Go Deeper

Gombrowicz in America

Posted June 30th, 2009

Witold Gombrowicz‘s plays present unique challenges to both producers and viewers. Yesterday I talked to Allen Kuharski, the chair of Swarthmore College’s theater department, an expert on Polish theater, and one of the first teachers of Michal Zadara, the Swarthmore alumnus who is directing Operetta at this year’s Live Arts Festival. Allen’s been deeply involved with productions of Gombrowicz in Philadelphia, including as the translator and dramaturg for an acclaimed stage adaptation of Ferdydurke that launched from the city in 2000. He shared some thoughts on Gombrowicz, Philadelphia theater’s history of successful productions of challenging work, and how theater presenters might not be delivering enough innovative work to hungry audiences.

Why don’t we see more of Gombrowicz’s work in the U.S.?
What’s the hang up in English and in the States in general? One part is mysterious to me. He modeled much of his work on Shakespeare in one way or another. All people who do his work in other countries besides Poland always say that the key into the work is Shakespeare. Somehow in English world we’re blind to the most obvious point of entry.

I don’t think there’s a problem with the audience. It’s my experience that whenever we can get the work done and it’s done well there’s an audience for it. It’s an underestimating of the American audience by presenters.

The Wilma did this play called Scorched this March by a contemporary Lebanese Quebecois playwright [Wajdi Mouawad] who writes in French, and it sold out, this three-hour-long, big-cast show. The audience was ready for theater that took a risk on a really good script and a really good production. He’s kind of like Gombrowicz; a displaced person, writing in a second language.

[Mouawad] is the co-artistsic director of this year’s Avignon Festival in France. He’s a superstar in the French-speaking world. And the Wilma couldn’t get anybody from New York to check out the show for a transfer.

So what are the problems with getting these kind of plays around the U.S.?
Philly’s ahead of New York in many ways. There’s never been a production of Gombrowicz produced out of New York. Things have toured there, but that’s a different thing.

If you’re in Poland, you have 350 annual theater festivals. One festival opens almost every day of the year. Those festivals run from three days to two and a half weeks, and most are to some degree international. So there’s a whole kind of infrastructure of funding, touring, making productions that can tour, that this much poorer country supports and maintains, and it just keeps growing.

It’s about how work gets shared. If you have a brilliantly successful production like Scorched, it can’t tour here. There are no festivals to take it to, and the production isn’t built for touring: actors aren’t available, the set can’t be broken down and be put on a truck.

Pig Iron is an interesting counterexample. They’re highly mobile, and they mostly perform on tour outside of Philadelphia. They perform outside of Philadelphia more than all of other Philly theater combined. The European model is built to tour. No matter how big, maybe especially if it’s big, it’s designed so that the show can tour.

[And when I worked on Ferdydurke,] we did four American tours, including Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, New Haven, Princeton, and we did return engagements in Chicago, LA, Philadelphia, and a big one in NYC. But most interesting was Salt Lake, Indianapolis, Bloomington, places off the beaten trail of the coasts. People were really receptive in those places to what was a pretty demanding or unprecedented show for most of those audiences and those critics. People were hungry for something outside of their [theater] experiences.

What are some of the challenges specific to producing Operetta?
I’ve never found another playwright with the same history . His work was banned in Poland. He became a major figure first through his work being performed in translation at major theaters in other countries. So why is it so hard in English?

One of the biggest problems with Operetta, and I’ve talked to a number of directors about it, has been that directors and composers liked the script but weren’t sure they could make the existing translation work. I think there’s a question for this text in particular whether we need a fresh translation for an American production. [N.B. – Operetta at Live Arts will be produced in Polish, with English supertitles projected above the stage.]

Another thing that makes Operetta so amazing, and that makes it difficult for producers, is that it needs a new score every time. It’s been done lots of different ways. The most amazing production I’ve seen to date was a Swedish one that used Swedish-speaking black actors to play the servants and the revolutionaries in the play. They completely updated the context of the play, like [Zadara’s] production does in its own way. The music was house music, with a DJ, a huge sensation when it was produced at the Gombrowicz festival in 1997.

Who usually produces Gombrowicz?
This play has circulated and has been done in big institutional theaters, like national theaters, or [the Capitol Theatre] from Wroclaw with a touring company of 43 people. Even in a country like Poland, this company is not the most famous, or biggest, or most resourced. It’s kind of an average-sized Polish provincial theater.

It’s also been done by what you call “off-” or alternative theater companies, places no more resourced than Pig Iron. It’s true for all of Gombrowicz’s work [internationally]: it circulates simultaneously in small avant-garde and young companies; at the same time, it’s being done at these big institutional establishment theatres. In France he’s considered a 20th century classic like Brecht, Ionesco, and Beckett, and the same is true in the Netherlands, and everywhere in Scandinavia.

Part of why he’s kind of an amazing figure is that it’s been this way since the very beginning. In some countries like the U.S., he circulates more in one domain than the other. Here he’s a fringe, downtown, off-off-Broadway kind of figure, and heavily done in university theater departments. This production will be the first time that anybody in the English-speaking world has had a chance to see an establishment theater produce Operetta

That’s why I love the Live Arts Festival, because it pushes that principle of touring work, audiences expecting to see work from other places, productions being encouraged to exist to tour. What the Live Arts Festival is giving a Philly audience the same expectations that a provincial audience in Poland has had for quite a while.

Over the 13 years of the Festival, I see a Philadelphia audience that is growing every year, and there’s an audience for the exotic, foreign, unknown, weird work that you present. You have to take time to develop that audience, and you have to be be consistent, but the audience is there.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo by Lukasz Gawronski.