Magdalena Gołaczyńska[1]

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In the Lower Silesian theatre of the early 21st century the directors from Wroclaw and Legnica create their own “site specific theatre,” beyond the institutional theatres and recognized cultural centres. These are places far from the velvet seat elegance of the freshly refurbished theatres. The directors and stage designers take the audiences to the “no go” districts, searching for their “genius loci,” maintaining an aura of mystery, inspiring for themselves and fascinating for the spectators. I call it “local” theatre because both the choice of locations and subjects are closely linked to the history of the community and the creation of local identity. The notions of “local” and “localism” come from the Latin word localis meaning “a specific place or localization in a broader space. Thus, local is the same as domestic, located in a specific space or assigned to a specific site” (Szczepański, 2005: 122). The site is then bound to a definite architectural landscape and specific community of local inhabitants.

One of the best examples of local involvement is the Legnica Modrzejewska Theatre, where Jacek Głomb described his beyond-the-theatre activities as “the theatre in ruins.” Before the 1st edition of the “Miasto” (City) Festival in 2007 he explained: “We enter various spaces; from an old factory hall, through the collapsing cinema building, medieval church, ruined theatre hall, to the castle yard. (…) It is not about the slick ‘ruin staging,’ or recently fashionable going outside the theatre buildings, but about a conscious choice of stage location, where the plot of the play will be inseparably linked to the surrounding space” (Głomb 2007).

One of the most interesting “outside” productions in Legnica was Łemko (2007), which belongs to a series of Modrzejewska Theatre plays dealing with local history.

After World War II, the village of Mikołajowice near Legnica was inhabited by the resettled Lemko people. The Lemko are an Eastern Slavic ethnic group, which before 1947 populated the area of south-east Poland (i.e. Low Beskid, Bieszczady Mountains). They were forced to resettle in the so-called Recovered Territories during the Operation Vistula, as they were accused—in many cases unjustly—of collaboration with the Ukrainian guerillas. Also, for many Polish people, Lemkos and Ukrainians were the same. Głomb confronted great historic events through private individual dramas, showing how the World War II conflict between the large armies of Germany and Russia influenced the average civilian. The war had completely changed the state borders of Lower Silesia. For Legnica audiences, the production of Lemko was another step in discovering the multicultural past of the region, so often present in Głomb performances.

Lemko dramas were staged in a desolate hall on Kartuska Street in the Zakaczawie district. Before World War II, it was actually a German music-hall theatre. In Glomb’s Lemko, it is a brick post-German era house, the site where the protagonist—Orest—resettles. The theatrical space has been cleverly used by the designer, Małgorzata Bulanda, who “cluttered” it with numerous damaged farming items, such as ladders, wagon wheels or barrels, and the entire floor with simple rough planks. The action unfolded on two levels—the lower (the house and village) and the upper in the gallery (the office, the ancestors’ dwelling). The play deals with the issues of homesickness, the left-behind motherland, the disintegration of the Lemko community and the destruction of their cultural and religious heritage. The Lemko were subject to pressure, both from the Soviet soldiers and from the Polish and Ukrainian officials. Orest’s cry, “I want to belong to myself. I want to stay here,” pretty much sums it all up for us. It is obvious that he does not want to get involved. “The time has come, when you can’t be yourself,” he adds resignedly. He resettles to Mikołajewice (Recovered Territories) and his property, which was confiscated in his home village, cannot be regained even after the fall of communism.

