What makes Polish theater what it is?

The skies are gray in Warsaw. The trees are starting to turn yellow at the edges.

My roommate is staying with a friend for a few days. She was here two nights ago, however, and we shared dinner and talked about art and dating. She made a kind of raspberry tea with lemons sliced into it, and she gave me more DVDs of Polish theater. Her institute, among other things, documents national artistic production.

The idea of there being a similar institute in the United States that documented national artistic activity–especially theater–is humorous. Between our restrictions on videotaping and our lack of national funding (or national support) for broad-based unprofitable cultural activity, I can’t imagine how we would ever agree that such a thing ought to exist.

There is, of course, the Smithsonian–I’m not saying we don’t have institutions that perform similar functions for the most significant artworks. Of course we document some of our theater. But the Smithsonian certainly doesn’t release a yearly DVD of the best original American theater productions, or a book documenting them. It’s sort of like the “Best American Poetry” series, but for theater, I guess.

I wonder what it would take to make such a thing possible in the US.

One of the things that makes Polish theater so good is the support it receives from its audiences and its national culture. This goes almost without saying, but it surprises me every time I see it. I can’t imagine that I will ever not be surprised by how much people in Poland love theater.

When I asked my Legnica student guide friend if she thought this could be attributed more to religion or to the history of Poland, she voted firmly for the history of Poland. (She was born just late enough to have lived her whole life post-Solidarity.) In her opinion, Polish audiences care about culture because they remember a time when that culture was suppressed, even forbidden.

Beyond this commitment at the level of the culture and the audience, I’ve been trying to think about making a list of the features that often occur in Polish theater, broadly speaking. This is sort of like a DSM-IV for “It might be Polish theater.” Not every production has all these elements, but many of them have more than a few.

I am still trying to unravel where they all come from. Some relate to Grotowski, others to Kantor, others to a strong allegiance to the Catholic church–and others, I think, are harder to trace.

1) A very broad and “theatrical” style of acting (one that LB said had its origins in the Yiddish theater, when he was here in 2009)

2) Candles / matches / onstage fire

3) Singing. Often, live music, too.

4) The presence of something like a Greek chorus

5) The presence of some form of dance or physical theater / movement-based theater

6) A certain lack of attention to elements of technical design (particularly lighting) that would receive more attention in the US. I see this as being parallel to the way in which a printmaking professor we visited a week ago told us that in Poland there was less choice as to artistic materials (in the US, he could buy whatever materials he wanted) but better art being made with fewer resources. Obviously this is changing now, but still, I get the impression that things like lighting are not as significant to these theater artists as things like acting.

7) An adapted text; a text that was not originally designed for theater; a text heavily intervened in or altered by the directors. Sometimes, no text whatsoever. (I am indebted to the writings of K. Cioffi here.)

8 ) The presence of stylized / aggressive / presentational heterosexuality, including a couple of iconic poses that I have seen in numerous productions–most notably, one where two people are on the floor and one character hovers above the other in a kind of push-up pre-sexual position, with their bodies exactly aligned. Feet to feet, heads to heads. It’s odd. It strikes me as being very un-sexual, in some ways, by standards of filmic realism. It’s like an emblem of “There is something sexual here.” The characters almost never seem to go from this to making out or doing anything like that. On the contrary. They often leap out of the position into something else. It’s interesting. It makes me think that, despite the overwhelming influence of American movies all over the world, that contemporary Polish visual depictions of sexuality in theater are primarily derived from some other visual source. One I have not yet identified.

9) An opening gesture of making direct eye contact with the audience, out of character or semi-out of character, before the play begins.

10) An interest in surrealism. I wouldn’t have listed this so prominently before I saw the Festiwal Teatru Nie-Zlego, but now I can see that there are quite a few Polish artists working with this trope. This often seems to be related to a sub-tradition of artists creating theater who are not trained as theater artists–who have a background in visual arts, dance, music, etc.–and conflicts with #13.

11) The “poor object” (Kantor) or “poor theater” (Grotowski) tradition–minimal sets, repurposing junk/trash as part of the production, an aesthetic of an almost empty stage.

12) A lot of control by the directors. On some occasions, the director onstage as a kind of conductor or mastermind–or, when this isn’t possible, the director intervening in the audience interpretation post-show.

13) A very strong influence by the official drama schools of directing and acting. Many of the performers and directors have studied at one of these schools; students (like some of those I met in Legnica) audition again and again until they can get in. A sense that you have to have attended one of these schools to be a proper theater artist. (Conflicts with #10.)

14) An increased interest in using cultural anthropology for theater, or borrowing music, texts, or dance from other cultures (this dates, as far as I can tell, to Grotowski’s “Theatre of Sources” period, but may also have earlier origins). Very little concern (I would almost say no concern) about the ethics of embodying / personifying / representing a culture2 that is not that of the actors or director. On the contrary–the performers seem to feel that they are popularizing and saving material that might be lost.

15) Violence.

16) In some cases, less interest in embodying or becoming a character, and more interest in the actor as individual artist. In some cases.

I think I’m going to leave it here for the moment, but it’s been helpful to make a list. Perhaps this, improved, could be a sort of opening argument for the collection of interviews with Polish theater directors I’m trying to make this year.