(A)pollonia: 21st-century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage
Release events were held in New York City in late November for forthcoming anthologies of contemporary plays in English translation - (A)pollonia: 21st-century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage, and Loose Screws and Other Polish Plays.
The five-day festival, (A)pollonia: a Festival of Readings of New Polish Plays, took its name from the first volume coming from Seagull Books in February 2014. Events included readings of seven plays by directors and prominent downtown companies, along with Wojtek Ziemilski's performance of Small Narration - one of the 11 plays in the (A)pollonia anthology - and discussions and talk-back sessions after the readings. The festival took place from the 21st to the 25th of November at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) and La Mama - two of New York theater's vital stages - and the two venues collaborated with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw as presenting partners.
A signal success of the festival in the view of Joanna Klass, theatre programmer at the Mickiewicz Institute, who originated the (A)pollonia anthology and instigated the festival for the Institute, was the involvement of companies such as the Foundry Theatre, which read a Paweł Demirski play. This inclusive approach brought diverse perspectives - and helps spread awareness of and experience with the new dramas. The impact of Polish theatre work on innovative theatre-makers in the U.S. has been profound since La Mama was bringing Grotowski and Kantor decades ago - and, over the past decade, contemporary companies have made striking inroads at BAM and St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and the annual summer festival at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. The (A)pollonia project has evolved through several years of selection and of translation - and of transporting playwrights, directors and translators between Poland and the U.S. - in an effort to deepen this fruitful exchange.
More years may be required before roots for these plays grow and theatrical wings spread and curtains rise. Meanwhile, director Paul Bargetto, who was involved in festival preparations and gave one reading with his company, said there are prospects for similar readings in 2014 to introduce the two anthologies in San Francisco. A director from Toronto, in New York for the festival programme, requested a script from the writer Dorota Masłowska, and Trash Story is being considered by the company who gave its reading, The Assembly, for a production.
Opening night centered on a discussion between five of the playwrights and theater scholars who edited the anthologies, which appear in the series In Performance edited by Carol Martin, professor of drama at New York University, who also participated in the festival. The writers are among Polish theatre's important voices: Piotr Gruszczyński, co-author of the title play (A)pollonia with director Krzysztof Warlikowski and the actor Jacek Poniedziałek; Masłowska and Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk, with plays in both anthologies; and Magda Fertacz and Julia Holewińska. Joining them on the panel were Klass, her co-editors for (A)pollonia, Krystyna Duniec and Joanna Krakowska from the Theatre Department of the Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw, and Dominka Laster, editor of Loose Screws (out in June 2014), who directs undergraduate studies at Yale University's Theater Studies Department.
Discussions centered on the intense presence of history - even in comedies, even through 20 plays mostly by young authors. Bargetto recalled that persistent presence: "the Second World War, the Holocaust, communism - these huge historical world events that happened in Poland". He spoke of theatre in the U.S. being a playwright's theatre, not commanded by directors - "yet you get this feeling: What are Amerian plays about, in comparison? Family dysfunction?"
He recognized an "American inferiority complex, when Americans know nothing about history" - and the challenge these Polish works face in gaining comprehension and an audience in the English-language theatre world. At the discussion, Bargetto offered an example of this historical ignorance, saying that the popular bar on the same East 4th Street block as NYTW and La Mama is named KGB. "If that bar were named Gestapo or SS, it would be unacceptable", he said. "KGB nostalgia today, though, is cool". At breakfast that day with Masłowska, best known for her novels and her wicked ear for speech styles, he'd mentioned a recent visit in Lublin, Poland, where apartment blocks loom over the memorial at the Majdanek death camp. Masłowska took up the point at the panel discussion, saying "This is Poland: housing blocks overlooking a death camp - with apartments now full of IKEA furniture".
Dramas in Still Life
Readings of Masłowska's plays were held the next day, with No Matter How Hard We Tried directed by Dan Safer with his company Witness Relocation. A work in which comedy permeates the domestic setting then hijacks the very language, No Matter... finds its core in generational disconnect and differing perceptions of Warsaw, the capital, between a grandmother who knew it when the Germans invaded and her granddaughter. (A DVD of selected scenes comes with the (A)pollonia anthology, showing the production from 2009 by TR Warszawa, attuned to both the audience and the history, subtle yet fierce, which has toured internationally - yet not, remarkably, to the States.)
Her first play, A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians, was the festival's only reading backed by a previous production - by Bargetto's company, East River Commedia, in 2011. They'd played some two dozen performances of the demented, barbed road farce, at the Abron Arts Center in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Their reading included the video film made for the 2011 production, which illustrates the anarchic fantasy of a Masłowska stage direction late in the play, preceding the discovery of the character Gina, dead in a truckstop bathroom.
