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Reflecting on the Timeliness of Polish Theatre at Kraków’s Divine Comedy Theatre Festival

Kraków, Poland is a winter wonderland in December. Twinkling lights crisscross the streets, and bright Christmas displays fill one of Europe’s largest old town squares. Crowds gather until midnight at the outdoor holiday market. Gentle snow blankets the city, and despite the cold, tourists are drawn to the seasonal magic of this historic cultural center. And at theatres throughout the city, Polish and international guests gather for ten days each December for the annual Divine Comedy Theatre Festival, the biggest annual showcase of new Polish theatre. This year’s theme, “Polish Taboo,” spotlighted topics that are hard to talk about in the sharply divided political climate, including the Catholic church, LGBTQ rights, Jewish/Polish relations, immigration, race, #MeToo challenges, and the war in neighboring Ukraine.

I saw a baker’s dozen of the thirty-two shows on offer from 7 to 16 December 2022, and my American travelling companions caught another seven. Our delegation, which included Nicole Garneau, Maria Manuela Goyanes, Valerie Hendy, Jennifer Kidwell, Rob Melrose, Ronee Penoi, Paige Rogers, Michael Rohd, Brandice Thompson, Liesl Tommy, Peter Marks, Evelyn Schreiber, and Scott Schreiber, was organized by Philip Arnoult’s Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) as part of a multi-year project called LINKAGES:Poland which aims to build a new generation of connections between theatre artists in the United States and Poland.

Four people stand next to each other and smile for a group photo.

Jennifer Kidwell, Maria Manuela Goyanes, Weronika Szczawińska, and Howard Shalwitz at the Divine Comedy theatre festival in Kraków, Poland. Photo by Nicole Garneau.

One striking feature connected nearly all the shows: they reflected the immediate political and social realities of Poland. Indeed, the speed with which current events make their way onto the stage in Poland is something for Americans to marvel at. Members of our delegation were struck by the presence of the work, the way the actors seemed to inhabit not only their roles but the communal engagement around disruptive topics. “What I loved about being in Poland,” one said, “was that they deal with the issues we’re facing today.”

In our meetings with a dozen Polish directors, we gained some insights into these results. In contrast with typical American practices—where a playwright spends a year or two working on a script and an equally long production process follows—in Poland the text is often devised during the rehearsal process. Typically, the text emerges as a collaboration involving a director, a dramaturg, and input from the actors via improvisation. Even though rehearsals last twice as long as they would in the United States, the script itself is created (or substantially revised) in the few months before opening, making it easier to adapt to changing events.

War Plays

For sheer timeliness it was hard to compete with two productions created by Ukrainian artists. Life in Case of War was an interdisciplinary performance developed by artists who, fleeing from the war, made their way to the Kujawsko-Pomorskie Region. Co-produced by three Polish theatres and directed by Ula Kijak with text by Lena Laguszonkowa and the actors, the piece opened with a loud air-raid siren in front of a white stage floor with the words “People Live Here” spelled out in Russian. In the style of a newscast, five performers delivered instructions about what to do in case of various emergencies: how to avoid danger zones, clean public toilets, survive a chemical attack, make an explosive, clean up after a rape. Astonishingly, the piece ended on a hopeful note: the war will end, people will return to their homes; but after they peel the tape from their windows, a sticky residue will remain.

Through references to Polish and international law, the three actors made a powerful case for the illegality of their own government’s actions in turning the migrants away.

5:00 UA was a physical theatre work directed by Yulia Maslak as part of an artistic residency supported by the Forum of Theater Directors, Silesian Provinces. Featuring a cast of twelve Ukrainian women, it used choreography, personal monologues, and choral singing to tell the stories of the performers’ own journeys from Ukraine to Poland after the war broke out. Their recollections included poignant details of the lives they left behind and the destruction they witnessed. Rolling suitcases crisscrossed the stage as a visual reminder of the forced rootlessness of their current lives. The piece is also a love letter to the Polish people who have sheltered and supported so many Ukrainians, including the actors themselves.

