HOW POLISH PLAYWRITING STOLE THE SHOW
First published by The Guardian (2010)
Tadeusz Słobodzianek's Our Class, which had its world premiere at the National theatre in London last September, has won the 2010 Nike Literary award. For the first time ever, Poland's most prestigious literary prize has been scooped by a play.
This is remarkable because in the years directly following the collapse of communism in 1989, contemporary Polish drama was all but absent from the Polish stage. In Poland, theatre is traditionally the domain of the director rather than the writer, but in the 1990s the outlook was particularly bleak. There were only three writers regarded as professional playwrights: Słobodzianek, Sławomir Mrozek and Janusz Głowacki. The theatres were practically deserted; indeed, some joked that the most popular play in Poland was Performance Cancelled.
The last 10 years, however, have seen a dramatic rebirth of playwriting. The Polish Theatre Institute's guide to contemporary drama now lists over 30 working playwrights and, last week, I had the opportunity to meet some of them. So why this spectacular boom?
Dorota Masłowska links the rising interest in contemporary drama to the dramatic socio-political changes the country has undergone in the last twenty years. Polish drama, she says, used to be characterised by "a sort of artistic and economic dusty murkiness". Joanna Owsianko explains that, in the 1990s, Polish theatre was dominated by the old maestros. She says, jokingly, that the average age of the artists working in the National theatre was about 60. In recent years, however, Polish theatre has discovered a new fresher voice and started to engage directly with the problems of the new, post-communist reality.
Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk puts forward the idea that the decline of the old theatre in the 1990s made space for a new audience. She credits TR Warszawa artistic director Grzegorz Jarzyna with helping to attract a younger, more open-minded audience into Polish theatres. This new audience had fewer expectations about what theatre should be. This in turn has enabled directors and writers to experiment more freely.
Experimentation is the hallmark of new Polish drama. Plays engage with contemporary issues, but often in fantastical and metaphorical ways. In Masłowska's A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians, a pair of young Poles disguise themselves as Romanian beggars and embark on a surreal road trip. Sikorska-Miszczuk's zany Loose Screws re-imagines part of Poland as a separatist Islamic state. Theatre offers, Michał Walczak enthuses, "real freedom of imagination, both in terms of what you want to say, the way you want to say it, and who you want to say it to". Sikorska-Miszczuk agrees that theatre offers the writer a "space of freedom" and this is its main attraction for her.
Słobodzianek is seen as playing a vital role. In 2003, he opened the Laboratorium Dramatu, Poland's equivalent of the Royal Court. The Laboratorium is important, Jarosław Kamiński explains, because in a theatre system dominated by the cult of the director, it is the one prominent theatre that places the work of the writer first. Many of Poland's new playwrights were discovered by Słobodzianek. He mentored Owsianko during the development of her first play. Without his support, she acknowledges, "I wouldn't have been able to write any plays."
None of this is to say that playwrights in Poland don't still face many challenges. Drama is not seen as having the literary weight of poetry or prose. I asked Walczak if Słobodzianek winning the Nike would change this. He was optimistic. It offers us, he said, "the hope that playwriting can be really important".
This article was originally published by The Guardian (2010).