Polish Connections: A New Generation of Theatre Linkages Between the United States and Poland
Polish theatre seems to have an endless capacity for self-renewal, building on an experimental tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanisław Witkeiwicz in the 1920s and continues through Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Krystian Lupa, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Maja Kleczewska, and many others to this day. Every year, new directors, actors, designers, and dramaturgs graduating from theatre academies in Warsaw and Kraków make their way into government-sponsored companies around the country. They are beneficiaries of a theatre education that focuses, first and foremost, on discovering one’s own purpose and methods as an artist. The range of new approaches—especially viewed from the perspective of artists in the United States—expands at a dizzying rate.
Even by Polish standards, it appears that a major shift is now underway. It’s a shift that cuts in opposite directions, reflecting the growing polarization of Polish politics. In many provincial jurisdictions controlled by the conservative Law and Justice party, artistic directors are being pressured by the government to pull their political punches; some are being replaced by artists more willing to conform to a safe repertoire of Polish and world classics. But in progressive cities like Warsaw and Szczecin, where local governments are controlled by the Civic Platform or other opposition parties, a new generation of artistic directors is leaning in overtly activist directions with respect to both artistic content and artistic process.
On the content side, this more activist approach means more shows that address hot topics such as the Catholic Church, immigration, right-wing rhetoric, feminism, gender identity, climate change, and questions of historical and cultural memory. On the process side, it means more shows led by women—an accelerating trend that began over a decade ago. It also means more shows created through devising or rehearsal processes that are less hierarchical as compared to the auteur-driven model inherited from an earlier generation of predominantly male directors.
The three of us—Julieanne, Howard, and Brandice—had a front-row seat to some of the changes in Polish theatre during the final week of June 2022. We spent nine days in Warsaw, with brief stops in Łódź and Kraków, seeing productions and meeting over twenty artists.
LINKAGES: Poland followed in 2020 as a response to the shift in leadership taking place in US theatre, especially toward more women and artists of color, and a corresponding shift in Poland, especially toward women and younger artists who grew up in the post-Communist era.
Our trip was particularly engaging because we met several artists we had gotten to know via Zoom over the past two years. They are participants in a multi-year effort by the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) called LINKAGES: Poland. Directed by Howard Shalwitz—working closely with Warsaw-based dramaturg Malgorzata Semil, project manager Brandice Thompson, and CITD founder Philip Arnoult—the project is designed to build a new generation of relationships between American and Polish theatre leaders. Julieanne Ehre, Director of Pivot Arts in Chicago, was the first of seventeen American and eight Polish participants to date.
The first LINKAGES project developed by CITD was in Hungary as a response to the Orbán government’s takeover of the 154-year-old Academy of Drama and Film in 2019. LINKAGES: Hungary is focused on a group of theatre students who helped lead an extended boycott of the Academy. Now transitioning into the professional world, they are engaging with American students graduating from Yale University, Columbia University, New York University, Pig Iron School, Northwestern University, and American Conservatory Theatre.
LINKAGES: Poland followed in 2020 as a response to the shift in leadership taking place in US theatre, especially toward more women and artists of color, and a corresponding shift in Poland, especially toward women and younger artists who grew up in the post-Communist era. There are, of course, strong historic ties between American and Polish theatre going back to the 1970s when Jerzy Grotowski first visited Philip Arnoult’s Baltimore Theatre Project and then invited Arnoult to Poland. An impressive trail of exchanges followed, with Lupa, Warlikowski, Jarzyna, Staniewski’s Gardzienice, and Theatre ZAR coming to the United States. But the connections have waned with the passing of some key players, followed by the arrival of right-wing administrations that made funding and visas for international engagements hard to come by. Arnoult reasoned that, while it was not the best time to exchange productions, it was a perfect time to build new artist-to-artist connections for the future.
To launch the project, Howard was scheduled to fly to Poland for a research trip on 6 March 2020 with cultural historian Blair Ruble, who was among the first to note the waning of connections. The trip never happened. Within three days of their planned arrival, all theatres in Poland were shut down due to the COVID pandemic. CITD pivoted to what was intended to be a short-term Zoom strategy. Two years later, it’s hard to imagine the project without it.
The Zoom strategy was simple. We invited one Polish and two American theatre leaders to come together for three ninety-minute meetings stretched over a period of six to eight weeks. To prepare, they were asked to share an hour of background material with one another, including bios, interviews, and video work samples. The conversations began with Howard asking if they had questions for one another and took off from there. At the end of each session, participants offered prompts for the next.