The war received a surprisingly comic treatment in NaXUJ: A Play About President Zelensky by Ziemowit Szczerek, directed by Piotr Sieklucki with the Nowy Proxima Theatre in Kraków. A macabre cabaret, the play depicts Zelensky as a superhero battling a series of Russian demons who all turn out to be Putin. The rapid-fire, often bitter exchange of wits dug deep into the roots of the current war as well as the backgrounds of the two leaders. Zelensky was aided by the spirit of Kyiv and a hilarious Polish artist who was the butt of the best jokes. Music and dance numbers featured stirring Ukrainian folk tunes, and the makeup for the fantastical characters alone was worth the ticket price.

Michał Zadara’s Responsibility, created with the Centrala collective in Warsaw, reflected on the war in a way that challenged the Polish audience directly. Based on research and interviews at the border between Belarus and Poland, Responsibility detailed the effort by Putin and Lukashenko in 2021 to de-stabilize the European Union by forcing Syrian and other Asian and African migrants into Poland. Through references to Polish and international law, the three actors made a powerful case for the illegality of their own government’s actions in turning the migrants away, leading many to die in the forest. What was so problematic about a few thousand Arabs, they ask, when just months later we welcomed millions of Ukrainians with open arms?

An actor dressed as President Zelensky points a prop gun at an unseen target.

Michael Felek Felczak in NaXUJ: A Play About President Zelensky, directed by Piotr Sieklucki. Text by Ziemowit Szczerekby. Produced by the Proxima New Theatre. Scenography and Costumes by Lukasz Blazejewski. Music by Karol Miękina. Choreography by Wojciech Kiwacz. Light Direction by Arthur Great. Makeup by Olena Shaparenko.

History as a Mirror

A few large-scale productions by veteran Polish directors dug further back into history to pose provocative questions for today.

In Act I of Kryztian Lupa’s Imagine, created with the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, a dozen characters representing leading lights of the sixties generation arrived at the bohemian home of a musician on his death bed. Aggressively, the dying man challenged them to say how and why they “fucked up” in their quest to change the world. A heated debate was followed by an LSD-fueled orgy complete with John Lennon in the guise of Jesus. Act II shifted to a barren video landscape—purgatory? the future? —where a doppelganger of the dying man has arrived after attempting suicide. The themes became more existential as he struggled over the meaning of his life. Cone-headed aliens landed in a flying saucer, providing a hopeful vision of mankind’s future. Finally, a darker vision descended when a brutal tribe of men chased and tortured innocent victims in a video hellscape that directly echoed the war in Ukraine.

With each bold choice, the present-day provocations aimed at the government, the church, and the society became more pointed.

No less arresting was director Maja Kleczewska’s uncompromising version of Forefather’s Eve, the most talked about Polish production of the past year, created with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. Sumptuous nineteenth-century costumes signaled that this might be a faithful period production of the classic text by Poland’s great romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. But the director made a powerful choice (in a country with a near-total abortion ban and other restrictions on women) by casting two women, an actor and a dancer, as the suffering hero normally played by a man. The thrust stage lowered to become a women’s prison seething with the spirit of revolt. A collection of drag queens, transgender people, sex workers, and activists were told by God why they cannot get into heaven. In the most controversial scene, a priest assaulted a young girl (played by an adult) via erotic choreography. With each bold choice, the present-day provocations aimed at the government, the church, and the society became more pointed.

Created at the Contemporary Theatre in Szczecin, Anna Augustynowicz’s Flight took the most traumatic event in recent Polish history, the Smolensk air disaster of 2010—in which the Polish president and dozens of government officials were killed—as its point of departure. The audience sat face to face with several of the passengers who spoke directly to us from their seats on the doomed plane. The dense text of Zenon Fajfer’s poetic drama addressed both the actual conditions surrounding the flight and the conspiracy theories about Russia’s role in the disaster. It ranged widely over Polish history and literature in a spooky, sometimes irreverent collage that held up a mirror to the government and the nation today.

Collisions Between Present and Past

Several productions from younger directors featured creative dramaturgical strategies designed to bring the present moment into challenging collisions with the past.

