What Is Polish Theatre Like? Sketches from the United States
'Often upon hearing I’ve recently returned from a third trip to Poland to see theatre people will ask me: Why? What’s different about Poland and Polish Theatre.' Vince Mountain, American scene designer and theatre professional, shares his thoughts on the Polish theatre scene.
Playing it safe
I’ve been a theatre professional for over 25 years and have seen my share of American productions. When looking for a sampling of what one can find at an average professional American theatre one often need look no further than the annual list compiled by the Theatre Communication Group (TCG) of the 10 most produced plays that year. New York City sets the agenda, which is then replicated on a commercial level across the country at regional theatres. These productions are generally highly polished, well-acted and well-designed, but incredibly safe. There is a politeness to the whole affair and a feeling of surface engagement with the material. The audience is a predictably narrow demographic of upper middle class patrons, often out for a night of dinner and entertainment.
So what is it about Polish theatre that is fresh and invigorating? How does it differ from mainstream American productions?
On my most recent two-month trip, on sabbatical from teaching scene design, I saw twenty plays presented by half a dozen different theatre companies. When looking for an average sampling of what one can find at a Polish theatre, I think you have to say Polish theatre defies the very idea of average by producing an eclectic, joyously schizophrenic repertoire of everything from re-imaginings of the Western canon and Polish classics to new original works.
The Narodowy Stary Theatre in Kraków, like almost all theatres in Poland, maintains a repertoire of dozens of plays and presents them in rotating rep throughout the year. Under the Polish system, plays are maintained in the rep for several years and are presented multiple times throughout the season for 2-4 performances at a time, unlike in the U.S. where companies rely on subscription sales for a season of 5-6 productions each running 3-4 weeks. The theatrical season for most companies is generally from mid-September thru mid to end of June. The Stary’s 2016-2017 season, included 40+ plays in their active rep performing on three stages, typically offering 12-15 different plays each month. Consequently, the season schedule is kept fluid, with the calendar only being announced two months in advance.
It is also worth noting that many productions are presented with English surtitles. The Stary Teatr, in particular, presents one performance this way in each cycle for a given production. Performances with surtitles are clearly marked on the English version of their website. I saw fewer productions in Warsaw with surtitles, but there are more than you might think. Another option is to attend one of the many festivals held throughout the country which are aimed at an international audience and therefore English surtitles are more prevalent. Two notable summer festivals are the Malta Festival in Poznań held during the month of June and the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival in early August.
The repertoire is refreshingly, and frankly, shockingly, diverse. It is normal to see a combination of classic Western and Polish plays, Shakespeare and new works all bumping up against each other in one season. At the Stary, I saw classics such as Hamlet, King Lear, Ubu the King, Platonow and Enemy of the People; as well as productions based on adaptations of literary works, such as the 1968 poem by Tadeusz Różewicz Stara Kobieta Wysiaduje (editor’s translation: The Old Woman Broods), a premiere of Kosmos based on the Gombrowicz novel, and Paw Królowej (The Queen’s Peacock) by contemporary Polish author Dorota Masłowska.
Taking multi-media literally
One of the most interesting literary-based productions I saw was in Warsaw at the Nowy Theatre. A premier of Zew Cthulhu (The Call of the Cthulhu) directed by Michał Borczuch with scenario and dramaturgy by Tomasz Śpiewak, wove several of H.P Lovecraft’s short stories into a strange and beguiling meditation on heroes and the role of storytellers as we try to make sense of our fears in a contemporary world. The physical production with scenography by Dorota Nawrot, used primarily an open space of watery curtains; the set also included smaller pieces such as a portable scale model of a house projected onto a screen onstage revealing the idealised image while at the same time drawing back the curtain on the artifice of the setting. Live video of actors onstage during a therapy scene, and then live CCTV footage of actors outside on the sidewalk and parking lot of the theatre, expanded the traditional boundaries of the theatrical space to include the reality of a Warsaw city street at night.
