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Tadeusz Słobodzianek

Tadeusz Słobodzianek, photo: Piotr Wacowski, Daniel Rudzki
Tadeusz Słobodzianek, photo: Piotr Wacowski, Daniel Rudzki

Tadeusz Slobodzianek is one of Poland’s most important dramatists. A prolific and internationally recognized playwright and director, he is also Poland’s most important educator and developer of new playwrights.

His school and laboratory, the Laboratorium Dramatu, and his legendary summer workshops in the town of Wigry, launched an entire generation of contemporary playwrights.  His drive to develop a system for developing playwrights represents a fundamental reform of dramatic pedagogy in Poland, and is an important counter movement to Poland’s largely director-driven theatre.

Tadeusz Slobodzianek was born in 1955 in Siberia. His parents, were exiled Polish political prisoners, and veterans of the underground Home Army who miraculously survived ten years in the Soviet Gulag before being released into the small Siberian town of Yeniseysk. A year after Tadeusz was born, the family was allowed to return to Poland where they settled in Białystok.

My mother and father were sent to Siberia in 1944, they were both members of the Home Army.  My mother had studied philosophy in Vilnius before the war and was publishing an underground newspaper in Białystok for the Home Army. She was arrested on November 1st and my father was later arrested in Lwow, also for being a member of the Home Army. He was a professional soldier and had also served in the foreign legion.

Before World War II, Białystok was a richly multi-ethnic city with a huge Jewish minority. It was also home to large communities of Orthodox Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Muslim Tatars. While much of this diversity was lost during the war, with nearly all of the city’s Jewish population murdered in the Holocaust, and other minorities scattered or forced to resettle, it still maintained much of its former character.

Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Merlin, The Secret History directed by Ondrej Spišák at Dramatyczny Theatre, photo: Kasia Chmura, courtesy of the Dramatyczny Theatre

Białystok before the War was more in the center of Poland, not a border city as it is now.  The city began as a Jewish Shtetl and later it became a center of manufacturing of textiles similar to the development of Łódź. It had a commercial harbor that connected the city by river to Russia and there were many Germans, Russians, Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics, and the biggest minority of Tatars in Poland. This multicultural climate and spirit was so strong that it survived the war and all the forced emigration.

This diverse combination of faiths, especially the Orthodox rituals, left a lasting impact on him and deeply influenced his later writing.

I was from a mixed religious family, my mother was Orthodox as were all the female members of her family while my father, and all the men in my family were Catholic, so I grew up in a very intense bi-religious environment.  We celebrated two of all the major holidays, so two Christmases, two Easters, two New Years.  Although my mother was Orthodox, she went to Catholic mass, while my father was anti-clerical and did not attend either church.

I attended many funerals in the Orthodox church with my Aunts. The ceremonies are ancient with their roots in the Byzantine past.  They are the most metaphysical, primitive, and atavistic rituals I have ever experienced. They last many hours with beautiful singing and the burning of incense. The songs are very long and offer a kind of dialogue between the dead and God. The body is presented in an open casket where the mourners leave letters written to the dead. These funerals were a very important experience for me -  though them I experienced death in a profound way.

He attended the local lyceum in Białystock, and had the unique good fortune of having the opportunity to travel outside of Poland. His Aunt had married a French school teacher and lived in the south of France, and she frequently invited Tadeusz and his brother to visit them for holidays.

Starting in 1965 I started coming regularly to France. My Uncle lived in the South of France, in the Dali and Picasso triangle. They had money and no family of their own so they loved to have us come visit. It was an enormous culture shock coming from Bialystok, but it gave me a much wider understanding of the world, and I was the first boy in Bialystok with a pair of blue jeans.   

During high school, in the early 1970’s he developed a fascination for theater, frequently traveling to Warsaw where he saw important productions at the Dramatic Theatre and where he also attended workshops held by Ludwik Flaszen, an important collaborator of Grotowski.  In his third year of high school he traveled to Wroclaw to see the premiere of Grotowski’s Apokalypsis cum Figuris. After winning a Polish language competition in his senior year, he attended Jagiellonian University in Krakow where he studied Teatrology as a member of the first class of the new department.  

Krakow was at that time the most important center of theater in Poland with Swinarski, Jarocki, Grzegorzewski, and Wajda all making work there. My time there was the most important intellectual adventure in my life.  I saw the premiere of Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class in 1975 -  but the most important experience of all was being in the rehearsals of Swinarski’s production of Hamlet. Sadly, the premiere never happened because he died in a plane crash.  I believe he was the most important director in the history of literary Polish theatre.

