuators or rebels, breaking up with the old theatre, searching new forms. Some of them found new theatres and theatre groups, some of them change the theatre as the insiders.
The typical sign of the escape from the established theatre of the full time job, from very formalized structure are in Poland various off-theatre groups searching. Some of them have a status of marked theatre, for example group Provisorium from Lublin and its production “Ferdydurke” by Gombrowicz visited triumphantly many festivals, collecting only enthusiastic reviews. Some critics – may be a little be too strong – estimate that theatre and that production as the best adaptation of Grombrowicz’s prose at all. Critics and audience have a high opinion of a group Montownia from Warsaw – this group was founded 10 years ago, when a few students of Warsaw Academy ended their education and decided to create own independent theatre. Their theatre searched a new form of contact with viewers in acting a bit more expressive than in traditional theatre and with a dose of absurd or black humour. They started with a play by Mrożek titled “Play”  and produced about 10 spectacles from Molier to Ibsen and Gombrowicz. Now they opened own seat in Warsaw in former basin of YMCA in the centre of the city, where they showed very serious production, “Peer Gynt” by Ibsen.
Group of Rafał Kmita from Cracow – showed fresh way of traditional humour in own productions connected with Cracow and its history.
Theatre Konsekwenty [Consistent] from Warsaw, that performed play of Ionesco, Mrożek and other in new naturalistic way.
Besides these (and others) new groups  the “old” off-theatres continue their works, for example:
famous puppet theatre WIERSZALIN from Supraśl (north-east Poland) with its leader Piotr Tomaszuk referring to the regional culture and religion;
Theatre Osmego Dnia [of the Eight Day] from Poznan, political theatre, very strong in the period of the struggle with communist power, very critical today too;
Scena Plastyczna [Fine Arts Stage] of Catholic University from Lublin, provided 35 years by Leszek Mądzik, active participant of aesthetic searching.
But the main centre of the searching of the new young theatre is Theatre Rozmaitości in Warsaw and its leaders, directors Grzegorz Jarzyna and Krzysztof Warlikowski. They used to named “new brutalist” of the reason by productions plays of Sarah Kane and others similar play writers. “Psychosis” by Grzegorz Jarzyna is one of the best production at the beginning of the XXI century in Poland, very impressive and deep, “The Cleaned” by Warlikowski is successful too.
These spectacles was co-produced by theatre in Germany; Rozmaitosci very often produced together with the theatres from abroad, practising international exchange and common artistic penetration.
There is not sharp division between off-theatre and traditional theatre – the most interesting performance of the brutal wave was produced by middle-class Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw – that was “Presidents” by Werner Schwab; the actress from this spectacle was awarded by annually award of polish section IACT.

    Chapter Three
    Revival of the polish playwriting

Generation changes in the Polish theater meant the changes in the polish contemporary playwriting.
After the II second world war in the main group of the Polish play writers were:
Witold Gombrowcz (1904-1969) – there was 100 years from the date of his birth two years ago: practically we have got many festivals of his plays and adaptations (including leading performance by Jerzy Jarocki, “Cosmos” in National Theatre); that was an occasion to discuss about polish provincialism and backwardness;
Sławomir Mrożek (born 1930) – appreciated not only in Poland; very popular bon mot in Poland is: “a situation as from Mrożek” that means absurd situation. His p0lays disappeared from the repertoire of polish theaters, may be his plays sent to the cemetery too early.
Tadeusz Różewicz (born 1921), very famous poet and playwright didn’t write any new play from 1994; then he ended very strong play „The Card Index Dispersed”(connected with his debut „The Card Index”,1960), the most interesting contemporary play about our times. Różewicz is in fact the godfather of the polish new drama – the young didn’t confirm that but they continue his formal revolutionary inn so called “open play”.
Many theatres produced performances by new polish plays – that is a new playwriting wave including National Theater, theaters in Legnica, Radom, Cracow and other cities, Association Drama, Drama Laboratory and another centers. In many sites were founded the centers of new Polish plays, promoting young play writers an Internet website devoted to the new plays. Special role in the promoting the young drama fulfilled two anthologies of new Polish drama prepared and published by Roman Pawłowski, best known reviewer of daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” (his books Pawłowski titled; “Generation porno”  and “Made in Poland”.
These books caused the discussion about the condition of the new polish drama. We can discuss about more or less interesting plays that were published in these two anthologies – but these publications create a new situation. From that moment we can talk about new wave in Polish drama and we can see 3 trends in that new movement:
a. the first is a psychological trend, focused on the spirit, intimate problems of individual in the tomes of the new capitalism; in that trend the leader is Ingmar Villqist, the play writer, who choose the scandinaviam pseudonym. His play “51” was very impressive, confirming his great dramatic talent and the empathy to the suffering; it was a play
about very ill, HIV-positive young man and his relation with parents; his plays are very popular in Poland in the beginning of XXI century we can say about Vilqist seasons.
b. the second is a social trend, for example:
“Zakaczawie ballad”, brilliant story about Legnica, its root of contemporary;
“Made in Poland” by Przemysław Wojcieszek, story about young unemployment worker.
“The most suicide commits on Sunday” by Anna Burzyńska, the play about polish yuppies; she portrayed young Polish yuppies, who are not able to live without the work, about the young workaholics.
“Toxins” by Krzysztof Bizio, work about the generation gap, misunderstanding between young and old men;
Diagnosis of the reality given by the young play writers were not positive; the world is in deep danger, full of the tragedies, violence, blood and rape. The extreme example of that diagnosis is the play titled “Łucja and her children” by Marek Pruchniewski, tragedy about contemporary Medea, young mother from the village killing her children (the play on the basis of the real facts).
c. the third is a trend of the post-Różewicz drama, representing for example by Michał Walczak and his play “The journey to the inside of the room” about young man without future and “Sand-pit”, metaphoric story about love and misunderstanding between man and woman.

