Warsaw – Theatre Centre


Nearly a quarter of the Polish theatres are located in Warsaw, and among 90 Polish drama theatres almost one-third are placed in Warsaw. These numbers define the strength of Warsaw as the theatre centre. Let me compare – Kraków – the second theatrical centre in Poland is home to 10 theatres; Wrocław, very strong cultural centre – 4 theatres, the same Lódź. The figures in the arts are not everything, and sometimes they mean as much as nothing, though the most extensive base for performances production determines Warsaw’s potential.

N/z: Danuta Szaflarska in the role of Grandma in NO MATTER HOW HARD WE TRIED by Dorothy Masłowska, directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna in TR Warszawa



I would like to begin this brief overview of Warsaw’s theaters with our host – an intimate Teatr Ateneum, one of 19 theaters of the capital that are owned by the Warsaw City Council, strictly speaking, 14 repertory theaters with permanent residence and artistic team. Ateneum is a small theatre with great traditions – it was built (1928) with a sense of mission of promoting theatre in the working-class district of Warsaw; today one of the most fashionable (and expensive) neighborhoods of the capital. The creator, then the patron of the theatre, was a prominent actor Stefan Jaracz.
After the war, it was raised from the ruins and for almost 40 years led by Janusz Warminski, the director, who managed to combine tradition and modernity, popular and ambitious repertoire, even avant-garde. Under his leadership the theatre became famous for an excellent quality of acting, which was symbolized by the performances of Alexandra Śląska and Jacek Woszczerowicz, masterfully playing Richard III. This made Warmiński’s Ateneum a second home for actors.

Warsaw has the largest group of actors in Poland: it is estimated that every second Polish actor works in Warsaw – only a few of them in theatres. Not only Ateneum, but also theatres like: Współczesny, Powszechny, Dramatyczny are considered theatres of actors.

Additionally they are also renowned as theatres which brought Polish culture to Western Europe during the Cold War.

Teatr Współczesny, provisionally arranged – after World War II – in the former parish hall of a nearby church, endured in this tiny space for decades, giving great productions. It became outstanding mainly because of the work of director Erwin Axer, Slawomir Mrozek’s dramas and the achievement of the genius among Polish stage actors: Tadeusz Lomnicki – with their cooperational legendary staging of Careers of Arturo Ui. Sort of crowning achievement of their common path was Bernhard’s Comedian [in the photo], the show symbolizes the change in the role of theatre in post-communist era. The theatre for many years headed by the Axer ‘s successor, Maciej Englert is known for its masterly drawn characters and utilisation of a small space (Englert openned the second, even smaller stage for 100 spectators in the barrack). In addition to those performances, Englert focused audience attention on presentation of Agnieszka Glińska work, who won recognition as an interpreter of Chekhov.

The main face of Teatr Współczesny i Teatr Dramatyczny has long been Maja Komorowska. The actress grew up in Grotowski’s Laboratory and her arts fully blossomed in the Happy days of Samuel Beckett, directed by Antoni Libera – 14 years on the poster.

For several years now, the artistic influences of the theatre are connected with Krystian Lupa’s personality, and his famous performances, such as the Erase with Maja Komorowska or Persona. Merylin. Recently Teatr Dramatyczny opens to the Performance Art and new artistic quest in the theatre.

Teatr Powszechny is the first theatre in Warsaw that openned its doors at the end of the war. For many years it was the mainstay of acting which was significantly influenced by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz and his achievements as an actor. After a generational change the theatre’s fame faded. After renovation though it has modern rooms for 100, 200, 300 people and restores their position. The scene is widely regarded as bourgeois – nevertheless it managed to pave the way for acceptance with so called brutalists and their loud premiere Presidents Werner Schwab. Additionally it also inaugurated the renewal of the literary language of the theatre – Measure for Measure, directed by Anna Augustynowicz was a good proof of that.

The tiny Scena Prezentacje belongs to theatres cultivating the art of acting. It is the oldest impresario theater in Warsaw founded in 1979 by director Romuald Szejd, an admirer of the French drama – Ionesco’s one-act plays are staged here successfully for several years. Addidtionally an outstanding performance of Ignacy Gogolewski as a cardinal Mazarin in the play of Antoine Raulta has become a great achievement of the recent seasons.

The address for new playwrights became the Laboratory of Drama (now returned to its former name of the movie – The Shock Worker), led by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, initially at the National Theatre, an independent entity for a few years now (since 2003). On the tiny stage of the theater, there were many premieres, debuts, play readings and full productions, including Piotr Rowicki Clinging.