While at the University he began writing theatre reviews for the student newspaper using the pseudonym Jan Koniecpolski, which translates as John The End of Poland. His reviews earned the attention of Polityka Magazine, then one of the most important in Poland, and he was invited to work there. However, he left after two years in 1982, disenchanted with reviewing, and disturbed by the compromised reality of working in the communist system that had declared Martial Law in 1981. After leaving, he wrote his first play, Historia o żebraku i osiołku / Story about a Beggar and a Donkey a play for children.

Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Merlin, The Secret History directed by Ondrej Spišák at Dramatyczny Theatre, photo: Kasia Chmura, courtesy of the Dramatyczny Theatre

He then began working as a director, dramaturg, playwright and literary manager in regional theaters throughout Poland including stops in Kalisz, Poznan, Łódź, Białystok, and Gdansk. This restless wandering through the Polish theater would last nearly ten years before finally ending where it all began, in Białystok.

After this long pilgrimage in the Polish theatre, I finally decided to settle in Białystok. My wife had her family there, and I started working in the Puppet Theatre, which was, at that time, one of the best theaters in the country.  It was here that I started writing serious plays.

One of his most important plays from this time was Car Mikołaj / Czar Nicholas, which was Published in Dialog in May 1987 and premiered in December in 1988 at the Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw, directed by Maciej Prus. The Car Mikołaj is based on the true story of two Polish men that appeared in Bialystok in the 1930’s who both claimed to be Czar Nicholas, the Emperor of Russia who was murdered by the Bolsheviks. The two men announced themselves at the same moment that a religious guru and mystic named Ilja Klimowicz declared himself to be a prophet in the same area.

In 1989, he wrote Obywatel Pekosiewicz / Citizen Pekosiewicz, which was published in Dialog Magazine in May 1989 and premiered on May 28, 1989 at the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Łódź, directed by Mikołaj Grabowski.  The play explores the 1968 anti-Jewish actions led by the communist government that led to the mass emigration of most of the remaining Jews in Poland. The play takes place in April 1968 in the small city of Zamość, and follows the citizen Pekosiewicz, a bitter, alcoholic worker, who after being arrested for throwing bottles at a statue, is manipulated and pressured into blaming the Jews for his actions.

In 1991, he left Białystok to take the position as literary manager at the Minatura Theatre in Gdańsk.  While there, he wrote the play Turlajgroszek / Rolling Peas, a dark morality play, accompanied by choral music, that follows a small boys journey through good and evil.  It was directed by Piotr Tomasuk, and achieved great success, touring throughout Poland, and marked the beginning of his most important artistic collaborations. Following this project, the two artists joined forces, and founded the Wierszalin Theatre in the small village of Supraśl outside Białystok.  

Also in 1991, he wrote and directed Prorok Ilja / Prophet Ilya, which was published in Dialog in November 1991 and premiered on Polish Television Theatre. It is a play about Ilja Klimowicz, the mystic and prophet from the interwar period, who also appeared in his earlier play Car Mikołaj.  It is a play about religious fanaticism and extremist ideology and how these movements inevitably lead to violence. In the play the guru announces the end of the world, and when it fails to come to pass, his followers bring about their own apocalypse.  The writer said about the piece, “I was interested in this history because it shows, like a crystal ball, all our dreams of utopias, Christian, Socialist, and Nationalist.” The play also was produced in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Hungary.

Another important piece from this time, was Merlin - inna historia / Merlin, The Secret History published in Dialog, March 1993, and directed by Piotr Tomaszuk at the Wierszalin Society Theatre. The piece is an alternate version of the King Arthur myth, with echoes of Polish history, that explores the myth of an ideal world staged with powerful movement, choreography and choral singing that have echoes in the culture and music of the borderlands. It is regarded by many as one of the most important pieces of its time.

Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Merlin, The Secret History directed by Ondrej Spišák at Dramatyczny Theatre, photo: Kasia Chmura, courtesy of the Dramatyczny Theatre

Other important plays include Kowal Malambo / The Blacksmith Malambo, a metaphysical piece inspired by the Faust myth set in Argentina, published in Dialog July 1993 and premiered at the Dramatyczny Theatre in Koszalin and Sen pluskwy, czyli towarzysz Chrystus / Bedbug’s Dream, or Comrade Christ a piece that takes up where the story of Majakowski’s Bed Bugs ends, in the aftermath of the fall of communism. It was published in Krasnogruda in December 2000 and premiered in 2001 at the Nowy Theatre in Łódź, directed by Kazimierz Dejmek.

