For many years, the main topics of discussion among Polish theatre critics and cultural figures were, as a rule, aesthetic or ideological questions: what was in the repertoire, different acting styles, and new forms of mass media. But for several years already, the problem of the theatre management has occupied the centre of attention. Recent events have shown that this problem in particular represents the greatest illness in Polish theatre, which must be healed immediately, lest it be too late.
The current model of theatrical life in Poland is most reminiscent of the German one: among official state theatres there are both city theatres (which are, it follows, supported by their cities) and regional theatres (supported by the “voivodeships,” or provinces). In addition, there are two national theatres: the National Theatre, or Teatr Narodowy, in Warsaw, and the National Stary Teatr in Krakow, which receive the biggest grants and take orders directly from the Ministry of Culture. The best of the state theatres (including Wroclaw’s Teatr Polski) were offered the chance to share their management responsibilities with the Ministry of Culture. And of course, besides these, there are private theatres.
The theatre’s management traditionally functions for a certain number of seasons (most often - five). When this term comes to an end, the theatre can either extend it or organize a competition for their replacements. The participants in this competition must meet certain conditions (higher education, work experience in management positions), as well as present a plan for the theatre’s management. The jury – which consists of representatives from local government, theatre experts, representatives from the Polish stage actors’ union (Związek Artystów Scen Polskich), and employees of the theatre – selects the best candidate via vote.
Unfortunately, this system does not always work as it should. Within the boundaries of this system, there are frequent and numerous abuses of power, against which the Polish theatre world has recently been literally striking back. Above all else, the local government often tries to assign they're friends and political supporters to advantageous managerial roles, even when in violation of competition rules. This was the case at the Aleksander Fredro Theatre in Gniezno, where the governor of the Great Polish Voivodeship did not grant the position to the candidate with the best presentation before the voting commission, but to his protégé; or, for instance, in Toruń, where the well-respected Romuald Wicza-Pokojski won the vote, but was not permitted to perform the duties of general manager in the Teatr im Horzycy. As it happens, these politicians - who don’t go to the theatre, and who most likely associate “the arts” with television sitcoms - have no desire to give away the management of theatres to dedicated theatre workers. Instead, they choose those who have earned their fame on television series, advertisements, and game shows – celebrities, in short, who can provide photo opportunities at galas. Such a candidate was nearly forced into the position of managing director of the Teatr Nowy, in Łódź.
In this theatre season, the most exasperating of all is the uproar in the Teatr Polski in Wrocław, which has been ongoing since August. Over a period of more than ten years, this theatre was the best in the country. It received awards from all over the world, and leading Polish directors worked there: among them, Krystian Lupa (who called the theatre his home), Jan Klata, Monica Strzępka, Michał Zadara, Barbara Wysocka, and Krzysztof Garbaczewski. The theatre’s best shows were invited to festivals around the world, from Avignon and the Festivale d’Automne in Paris to the Seoul Performing Arts Festival and Festival/Tokyo. Wrocław’s Teatr Polski, under managing director Krzysztof Mieszkowski, had a unique reputation: the bravery and ambition of its best directors (such as the masterful Lupa and his most talented students), along with an excellent acting company, allowed the classics to be reinterpreted anew and new texts to be presented, however rarely. Moreover, their work was always laden with a broad educational mission – from shows and creative workshops for children and teenagers to debates with invited guests.
The prologue to recent events was November 2015, when the new ultra-conservative Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, opposed the premiere of “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Princess Dramas: The Death and the Maiden), based on a text by Elfriede Jelinek and directed by young director Ewelina Marciniak. That time, the freedom of art won out, but Gliński got his revenge. When Krzysztof Mieszkowski’s time was up as managing director, instead of allowing an extension of his term - which he had clearly earned, as it was during his tenure that the theatre became one of the best in the country - the minister and the local government announced a concourse to fill his place. From six candidates, they chose one who had for some time now made no secret of his desire to occupy “some sort of” managerial position: Cezary Morawski, an unsuccessful actor whose chief achievement was a much-ridiculed role in a soap opera, in addition to tours to resort towns to entertain audiences with amateurish farces. In addition, he is famous as the onetime treasurer of the Polish stage actors’ union, in which capacity he lost the organization millions of euro with ill-advised investments.
Regardless of his clearly mediocre achievements and total lack of the competence to run one of the biggest and most important stages in Poland, along with his compromising legal history, the government of Lower Silesia nevertheless pushed Morawski’s candidacy, with the support of Piotr Gliński himself. Undoubtedly, the actor’s conservative views played a role here - he went so far as to declare in his management plan that the theatre, which had til then occupied a relatively leftist political position, would stage a work by John Paul II), along with his personal friendship with politicians in both the voivodeship and the Ministry of Culture. The fact that Krystian Lupa, a sharp critic of Morawski’s, was invited to the commission did not have any influence on the results– Lupa alone resisted the entire group of politicians and associated figures, who immediately selected and appointed Morawski without allowing so much as a discussion.
The theatre’s troupe, together with actors and critics from all over Poland and Wrocław’s owntheatre going public, protested this appointment from the very beginning. The troupe, who had supported a different candidate, demanded that Morawski step down, but he had no intention to give away his hard-won power; instead, he has punished uncooperative actors (to the point of firing them) and terrorizing audiences. But the actors decided to fight for their theatre – or, should that prove impossible, for their own honor. Krystian Lupa interrupted rehearsals for his adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial,” planned for this fall. Other directors have refused to work with Morawski: several months after the beginning of the season, the theatre is still not holding any rehearsals, and no official premiere announcements have been made. The theatre’s best actors are leaving, and the majority have already been welcomed by other theatres in Warsaw and Krakow: among them are Ewa Skibińska, Piotr Skiba, Bartosz Porczyk, Małgorzata Gorol, and Marcin Pempus. After nearly every performance of the shows left over from the old repertoire, audiences protest with signs and loud cheers, providing clear evidence that just such a complicated and ambitious theatre is what people need - and moreover, that they have absolutely no desire to see conservative and academic (or primitively entertaining) shows in its place.
In this entire story, the politicians’ impudence and the managing director’s stubbornness are, of course, most shocking if all;, but at the same time, equally worthy of respect is the choice made by the actors who would rather lose their work and leave the city where many of them have lived since childhood than support the current state of things. Simultaneously, this whole scandal has opened our eyes to the fact that the organization of theatrical life in Poland is in a sad state, and in desperate need of reform. If such reformscan be accomplished, it will be the only positive side effect of the current events in Wrocław.
Translated by Andrew Freeburg