Theatre of Emotion

3 October 2021

According to Krzysztof Głuchowski, it would be impossible to create lukewarm theatre today.

Kraków Culture: Stanisław Wyspiański was one of the greatest legends of the J. Słowacki Theatre. Tell us about his legacy.

Krzysztof Głuchowski: His poem “I Still See Their Faces” is one of the most beautiful Polish texts about actors and theatre. It notes the vastness of theatre as the vastness of readiness. Today I see it as a space. Theatre – especially one as great as the Słowacki Theatre – has four dimensions. The first three are of course obvious, but once we consider that these words were first uttered here, on this stage, over 120 years ago, we are taken to the fourth dimension. Suddenly, someone from the past is standing right here, with the same entourage, saying words which are as relevant now as they were then. For me it is an incredible, magical space which encapsulates the past and the future. In the words of another great philosopher, Master Yoda, “Always in motion is the future”. Theatre creates the future by recalling the past and by being in constant motion. At the same time, we, the audience, are somewhere in between, in the present which happens only once. This is why theatre will never stop being important.

Wyspiański also asked whether the stage belonged to heaven or hell. How do you perceive the role of the stage you direct?

Somewhere in between. We want to provide the full range of emotions, from joy to catharsis. It is impossible to create lukewarm theatre today. We’re sitting in a café, music is playing, someone is playing something in Planty Park, the internet is processing vast volumes of information, cable TV shows hundreds of channels – theatre cannot be a part of this. Theatre happens only once. Even when we repeat a play, it’s never exactly the same performance or the same audience.

What about theatre taking to the internet during the pandemic?

It was a blind alley. Online theatre is a different medium which was invented long ago, and that is television. The pandemic forced us to stream theatre, but it’s a completely different market and a different audience which was demanding this form of entertainment.

The Słowacki Theatre managed to find its feet in this convention.

We started to create something new, even though we’re not experts in this field. We showed what theatre isn’t. Watching theatre performances online is like peeping through a keyhole. A recording will never be a true theatre spectacle but an imitation, even if it is successful.

Our theatre never stopped working during the pandemic. The day after we closed, we started filming a series. Even actors isolating at home continued working. We are aware that the restrictions may be introduced again, and I see a great injustice in this gluttonous, capitalist world. The fact is that the pandemic mainly affects areas such as the service industry, sport, restaurants, tourism and culture. Restrictions are selective. When theatres closed, actors lost their source of income. People tend to think that they earn loads of money, but that’s simply not true. It only applies to a small group of actors working in cinema, soaps and ads. Salaries of theatre actors are among the lowest in the country, especially when they aren’t performing. We have tried to support them by providing them with additional income since the start of the pandemic.

Is the Słowacki Theatre an open theatre?

Since its earliest days in 1893 it has been a thoroughly modern theatre, open to the latest trends and artistic groups. Not only that – it has been a major driving force of social and business activities, and the actual construction of the building was a boom to the local economy! We frequently recall our history and want our theatre to serve as a source of inspiration in initiatives in theatre and social campaigns; to be a theatre open to collaboration with other cultural institutions in the city and throughout the region.

What partnerships are you currently working on?

We are getting ready for a brand-new opening next year. We hope that the Małopolska Art Garden will become a space bringing together initiatives, festivals, creative start-ups and major institutions under one roof. We all have plenty of ideas and want to arrange and change our city, to leave our own mark – I think it’s time to join forces.

How do you see the role of theatre in society?

Theatre doesn’t serve ideas; theatre exists so that people can experience emotions. However, it’s been a long time since theatre had a truly powerful influence over society. I think the Polish scene only had one such moment in its history: under communism. For the intelligentsia at the time, it was an important source of comfort, consolation and reassurance that Poland had life in it yet. But let’s not forget that theatre – especially that of the 19th century – was a medium. There was no radio or TV and cinematography was yet to make a mark in Poland. In any case the first screenings were held right here, at our theatre, and they didn’t attract a great deal of attention in Kraków which was just a provincial city whose splendour was rarely remembered during the partitions. No running water, sewage systems or electricity, barely 50,000 residents… Following its premiere, The Wedding was performed 20 times to a sold-out house, and the theatre had almost a thousand seats, so the spectacle was seen by about half of all Cracovians within a month. It was the most popular time for Polish theatre in history. Theatre affected and drove emotions. Even contemporary media don’t have this kind of reach.

Tell us about what’s coming up during the new theatre season.