Teatr na Woli that is directed for two seasons by Tadeusz Słobodzianek as well, also belongs to the centers of new drama. Last season’s achievement of Teatr na Woli was the play Our Class by Słobodzianek directed by Odrej Spisak. The drama about Polish-Jewish-Russian and German relations that bravely confronts and faces the tragedy of the Holocaust.

TR Warszawa is regarded as a theater, in which a director is the original creator of the show. Its profile was shaped by Grzegorz Jarzyna, who focuses on the present and by Warlikowski who focuses on the classics. Firstly they were working in the theatre together then their paths diverged. Jarzyna began to feel cramped in the TR, as it is a tiny theater, hence he has produced some spectacles outside the theatre building, for example: Walker’s Risk Everything, show played at the Central Station and 2007: Mackbeth performed in the postindustrial space. But then he came back to the theatre in such performances as Masłowska’s No Matter how Hard We Tried or Passolini’s T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.

Still in TR, in performances such as Anski’s Dybbuk and Tony Kushner’ s Angels in America, Warlikowski as attempted going beyond the theatre, to the other spaces. Warlikowski remains outside the theater building as he became director of the New Theatre, with no office (located in the site under planned construction). His first (and next) productions in Nowy Teatr was presented in the postindustral area. In (A)polonia he confronts The Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylos, presenting the founding murder of Europe, and the Holocaust, the most important and the most tragic genocide in European history..

Teatr Studio, created by Joseph Szajna in the early 70s, has been the theatre of the artistic narrative, of a strong emotional shape, as in the memorable Replika (Replica, 1973). Following the resignation of Szajna – Jerzy Grzegorzewski gave this tradition a new impulse. After he left the post, the theater is trying to find a different tone – it is not easy and the new artistic director Agnieszka Glińska faces the task of restoring the Studio’s rank.

Videoteatr „POZA” [Beyond], founded by an independent theater actress Jolanta Lothe and poet Peter Lachmann, has existed for over 25 years. It combines live action with the action from monitors, projectors and projection of digital cameras. In their field they are pioneers. At its last premiere of the characteristic title Crunch (10 June 2010), they have showed the dangerous divisions in the modern world.

A group of artists gathered under a new name (for 20 years as Otwock Commune) – Commune / / Warsaw – a group of artists that stands out among independent groups.

Their characteristic feature is the principle of non-profit organization. Perhaps it is the most radical fringe group in Warsaw, a left-wing ideological orientation.

Teatr na Targówku Rampa, a theatre on the outskirts of Warsaw that combines contemporary and classic drama, musicals, concerts, art for kids in the search for laboratory. It gives hundreds of performances a year on four stages. The amazing diligence. A comparison of a district theatre with the fringe theatre seems strange, but in art nothing is quite what it seems. Thus, the presence in the Rampa’s repertoire of the show of an avant-garde composer Bogusław Schaefer and the spectacles prepared by laboratory of adepts of acting (Mother by Witkacy).

Teatr Konsekwentny is a kind of phenomenon – the troupe grew out of the amateur movement and has become the producer of the largest theatrical hits of the last 20 years in Warsaw: Zannusi’ Assessment and Ionesco Lesson, played over 1000 times. This theatre with its modest financial possibilities still provides us with surprises – like adaptation of the Phillip Roth’ Portnoy’s Complaint, awarded for best directing in Warsaw. By the way today is a great day for Konsekwentyy – they are openning its new location in the former Vodka Factory Koneser.

Teatr Montownia grew from a student group in the Theater School and recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. Only for a short period it had its own place, choosing „loitering” for its method. It combines artistic performances, such as Sentimental Piece for Four Actors with representations of comedies and cabaret use.

The experimental mix of the city theatre and the independent theatre art group Studio Teatralne Koło took place recently at Teatr Ochoty, the scene of the great traditions of teaching and creative work with young people. Despite the renovation of its building Ochota is presenting new productions outside its headquatersit for example Old Woman by Danil Kharms in Soho Factory.

Previously mentionned Studio Koło is one of the theatres that has the status of social organization (NGO’s Theaters). One of the oldest theatres in this category is Teatr Druga Stefa with its interesting lacation in the former car service building (pictured Biraga Sylvester, director of the theatre in mono drama Thank you, Daddy Fred Apke).

After 1989, a lot of new private theatres have been created, nevertheless only a few work in their own permises. One of the examples of the theatres that operate in their own permises is Teatr Kamienica [Tenement House Theatre]. The site has been renovated and adapted by the actor Emilian Kaminski who managed to pursue this project mainly with his own and his cooperators workload, only partially supported by the European funding.