Jakub Skrzywanek’s riveting docudrama The Death of John Paul II was created with dramaturg Paweł Dobrowolski and actors from the Polish Theatre in Poznań. Based on television footage and eyewitness accounts, it traced the deterioration of the revered Polish pope’s health in the days leading up to his death in April 2005. Audiences witnessed him struggle to deliver an Easter message, be fed, read to, undressed, and cleaned. We watched as he slept and died and as his body was prepared to lie in state. Seeing the Pope as a deteriorating body may be controversy enough for some audiences, but the production’s real provocation lay in the recent video interviews with ordinary Polish citizens sprinkled throughout the production. Describing their memories of the day the Pope died, their attitudes revealed a generational shift from reverential to dismissive. But the production was careful not to judge, letting audiences draw their own conclusions.

Two actors in costume as priests stand and pray over another actor portraying the bedridden Pope John Paul II, while two other performers look on from upstage.

Scene from The Death of John Paul II directed by Jakub Skrzywanek. Text by Jakub Skrzywanek, Pawel Dobrowolski. Produced by Polish Thetre in Poznań. Music by Karol Nepelski. Scenery and Lights by Agata Skwarczynska. Costumes by Paula Grocholska. Choreograpjy by Rafał Paradowski, Liubov Gorobiuk. Stage Management by Magdalena Matusewicz, Karol Gromek.

A collaboration between director Marcin Wierzchowski and Canadian actor/dramaturg Michael Rubenfeld, Old House, produced by the Tadeusz Łomnicki Nowy Theatre in Poznań, tackled the thorny issue of Jewish/Polish relations through a multi-generational narrative. In the frightening opening scene during World War II, a Polish collaborating officer arrived at a house where four Jews were hidden. He bullied the homeowner to reveal their whereabouts and murdered everyone. For the remainder of the play, the truth of this scene was gradually called into question during a contemporary family reunion at the house. Each new revelation about the past elicited conflicting family reactions, varying from rejection to guilt to acceptance. Through deft staging that constantly overlayed the past and present, Old House viscerally demonstrated the persistence of anti-Semitism in Poland over many decades and the potential for compassion and change.

Another work connecting the World War II era with today, The Birth of Hostility by director Victor Baginski, was a theatricalized essay addressing anti-Black racism. Created at the festival’s host theatre, the Łaźnia Nowa, the piece started with a simple interrogation: who is the narrator? It ended with the four actors—three white and one Arabic—improvising answers to questions from the narrator about their personal attitudes toward people of color today. In between, the piece moved through a series of roleplays sparked by Holocaust literature and clips from DW Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation. Poland’s only Black director, Baginski created provocative, uncomfortable stage images in this freeform exploration of Blackness as a metaphor appropriated by white people for a range of destructive prejudices.

Łukasz Twarkowski’s Rohtko, a collaboration between the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole and the Dailes Theatre in Riga, Latvia, has been called “the ballet of the screens” for its many moving projection surfaces and awe-inspiring video. But the stunning visuals also serve a layered narrative. The title—a deliberate misspelling of painter Mark Rothko—hints at the theme of artistic authenticity. The plot revolves around the purchase of a fake Rothko painting for millions of dollars, shifting back and forth between the painter’s timeframe when the original work was created and a more recent timeframe when the forgery occurs. Many scenes were viewed both live and projected, with the shifting perspectives mirroring the play’s critique of how the art world creates and manipulates the value of art.

Actors move about two separate Chinese restaurant sets while a video plays above them on a massive screen that spans the width of the stage.

A scene from Rohtko directed by Lukasz Twarkowski. Text by Anna Herbut. Co-Produced by Theatre Jan Kochanowski and Dailes Theatre. Scenography by Fabien Lede. Costumes by Svenja Gassen. Choreography by Pawel Sakowicz. Music by Lubomir Grzelak. Video by Jacob Lech. Lights by Eugenijus Sabaliauskas. Text Transloation by Ingmara Balode. Trial Translation by Diana Kaijaka, Elza Marta Ruza. Curatorial Cooperation by Michal Rogulski. Camera Operation by Arturs Gruzdiņš, Jonatans Goba. Sound and Video by Uldis Grass, Didzis Cielava, Māris Butlers, Maciej Przybylski, Konrad Stempień. Props by Zenta Bobovica, Annika Auzina, Halina Rimpler.