    Chapter Four
    Some trials with foreign plays
    But not only new Polish plays gives a diagnosis of the reality – the new foreign drama too. The most popular foreign playwrights in Poland are Irishmen – Martin MacDonagh (“The Leutnant from Irishmore” in Teatr Współczesny, Warsaw) and Conor McPherson (very impressive performance of “Weir” in Studio Theatre in Warsaw). Irish plays have a good passa in our theatre, but the most important production of foreign drama is “Geza Kid” written by Hungary poet Hay, a story about handicapped young man in the neo capitalistic times, showing post communist reality in the province. The important spectacle is too Koltes’ s “Salinger” presenting the spiritual crisis of the American middle-class and the end of the American dream, independent production of the group of the young artists from Poland, France and Czech.

    Chapter Five
    The escape from the theatrical house

More and more performance is realised in atypical places – in the open air, in the closed factories, offices ect. That escape is characteristic for the artists contesting the old traditional theatre (Legnica, Wałbrzych), for example “Made in Poland” showed in the open air and a housing estate. Teatr Rozmaitości very often presents its production outside of the theatrical house (so called project Warsaw) and Teatr Wybrzeże form Gdańsk too (among others the spectacle in the hostel for the homeless) and the independent productions too, for example “City Triptich”, showed at the underground station, in a bus and the closed factory, produced by Action Found.
These methods of the presentation not always gives a positive resultats (for ex. “Electronic City” or “Helena S.” by Rozmaitosci).

    Chapter six
    Classic drama

The special field of the confrontation of the new and the old theatre in Poland in last years were the productions of classic plays, especially Shakespeare’s plays. We could observe a debates about many staging of Shakespeare’s plays – the good pretext to these discussions gives the staging of  “The King Richard Second” in National Theatre, directed by Andrzej Seweryn, Polish-French artist, the actor of  French Comedy (Comedie Francaise) in Paris. That performance was realised with the special tenderness to the dramatic word. But despite that incredible respect the most reviewers criticised  the spectacle for its emotional cool, artificiality and the lack of the spirit.
On the other hand another spectacle presented in the same season, “Edypus Kin” by Sofokles on the stage of Ateneum Theatre in Warsaw was very strong aplaused – that spectacle is realised with the special respect to the poetic word too.
Many director looking for the magic way in which they could be able to revive old plays and find in the old text new answer for new question. It is interesting that the good way found the director of the older generation, Jan Englert in the “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare, showed as a contemporary media show and media and politic manipulation. That performance he realised in Polish TV Theatre.

Chapter seven
Looking for the key

The situation in Polish theatre develops in its own logic, but has a lot of conflicts and the doubts. I must to stress – we observe many trails of the political manipulation and trials of the restitution of the censorship, especially religion motivated. We observe conflict in the fields of the personal decision, the struggle between representatives of  the opposing ideological orientation. From time to time local government prohibits to public presentation of the plays with the brutal scene or anticlerical accents. Very characterise is a short history of Warsaw independent, liberal club “Le madame”, that is opened and closed many times. I’m sure it it the only way to independent theatre and its strong connection with European and world theatre. It is a global stage we can see the production of Sarah Kane plays in Hamburg, in Warsaw and in Tokyo at a time.

Chapter eight
Polish-Japanese connection

Coming to the end I would like to stress close connection between Polish and Japanese theatre. By the way important contribution to these connections has the Polish-Japanese Foundation created and provided by Andrew’s Wajda, great Polish director, who directed one one of the famous play of Mishima Youkio, “Mrs Aoi”, produced by Stary Theatre in Cracow a few years ago. Now in Warsaw we can see new production by Mishima, “Madame de Sade” with the famous Polish actresses Ewa Wiśniewska in Ateneum Theatre (about 20 years ago the same play was produced by the the same theatre). I must say we have in Poland many occasion to meet traditional Japanese theatre, especially no. Last year the splendid book written by Polish researcher, Estera Żeromska  “The Mask on the Japanese Stage” was published in Poland – this illustrated book is the first Polish and – may be – European publication so deeply showing tradition of the mask in Japan. The author was awarded the annual Best Theatrical Book Prize, founded by Polish section of our Association and this book is widely read. The author prepared her book on the basis of research in in Japan – we are very proud that the Polish author was too close informed about  the mystery of the Mask by the Japanese’s host. I’m sure that it isn’t the last step in Polish-Japanese connection.
Thank you for your attention.

Tomasz Miłkowski

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