Little prompting was required to move toward deep and revealing discussions. Howard aimed for groupings that might have natural affinities—for example, a group of devising artists, leaders of experimental companies, or directors working with disabled actors. It turned out that everyone had even bigger interests in common: the pandemic, personal exhaustion and renewal, comparing national structures, working in polarized societies, entrenched institutions, new aesthetic approaches, plus tremendous interest in the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements in both countries. The conversations seemed to offer a refreshing time out from the stress of the pandemic, a chance to share, vent, discuss, and learn.
We experienced a theatre culture thrumming with vitality despite the whiplash of Polish politics and reductions in funding.
Participants in both countries come from a range of orientations, backgrounds, and roles including artistic directors, founders, freelancers, and teachers. The Polish cohort to date includes Marta Górnicka, Natalia Korcazkowska, Jakub Skrzywanek, Anna Smolar, Justyna Sobczyk, Radek Stępień, Weronika Szczawińska, and Wojtek Ziemilski. The American cohort to date includes Abigail Browde, Raymond O. Caldwell, Julieanne Ehre, Maria Manuela Goyanes, Adam Immerwahr, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Tasia Jones, Pam MacKinnon, Michael Moran, Ronee Penoi, Lisa Portes, Ben Raanan, Michael Rohd, Michael Silverstone, Mei Ann Teo, Liesl Tommy, and Katie Yohe.
The success of the Zoom phase was confirmed this year when we arrived for our meeting in Warsaw with Natalia Korzcakowska, artistic director of the STUDIO teatrgaleria, one of the leading centers for adventurous work in Poland. Julieanne had been in our initial Zoom group with Natalia nearly two years earlier, and after big hugs, their conversation picked up almost immediately with the main question from that group: can we avoid simply preaching to the progressive left in our theatres? This time, however, Natalia could address the question in connection with two productions we were about to see at her theatre.
Throughout our trip, we were struck by the Polish parallels to societal shifts we’re grappling with in US theatre regarding equity and the restructuring of power. We experienced a theatre culture thrumming with vitality despite the whiplash of Polish politics and reductions in funding. As Americans, we experienced the whiplash in league with our Polish colleagues; for example, we witnessed the joyous gay pride parade in Warsaw within hours of the announcement of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision by the United States Supreme Court. Poland criminalized nearly all abortions just sixteen months ago.
We also heard inspiring stories of how Polish theatres and artists are supporting Ukrainian refugees—turning over rehearsal halls for resettlement activities, inviting refugees into their homes, offering readings and productions, and building support networks.
As if to underline the current pace of change, during our visit a public letter was released by the artistic company of TR Warszawa resulting in the resignation of the theatre’s top leadership. In 1999, fueled by the work of Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna, TR Warszawa was at the center of a revolution in Polish theatre. Perhaps some space is now being cleared for the next revolution. Based on the work we saw, there are plenty of younger artists capable of launching it.
No half dozen shows can illustrate the enormous range of work across Poland, but a quick overview of the productions we saw during our trip will suggest the variety of approaches on display.
At the Teatr Jaracza in Łódź, we attended a rehearsal for Radek Stępień’s production of The Beelzebub Sonata, a Faustian work by Witkiewicz from 1925 and the only published “play” that we saw. The script was re-organized and edited for contemporary impact, but with no subtitles, what stood out to us was the striking setting—a graveyard for the guts of five or six dead pianos on a floor of black sand. We watched a couple scenes, each repeated a few times, with the director, actors, and designers all making adjustments simultaneously. Sounds like a typical tech rehearsal, right? No, it was actually the sixth week of rehearsals before a two-month break! The entire team will re-assemble in the fall for a final week-and-a-half with full tech before opening.
At Warsaw’s STUDIO teatrgaleria we saw another work derived from an older source, Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the famous Weimar novel by Alfred Doblin about an ex-con drawn back into a life of crime against a backdrop of the rise of Nazism. Under the direction of Natalia Korczakowska, the setting has been updated to the 1980s, and the atmosphere transformed into what feels like an underground queer Brechtian cabaret. The striking visual images—beginning with a shadowy body on a metal gurney—are enhanced by moody lighting and live video. And the vividly creepy portrayals of various criminal gang members offer a trenchant warning about the dangers of demagoguery in any age. Originally staged in 2016, the production is being revived as part of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the STUDIO teatrgaleria, where Korczakowska has just been re-appointed as artistic director for her second five-year term.