In Warsaw at the Narodowy Theatre (National Theatre), I saw productions of Schiller’s first play The Robbers and Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. These western staples were presented alongside the Polish classics Iwona, Księżniczka Burgunda (Ivona, Princess of Burgundy) by Witold Gombrowicz and Dziady (Forefather’s Eve) by national poet Adam Mickiewicz. The Narodowy Theatre also had productions of an adaption of Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, The Winter’s Tale, The Bald Soprano and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Since these productions are in a constantly rotating rep, it is not unusual to be able to see three or four wildly different plays in one week.
In with the old, in with the new
In addition to producing the classics and older lesser known plays, there is a vibrant commitment to creating new work. A common approach is for a director and dramaturge to adapt an existing text, whether a novel or a poem, a contemporary or historical work. This is typical of Polish theatre, and I have seen several exciting examples of this approach in both Kraków and Warsaw. One example from Warsaw, was Lalka (The Doll) by Bronisław Prus, a 900-page novel from 1888 considered by many to be the finest Polish novel ever written, presented in a two and half hour extravaganza featuring music by a solo musician, ball room dancers, live video and... a karaoke version of David Bowie’s Heroes.
The visual representation of the repertoire is as vast and varied as the subjects of the plays themselves. While mainstream American theatre relies heavily on natural realism as its primary mode of presentation, Polish theatre is inherently more ‘theatrical’, unafraid to experiment with a variety of modes of expression to communicate ideas. Productions commonly employ projection design, contemporary music, live music performed onstage by actors and unconventional use of the stage space. Theatrical choices are governed by searching for exciting ways to discover the truth in a play rather than relying on conventional staging solutions and a strict adherence to period authenticity.
Many of these choices are strong and brave. The probable epitome of this is exemplified in the Stary’s current production of King Lear which opened in 2014. In 2016, the actor playing Lear died unexpectedly. A typical first response might be to cancel the remaining performances or to recast the role. Artistic Director Jan Klata chose another solution, embodying pure theatricality, when he decided to continue presenting the production without replacing the actor. The production, set in the Vatican and visually inspired by Francis Bacon’s Pope paintings, now features scenes with actors talking to an empty throne chair, while Lear’s lines are heard as a voice over (from a previously recorded performance) and archival images of the actor are projected on the set. One can debate whether this revamped production ‘works’ or not, but it is an undeniably risky and brave choice, causing an audience to reflect upon the nature of theatre and mortality while experiencing Shakespeare.
How could you not go?
Polish audiences are as diverse as the theatre productions themselves, with people from every socioeconomic status and covering a broad age range. This diversity, especially seeing many patrons under the age of thirty, would make most Artistic Directors at League of Resident Theatres (LORT) in the U.S. salivate. Of the performances I saw, no house was less than 95% capacity. People go to plays in couples, in groups and even alone. I saw men at the theatre together, families, and several school groups. Even on a Tuesday night, houses were near full capacity, with additional patrons buying discounted tickets to grab empty seats from ‘no-shows’ minutes before curtain.
Two months of seeing this type of theatre provided me with an unbelievably rich collection of artistic experiences. Each production had a distinct artistic vision and voice, employing strong elements of abstraction and metaphor in the visual execution, innovative physical staging by courageous, committed, and multi-talented actors, and an awareness of the audience’s essential presence as being vital to the life of the performance. Polish theatre challenges and engages the audience’s imaginations. There is a shared sense of community and an urgency to use theatre as a vehicle for grappling with contemporary issues facing society, thus allowing theatre to function as an art form and not just a form of entertainment to distract us from our current situation.
Whether Polish theatre feels like a utopia or some creative fevered dream, when people ask me ‘why?’ I say, ‘How could you not go?’
Written by Vince Mountain, Aug 2017
Vince Mountain is a professor of Theatre (Scenic Design) at the University of Michigan. Since starting at the university in 1994, Mountain has designed productions for a range of theatres, including small experimental companies, regional theatres, opera companies and commercial theatres. Notable companies include the Alley Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, Houston Music Hall, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Wolf Trap Opera Company, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Central City Opera.