Bargetto felt a loose consensus was formed among colleagues from the States - audiences included co-artistic director Linda Chapman from NYTW and Krystyna Iłłakowicz and Tom Sellar from Yale University's Slavic and theatre departments, respectively - for two works most likely to find a U.S. production. Trash Story by Fertacz and Foreign Bodies by Holewińska include familiar themes in their weaves of problematic history. At the heart of Trash Story, directed by Jess Chayes with The Assembly, is a returning Iraq War vet "about 19 years old" - a divisive theme that remains important to face in the U.S. (Poland had joined the Coalition of the Willing in that invasion). Foreign Bodies jolts in time through the adult life of its lead character - first named Adam, then Ewa - whose sex-reassignment operation provokes a loss of allegiance among former comrades from the dissident movement of the 1980s.
The director Tea Alagic presented the reading of the play (A)pollonia's sprawling mesh of excerpts from Aeschylus, Euripides and contemporary prose masters J.M. Coetzee and Hanna Krall, and the first part of The Mayor by Sikorska-Miszczuk. The former is the script of Krzysztof Warlikowski's acclaimed first production with the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, in 2009 - suprisingly compact in the new anthology at 50 pages, with an excerpt of 20 minutes on the DVD glimpsing a late scene in the enormous Nowy production. The Mayor is a bellwether in several regards. Its playwright is a force on the scene (the title piece of Loose Screws is her play) - yet even with The Mayor's two parts able to be staged jointly or independently, it has yet to be produced in Poland.
That piece approaches social wounds laid bare with the exposure of the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, upon publication of Neighbors by Jan Gross, a Princeton historian, in 2001 - a book revealing both the culpability of Poles for killing Jews of the town and decades of denial in Poland. The facts of the atrocity become less historical and more topical in The Mayor, the script focusing dramatic pertinence on townspeople in the present day as the title character tries to help his town in the onslaught of international attention and notoriety after the publication of the Gross book. Formally inventive, wry to the hilt, the play extends the same theme yet rebuts the solemn naturalism of Our Class, the renowned drama about Jedwabne by Tadeusz Słobodzianek. International productions of Our Class make it the most widely known new Polish play , and it received Poland's top literary prize, the Nike, in 2010 - but the work and its playwright are noticeably absent in (A)pollonia's introductions.
The festival of readings rounded off with Ziemilski's solo performance Small Narration in his own translation - about his revered grandfather's exposure as a communist-era informer - and a reading of Demirski's send-up of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, skewed through the warped lens of Poland's "shock treatment" by neoliberal economics. As with works throughout the anthologies, Demirski's Diamonds Are Coal that Got Down to Business has a caustic bite and is a far funnier play than a synopsis might suggest.
New Plays Take to the Page
(A)pollonia as a book is both compact and hefty - nearly 600 pages of playscripts, with extensive introductions and essays by its editors and a website in development to accommodate related material. In her Preface, Klass details the remarkable process of developing the translations - engaging theatre-makers on both sides of the ocean to experiment with and refine the taut English versions by Arthur Zapałowski (Trash Story was translated by Benjamin Paloff). Klass quotes Susan Sontag on translation's multiform meanings: "to circulate, to transport, to disseminate, to explain, to make (more) accessible". And writes of "fierce debates" over the project's elaborate course, "on topics such as racism and the ideological negotiations of postcolonial discourse". The project became a living interchange responding to the essence of theatre texts: a need to sit well on the page then to live even better from the stage.
When it is joined in June by the Loose Screws anthology, there will be a powerful complement of recent texts to indicate Polish theatrical vibrance and tempt companies performing in English to compell their audiences onto new terrain. (For new translations of Polish classics of the early 20th century, see here.) The scholars Duniec and Krakowska set out thematic groupings for (A)pollonia's plays then introduce each script - for example Transfer!, the astonishing work about dispalced postwar populations by Dunja Funke and Sebastian Majewski and first directed by Jan Klata, is termed "a turning point in Polish theatre". The original production in Wrocław - in regions alongside Germany where current and former populations were heavily affected - veterans of displacement played themselves with actors as Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt on a girder tower with electric guitars. Their lines of recollection now endure in the new reality of documentary theatre - as Duniec and Krakowska write, "giving voice to witnesses who had until then been excluded from the historical narrative".
(A)pollonia is liberally illustrated with production stills. The photos add to its merits as reading entertainment, and enhance the willful sociological probing as Polish artists contend with national issues. They further up the book's broader viability as "21st-century Polish Drama and Texts for the Stage". It's bracing to see actors' faces and their expressive figures giving life to texts that, in translation, now have a welcome opportunity of being read. And may one day be returned to the realm of theatre's communal exchange - the art form that may be closest to cooking because, as one Polish director likes to put it, theatre always smells.
-Alan Lockwood, 07/12/2013
Click here for Joanna Klass's primer on Polish theatre today