Reflecting on the Timeliness of Polish Theatre at Kraków’s Divine Comedy Theatre Festival
 Fear and Misery 2022

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 HendyJennifer KidwellRob Melrose, Ronee PenoiPaige RogersMichael Rohd, Brandice Thompson, Liesl TommyPeter MarksEvelyn 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. Poland is a winter wonderland in December. Twinkling lights crisscross the streets, andbright Christmas displays fill one of Europe’s largest old town squares. Crowds gather until midnightat the outdoor holiday market. Gentle snow blankets the city, and despite the cold, tourists are drawnto the seasonal magic of this historic cultural center. And at theatres throughout the city, Polish andinternational guests gather for ten days each December for the annual Divine Comedy TheatreFestival, 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 theCatholic church, LGBTQ rights, Jewish/Polish relations, immigration, race, #MeToo challenges, andthe 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 Americantravelling companions caught another seven. Our delegation, which included Nicole Garneau, MariaManuela Goyanes,Valerie Hendy, Jennifer Kidwell, Rob Melrose, Ronee Penoi, Paige Rogers, Michael Rohd,Brandice Thompson, Liesl Tommy, Peter Marks, Evelyn Schreiber, and ScottSchreiber, 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 newgeneration of connections between theatre artists in the United States and Poland. Jennifer Kidwell, Maria Manuela Goyanes, Weronika Szczawińska, and Howard Shalwitz at theDivine Comedy theatre festival in Kraków, Poland. Photo by Nicole Garneau.One striking feature connected nearly all the shows: they reflected the immediate political and socialrealities of Poland. Indeed, the speed with which current events make their way onto the stage inPoland is something for Americans to marvel at. Members of our delegation were struck by thepresence of the work, the way the actors seemed to inhabit not only their roles but the communalengagement around disruptive topics. “What I loved about being in Poland,” one said, “was that theydeal with the issues we’re facing today.”In our meetings with a dozen Polish directors, we gained some insights into these results. In contrastwith typical American practices—where a playwright spends a year or two working on a script and anequally long production process follows—in Poland the text is often devised during the rehearsalprocess. Typically, the text emerges as a collaboration involving a director, a dramaturg, and inputfrom the actors via improvisation. Even though rehearsals last twice as long as they would in theUnited States, the script itself is created (or substantially revised) in the few months before opening,making it easier to adapt to changing events.

For sheer timeliness it was hard to compete with two productions created by Ukrainian artists. Lifein 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 anddirected by Ula Kijak with text by Lena Laguszonkowa and the actors, the piece opened with a loudair-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 variousemergencies: how to avoid danger zones, clean public toilets, survive a chemical attack, make anexplosive, 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 residuewill remain.

Through references to Polish and international law, thethree actors made a powerful case for the illegality of theirown 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 residencysupported by the Forum of Theater Directors, Silesian Provinces. Featuring a cast of twelve Ukrainianwomen, it used choreography, personal monologues, and choral singing to tell the stories of theperformers’ own journeys from Ukraine to Poland after the war broke out. Their recollectionsincluded poignant details of the lives they left behind and the destruction they witnessed. Rollingsuitcases 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 byZiemowit Szczerek, directed by Piotr Sieklucki with the Nowy Proxima Theatre in Kraków. Amacabre cabaret, the play depicts Zelensky as a superhero battling a series of Russian demons whoall turn out to be Putin. The rapid-fire, often bitter exchange of wits dug deep into the roots of thecurrent war as well as the backgrounds of the two leaders. Zelensky was aided by the spirit of Kyivand a hilarious Polish artist who was the butt of the best jokes. Music and dance numbers featuredstirring 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 warin a way that challenged the Polish audience directly. Based on research and interviews at the borderbetween Belarus and Poland, Responsibility detailed the effort by Putin and Lukashenko in 2021 tode-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 theillegality 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 wewelcomed millions of Ukrainians with open arms?

History as a MirrorA few large-scale productions by veteran Polish directors dug further back into history to poseprovocative questions for today.In Act I of Kryztian Lupa’s Imagine, created with the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, a dozencharacters representing leading lights of the sixties generation arrived at the bohemian home of amusician 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 orgycomplete 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 attemptingsuicide. 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 videohellscape that directly echoed the war in Ukraine.

With each bold choice, the present-day provocationsaimed at the government, the church, and the societybecame more pointed.No less arresting was director Maja Kleczewska’s uncompromising version of Forefather’s Eve, themost talked about Polish production of the past year, created with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre inKraków. Sumptuous nineteenth-century costumes signaled that this might be a faithful periodproduction of the classic text by Poland’s great romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. But the directormade a powerful choice (in a country with a near-total abortion ban and other restrictions onwomen) by casting two women, an actor and a dancer, as the suffering hero normally played by aman. The thrust stage lowered to become a women’s prison seething with the spirit of revolt. Acollection of drag queens, transgender people, sex workers, and activists were told by God why theycannot get into heaven. In the most controversial scene, a priest assaulted a young girl (played by anadult) via erotic choreography. With each bold choice, the present-day provocations aimed at thegovernment, the church, and the society became more pointed.