"Made in Poland" Teatr im. Modrzejewskiej, Legnica. Actors: Eryk Lubos, Janusz Chabior. Photo: Tomasz Augustyn
“Made in Poland” Teatr im. Modrzejewskiej, Legnica. Actors: Eryk Lubos, Janusz Chabior. Photo: Tomasz Augustyn

Another play, of a completely different character, is Made in Poland (2004) by Przemysław Wojcieszek, staged in a specific sort of “ruins”—the tower block built during the period of the People’s Republic of Poland, in the largest Legnica housing district, called Piekary, another dodgy area of the town. It was erected in the 1970s, as a grid of similar tower blocks. These “concrete deserts,” fostering the development of social pathology, were sites that overwhelmed their residents, who stayed there out of necessity and felt they were occupying their flats temporarily, rather than living in them permanently. In this huge neighborhood you can spot some behaviors typical of big city dwellers. As Simmel soundly observes, “the spiritual attitude of the residents towards one another can be formally described as reserved (…) with the hint of hidden dislike” (2005: 309-310). The play, written and directed by Wojcieszek, was then staged beyond the theatre, in the Piekary district, presenting the local community “here and now” in the early 21st century, with a young unemployed anarchist as the protagonist. The play combines some features we recognize as universal, such as: the limited perspectives and individual development in a small town, unemployment, the aggression of Polish youths, or “yobbos” (in Poland nearly 20 million people live in blocks) as well as certain local characteristics—typical for Legnica when it is the site (when he shows the actual Piekary district). The production, however, can be classified as an example of “site generic theatre,” as it has also been successfully staged in other similar housing districts.

In this production, the action took place in front of the building of a large shop (once a supermarket and a pharmaceutical warehouse), at the car park, and then inside the shop, where the audience was seated. Thanks to glass walls, the viewers were able to watch the outside events, while the passers-by could, at least temporarily, join the audience. The viewers remembered the first scene best, when they were still standing in front of the shop. The rebellious yobbo, Boguś, set fire to the garbage can and shouted: “Up, motherfuckers, up! Time for revolution! Up!” Both the actors occupying one of the flats, and the real residents, tried to chase the trouble-maker away, while he ran around with a metal baseball bat, broke the window of a parked car and jumped on its bonnet, destroying it. The audience could see the spaces between buildings, and a car park with a burning garbage can. After this dynamic introduction, the viewers took their seats inside the shop building, divided into three sections, two opposite, and one on the side. Theatrical activities took place in the center of the main hall, in the side room, where a car—a mobile scenery element—was kept, and at the back, under the balcony. Through the glass wall, the spectators could watch the outside shopping area and see the surrounding blocks. The warehouse served as the characters’ flats, where the warehouse racks, full of boxes, served as symbolic furniture. Boguś’s flat lacked a solid table, a very common stage element of Polish theatrical houses.

"Made in Poland" Teatr im. Modrzejewskiej, Legnica. Actors: Eryk Lubos, Janusz Chabior. Photo: Tomasz Augustyn
“Made in Poland” Teatr im. Modrzejewskiej, Legnica. Actors: Eryk Lubos, Janusz Chabior. Photo: Tomasz Augustyn

Legnica yobbos are well aware of the mediocrity of their existence and of what it means to be condemned to the “concrete deserts.” To own a house is their distant, almost impossible dream. According to Boguś’es Polish language teacher (another protagonist), an alcoholic, a flat in a block is a “no-home,” a sort of anti-model of a home. ”Do you know?” he asks Boguś, “that there are some places without blocks in this country? Can you imagine that? Have you ever seen a house, a regular one? With four walls, two stories and a chimney? (…) There is another world, another life somewhere.” At the same time, next to the urban losers, Wojcieszek showed us the heartless local businessmen clashing with Boguś (who unknowingly destroyed a Lexus belonging to their boss, Fazi). The conflict gets solved, quite incredibly, thanks to the intervention of the priest and the involvement of Boguś mother. The rebel himself, in turn, finds love and happiness. The final scene is another example of going “beyond the theatre”—a special recording by Krzysztof Krawczyk (an older-generation pop star), with wishes for the happiness of Legnica spectators, and his song Nie jesteś sam (You are not alone) projected on the wall of one of the neighboring blocks. In fact, it turns out that the urban loneliness of the Made in Poland characters is rather illusory. Friends and neighbors help one another in difficult situations and find support in their idol’s words.

