Poland in Perspective: A Festival of Plays in New York
From October 22nd to November 30th, 59E59 Theaters will be ablaze with an exciting festival of Polish works never before seen in the U.S. Presented by 59E59 and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, the festival features the U.S. premiere of playwright and filmmaker Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s scabrous comedy Made in Poland (directed by Jackson Gay and produced by The Play Company), two one-act comedies by Michael Walczak, Sandbox (directed by Piotr Kruszcynski) and The First Time (directed by Marcy Arlin) produced by Immigrants’ Theatre Project, and the landmark Polish ensemble The Theatre of the Eighth Day’s docu-drama/archive of memory piece The Files. Although the city has seen Polish work before, what distinguishes this festival is the fact that all the works were written post-2000. Therefore, the festival represents the first attempt by a venue in New York to showcase a comprehensive introduction to contemporary Polish playwriting.
Regaining its political democracy in 1989, Poland is still a country in transition. The work featured in this festival is testament to the vibrant, contentious and provocative writing that is re-making the Polish theatrical landscape and speaking to its time and to history from a variety of perspectives. To many in the U.S., Polish theater may be irrevocably associated with Jerzy Grotowski or with a tradition of highly conceptual, director-driven work such as TR Warsaw’s Macbeth (seen this summer at St Ann’s Warehouse, and previously with Krum at BAM). However, much of the contemporary scene in Poland is actually more indebted to the post-dramatic German and French theater schools as well as new Brutalist British influences in playwriting than the theater of ritual and transcendent mytho-poetics of visual and verbal signs. Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s Made in Poland is a case in point.
As a successful film director, thirty-three-year-old Wojcieszek quickly has become a leading representative of Polish independent cinema. His second film, Louder Than Bombs, appeared at the 2002 International Film Festival in Mannheim-Heidelberg and was honored at the Slamdance Film Festival. His third film, The Perfect Afternoon, was shown at the 2006 Forum of the Berlinale. The author of his own screenplays, Wojcieszek won the prestigious 2006 Polityka Passport award for his unconventional depiction of a generation born in the 1970s struggling with personal and political identity in a new Poland. Wojcieszek’s Made in Poland was originally going to be a film, but when finances fell through, he made his debut as a theater writer and director. Made in Poland premiered at the Modjeska Theater in Legnica and quickly became the critical and audience hit of the 2004-2005 Polish theater season.
Wojcieszek’s work last appeared in New York in June 2007, in a two-day event entitled “Przemyslaw Wojcieszek in New York,” hosted by the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at CUNY Graduate Center, where excerpts from Made in Poland and his play Whatever Happens, I Love You were directed by Linda Chapman, Associate Artistic Director of New York Theater Workshop (his films Louder Than Bombs and Down the Colorful Hill were screened also at Two Boots Pioneer Theater). Made in Poland’s U.S. premiere marks yet another coup for the adventurous Obie-award-winning The Play Company, led by founding producer Kate Loewald, and another foray into the comedy of heartbreak and abandon by director Jackson Gay (director of Lucy Thurber’s Scarcity and Rolin Jones’ The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, among other plays).
Driven by a rebellious nineteen-year-old named Bogus, the play careens through his violent, sad, outrageously comic quest to destabilize authority and seek guidance and love in a disorienting, gangster-ridden, post-communist landscape. Loewald states that among the reasons the company selected the play was because “it’s about a young person’s struggle to find his place within the rapidly transforming society, and because the story is told with humour and ferocity and a lot of heart, and because the play offers the makings for an unusual, fast-paced, irreverent and unpretentious evening in the theater. When we produce plays from another part of the world/another culture, we are interested in ‘otherness,’ by which I mean ideas, stories and approaches to storytelling with a different point of view from our own. We are inviting audiences to step into another world and connect them with a different perspective. We don’t want to erase ‘otherness,’ but rather build bridges for audiences and we work to find the right balance between ‘otherness’ and commonality. As rehearsals have progressed and events in the U.S. unfold this fall—the economy, the election, global conflict, etc—the play seems more relevant. I think a lot of us can understand the confusion and rage that comes from living within an environment of values we don’t value, and the urgency one feels from seeing the community around you go down the wrong path.”
Set in outer city housing projects, the play’s tough humor and exuberant take on reality is akin to the film version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It shares with that film a poignant yet hard-hitting look at youth in disarray and the extremes to which people will go to seek happiness. The piece is structured as a peregrination of sorts, as Bogus encounters various people—mother, local priest, gang-bangers and girlfriend—on his way to discovering his identity.
Below is an excerpt from Alissa Valles’s translation of Made in Poland. Early in the play Bogus meets up with sixteen-year-old, wheelchair-bound Emil, who works as a parking lot attendant. The scene is representative of the play’s humor, quixotic spirit, highly cinematic dramaturgy, and raucous energy:
EMIL: Is all that...in accordance with the law?
BOGUS: [laughing] Fuck the law, get with the program.
EMIL: What program?
BOGUS: The rebellion.
EMIL: Against who?
BOGUS: Against all of them.