Director Katarzyna Minkowska and dramaturg Tomasz Walesiak collaborated with the Polish Theatre in Poznan on The Foreigner, adapted from the 1936 novel by Maria Kuncewiczowa about a classical violinist who gives up her career to raise her children. The novel takes place on the final day of the woman’s life. But in an ingenious dramaturgical stroke, the play is set during her funeral, allowing her ghost to connect directly with the audience. Alona Szostak’s performance created a devastating portrait of an endlessly needy and manipulative woman who, because of her ethnic appearance and Russian accent, always felt like a stranger. To compensate, she smothered her son with affection and forced her daughter into a musical career. Moving seamlessly between her funeral and the past, the play’s psychology was so rich, and the acting so full, that despite the mother’s abusive behavior, her children and the audience respond with empathy.

First-person narratives

Given the scale of many of the shows above, it was perhaps surprising that the international jury selected a tiny two-hander for the festival’s top prize. And yet, director Anna Karasińska’s Simple Things, created with the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Olsztyn, gained power through its engaging performances and honest testimony from two veteran actresses, Milena Gauer and Irena Telesz-Burczyk. The piece consisted of stories and confessions about their careers, artfully told and brilliantly organized. Without rancor it offered a critique of some of the male directors who thought nothing of asking them to remove their clothes or engage in demeaning behavior onstage. Ironically the piece ends with one of the actresses naked during a priceless improvisation in which a cooked chicken is devoured.

A more abstract theatre-centric production, also in confessional mode, was created by the artistic director of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and Director of Divine Comedy, Bartosz Szydłowski. Inspired by Fellini’s 8 ½, Fear and Misery 2022 is framed by audio interviews between the director and his father on his ninetieth birthday, setting up questions about fulfillment in life. The central action revolved around a theatre director and three actors attempting to create a new play through improvisation but constantly reaching dead-ends. None of their creative ideas seem to measure up to the complexity of Polish life today. Ironic humor leavens the melancholy struggle, including the periodic arrival of a motley chorus of actors ready to act out the next dramatic inspiration. Stunning video and a dense musical score reinforced the Felliniesque atmosphere.

In addition to the timeliness of the work, the dominant takeaway by the American artists in our group was the sense of freedom they experienced on Polish stages.

And on the tiny stage of the Barakah Theatre in Kraków, director Michał Telega’s Angels in America, or Demons in Poland began with a hilarious recital of the company’s failed attempt (through forty-three e-mails) to get the rights to produce Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Instead, they presented a series of lively, sometimes angry vignettes about everyday gay life in Poland, focusing on the struggle of coming out in a country where the status of LGBTQ+ rights is among the worst in Europe. In a striking stage coup, a male ballet dancer crossed the stage on pointe, slowly and inexorably, from the beginning of the ninety-minute piece to the end.

Why Poland?

As more American artists find themselves leaning into political themes, this may be a helpful moment to take note of Polish theatre with its long tradition of political engagement.

In addition to the timeliness of the work, the dominant takeaway by the American artists in our group was the sense of freedom they experienced on Polish stages. One artist referred to “invisible strings” that seem to control us in the United States, including the financial need to attract big audiences and the demand for realistic linear narratives. In Poland, by contrast, they experienced a “feeling of expansion” in the work, with each production finding its own theatrical form. “In Poland,” another artist said, “you need to keep your Aristotelian drama muscles in check.” And a third artist observed that the work appeared to satisfy, first and foremost, the artists who created it. They wondered if we in the United States have the wrong measures of success.

Three people in winter coats stand next to each other and smile for a group photo.

Liesl Tommy, Maria Manuela Goyanes, and Michael Rohd at the Divine Comedy theatre festival in Kraków, Poland. Photo by Nicole Garneau.

Over the coming two years, CITD plans to invite some leading Polish artists to see theatre in the United States. Perhaps they will be inspired by the dramaturgical shapeliness of our plays, the discipline of turning out productions in a few weeks of rehearsal, the sense of liberation that comes from private rather than public funding. Who knows? This much is sure: our countries have so much in common, and our approaches to making theatre are so different, that we have plenty to talk about and plenty to learn from each other’s work.

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I want to add special thanks to Nicole Garneau who reported on four shows above that I wasn't able to see, and to CITD's Project Manager Brandice Thompson and Polish consultant Małgorzata Semil who provided invaluable feedback and edits.