The premiere of Made in Poland in Piekary was one of the numerous city-oriented actions of the Legnica theatre; it contributed to the creation of a new stage on the outskirts of town and reinforced the identification of the residents with their environment. Thus, it played a crucial social role. Similarly, there was a production about contemporary rebelliousness at the German Bochum Schauspielhaus. The play was directed by another Polish director, Jan Klata, and was based on Friedrich Schiller’s Die Rǟuber (2012). Klata showed a group of today’s European city inhabitants—football hooligans—clashing with the law, and he also showed the mechanism of aggression. Both Die Rǟuber and Made in Poland are examples of social theatre, a kind of new Zeittheater. However Klata did not try to create a “positive” theatre that would reinforce the locals.

A somewhat different “theatre in ruins” was created in Wroclaw by Maciej Masztalski and his independent Ad Spectatores Theatre, in the basement of the Wroclaw Main Railway Station. As Anna Zajdler-Janiszewska notes, each station “has its own mythology, created by its regulars, travelers and one-time visitors (…)” (1999: 91-92), adding that a station can become a peculiar “city within the city.” At the same time, railway stations are spaces exceptionally adverse to interpersonal contact; therefore the actors had to overcome their prejudices against the station and get used to it at a deep level. Ultimately, in the station basement Ad Spectatores Small Stage was created, consisting of several low, connecting rooms with brick ceilings and exposed piping. The auditorium was a collection of folding chairs and random stools. In this way the team joined the quite “fringe” theatre, described to me by one of the Edinburgh Festival critics as “the theatre with uncomfortable seats.”

On this stage Masztalski realized three original low-budget parts: Historia [History] (2004), Historia II (2006) and Historia III (2008), with the action moving. The viewers walked from one room to another, guided by odd-looking, scatterbrained Raisonneurs through the dark, narrow underground labyrinths, where each place hid a mysterious “story.” Even though Wroclaw is not mentioned directly in the plays, the characters referred to the building’s past and recalled names familiar to Wroclaw residents. The guiding Raisonneur drew the viewers’ attention to the solidity of the surrounding post-German era basement walls, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, see how they used to build in the old days….” And then a warning followed: “Mind the antique pipe!/ gothic chair!” The plays, full of absurd dialogue and black humor, included scenes from various times and places. “Each place may have its own history,” write the authors. “In many cases it is self-created from real events, remembered clearly by witnesses, which distinguish one place from many others. What happens, however, if no such events ever occurred? Well, we can always create our own histories, which will then grow into legends and be passed on to the next generations.”

MG- "Historia I" Teatr Ad Spectatores, Wroclaw. Actor: Pawel Kutny. Photo: Maciej Masztalski
MG- “Historia I” Teatr Ad Spectatores, Wroclaw. Actor: Pawel Kutny. Photo: Maciej Masztalski

Masztalski’s Historia is a bluff full of humorous myth creations; none of them is really linked to the history of the city or the space where they are presented. Yet, they refer to widespread rumors of the station’s secret underground halls and tunnels (supposedly holding precious Nazi treasures). At the same time, the plays include a number of ironic motifs directed at himself. For example, Masztlski mocks the theatrical realization of the “small homeland” idea—an idea that was treated seriously by his company in another play; or he ridicules, elsewhere having supported, the concept of environmental theatre.

Another Ad Spectatores production, Biskupi z Biskupina i partyzanci z Oporowa targają Tarnogaj [Bishops from Biskupin and Partisans from Oporow assault Tarnogaj] (2009), was set in a very attractive beyond-the-theatre space, which is Wroclaw City Council Session Hall, used for conferences, but closed to the public. The choice of this site created added interest for the spectators, as they were allowed to visit a prestigious space they may have otherwise known only from TV. The hall is located in the so-called New Town Hall in the Old Market Square (this local theatre is not “in ruins”)—the neo-gothic symbol of the metropolis of the 1860-1864 period. The recent spectacular renovation of Market Square, conducted in the 1990s, turned these sites and buildings into a showcase for Wroclaw.

