I met Philip Arnoult for the first time at a bookstore/café tucked in an alley behind the Grotowski Institute in central Wrocław, a charming Polish city (pronounced, if you’re wondering, vrotz-waff). “I’m so glad you’re here,” he told me when he saw me, grabbing my arm firmly.
I was glad to be there, too, as part of a small group of Americans organized by Arnoult, the founder and director of the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD). Our group included artistic directors Blanka Zizka from the Wilma Theater in Philadephia, David Dower from ArtsEmerson in Boston, and Lisa Steindler from Z Space in San Francisco, as well as actress/devisor Aysan Celik, Towson University theatre professor/performance and installation artist Tavia La Follette, and Philip’s assistant, Shannon Finnell. I came as Z Space’s playwright in residence, and the occasion for our meeting was the eighth Dialog festival, a biennial international theatre event. Over the next eight days, we would see 11 shows, most from Europe, plus entries from the U.S. and New Zealand, curated around a theme: Świat bez Boga, which translates as, World Without God. (Hello, Europe!)
I had a simple goal for the week: absorb, absorb, absorb. I went in woefully unfamiliar with contemporary, continental European work, and this was my chance to ingest an enormous dose. My consciously biased presumptions were that the work would probably be difficult and “avant-garde,” in contrast to all the easy, TV-like Broadway shows Europeans assume I’m used to reveling in back home. Touché. But the work and my week would stretch far beyond any such presumptions.
First, a few stats about the work I saw at Dialog:
Shortest piece: 70 minutes
Longest piece: 280 minutes
Smallest cast: 2
Largest cast: 27
Shows with genitals: 7
Shows with 10,000-gallon pools and windy rainstorms: 1
Shows with naked director asking for political messages to be written on his body with a Sharpie: 1
Average number of curtain calls: 3
The first piece we saw was director Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s script for the film Cries and Whispers. Two deaths were staged for the principal character. The first was gradual, peaceful, and surrounded by sisters. A white fabric wall lowered and hid her from view, though we could see an old radio microphone on a wire swinging above her, whooshing, gradually moving less and less, ultimately coming to a stop. The second version of her death followed immediately and was violent and solitary and loud, with music and screams of terror. The fabric wall moved back up as the character threw a giant canvas on the floor, dumped the contents of her commode onto it, covered her body in blue paint, and thrashed her body on the paper, leaving a trail of violent blue strokes. This death was followed by a quiet and deliberate 10-to-20-minute period where the body was cleaned of its paint and filth and prepared for a funeral, and the set was slowly reoriented.
Having witnessed the death of my own father two years ago, aspects of both the violent and peaceful end, and the quiet that followed, resonated with me very stirringly. I was also in awe of the fearlessness of the performer—her raw emotional and physical honesty and openness. There was no safety net.
We then took a chartered public bus to a large TV studio to see Stones in Her Mouth, a piece conceived, choreographed, and directed by Samoan artist Lemi Ponifasio that centered around the music and dance of a group of Maori women. Original songs and dances were stripped of any real-world context and presented in grayscale, with the women dressed in black. The stage was lit by strips of white LED lights on the ground, with some pointed toward us to blind us, and a large video screen projected various patterns of gray. The women’s faces, necks, and hands were the first—and sometimes only—things we could see, and they would appear and disappear like ghosts from the blackness. Loud ambience and electronic pulses enveloped the room as the women’s voices cut through, sometimes swinging poi balls in elaborate rhythmic patterns with impeccable precision.
It was a piece that demanded a full, visceral engagement from me, and attempting to analyze or discuss “what it was about” afterward seemed only to minimize the feeling I experienced.
I was a little nervous but also excited about the four-and-a-half-hour runtime of The Woodcutters, a play from Wrocław’s Polish Theatre directed by Krystian Lupa, one of Poland’s most esteemed directors. Would I stay engaged? Would I have to pee?
