Letter from Wroclaw

Thessaloniki is a city greatly associated with Alexander the Great and the Apostle Paul, also called Saint Paul or Paul of Tarsus. Wroclaw, Poland, is a city where the late Jerzy Grotowski worked and explored new directions in his art – theater art. This year, Wroclaw has been chosen to host – alas, poorly – the 13th edition of one of Europe’s biggest cultural events: the Europe Theater Prize. Founded in 1986 with the support of the then European Community in general and the European Parliament in particular, this prize is awarded to those personalities who have contributed to promoting understanding between people. The 12th edition took place in Thessaloniki. The National Theater of Northern Greece had welcomed the prestigious event for two consecutive years. It could have stayed on for quite a long time in our city, which is in big need of such occurrences – and not just for artistic purposes. Understandably, politics and diplomacy play a significant role in such widely projected events internationally. Greece may have the worlds’s oldest bureaucracy but it can still make blunders – for Europe’s theater prize could have easily stayed on in Thessaloniki. Yet there were no funds to support it, they said. For two years, the event was generously supported by the Ministry of Culture, primarily through its former general secretary, the unfortunate Christos Zachopoulos, who is from Thessaloniki. Understandably, after his suicide attempt, everything came to a standstill. There were some attempts to find local sponsors and there are still several prosperous, yet obviously noncultural businessmen in Thessaloniki, but they remained unconvinced. Note that the sum required was hardly excessive: Some 700,000 euros would have sufficed. In a country so used to blaming everything on bad luck, politicians cannot believe that success – say in a name issue – is anything more than Lady Luck temporarily changing her mind. And our local politicians, take the mayor, the prefect, the minister of Macedonia-Thrace, can hardly take a larger part in the city’s affairs than just opening gardening shows. Now to Wroclaw, where this year’s Europe Theater Prize ended yesterday. The big winner was Krystian Lupa, a renowned 56-year-old Polish theater director and scenery designer. Mae West, who once said that she liked a guy who took his time, would have loved him. His «Factory 2,» an improvization-based fantasy about Andy Warhol, staged on April 1st, took more than eight hours to perform. In parallel to this, another, probably more interesting, presentation took place: the 11th Europe Prize for New Theatrical Realities, with such creators as the Spanish 44-year-old Rodrigo Garcia whose expressed wish is to set out the horror of this world through as much aggressive exposition as is imaginable; Pippo Delbono, one of the Italy’s most unconventional theater artists; Arpad Schilling (born in 1974 in Hungary) who is known for productions at such prestigious theaters as the Schaubuhne in Berlin, Piccolo Teatro in Milano and the Burgtheater in Vienna; and 50-year-old Francois Tanguy, who certainly is one of the most imaginative stage artists I have ever witnessed. However, here in southwest Poland, in this historic city on the banks of the Odra River, the fourth-largest city of the country with 675,000 inhabitants and with its Gothic churches, baroque university and languid willow-lined canals, where it’s been sunny for the last four days, there is without doubt just one big theater star – Jerzy Grotowski. Born in Rzeszow, eastern Poland, Grotowski studied acting and directing at the National Theater School in Krakow. In 1959 he started his own experimental theater. Believing in the need to bring the play as close to the audience as possible, he called it the Theater of 13 Rows and later the Polish Laboratory Theater. We should mention that his ideas were focused on the insight that, since the Greeks, the deepest emotions in tragedy had been created by the breaking of taboos (e.g. the taboo of incest in «Oedipus Rex»). His frequent touring and the publication of his book «Towards a Poor Theatre» (1968) made Grotowski famous in the West. He spent more and more time abroad, based in Italy. He also took up teaching positions in the United States, at Columbia University and later at the University of California, Irvine. The late director sought to find a form of performance art beyond the limits of the existing theater, in which acting – or rather action – would no longer merely be symbolic, mere pretence, but full reality. He illustrated this by pointing out: «In the Russian Orthodox mass, the believer has to kneel and touch the floor with his forehead. That gesture does not merely symbolize humility, it actually produces the emotion of humility.» Last week in Wroclaw, there was an interesting International Association of Theater Critics (IACT) seminar titled «Acting Before and After Grotowski.» Consequently, the moral from this most constructive week in Wroclaw is that theater is changing. Anyway, aren’t we in a confidently changing epoch? The mere fact that US President Barack Obama yesterday outlined in Prague – some 200 kilometers from Wroclaw – his propitious vision of a world free of nuclear weapons indicates a huge revolution in international affairs. North Korea’s – note, along with Pakistan, India and Israel in not being a member of Nuclear Proliferation Treaty – «provocative» rocket launch on Sunday underscored the need for action, he said. Now, as far as theater is concerned, our world is one in which the ordinary plus-minus signs of this art, a living event shared and witnessed by a group of people in a single place, seem to have no more meaning. Just like nuclear arsenals, which should, hopefully, lose their meaning. Except that they do: As long as there are people in a place, the theater will exist. Alas, as will nuclear weapons. President Obama declared yesterday that although his nuclear goals might not be realized in his lifetime, he would strive to achieve them. This is something very similar to what Grotowski declared several decades ago. At the end of his endeavor, he said, there would have been, not theater, but rather a collective emotional experience in which the spectators became their own actors.

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