The performance by Ad Spectatores (written and directed by Maciej Masztalski) is one of the episodes of the theatrical series dedicated to the city, called The Meeting Place. The Polish title Biskupi z Biskupina… is a kind of word play on the names of three Wroclaw districts, and an indication of the joyful atmosphere of the performance, but it has no connection with its subject matter. Before the premiere, Masztalski claimed that he did not intend to create an intervention play or to criticize the local authorities, so apparently the performance had only few references to actual situations and these were but subtle hints. The title “The Meeting Place” was the popular tourist slogan used by Wroclaw authorities for city promotion, referring to its multicultural history (in the past Wroclaw was successively a Polish, Czech, Austrian, Prussian and German city, and also a city with a large Jewish community).

Biskupi - "Biskupi z Biskupina" Teatr Ad Specatores, Wroclaw. Actors: Aleksandra Dytko, Jedrzej Taranek. Photo: M. Masztalski
Biskupi – “Biskupi z Biskupina” Teatr Ad Specatores, Wroclaw. Actors: Aleksandra Dytko, Jedrzej Taranek. Photo: M. Masztalski

During the performance the spectators were seated in the city council chairs. The plot was based on the idea of a competition between the Wroclaw Mayor and the Dolnośląskie Voivodeship Marshal, who were presented as … two pop singers opponents. The Mayor was preparing to release his new record, and the news about this project was slipped to the media and to the Marshal’s Office. The action was set in several sites of the session hall (at the presidium table, between the council chairs) which remained unchanged, and the virtual space. The green and brown décor of the session hall was traditional and elegant, with massive leather and wooden armchairs, desktops and high windows with thick curtains. The rows of armchairs and the presidium table surrounded the central space, as if creating a small studio stage in the middle. The new Wroclaw coat of arms hung above the presidium table; below, the authors placed the emblem of Dolnośląskie Voivodeship.

The production by Marszalski and his group was a kind of statement by citizens of the young generation. It mocked the absurdity of the current bureaucracy, present day bans and orders, the surprising priorities of the regional polices incomprehensible for ordinary citizens. The authors skillfully presented the significance of modern media and technologies: both the Mayor and the Marshal communicate with their teams only by means of videoconferencing (actually the broadcasts—DVD recordings—were displayed on two large screens in the hall), so they were distant and separated, present and absent at the same time. In this way the authors not only showed the “technopoly” supporters’ mentality, but also solved a cast problem: popular actors, also performing in other companies, appeared in the displayed films. Other important news was presented to the audience by the “local radio” (recordings). Both the present day and the past were ridiculed. Most important for the authorities were their musical and artistic activities, so that tasks of real significance, such as construction of the city’s ring road (Wroclaw is well known for its heavy traffic and obsolete traffic solutions) became only secondary. While laying out the new road, the Mayor was assisted by the ghost of Bolesław Drobner , the first post-war city president and socialist activist. He appeared about midnight and demanded pay for his assistance and, after a long haggle, he accepted 600 USD cash in hand, regretting that the spectacular project could not be completed today by the “political prisoners” (as this would have been much more economical). Drobner’s support was also requested by the left-wing Council members (as they assumed that he should have advised them, and nobody else!). The modern Mayor persistently, and out of habit rather than for ideological reasons, used the former, socialist-imposed names of Wroclaw streets—changed after 1989—(e.g. Świerczewski Street, Dzierżyński Square). This did not, however, arouse any sentimental nostalgia for the past system, but rather caused confusion between the Mayor and his younger associates, and probably confused the majority of the spectators, accustomed to the topographical names currently used. Masztalski mocked both the old historical policy of the socialist governments’ referring to the so-called Recovered Territories, and the current out-sized deference for German cultural traces. One radio news program reported: “Berlin University has questioned the truthfulness of the 1950s Wroclaw propaganda slogan, that ‘here even the stones spoke Polish’ [That was original 1950s popular propaganda slogan, created and used to justify Polish claims and presence in Recovered Territories] (…) The University Chancellor, quoting the recent scientific research results, questioned the stones’ ability to speak at all. ‘Science’ magazine hesitated whether to publish the controversial revelations.”