Private theatres, as private theatrical productions primarily focus their attention on the entertainment shows. Additionally there are three local city theatres that specialise in entertainment –

  • impresario theatre: Comedy

  • The repertoire theatre KWADRAT, from time to time with the more ambitious titles, e.g. Berek by Marcin Szczygielski

  • and the repertoire Syrena Theatre, a very Warsaw-like theater – once famous for revues and medleys, now is looking for a new form of theatre: entertainment, but at the same time reflexive.

On the map of Warsaw theatres there is also private theatre Capitol that does not hide its commercial nature nevertheless it sometimes surprises the audience with an ambitious repertoire, e.g.re, e.g. Goose by Nikolai Kolada.

IMKA is one of the youngest renowned theatres among the private founded by film actor Tomasz Karolak (2010). Its repertoire has met with the living response of the audience and critics, especially sophisticated adaptation of Gombrowicz’s Journal and the shows dealing with the Polish past, like the General, and The Rubber Merchants by Hanoch Levin.

Krystyna Janda, a theatre actress and a movie star, began building her ‘theatre empire’ in 2005, since then she created two theaters – Polonia with two stages, and Och-teatr, both in old and neglected cinemas. The scenes have been working hard to conquered Warsaw’s audience with the „center’ repertoire, addressed to a wide audience, with the participation of popular actors. Janda theatres today present more than 30 titles and among them there are also shows that tackle issues of high social importance (such as Darkroom and Miss HIV, affecting moral taboos) and dramas of high quality (eg. drama by Witkacy).

An important place on the map of Warsaw theatres is the Teatr Żydowski/Jewish Theatre – formed immediately after the war. Under the direction of Simon Szurmiej, it cultivates drama and literature written in Yiddish, plays from old Jewish folklore and humor through such productions as the Tenement on Nalewki Street, Tradition or Bewitched Night. It is also increasingly reaching out for new adaptations and new drama, such as The Suitcase, [Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk] one of the most interesting Polish texts returning to the experience of the Holocaust.

Teatr Polski, the theatre of immense tradition, founded 99 years ago by an enthusiast of the theater, then long-term director Arnold Szyfman is an example of the theatre with a mission. It is a kind of paradox that such a theatre is today a regional theater, financed by the government of the Mazovian region. For the audience the Polski remains the mainstay of the Polish tradition but a new director, Andrzej Seweryn, an actor of Comedie Francaise, tries to tie the tradition with the recent trends [- it is not a coincidence that the first premiere with his participation was the evening of Beckett plays, never present at this stage before. The classics in the new interpretation, with respect to the words of the author, dominates here, often with the participation of directors of Western Europe, especially from France. Monumental Racine’ Cid [dir. Ivan Alexandre], witty Molier’s School for Wives, directed by Jacques Lassalle, Twelfth Night [dir. Dan Jemmett]. Additionally, Polski gives a chance to debutants – eg. Hekabe, the impressive premiere of Euripides prepared by young director Carolina Labakhua.

Also, Teatr Narodowy/ the National Theatre remains outside the city jurisdiction – this is the national cultural institution, founded almost 250 years ago. Former director of the scene, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, has been distinguished as a director of Wyspianski, Gombrowicz and Różewicz. As a result National had become a symbolic House of Wyspianski, the great reformer and poet of the theatre of late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Grzegorzewski’s outstanding production, among others, Little Soul by Tadeusz Różewicz (2004) casted the current artistic director of Teatr Narodowy, Jan Englert where he created a prominent role.

Englert continues Grzegorzewski’s line, to a greater extend than its predecessor, paying attention to the balance between what is traditional and proven, and what is new and not recognized. Hence the performances of many young directors, the choice of the new Polish drama and promising artists. The cooperation of the artists coming from several generations gives an interesting a collision of classic and modernity. The strength of the theater is the art team. If any measure – enough to say that half of annual Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński award, awarded for outstanding achievements in the arts of theatre, was given after 2000, to the artists associated with the National Theatre.

This is just a part of the picture of theatrical life in the capital – I omitted the musical theatre, puppetry, dance and movement theatre, as well as numerous independent productions, scenes for rent, where teams are formed to make presentations. New private theatres are constantly created, others fall. What seems to be characteristic for all the Warsaw’s theatres is a model of repertoire theatre, which has survived not only in theatres funded by the city or state, but prevailed in the private theatres. Many theatres require repairs, and financial resources – limited in times of the crisis – for difficult daily existence. I was not talking about financial situation of the theatre – which recently grew louder say the artists themselves. But that’s a rather different kettle of fish.
Most importantly, theatre in Warsaw, not only survived the transition time, but through changing its face and keeping the tradition, it managed to gain the new audience. As described by one of the Polish critics. “The Polish theatrical heart beats in Warsaw”. And so it should be.


Tomasz Miłkowski

Leave a Reply