After several intense and fruitful years of working together with Piotr Tomaszuk at the Wierszalin Theatre, Tadeusz Słobodzianek left and moved to Warsaw where he began an important new chapter in his work, as a teacher and developer of playwrights.  He began working as a playwright at the Nowy Theatre in Łódź and in 2000 at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw where he taught Dramaturgy.  While teaching there, he realized that there was no formal established method in the Polish Theatre for teaching playwriting, so he set about creating one. After careful study of international methods, especially from Great Britain, he founded the Labortorium Dramtu (Drama Laboratory) in Warsaw, first at the National Theatre and then as an independent theatre and school.

First I started the Laboratorium Dramatu, and then the Teatr Laboratorium Dramatu to have a venue for the texts we developed at the Laboratorium. Later, in 2008, I founded the Szkola Dramatu (Drama School) to teach new playwrights.

Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Merlin, The Secret History directed by Ondrej Spišák at Dramatyczny Theatre, photo: Kasia Chmura, courtesy of the Dramatyczny Theatre

During the summers, he would also invite a select group of playwrights, directors, and actors together with important historians, sociologists, philosophers and other experts to spend an intensive week in the small village of Wigry in the beautiful lake district of Mazure making work together. The program lasted for seven years, each focused on a unique subject such as contemporary drama, Shakespeare, Polish Jewish relations, Polish Kings, and The Catholic Church.

My method is based on the idea that the playwright should return to the theater. The playwright must enter into a confrontation with the director and the actors and stay in the process all the way to the premiere. The aim is that the playwright learns how to edit his play in process. The piece is ready after the premiere, not before. Playwrights should understand the theatre as a space, they should understand actors, and the job of the dramaturg and what are the responsibilities of the director. I believe this is the system of understanding the theatre that was practiced by Euripides, Shakespeare and Lope De Vega.  Shakespeare did not write his masterpieces at home, his genius came out of the confrontation and process with his actors. I believe all the great works that survive to our times come out of this understanding, not as works to be read but as a theatre to be staged.

In it’s lifetime, the Laboratorium developed over forty plays that had premieres in theaters throughout Poland and helped launch the careers of many contemporary playwrights. The Szkola Dramatu, which followed was the first and only private playwriting school in the country and brought together many leading Polish theatre artists and intellectuals as instructors.

In the meantime, he was writing plays and inviting playwrights to make work on the small stage of the National Theatre, producing almost eight plays a year and eclipsing the main stage as one of the most important theaters in Warsaw. This success would lead him to move his base of operations to Teatr Na Woli, in the Wola district of Warsaw, a theatre that had come on hard times.  

 

 

It was here, at the Teatr Na Woli, that he would premiere his most famous play, Our Class, inspired by the incidents in Jedwabne at the beginning of World War II, when Polish villagers murdered nearly 1,600 of their Jewish neighbors. The play follows a group of Polish and Jewish children, who grow up together only to end as victims and perpetrators of murder.

The reviewer Myron Meisel writing in the Hollywood Reporter wrote: 'What begins as the mawkish loyalties of schoolmates degenerates into such a deep moral morass that even noble actions have base motives, and in fact what everyone shares is not the bonds of affection but the imperatives of survival and the malice of greed. If the story of the Exodus must be told annually at Passover, there is little reason not to retell that of the Shoah at least as often, and to have it explored by a Polish writer has particular value as expiation.'

Our Class has since been translated into several languages and produced in many countries including Israel, Hungary, the United States, Italy, Canada, Sweden and Great Britain and won Poland’s prestigious Nike Prize.

Following the success of Our Class and his work at Teatr Na Woli, he was invited to become the director of the Dramatic Theater, Poland’s largest repertory theater located inside the massive Palace of Culture in central Warsaw. As Artistic Director he has developed a new repertory committed to contemporary drama, but expressed his 'feelings of guilt of having left the Labortorium. Therefore, In the autumn, I am planning to return to the work of the School of Drama and the Laboratory.  We will create an international school based on the system of the Royal Court with master classes on writing, acting and designing, for playwrights. It will be founded on three goals: new pieces, new translations, and new adaptations of literature.'

 
Paul Bargetto
Paul Bargetto
2016/03/16
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Tadeusz Słobodzianek

Works

Our Class is a story about a group of classmates - Poles and Jews - from 1925 up to our times. It is a shocking tale about complicated Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century.Read more »

Tadeusz Słobodzianek

Articles

A photograph from the premiere of Nasza klasa / Our class, dir. Tadeusz Słobodzianek, 2010, photo: Krzysztof Bieliński

American film and theatre stars, Ellen Burstyn and Kathleen Turner, took part in the reading of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Nasza klasa / Our class in New York. Cosmin Chivu directed the event. Read more »

photo: press materials

'Nasza klasa' (Our Class) by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, presented at the Galeasen Theatre, has been nominated for the prestigious annual cultural prize awarded by the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The most performed Polish drama in the world has once again succeeded. Read more »