Konrad Szczebiot[1]

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I have been pondering for quite a long time what might be the most important thing I could say about Polish theatre at the beginning of the 21st century. The conclusion I have come to has surprised me. What is worse, it reminded me of one of the best known arguments of one of the classics of philosophy, whose thoughts we, the Eastern Europeans, willingly or unwillingly, had to investigate thoroughly and memorize well. I’m talking, of course, about Karl Marx and his idea that social existence shapes consciousness.

To put it now in terms of theatre, at this moment in time it seems to me far more important that people outside of Poland understand the social, legal, economic and political conditions which Polish theatre artists of the past decade have had to work within, than to talk about their artistic achievements.

Polish theatre in the first decade of the 21st century was comprised of several dozen state theatres (of which only a few can claim considerable artistic merit), a few private theatres (which, for the most part, stage unsophisticated, popular shows), several hundred theatre festivals and innumerable independent theatres operating either as foundations or associations.In general, the image is one of chaos. Most institutionalized theatres were established during the period of the centrally planned economy. But even the modus operandi of those theatres which were lucky enough to spring up later is still rooted in the model established earlier.

Since 1989, new plans to either centralize or decentralize cultural institutions have been introduced every few years. None of these was ever finalized. The effect is that every cultural institution existing in Poland is subject to a peculiar mixture of rules which are both centralizing and decentralizing, free market and socialist. And one can even find rare institutional relics which date back to the Stalinist era.

I venture to say that, as far as the Polish theatre is concerned, the 90s were the wasted years. Before 1989 the theatre in Poland was a place of considerable social importance. It was there where the veiled, censorship-proof discourse on the state of the nation and the country took place. For Polish society the 80s was the time of torpor, stagnation and the feeling of hopelessness. The introduction of the martial law in 1981 intensified repression and lead to the emigration of the most creative members of the society. The repression afflicted the theatrical milieu in quite a considerable way. Suddenly brilliant careers were made by mediocre artists who were not, however, anticommunist like the majority of the theatre artists, who ostentatiously boycotted participation in official enterprises. The mass emigration and broken careers led to Polish theatre losing a generation of actors and directors.

Polish theatre, therefore, was entering the last decade of the 20th century using its powers of self-motivation alone. Old masters (such as Krystian Lupa, Jerzy Jarocki, Jerzy Grzegorzewski and Erwin Axer) tried to do their own thing. Young actors and directors shifted from theatre to more financially attractive jobs in advertising, sitcoms, TV serials and soap operas. With our eyes fixed on money we have forgotten that art has value in and of itself. The reality of predatory capitalism trampled helpless endeavors to create new theatrical initiatives.

From this chaos foundations of the new theatre began to emerge. It all started with an intensive course on pop culture and counter-culture. Polish directors were particularly keen on what was happening theatre-wise in Germany. From the other side of the river Oder they were bringing back home not only dramatic art and new, popular themes and issues, but also complete staging and stage design solutions. In Poland, they were perceived as creators of a new theatre language. It was only in the 21st century that the monopoly of German inspirations was broken and Polish artists started to participate and be inspired by all European theatre life.

The 90s were also the time in which Polish theatre choked on the Anglo-Saxon form of the music hall. It started with staging licensed Broadway and West End productions and creating our own music hall (for example,Metro directed by Janusz Józefowicz and with music by Janusz Stokłosa). Unfortunately, the artistic repercussions of these endeavors were not particularly encouraging.

It was only at the end of the 90s that a new phenomenon, which I propose to call the Polish school of music theatre, arose: It was inspired by the superb Polish tradition of an “actor’s song”, which was in itself rooted in German, French and Russian cabaret songs of the early decades of the 20th century (such as those by Brecht, Weil or chansons sung by Piaf or Brel). Directors such as Roman Kołakowski, Wojciech Kościelniak and Konrad Imiela staged- with great success and in a modern form which proved attractive to young audience – the classics of Polish and world literature (for example Dostoyevky’s The Idiot and Bolesław Prus’ The Doll, which is considered to be the most outstanding Polish novel of the 19th century).

