On my first day as an intern at the National Theatre, Dr. Donn B. Murphy, the theater's first vice president who arranged my internship, handed me a package of information and with his usual smile told me to start work: "Could you cover the phone, Danuta?" Sure, nothing easier. But after one hour and 30 phone calls I was exhausted from giving out information on the "Noon at the National" program, on colleague colloquia with the cast of "Evita," the numbers for the box office and for public relations. I thanked God that Steven Dawn, the office manager, was around and always ready to help. So this is how it operates.
I came to the United States from Poland last year with a stipend from the Kosciuszko Foundation to continue my studies in contemporary theater. I work as a researcher and theater critic in Warsaw, where about 20 theaters serve the population of more than 1.5 million. At once I saw the big difference between the goals and activities of the theater I know in Poland and this one in Washington.
The theater in Poland is a medium of ideas and artistic expression and it communicates with society through artistic achievements. It is mainly a resident, repertory theater (the Arena Stage type) where the ensemble--including actors, directors, stage designers and technicians--prepare the performances from beginning to end. Usually they have permanent positions and work together for years. Over the years, close relationships have formed that are often helpful--but sometimes harmful--to the quality of the performance. Friendships can be helpful because they create a climate of cooperation; they are harmful when they interfere with artistic judgment.
In the past few decades, the director as an artist who unifies the performance and coordinates the work of the ensemble has come to dominate the Polish theater. The names of Grotowski, Dejmek, Wajda, Kantor and Szajna are advertised over those of the actors. It seems to me that in America it is the playwright or the famous actor who gives the performance its individuality.
That difference happened to be the focus of a discussion with Dawn about "Medea" at the Kennedy Center. To me it was, first of all, a poorly directed play. To him the most important thing was the excellence of the great actress, Zoe Caldwell.
Observing the National Theatre I realized that besides presenting popular shows, it serves as a cultural institution with activities in many directions. I could see how this diversity is well received by the community: large audiences at "Noon at the National" programs, the success of the beneficiary reading of "Under Milk Wood," the collection of food for the needy in the Washington area and the intern program, in which each of the two or three interns can pursue individual interests.
Another difference between the two types of theater attracted my attention. In the audience in Washington I saw mostly the older generation--white hair, glasses. At the theater in Poland you meet mostly young people and very often whole groups from colleges. One reason for this is the price of tickets: Theater in the United States is expensive, while in Poland tickets are relatively cheap and young people can afford them. Also, young Poles are very much interested in new ideas created on the stage. I remember the overnight queue to get tickets for "Spotkania Warszawskie," the great festival of best performances from all over Poland. The public interest was much greater than the available tickets. So young people, mostly students, organized ticket lines and a list of names so that people would be served in the order they had arrived.
The younger generation at the theater welcomes experimentation and revolution; the elder is looking for entertainment and relaxation. In Poland as in America, theater is dependent on financial subsidies--in my country from the government and in the United States from the supporting organization and the audience. This definitely influences the repertoire and artistic shape.
A different society, a different theater, but in both cases an active factor in the life of the country.