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.