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Discovering Inspiration in Poland

In March 2017, Professor Vince Mountain (scenic design) and I were informed that our Department of Theatre & Drama studio production of War, by Swedish playwright Lars Norén, had been accepted into the juried competition in the biennial ITSelF (International Theatre Schools) Festival in Warsaw, Poland. Ours would be the only American school represented at the festival, and the entire experience would ultimately provide unbridled inspiration for our students.

This opportunity to take a student cast and crew to Poland was the culmination of a four-year collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, and was made possible with the support of the Institute, SMTD, and U-M’s Copernicus Program in Polish Studies, housed at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

War, translated into English by Marita Lindholm Gochman (who saw our production in Ann Arbor) is the brutal examination of a family struggling for survival after their moral compass has suffered a gross recalibration. Set in an unnamed war-torn Balkan country, their world explodes when a mother, her brother-in-law, and her daughters must confront the unexpected return of her husband, presumed to be killed in action and now blind. In this world there are no more innocents and the oppressed behave no differently than the oppressors. War asks us to accept that once we are unable to survive using the accepted moral codes, our baser savage natures can surface-often quite quickly, and perhaps unnoticed. War confronts us with the awful decisions that are being made in war zones around the world to this day in the pursuit of survival, with the resonance of a Greek tragedy.

Our production of War was originally mounted in the Walgreen Drama Center (Studio One) in November 2016 as part of a Lars Norén mini-festival. In June, the cast and crew returned to campus to remount the production. Set designer Mountain was unable to join us for the journey to Poland, so Professor Gary Decker (scenic and lighting design) joined the team as technical director.

Mountain had designed the “in the round” set with the possibility of travel in mind, and the 15-foot square canvas, metal conduit, and props all fit into two bags. With two rolled-up mattresses and costumes in the actors’ personal luggage, we were able to get War to Poland without any shipping costs.

Our troupe visited three cities while in Poland: Poznań, Kraców, and Warsaw. After a delayed flight from Chicago on LOT airlines (complete with a quartet of nuns) and a hired-bus journey from Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, we arrived at our hotel in Poznań and ran across the road for a dance performance in the Stary Brower building, a converted brewery. This was the first of several performances we saw as part of the Malta Theatre Festival. This year’s theme was The Baltic Question (very appropriate given the subject matter of War), and perhaps the most engaging piece was Turbofolk by Bosnian Director Oliver Frljić, performed by the National Theatre of Croatia.

“Rape, sexuality, violence, war, castration, political suppression, etc….What fascinated me the most and kept me constantly engaged was the Croatian group’s blatant theatrical recklessness and (from an American eye) vulgarity. I found the unconventional structure, and the fearless, unapologetically exposed performances inspiring. I felt as if the rims around my little creative brain had disbanded. It made me think of theatre not as restrictive storytelling, but as communication between people around the world that engages through the shared emotions and experience that flavor all of our lives. Alternating between the ongoing scribbles in my notebook and soaking up the show, wide-eyed on the edge of my seat, my brain was bouncing off the walls with newfound freedoms.” Lauren Balone (BFA ’19, performance/acting)

All the performances were sold out. Theatre is an integral part of life in Poland, with audiences comprising all ages and backgrounds. It stimulates discussions around social, political, literary, and artistic questions.

“These performances helped me focus my critical eye as an artist. I talked about what I really liked about the show before saying what I didn’t. I noticed what worked and what didn’t. Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I was exposed to theatre that took risks. I never realized how the rules we put on theatre inhibit the potential work for artists.” Kellan Kryak (BTA ’19, playwriting)

In Poznań, the SMTD students joined students from Brandeis and Harvard universities to visit the Theatre of the Eighth Day, a company that was in residence in SMTD’s Department of Theatre & Drama in Winter 2016. We also visited the National Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts and attended an open-air concert by the Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach. Like Theatre of the Eighth Day, Laibach has a history of dissident status.

Then, a train ride to Kraców and visits to the Jewish Cultural Festival, centered in the Kazimierz district. We attended music performances in synagogues, and cast members Zoey Bond and Ryan Rosenheim were invited to the largest Seder dinner in Poland!

“Earlier this year, I lost something vital, some artistic drive; I was feeling unworthy or scared or overambitious. Since traveling to Poland, I have been rejuvenated. I am quaking with eagerness to create. I am more inspired than I’ve ever been in my life.” Ryan Rosenheim (BFA ’18, performance/acting)

We went to Cricoteka (the Tadeusz Kantor theatre archives), the Stary Teatr with its interactive museum MICET, and The Schindler Factory (now a museum) in Auschwitz, and took an alternative guided tour of the city.

Our last week was spent in Warsaw at ITSelF. There were productions from schools from Poland, Iran (six women whose performances had been suspended by the authorities in Tehran), Italy, Slovakia, Israel, Romania, Belgium, and Peru, and the students got to meet, talk with, and forge friendships with many of them, along with seeing their work.

“Seeing theatre from around the world made me disappointed in American theatre. It made me feel bored and uninspired by many of the domestic and self-serving works that have become the norm around here. On the other hand, the trip to Poland and the exposure made me inspired and fired up to return to America and help take theatre and the arts in a new direction- a democratic and functional direction with big vision-and encourage people to lean in and be active citizens in this world where we are encouraged to sit back and tune out.” Aaron Huey (BFA ’19, performance/acting)

We performed in Teatr Syrena (Mermaid Theatre), the mermaid being the city’s emblem. We arrived at the theatre at 9 AM, set up, rehearsed, and then performed at 6 and 8:30 PM; the second performance was for the jury, led by Patrick Spottiswoode, director of education at the Globe Theatre, London.

On the last day of the festival-the same day that President Donald Trump spoke 50 meters down the road from us-the jury honored actress Lauren Balone, who plays a child in War, with an award for Best Supporting Role.

While in Warsaw, two architects gave us a tour of the city with insight into the rebuilding after WWII and the fall of the communist regime in 1989. We also visited the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising-joined by First Lady Melania Trump!-The Theatre Institute, and many restaurants!

“Other journeys I have made had more ‘touristy’ components, or were so short I tried to cram as much as possible into a few days. On this excursion, however, we were able to fully live and experience contemporary Polish culture, while still visiting museums and must-see sites. Each city we visited had a different art or cultural festival happening at the time, so we were exposed to an enormous amount of European art. Zoey Bond (BFA ’17, performance/acting)

We are very grateful to Szymon Wrobléwski of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for his tireless work on our behalf and to former Dean Aaron Dworkin for the funds to travel to Poland. We hope to return to the festival in 2019.

 

By Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theatre (acting & movement), directing concentration advisor, lead faculty for Interarts Performance, and associate professor of art & design.