On Friendship with Kraków’s Theatres

6 December 2023

You’re always at the theatre! – my friends often tell me. Of course I am – and not just because, as a cultural journalist, I must be up to date on the latest performances. Kraków’s theatre is almost addictive: it stirs emotions, provides space for conversation and shows that humour can be clever. 

Kraków is home to 11 municipal theatres and over 30 independent stages. I don’t think anyone needs convincing that Kraków’s audiences love theatre. Let me give an example from last year: when the authorities wanted to (unlawfully) sack a director of one of the city’s stages, the actors and the public came together firmly in defence of artistic freedom.

Civic courage

I am talking about the J. Słowacki Theatre, celebrating its 130th anniversary this year. It has been all over the news in the last two seasons, but not for the right reasons: its repertoire is one of the most popular in Poland.

I meet the theatre’s director Krzysztof Głuchowski on our way to Warsaw. He is joined by representatives of his acting team to collect the award for civic courage from the Janina Paradowska and Jerzy Zimowski Foundation. “The thing I am most proud of is the fact that we survived. It wasn’t easy, but it was made possible by all the staff at the theatre. It is thanks to our unanimous way of thinking about moral and ethical principles in our current political climate. This makes theatre once again play the role it did before the internet – it brings hope and relief, and serves as a reference point. We are still filled with optimism: we are going ahead doing our own thing, and we are proud of ourselves and our community. Ours is a civic society which understands its citizens’ agency and freedom, and which promotes tolerance and solidarity. These seemingly trite words became reality in the face of the recent threat. Enough darkness!” says Głuchowski, recalling the final line from the musical 1989 – one of the theatre’s most popular performances. When I ask about the place and significance of the J. Słowacki Theatre in Kraków, he stresses that all of Kraków’s theatres are of a very high standard, in particular in the last two years. “Incredible things are happening at the Ludowy, Łaźnia Nowa and Nowa Proxima theatres. The J. Słowacki Theatre is an element of the panorama of the city’s theatres, and I’m really proud of that,” he adds. 

The public won’t let us disappear

Recently, Głuchowski stepped onto the stage at the Nowa Proxima Theatre to play a theatre director who’d been fired (!) and sent to work in the provinces. He was partnered by Zuzanna Jagusiak, second-year acting student at the Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski University, making her stage debut. Inviting up-and-coming actors to take part in professional performances is one of the great ideas put forward by Piotr Sieklucki, director of the Nowa Proxima Theatre, and his team. He converted the dilapidated tenement house at 41 Krakowska Street into a space of boundless creative freedom, open to all colours of the rainbow and all ideas – including those whose originators may have been too afraid to speak them elsewhere. Nowy Proxima Theatre is a creative melting pot featuring incredible stage sets and costumes designed by Łukasz Błażejewski and a space for live music arranged by artists such as Paweł Harańczyk and powerful voices of Katarzyna Chlebny and Sieklucki himself, as well as a venue for drag queen revues.

Queen, dir. Piotr Sieklucki, Nowy Proxima Theatre
photo by Marcin Oliva Soto

“In spite of its modest budget, the Nowy Proxima Theatre is the most buoyant theatre in the city. It wouldn’t exist were it not for our audiences. Although our tickets are some of the most expensive in Kraków, they always sell out like hotcakes. I’ve seen a huge increase in attendance in recent years – our audiences number in their thousands. That’s why if our theatre were to suddenly disappear, Kraków would no longer exist. Fortunately, the public won’t let us disappear. Since they buy our expensive tickets, they trust us. They know we are defiant, we don’t keep quiet, we put on bold yet professional spectacles,” stresses Sieklucki. One of Nowy Proxima Theatre’s huge hits is Kora. Boska with Katarzyna Chlebny in a quadruple role, as is Królowa (Queen – trans.) about Freddie Mercury and directed by Sieklucki. 

In culture – strength!

The private Barakah Theatre was founded in 2004 by Michał Nowicki and Monika Kufel, first at Szeroka Street and later moving to 28 Paulińska Street. Every season, the Barakah Theatre welcomes over 15,000 viewers and works closely with over a hundred artists. The team has received over 40 awards, including the Leon Schiller Prize and the Stanisław Wyspiański Theatre Award.