The type of theatre most prominent in the Polish mass media nowadays is the theatre which operates using means of expression taken from pop culture and which deconstructs Polish and world classics of literature, philosophy and drama as well as Polish national myths. I think that the current situation was aptly diagnosed recently by Małgorzata Dziewulska (a director and theatre essayist). She said in an interview that the domination of left-wing rhetoric in the Polish theatre today is a direct transplant of the West European theatre discourse which is aimed mainly at bourgeoisie. One has to realize, however, that after the hecatomb of the Second World War and the mad social engineering under the German and Russian occupations – which continued, albeit with less intensity, for more than fifty years during the communist era – Poland was dependent on the Soviet Union, and the Polish bourgeoisie did not exist.

It follows that in Poland there is no “middle class”; which in the West participates and pays, to a considerable degree, for the culture and the cultural life of a country. This specifically Eastern European social class – the intelligentsia – was the one which in Poland lost the most as a result of post-communist transformations in the country. The Polish intelligentsia simply cannot afford to go to the theatre or to buy books on a regular basis.

In Poland today money for culture is distributed only by the state, or, to be more specific, by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage via subordinate institutions such as the Theatre Institute or the Polish Film Institute, local governments and the still quite numerous national companies (which, almost by definition, participate only in the most spectacular and prestigious initiatives and projects, such as The International Chopin Piano Competition). Private money, which could be used to fund culture, is in the hands of international corporations and parvenus, who could be likened to “New Russians”; except that they have considerably less money and are more restricted in their endeavors by both Polish and European law, and who are, in any case, devoid of cultural needs. Consequently, the dream of an artist is to have a regular post in a state-funded, national institution, and the dream of an independent theatre is to be nationalized.

There are, however, two positive effects of all this; namely, the predominance of young people in the audiences of Polish theatres and the constantly growing number of theatre goers. It gives the impression of a rebirth in Poland of a class of people who are willing and able – in their humble way – to give financial support to art and culture.

I would like to go back for a moment to the role state plays in financing culture in Poland. In this respect, the state apparatus is completely inefficient. Even when it comes to such events as celebrations of connected with special anniversaries, the preparations start at the very last moment. The emblematic example of such an event was the “monumental spectacle” which took place on the August 31, 2010, and which was prepared by Robert Wilson to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Solidarity workers’ union. The preparations for the event started so late in time that it was almost a miracle that a director of such a prestige as Wilson found a free slot in his calendar to work in Gdańsk. The final arrangements as to how much money the organizers could pay for the event were made at the very last moment. The whole thing was saved, once again, by Wilson who persuaded his fellow artists to find time to perform despite all the uncertainties surrounding the project. The only commendable exception, in this respect, is the Warsaw Uprising Museum, founded by Lech Kaczyński when he was the mayor of Warsaw. Each year the museum commissions an occasional performance hiring some of the most prominent Polish directors of the young generation and, most importantly, gives them total freedom as to the form and the idea behind the performance.

Unfortunately, that is how financing cultural events in Poland is for the most part. The majority of Polish state theatres are unable to think about their repertoire beyond the coming season because – despite continuing subsidy – there is no certainty as to how much money the government or the city council will decide to give any given theatre in the forthcoming budget. The organizers of theatre festivals and publishers of valuable, but non-commercial, theatre periodicals have to take part each year in a competition to receive money. The criteria for how their applications are being judged are quite confusing, which results in temporary discontinuations of some of the most prominent and valuable periodicals and in festivals being organized for a fraction of the money they had in the previous year.

However, I do believe that these competitions are a step in the right direction where the financing of Polish culture is concerned. It has replaced the system in which the only criterion of for artists getting money was an arbitrary decision by an official. The guidelines and the procedures of the competitions were inspired by those in use in the European Union. Several times I have participated in creating a production project for an independent theatre; one of the most important parts of these projects was, of course, the cost calculation and the timetable. The project then, took part in the ministerial or council competition. The final result was delivered a few months after the officially established date. Very often it was at a time when – according to the timetable we had prepared – work on the production should already have been in progress. Moreover, the subsidy given was considerably lower than the minimum specified in the cost calculation. Of course, by this time it was already too late to look for other sources of finance.