The piece itself, an adaptation of a German novel, tracks its own long journey into night: a heavy, smoke- and drink-filled reunion of old acquaintances for an “artistic dinner” after the funeral for one of their old friends who has committed suicide. The narrator despises these people’s company, finding them to be frauds, but reluctantly attends, joining the evening’s gradual, quietly relentless, increasingly drunken descent into cruelty, self-hatred, and intellectual aggression, where everyone seems to resent and denigrate the talents and accomplishments of their so-called friends.
Watching it felt like sitting with a large, dense masterwork painting, with multiple layers and focal points. The length of the piece was an essential part of its force, and as the evening lurched forward, a growing dark humor emerged underneath the tragedy of the lives of all the characters, portrayed with exquisite, nuanced acting by the ensemble.
At one point during the second act, the “artistic dinner” host put on Ravel’s “Bolero.” My American theatre brain wondered if this would bring the action to some sort of dramatic peak. Instead, the whole piece of music played and built, as the exhausted, drunken, defeated guests faintly waved their arms and tapped their feet, the climax barely penetrating. It may sound dull in description, but it was a hilarious, tragic, and deeply sublime moment of theatre for me.
The play does not end in any major resolution, yet it felt like I had been through a momentous evening, as I watched every character forced to quietly reckon with the (wrecked) state that they had reached; I never felt the need to pee. The final plea the party host made to the narrator: “Don’t write about this.”
Almost every piece was accompanied by English supertitles (and Polish, if the original language was not Polish). So we Americans read as much as watched, forced at times to make a choice between verbal and visual cues. At the post-show discussions, we would huddle around Artur, a lightning-fast translator who Anglified every word in real time, except for a few times when people laughed and he explained they were sharing a local political joke.
All of the works performed were repertory pieces from the companies; some premiered as long as six years ago and were ready to be toured and/or remounted. This got me thinking how my work might be different if I were writing for a company that, after its premiere, could continue the life of the piece in a similar way. What happens to the work when the model changes?
For one thing, there is a more intimate relationship between theatre and the government in Europe, but this is more complicated than many realize. While government money clearly provides opportunities for artists and spectators to experience high-quality work free from any need to be commercial, it also seems to generate tricky and sometimes nasty politics. While we Americans often envy the government support of the arts in Europe, after listening to the challenges and complaints from European artists, I’m not sure if there is a better or worse model.
As we walked to our seats for Cries and Whispers, for instance, the dying character was already onstage, fitfully sleeping and wheezing. A video camera was pointed directly at her face and projected onto a large TV screen showing the dried mucus on the corners of her lips. But just before the performance was to begin, the curator of the festival was recognized with an award for her years of work. (This festival was her last.) An array of nicely dressed politicians marched onstage with flowers and plaques for her, all while that gravely ill character continued to ooze and wheeze and die behind them. Now that’s some mise en scène!
The post-show bar conversations sparked by the work were a consistent joy every night of the festival, as audience, artists, and staff gathered for drinks, discussion, and varying degrees of intoxication. We Americans were always eager to reflect on the work we had witnessed together. Inevitably we compared its aesthetics and construction to those of our own work and work from the U.S. in general, which usually led to deep discussions about the state of the American theatre. Vodka, beer, and tonic waters were sipped late into the night. Some gatherings stretched even longer, as we had the opportunity to talk to some of the festival artists and learn about some of the backstage process and miscellaneous gossip. We even heard about some of the mistakes that had happened, which we had interpreted as choices—such as the moment in a show when the house lights went up while two actors were still naked onstage, hiding behind church pews. Conversations were always spirited and philosophical. “Culture can’t earn money!” and “We have to fight all the time!” are two of the quotes I documented quickly on my iPhone Notes app, while trying not to lose my place in the conversation.
Swapping industry tales of successes and setbacks, crazy personalities and egos, hardships and glories, and commiserating about the universal struggles of being an artist can make any residential distance and cultural difference vanish. I jotted down a phrase David Dower used to describe our transnational group of imbibing theatremakers: “A communal tribe across nations.” For a little over a week, at least, we all felt part of that tribe.
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb lives in San Francisco and is playwright in residence at Z Space and a member of New Dramatists.