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

Collisions Between Present and Past Several productions from younger directors featured creative dramaturgical strategies designed tobring 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 andeyewitness accounts, it traced the deterioration of the revered Polish pope’s health in the daysleading up to his death in April 2005. Audiences witnessed him struggle to deliver an Eastermessage, be fed, read to, undressed, and cleaned. We watched as he slept and died and as his bodywas 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 withordinary Polish citizens sprinkled throughout the production. Describing their memories of the daythe Pope died, their attitudes revealed a generational shift from reverential to dismissive. But theproduction was careful not to judge, letting audiences draw their own conclusions.Scene from The Death of John Paul II directed by Jakub Skrzywanek.

A collaboration between director Marcin Wierzchowski and Canadian actor/dramaturg MichaelRubenfeld, Old House, produced by the Tadeusz Łomnicki Nowy Theatre in Poznań, tackled thethorny issue of Jewish/Polish relations through a multi-generational narrative. In the frighteningopening scene during World War II, a Polish collaborating officer arrived at a house where four Jewswere hidden. He bullied the homeowner to reveal their whereabouts and murdered everyone. For theremainder of the play, the truth of this scene was gradually called into question during acontemporary family reunion at the house. Each new revelation about the past elicited conflictingfamily 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-Semitismin 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 VictorBaginski, was a theatricalized essay addressing anti-Black racism. Created at the festival’s hosttheatre, the Łaźnia Nowa, the piece started with a simple interrogation: who is the narrator? It endedwith the four actors—three white and one Arabic—improvising answers to questions from thenarrator about their personal attitudes toward people of color today. In between, the piece movedthrough a series of roleplays sparked by Holocaust literature and clips from DW Griffiths’ Birth of aNation. Poland’s only Black director, Baginski created provocative, uncomfortable stage images inthis freeform exploration of Blackness as a metaphor appropriated by white people for a range ofdestructive prejudices.

Łukasz Twarkowski’s Rohtko, a collaboration between the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole andthe Dailes Theatre in Riga, Latvia, has been called “the ballet of the screens” for its many movingprojection 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 artisticauthenticity. 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 amore 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 andmanipulates the value of art.

Director Katarzyna Minkowska and dramaturg Tomasz Walesiak collaborated with the Polish Theatrein Poznan on The Foreigner, adapted from the 1936 novel by Maria Kuncewiczowa about a classicalviolinist who gives up her career to raise her children. The novel takes place on the final day of thewoman’s life. But in an ingenious dramaturgical stroke, the play is set during her funeral, allowingher ghost to connect directly with the audience. Alona Szostak’s performance created a devastatingportrait 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 andforced her daughter into a musical career. Moving seamlessly between her funeral and the past, theplay’s psychology was so rich, and the acting so full, that despite the mother’s abusive behavior, herchildren and the audience respond with empathy.

First-person narrativesGiven the scale of many of the shows above, it was perhaps surprising that the international juryselected a tiny two-hander for the festival’s top prize. And yet, director Anna Karasińska’s SimpleThings, created with the Stefan Jaracz Theatre in Olsztyn, gained power through its engagingperformances 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 andbrilliantly organized. Without rancor it offered a critique of some of the male directors who thoughtnothing of asking them to remove their clothes or engage in demeaning behavior onstage. Ironicallythe piece ends with one of the actresses naked during a priceless improvisation in which a cookedchicken is devoured.

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

In addition to the timeliness of the work, the dominanttakeaway by the American artists in our group was thesense 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 amongthe worst in Europe. In a striking stage coup, a male ballet dancer crossed the stage on pointe, slowlyand 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 helpfulmoment 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 ourgroup was the sense of freedom they experienced on Polish stages. One artist referred to “invisiblestrings” that seem to control us in the United States, including the financial need to attract bigaudiences 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 artistobserved that the work appeared to satisfy, first and foremost, the artists who created it. Theywondered if we in the United States have the wrong measures of success.

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 theUnited States. Perhaps they will be inspired by the dramaturgical shapeliness of our plays, thediscipline of turning out productions in a few weeks of rehearsal, the sense of liberation that comesfrom private rather than public funding. Who knows? This much is sure: our countries have so muchin common, and our approaches to making theatre are so different, that we have plenty to talk aboutand plenty to learn from each other’s work.