If one were to look at the statistics produced by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute, one might reasonably conclude that there is a different theatre festival starting every day in Poland. The reason is that the officials making decisions on how to finance culture, especially in smaller centres, see, in even the smallest festival, a huge promotional potential. They prefer, therefore, to spend a bigger sum of money once a year on such events, rather than subsidize a performance in a small, local theatre; even if its artistic and market potential is considerable. Many truly good, independent or emerging artists prepare new shows using money they received for taking part in the festivals. It follows that their final balance is somewhere near zero. This abundance of festivals makes it more difficult for those who write on theatre to recognize their true quality and value. Small festivals such as Form Theatre Festival ‘Animo’ in Pomeranian Kwidzyń or the International Festival of Theatre Schools ‘Melodrama’ in Jelcz-Laskowice near Wrocław, which are often particularly creative and important for artistic education, pass unnoticed.

However, it is not only because of theatre festivals that the theatre map of Poland is changing. For the past several decades actors and directors had to start their professional careers working in the so-called “provinces”. After a few successful productions they might receive an opportunity to work in Warsaw or Krakow. That used to be the natural career path. Nowadays this path if often the other way round, because working in theatres in Legnica, Wałbrzych or Supraśl is often more prestigious than working in the capital. This activation of provincial centres brings additional benefit in the form of renewed and growing interest in small or local “homelands”, resulting in the exploration of the cultural heritage of the local area where a given theatre is located; the value of this situation should be considered in the context of our access to mass media and how it has completely changed our habits of spending our free time. When local songs, customs and legends go unpracticed, they fall into oblivion. Consequently, we are, perhaps, living in the very last moment to preserve these traditions in our memory and for future generations.

For several hundred years, up to the beginning of the 20th century, Polish culture was developing in a melting pot of different nations, languages and cultures. Adam Mickiewicz would not have become the most prominent poet of the Polish language if he was not born in the place where languages, customs and legends of White Russians, Lithuanians and Poles converged. The tragedy of the Holocaust, the redrawing of national borders and the mass repatriations which happened after the Second World War made Poland a mono-ethnic country. Throughout decades of Soviet domination Poles were made to believe that in the new Poland there were no significant cultural or linguistic differences between individual parts of the country, and that there were no ethnic minorities. After the fall of communism we, the Polish people, choked on the free access to previously mythologized pop culture, television, all kinds of consumer goods and foreign travels. There was no time, therefore, for rediscovering our own local homelands and the cultural heritage of our ancestors.

Today, thanks to Korez Theatre, we discover the meanderings of the soul of a Silesian; Paweł Passini conducts a deep, intellectual, and mystical discussion with his Jewishness; and the teenagers from a tiny town of Sejny, located next to the Polish-Lithuanian border, know everything about the culture, religion and customs of each of a dozen ethnic groups which used to, or still do, live in the local area (all thanks to Krzysztof Czyżewski and his foundation Pogranicze, aka Borderland).

Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat
Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat

At the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the prestigious Fringe First prizes (awarded by The Scotsman newspaper) went to Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat) for their show Songs of Lear. TPK come from Wrocław, home of Jerzy Grotowsky and his Teatr Laboratorium (Theatre Laboratory); the work of which is a strong influence upon TPK. Another prestigious prize of the Edinburgh festival – the Total Theatre Award – went to Theatre ZAR, another Grotowskian company from Poland. It is not the first time that prizes in such important international theatre festivals have been awarded to Polish theatre groups which stand in Grotowsky’s tradition of theatre laboratories which constantly experiment with theatrical forms and formulas.

Grotowsky and his Theatre Laboratory emerged in times when, if a young person wanted to escape the vicious circle of propaganda and dullness on the streets, he or she would seek refuge in an amateur theatre. If, additionally, this young person wanted to get to know his or herself, and was prepared to work hard, he or she would look for a way to get to Grotowsky. Today’s world offers innumerable temptations that we should be relieved and grateful that there are still a few groups of crazy actors who are willing to devote themselves entirely to theatre (to those mentioned above I would add Wierszalin theatre from Supraśl). An average Polish actor, by the end of his studies in a theatre academy, has many more interesting things to do than to learn his craft and to work on him or herself.

