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

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?