EMIL: I don’t know, it’s a little vague.
BOGUS: I’m pissed off, I want to fight. Don’t you feel it? It’s in the air. Being pissed off, it’s going to be the AIDS of the 21st century. I woke up this morning and felt it—tomorrow the same thing will happen to you. Get with the program, be one of the first, fight.
(BOGUS turns in the direction of EMIL, who is following him.)
BOGUS: Are you pissed off?
(EMIL shrugs. BOGUS bends over one of the cars they are passing and heaves his rod into the back window. The alarm goes off.)
BOGUS: How do you feel now?
EMIL: I’m pissed off.
EMIL: I’m pissed off!
(BOGUS raises his rod, takes a few steps and smashes the back window of the next car with a similar movement. And then the next, slightly further away. Almost instantaneously comes the loud wail of car alarms. EMIL is madly spinning on his wheelchair.)
EMIL: I’m pissed off, I’m pissed off, I’m pissed off!!!
(BOGUS spots an impressive Western car standing a few yards further on. BOGUS, with the rod in his hand, goes up to it. He smashes the back window, hammers the hood. The car’s alarm goes off, louder and wilder than the others.)
Wojcieszek’s powerful, political, no-holds-barred voice stands in sharp contrast to the work of Michal Walczak. One of the most popular and prolific playwrights of the younger generation, Walczak originally trained as a theater director; his work is intimate and ferocious, meta-theatrical and absurd. The writing is less overtly politicized than Wojcieszek’s, and focused more on the nature of interpersonal power dynamics between couples trapped in media-inundated worlds where language has lost its power and human beings struggle with the inability to express themselves. His play The Sandbox (2001), directed by Polish director Piotr Kruszcynski with a U.S. cast, has been staged at more than a dozen theaters and has been translated into German, English, Hungarian, Czech, and Italian. Spewing globally mass-marketed brand names, Him and Her duke it out in a sandbox with love and power at stake. In The First Time, Marcy Arlin directs another Him and Her, who are trying desperately to have a relationship, but keep getting interrupted by foul weather, hunger, their own families’ history and rhetoric, and the fragile structures of societies re-making themselves post-communism. Considered by many in Poland to be the new hope for Polish drama, Walczak has a strong sense of the grotesque in his writing and a freewheeling approach to the dynamics of disintegration that his characters and his theater (in the plays where he breaks down walls upon walls of theatrical layers) endure. There is a more personal approach, however, to his dramaturgical methodologies than Wojcieszek’s more aggressive stance. Both, however, demonstrate the flair, panache, and boldness that are endemic to a new generation of Polish writers.
The festival also presents the venerable, outstanding Theatre of the Eighth Day in a powerful English-language performance of The Files. Founded in 1964, the ensemble became one of Poland’s foremost theaters of opposition under Communism. Kept under surveillance by the secret police, the company based The Files on actual reports that were kept on their lives and activities from 1975 to 1983. They’ve juxtaposed the text with letters written by the performers during that time period. The Files, directed by Ewa Wójciak and Marcin Keszycki, the founders and directors of the company, premiered in Poznan, Poland, in January 2007, and was recognized by critics as one of the most important performances of the last few years. It’s a fiercely imaginative piece of testimonial theater: testimony to Theater of the Eighth Day’s existence, and to the continued surveillance of artists and dissidents around the world.
In the play’s manifesto of sorts, the artists (text selection by Ewa Wójciak and Katarzyna Mado´n-Mitzner) say, ‘‘We want to portray young people, dreaming arduous artists, who are looking for a form and limits of expression, who cannot distance themselves from essential questions posed by literature, and who truly suffer in the face of evil of this world; as well as the system’s functionaries, who in their feeling of contempt, or at least a sense of superiority, since they stand on the side of the establishment ‘which knows’, attempt to decipher metaphors, design questionnaires and substitute indictments for criminal offences, cryptograms, reports, and ‘threat’ descriptions. We look at it all from a distance now. It seems that we have found a way out of the totalitarian maze, but its memories still terrify us, even if they amuse us sometimes, and at other times sound like a warning.”
Haunted by the past, the pieces in this festival illustrate how a new theater is made in times of darkness and seeming light. Indeed, they’re a rare opportunity for New York audiences to hear from the frontlines of some of Poland’s most exciting and fearless voices. As an economic depression hovers over the U.S. and the country braces itself for what may be a period of intense transition and unsettlement, the opportunity to bear witness to voices that have survived extreme censorship and/or have been born into a landscape still forging its identity from the many conflicting strands of its troubled past, is vital and significant.
MADE IN POLAND: A Festival of New Polish Plays presented by 59E59 and the Polish Cultural Institute of New York. October 22–November 9: The Files. Produced by Theatre of the Eighth Day. October 29–November 30: MADE IN POLAND. Produced by The Play Company (translation by Alissa Valles). November 13–30: SANDBOX/THE FIRST TIME. Produced by Immigrants Theater Project (translation by Benjamin Paloff). Tickets at www.ticketcentral.com, Information at www.59E59.org or www.polish-culture-NYC.org.
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.