Director of the Barakah Theatre Michał Nowicki
photo by Piotr Kubic

“Many people who visit us think we are a municipal theatre. That’s because we host so many events: once as many as 360 per year, and now still over 200. During our 19 years, we have shown not just that we can survive but that we can win over viewers and create a place teeming with theatre. We feel we are an important place on Kraków’s map, both for the city and the public. Our audiences value our repertoire: as a private theatre we put on plays which are engaged, controversial, and tell stories about current, pressing problems,” explains Nowicki, director of the Barakah Theatre. His team stands out: the artists represent the theatre at festivals at home and abroad. They recently visited Bratislava and Prague, they present a repertoire inspired by cult film and TV series (Twin Peaks: I Will Knock on the Red Door, Other People and, more recently, Rosemary) and host concerts, exhibitions and social campaigns such as “Beware! LGBT Zone”.

The motto of the theatre’s 19th season is “In Culture – Strength!” This is confirmed by the young artists who are given an opportunity to make their debut at the Barakah Theatre.

Conversations with young people 

In September, the Ludowy Theatre launched its Young People’s Theatre Institute: a space for kids, teenagers, young adults and everyone young in spirit seeking new stories and solutions.

“The Young People’s Theatre Institute formalises the artistic and educational activities we have been conducting for our youngest viewers for many years,” explains Małgorzata Bogajewska, director of the Ludowy Theatre. “We want the institute’s activities to meet the needs of these audiences, frequently ignored by other cultural institutions in Poland,” she adds.

Management of the Ludowy Theatre in Young People’s Theatre Institute
photo by Jeremi Astaszow

It presents a repertoire for everyone aged between 11 and 16 – too old for fairytales but too young for some of the issues explored at plays aimed at adults. Performances are accompanied by workshops and discussions about what happened on stage earlier. This seems like a great idea in the era of rapidly growing mental health problems among young people. 

The mystery of bilocation

Each theatre season is summarised at the Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, first launched 16 years ago. Held in December, it is one of Kraków’s most important events and an opportunity to take an alternative path through the city: from Łaźnia Nowa to the Ludowy Theatre (from a tourist perspective, that’s Nowa Huta done), from the Narodowy Stary Theatre to the J. Słowacki Theatre (Planty Park and Old Town ticked off), from the KTO Theatre to the Nowy Proxima Theatre (a wander from Podgórze to Kazimierz).

“Polish theatre is the perfect introduction to stories about Poland,” says Bartosz Szydłowski, director of the Divine Comedy Festival and its main organiser, the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. I always await the announcement of the spectacles staged in Kraków during the festival with bated breath, so even if I had to travel for the announcement from the other end of Europe (as I’ve done before), I’ll always be here. I adore December in Kraków because of this festival. I delight in the bilocation from spectacle to spectacle, from shifting from one story to another, from laughter to tears to terror to enchantment. And of course in the audiences, desperate to follow each play with a discussion, assessing performances, questioning the director’s ideas, taking bets on who’ll receive the Divine Comedian prize. The famous evenings at the Bunkier Sztuki café, when the jury revealed their verdict, are a living memory in the history of Divine Comedy – a lifeline of Kraków’s theatre. 

1989, dir. Katarzyna Szyngiera
photo by Bartek Barczyk

Szydłowski explains the significance of the festival: “This year, Divine Comedy is especially notable on the panorama of Kraków’s theatre. The Inferno competition includes four plays written in Kraków: My Brilliant Friend by Ewelina Marciniak and Long Day’s Journey into Night by Luk Perceval from the Narodowy Stary Theatre, 1989 by Katarzyna Szyngiera from the J. Słowacki Theatre and How I Didn’t Kill My Father and How Much I Regret It by Mateusz Pakuła, a co-production between the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and the S. Żeromski Theatre in Kielce. I also invited other local theatres to put on performances, including the KTO, Barakah, Ludowy and AST Theatre. This season has been terrific and each team presents at least one excellent item. I’m certain that Kraków’s theatre is at its peak,” promises Szydłowski. I agree wholeheartedly!


P.S. I haven’t listed the activities of all Cracovian theatres for which I can only apologise – word counts are ruthless!

Marta Gruszecka

Journalist with a light, jesting style, she writes for publications including the “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily. Dedicated cat slave, especially black and tortoiseshell kitties. Marathon runner who never gives up.



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