Looking at theatre production in Poland overall, I perceive a progressing crisis of theatre directing; not to mention the phenomenon of astonishing problems with Polish diction and grammar among many theatre directors. Even more worrying is the fact that, from year to year, among young students of directing, there appears to be fewer and fewer strong personalities emerging. What they lack in their intellectual and coherent understanding of literary texts and their message, they compensate with – I have to admit quite skillful – juggling of solutions in form, adaptation and stage design. Another problem is the low level of general knowledge among young directors. The way of beginning work on a new play by one of the young – but progressively growing older – directors has already grown to the status of an inside anecdote. During the first rehearsal – no matter whether the text is by Sophocles, Shakespeare or Heiner Muller – she invariably asks the gathered actors the same question: “so, what music video or movie have you seen recently?” There would be nothing wrong with this if, on opening night, one didn’t discover that the whole staging of the play was based on that music video proposed by one of the actors on the first day of rehearsals. This crisis, is not caused, by the low quality of education provided by Polish art schools, however. It is caused by the general crisis of education in the country. New, contradictory guidelines as to the organization and types of schools, as well as curricula, are introduced even more often than those concerning organizational reforms of cultural institutions.

A few days ago a theatre director friend of mine called me. He has just started his work as the manager of a puppet theatre in one of the smaller provincial towns in Poland. The theatre, during recent years, has been largely unknown. Nothing of significance was happening there, and it did not exist in the consciousness of the theatre circles in the country. “Even a person, who knew nothing about theatre could run this theatre”, my friend told me. The shows are of an awful artistic quality, but are staged very often. The average attendance is 99%. Attendance is income and income is the happiness of local officials on whom the theatre depends. Nothing changed and everyone was be happy. The attendance in all puppet theatres in Poland is high because, a few times a year, teachers have to take their students to a theatre. The question is: “does such a solution serve art?”

I consider contemporary puppet theatre to be one of the most creative branches of today’s art. In saying that, I have to make a caveat that I do not mean shows for children prepared in one of those twenty-something Polish clones of Sergey Obraztsov’s State Central Puppet Theatre in Moscow (though even here there are, from time to time, interesting shows like those prepared for children 0-3).What I mean is the splendid tradition of art theatre, theatre of form represented by such geniuses as Tadeusz Kantor, Józef Szajna or Jerzy Grzegorzewski. I also mean the almost completely forgotten – and so specifically Eastern European – fairground theatre of itinerant puppeteers with their great sense of humour, sagacity, sense of form and ability to transmit their craft from one generation to another. Sergey Obraztsov was a great artist, but reducing all puppet theatre forms to that created by his institution has almost killed puppet theatre in this part of Europe. Today we can see it coming back to life thanks to a group of hotheads. I want to recall here only one name: if you want to know what a medieval fairground theatre looked like please see one of the shows by Adam Walny.

Since I’ve mentioned the rebirth of the puppet theatre I should also mention that the first decade of the 21st century was a time of the emancipation of Polish dance theatre, previously considered to be just a pastime or amusement of enthusiasts operating in local community centres. Today this branch of art is in the mainstream discourse of theatre studies. In Bytom, there was even established a separate department of the Krakow National Theatre School which is devoted to dance theatre alone.

However, even international success and the high reputation achieved do not make the lives of artists in Poland easier. A good example is Krzysztof Warlikowski who, for several years now, has been asking officials to provide him with the long promised location for his theatre. Warlikowski’s New Theatre performs a great deal.. It is invited to many prestigious festivals and its repertoire is constituted in part of co-productions with some of the most important theatre companies of Europe. Yet, the New Theatre’s shows are seen exceptionally rarely in Poland; most often they are hired for short periods of time, and performed in postindustrial, non-theatrical spaces.

Since the turn of the century this strange, chaotic structure of theatre life in Poland has been subject to increasingly intense erosion. We are in the midst of a journey towards true diversity; only such a theatre environment can guarantee continuous and unobstructed circulation of ideas, as well as aesthetic, technical and administrative solutions. It would also guarantee freedom in the evolution of authors and creators, who would be able to participate in diverse projects. Although this journey is not going to be easy it should not be stopped.

The economic and legislative mess, as well as the lack of any coherent vision for the future development, does not concern only the sphere of culture. It is the main problem of the Polish state as a whole. Art has, however, a wonderful ability to bring forth beautiful fruit even in the most unfavourable and difficult conditions. Recent years in Polish theatre seem to confirm this truth.


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[1] Konrad Szczebiot Polish journalist, dramatist, theatre critic and historian. Graduated from The Aleksander Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy in Warsaw (Department of Theatre Studies). Collaborator of Polish Radio and many professional magazines and theatres in Poland. Member of IATC/AICT and the Polish section of UNIMA.

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Journey into Deep Diversity