With regard to the present day authorities, they are ambitious and want to turn Wroclaw into a modern, tolerant European city (often against their own beliefs), well-known and well-regarded throughout the world. To achieve this, they make an effort to host some major events or to construct some spectacular monuments. To this purpose, they accepted the absurd suggestion by the secret Lower Silesian Masonic Lodge to build a gigantic statue of a mason. His “left foot would stand next to the cathedral, in Ostrów Tumski, and right – ca. 200 meters from the Opatowice Weir. The height: half a kilometer (…) The compass is to be 2.5 tons, cast of bronze (…). In his right hand he would hold a triangle, providing a pleasant shadow for Market, downtown and Różanka” (different districts of the city). The statue could be a good solution for the hot days and a way of increasing Wroclaw’s chance of becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2016 (the title was actually granted to Wroclaw 2 years after the premiere). The only “small inconvenience” would be the air traffic ban over the city. The action was complemented by a slideshow of popular city views and spaces: the Market Square, dwarves (a touristic symbol of the city), railway station, and bridges. Biskupi z Biskupina… is an example of the “beyond-the-theatre” production staged in a historical space, which prompted the authors to create a performance in which the history was confronted, in an amusing way, with the current city and community problems.

Why is it then, that the contemporary directors go “beyond the theatre?” It is obvious that they are looking for new artistic inspirations to broaden the theatre’s social and cultural borders, following the modern trends of cultural decentralization. When a theatre production appears in a “dangerous” district, then not only does the very site or street lot play a new role, but the entire district does, with its local community (whose members very often join the audience). By creating theatrical sites “beyond the theatres,” and staging plays in such surroundings, a local awareness is built among the authors and spectators, reinforced by their connection with the given environment. A new cultural memory is developed, essential for the continuity of the history of these sites. For the spectators the performance may be a spark of thought about their time and place. Moreover it may be important as a specific theatrical experience, and also as a part of the cultural identify with the actual place.

In the “beyond the theatre” one can imagine various types of spectators: those who come to the theatre by accident, and those, for whom the performance becomes something special. For the latter group, the space where they saw the performance will always bear the traces of new people and events—the authors and their creation. This way the minor, personal, local history of a single spectator is enriched by new motifs and experiences, and the place gains a new dimension. Besides, in many cases the theatrical sites “beyond the theatre” are given a new value and significance among the local community. This was not only the case for the Legnica Piekary stage in the commercial warehouse, or the Wroclaw railway station stage used by Ad Spectatores Theatre, Legnica City Festival, but for many other suburban cases. After the first productions the companies managed to create new, dynamic, alternative culture centres, beyond the well-established cultural institutions. These new centers are later on used not only for theatrical activities, but also for a number of other educational and cultural projects. In this way, many local theatres and places play very significant culture-forming roles in their communities.

Bibliography

Głomb, Jacek, O teatrze, którego sceną jest Miasto, festival catalogue, Legnica: 2007.

Simmel, Georg, Socjologia. Warszawa: PWN, 2005.

Szczepański, Marek S., Społeczności lokalne i regionalne a ład kontynentalny i globalny, in Kręgi integracji i rodzaje tożsamości. Polska, Europa, świat, ed. Wesołowski Włodzimierz. Warszawa: Scholar, 2005.

Zeidler-Janiszewska, Anna, Pisanie miasta, czytanie miasta. Poznań: Wyd. Fundacji Humaniora, 1997.


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[1] Magdalena Gołaczyńska holds a doctorate in theatre from Uniwersytet Wrocławski, where she teaches. She has published the Teatr alternatywny w Polsce po 1989: 2002 (about Polish alternative). She also collaborated with “SEEP,” “Notatnik Teatralny.”

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The Local Theatre “in Ruins”