We will focus on oddballs and eccentrics. The leading motif of the 2021/2022 season at the Słowacki Theatre is “I Would Prefer Not To” from Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Wall Street Story. The words refer to people who stay in one place, never change their views and strive to remain true to themselves; they go neither with nor against the flow. They become something of a bulwark, and they face the greatest levels of hate. They are very different people: those who bristle against doing the right thing, those who shun glory, those who don’t get swept up with the crowd. One excellent example of such a man is Adam Mickiewicz’s Konrad. Marking the 120th anniversary of the premiere of Forefathers’ Eve directed by Wyspiański we return to the original text. This time, the drama will be directed by Maja Kleczewska, with the premiere planned for 17 November. I think that the language of the romantics is perfect to describe today’s world.

Can you reveal who we will see as Konrad?

Dominika Bednarczyk, partnered by Jan Peszek in the role of Nowosilcow. In her reading of Forefathers’ Eve, Maja Kleczewska decided that the role of Konrad is universal and not bound to gender. After all, who would today’s Konrad be?

Well?

A woman, of course!

A non-conformist fighting for her rights during a black march..?

Unlikely… It would be far too simplistic to say she is fighting for her rights. Everyone is fighting for some rights or other, but everyone also wants to do away with them. That’s the paradox of today’s world: we are willingly giving away our rights. We don’t want freedom, because freedom means responsibility. Mickiewicz’s Konrad knew this very well.

What else will we see at the Słowacki Theatre and the Małopolska Art Garden?

We explore the world of people with learning disabilities – or, more precisely, the world of stereotypes and prejudice they face – through Malina Prześluga’s phenomenal Moron, awarded the Gdynia Dramaturgy Prize in 2020 and directed by Piotr Ratajczyk.

We also reach for the timeless 19th-century novel Madame Bovary as part of the cycle New World we launched earlier this year with the Dom Machin stage. The spectacle is the directorial debut at the Słowacki Theatre of Małgorzata Jakubowska, graduate from the Academy of Theatre Arts in Kraków.

We also continue our partnership with the National Bank of Poland. The children’s stage “Bank of Stories” presents an adaptation of the tale of redemption of an old miser: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol directed by Jakub Krofta and Maria Wojtyszko. The play opens on St. Nicholas Day in December.

What other non-conformists and eccentrics will we encounter this season?

Bartosz Szydłowski prepares Stendhal’s The Black and the Red. Paweł Świątek returns with Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire. Finally, the season closes with Jakub Roszkowski’s adaptation of The Quack on the stage of the Małopolska Art Garden. The final event of the cycle New World will be Zofia Gustowska’s spectacle based on Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. The Art of Thinking is replaced by Piotr Augustyniak’s new cycle of philosophical meetings featuring stand-up and jazz.

You are also preparing an unusual exhibition.

That’s right. I’ve always wanted to do something in the highest part of the theatre, known as the gods. At the turn of the 20th century it was reserved for students, and it was the audience up in the gods which decided whether a spectacle was a success: depending on their mood, they showered the performers with flowers or rotten fruit. We want to use this space for a permanent exhibition prepared by Michał Urban and Victor Soma, dedicated to Stanisław Wyspiański – the most important individual in our theatre’s history – exploring some of the legends surrounding his life and work. We’ll look at the artist’s fascinating youth and encounter fragments of the Young Poland artistic trend which arose at the long-gone café opposite the J. Słowacki Theatre. We may not like to dwell on it, but the fact is that some of the most important genres of Polish art arose in the fug of cigarette smoke and alcohol… The exhibition will provide a thorough review of theatre.

You recently received a fascinating gift…

That’s right, from our neighbours at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. Our theatre was built on the site of the former convent and cemetery of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Sassia; according to legend, the building is haunted by the ghost of Sister Nimfa Suchońska who died during the plague epidemic in 1709. A cult of the sister as a visionary and mystic was popular before the war, although no-one is certain whether she actually existed. The sisters donated her portrait painted by Jan Bąkowski to the theatre, and it is now on display at our gallery.

The Słowacki Theatre is strongly rooted in the past; what do you see in the future of Polish theatre?

From my perspective as a theatre director, the future is all about repertoire and renovation plans. It is impossible to plan even the present, so theatre has to respond to events. I’m not talking about publicity; theatre faces up to the spirit of the time. Whatever it is, so will be theatre. Although I am usually an optimist, I can’t say I see the future as particularly bright, given what’s been happening during the pandemic. I’m not scared of the pandemic as such; I’m scared of how conformist Western societies have become and how willing they are to sacrifice freedom, art and culture on the altar of living for today and tomorrow. It’s a sad truth, and I think we all bear responsibility, including theatre. All the more reason we should be revealing inconvenient truths.

Interwieved by Justyna Skalska

Krzysztof Głuchowski – exhibition curator, theatre, film and TV producer and co-organiser of film, music and theatre festivals. Director of cul-tural institutions including the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art, the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, and since 2016 the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków. Husband of Iwona Budner, actress at Narodowy Stary Theatre, and father of a grown-up son.

A version of this article appears in Autumn ’21 edition of “Kraków Culture” magazine.

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