Another work combining old and new is the unforgettable Libido Romantico from Teatr 21, directed by Justyna Wielgus. Founded a decade ago by Justyna Sobczyk, Teatr 21 is a company of actors with Down Syndrome or autism, and their collective experience shines through the work. Alternating between readings from Poland’s leading romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, and personal reports about their own romantic struggles, the cast makes a passionate plea to be seen as fully sexual human beings. A psychologist provides helpful background and, perhaps more importantly, models a comfortable friendship with the actors. The kitschy set and costumes serve to keep the tone light while challenging the audience’s gaze and prejudices.
A couple of shows lean directly into political topics. At the always-provocative Powszechny Theatre, artistic director Pawel Łysak directs How to Save the World on a Small Stage? based on stories about his own father, a Polish agricultural biologist who spent years trying to develop a more nutritional form of wheat. These alternate with stories from two of the actors, one from Ukraine whose father died as a coal miner and one from Senegal whose father worked as a deck mechanic on a French carrier. Together, they invite us to contemplate historic connections among capitalism, colonialism, slavery, climate change, and food supply.
Perhaps some space is now being cleared for the next revolution. Based on the work we saw, there are plenty of younger artists capable of launching it.
Michał Zadara takes an even more direct approach in Responsibility, created with the Centrala company in Warsaw. Originally scheduled at Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, the production shifted at the last minute to the Powszechny Theatre because of political pressure. Presented by three actors reading from laptops, it’s a culmination of months of research and taped interviews at the border between Belarus and Poland. With journalistic clarity, the show traces Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko’s 2021 attempt to destabilize Europe by forcing Syrian and other Arab immigrants across the Polish border. Poland’s response, in contradiction to Polish law, was to force the migrants back to Belarus; as a result, many died of cold and starvation in the forest. A pointed indictment of the Law and Justice regime, the show is pitched directly to the Polish people. With striking simplicity, the performers ask the audience why they allowed this human tragedy to unfold at the Belarusian border when, just months later, they rushed to welcome over four million refugees from Ukraine.
Wojtek Ziemilski, who is both a visual artist and a theatremaker, also vents political anger in Ode to Joy, but he sneaks up on it indirectly. Ziemilski’s piece, created with actors from STUDIO teatrgaleria, begins like a silent art installation where seemingly random objects are carefully assembled into a precariously balanced sculpture. Certain objects, like an EU flag, plant intriguing questions. The piece then becomes a meditation, with text devised by the company, on the nature of human genes and inheritance, questioning how each of us gets our physical and behavioral qualities from our ancestors. Unexpectedly, the sculpture collapses, the actors press themselves to the floor, and in near darkness we hear howls of anguish about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How could our species have evolved to the point where such behavior is possible? The juxtaposition between high abstraction and unbridled emotion in the hour-long piece is startling.
At TR Warszawa, Weronika Szczawińska’s lively duologue, Onco, also strikes an unexpected creative balance. She tells her personal story of living through a diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, but she places most of her lively text in the mouth of a physically stylized and emotionally volatile male actor, while she comments from the sidelines on his overblown approach—an ingenious way of critiquing herself as the writer and director. As a result, we are entertained and moved at the same time. The circus-like visual and choreographic style references the early work of Tadeusz Kantor, while the text draws surprising parallels between the ways that doctors can dehumanize patients and the ways that theatres can abuse and manipulate actors.
Our next step in LINKAGES: Poland will be organizing an American delegation to the Divine Comedy Festival in Kraków in December 2022. In a revealing meeting during our visit, the veteran director and curator of the festival, Bartosz Szydlowski, spoke movingly about the impact of Poland’s political polarization on his community, the Soviet-engineered Kraków suburb called Nowa Huta (literally “New Steel Mill”). He referred to a loss of public trust, a loss of shared values, which makes it hard to know how to program for the citizens of his hometown. He also spoke of his determination, in the face of funding cuts, to move forward with the fifteenth edition of the influential festival and continue to present the most outstanding and relevant shows of the past year in Poland.
We can only hope that his determination—and that of thousands of Polish artists—wins the day, and that innovative, truth-seeking theatre continues to flourish within the hotly contested civic and cultural life of the Republic of Poland.