POZNAN, POLAND: We’re at Teatr Nowy (“New Theatre”), applauding an energetic afternoon performance of a comic play called Testament psa (roughly, A Dog’s Will) in this bustling 10-century-old city in Western Poland, where the Malta Festival, a popular annual showcase of international performance, is in high gear. Suddenly, to the apparent consternation of the actors taking their bows, a preppy young fellow in a business suit hops onstage to interrupt the curtain call. He’s an aide to a local congressman, the intruder announces, and his boss, who couldn’t make it to the show, is herewith sending his assurances that the play’s reported irreverence toward the Church, while regrettable—Testament psa has, in fact, ridiculed priests, nuns and a bishop as corrupt, money-grubbing fools—will not result in censure from the authorities in charge of cultural matters. Furthermore, the congressman sends along a gift to underwrite the Nowy company’s work: Digging into a pocket, the aide scatters a handful of coins onto the stage floor. The joke, revealed, elicits laughter and applause as the deflated actors stare disconsolately at what amounts to their official funder’s penny-ante show of support.
A quarter-hour later, we’re across town in a renovated slaughterhouse to catch another festival performance—young Warsaw-based director Marta Górnicka’s choral piece Requiemaszna, a deceptively simple but richly resonant work for an eclectic team of 25 speaker/singers. The show, billed as a critical reflection on “market-oriented reality,” gets immediately to the point: “I’ve got no money!” the barefoot choristers proclaim with fierce urgency as they pace the bare brick room in mechanistic unison. “Unemployment equals jail,” goes another refrain. “Find a job up someone’s ass.”
The overarching “idiom” (read: theme) of this year’s expansive Malta Festival lineup was “Oh, Man! Oh, Machine!”, a provocatively ambivalent phrase that hooked the June 24–July 20 event’s multi-pronged programming to issues of technology, automation, robotics and the like—but another topic was clearly on the minds of many of the artists gathered in Poznan: money. Where it comes from. What it means not to have it.
It should be no surprise, of course, that performances on Malta’s mostly European program would have pointed things to say about the continent’s urgent and ever-spreading economic crisis, particularly about its impact on the arts—but the boldness of these artists’ complaints prompted me to think less about the festival’s futuristic visions of human-android fusion and worry more about contemporary Poland’s arts-funding situation. How does it work? What’s the source of these vividly articulated anxieties about survival, organizational and personal?
The festival itself, which has been steadily growing over the course of 15 summers, is generously endowed (with money from multiple sources, including the state), as is clear from the sheer scale of the event: hundreds of productions involving some 600 artists, city-wide art installations and all-day academic forums, a tally of some 80,000 spectators, a contingent of journalists from 16 countries, a raft of visiting scholars, presenters and technicians—and a celebrity curator, in the person of Italian director/provocateur Romeo Castellucci.
But what about the home-grown Polish work, like Testament psa and Requiemaszyna, being shown here? Are their expressions of angst about money simply comments on the ominous world situation, or are they getting at something more specific? The answer, I discover during an eight-day stay in Poznan, has more than a little to do with some peculiar twists of recent Polish history.
Poland, you’ll remember, has been regularly invaded, conquered and occupied over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries; for one grim 123-year stretch the nation actually disappeared from the map. But its rich cultural identity tenaciously persisted through the turmoil, and, in the course of crisis after crisis, theatres—where Polish was freely spoken even when the language was elsewhere banned—became a prized repository of national unity and pride. Under Soviet domination, prior to the peaceful, labor-inspired 1989 Round Table Revolution (the first to take place in the region, a few months before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Berlin Wall), artists were courted by the communist authorities as propagandists, coerced to trade their independent voices for a reliable system of subsidies, sponsorship and protection.
Ironically, when the changes came after ’89—democracy, free markets, an end to censorship—Polish artists (including those, like Grotowski, who had subtly and expertly subverted the restrictions imposed by their totalitarian patrons) were effectively left in the dust. The political and economic liberation did not extend into the world of the arts, where diminished prestige, the absence of any defined cultural policy and the failure to envision a new system of financing (not to mention the unsettling impact of a wildly transformed social reality) left Polish artists stranded, economically and otherwise, and the theatre in a state of virtual collapse.
Now, 20-plus years on, there’s a bristling new wave of theatrical confidence and energy. But, I was amazed to discover, there’s virtually nothing different about Poland’s arts-funding practices. As in the old days, an overwhelming proportion (up to 90 percent in some cases) of budgets for theatres, museums and cultural organizations comes from public sources (national, regional or municipal, or some combination thereof), and who gets what and how much still depends primarily on the judgments (or, in too many cases, the uninformed whims) of whomever sits in the appointed bureaucrat’s chair.
So, in search of perspective and armed with an introduction from my host in Poznan, the inimitable and tireless cultural attaché Joanna Klass, I headed to one of these funding administrators’ offices—that of Agata Grenda, who’s in charge of cultural subsidies for Wielkopolska, the region in which Poznan is located. (There are 16 such county-like regions in all, comprising a geographical area about the size of the state of New Mexico.)
Poznan-born Grenda, it turns out, returned to her hometown just two years ago from New York City, where for several years she headed up the Polish Cultural Institute, overseeing theatre and dance projects up and down the East Coast. Both her parents are actors—they’ve been members of the Teatr Nowy company, in fact, for the past 30 years.
“What shocked me most when I came back to Poland to take this position,” Grenda tells me in her modestly appointed office, “was the sense of entitlement felt by cultural organizations, theatre groups and so on. They’re accustomed to subsidy in a way that’s just not present in the U.S.”
Theatres are indeed expected to generate income through ticket sales and incidentals like program ads, but they depend entirely on the beneficence of public programs like Grenda’s for the basics—salaries, building maintenance, funding for new productions and so on. There’s virtually no alternative: Corporate underwriting of the arts (a tack the progressive leaders of the Malta Fest are aggressively pursuing) remains minuscule; private foundations as we know them in the U.S. do not exist; and individual giving to the arts is unheard of (except in rare cases, mostly in opera and dance).
“The situation has to change,” Grenda asserts with some heat. “We can only transform the system from inside, with input from both sides of the barricades.” She’s referring to struggling artists on one side and their government representatives on the other. What should both camps be asking for? “First, politicians must stay away from artistic content,” she cautions. “Then, we need a fair, well-defined cultural policy that can be applied without favoritism, and in support of important, ambitious art. Beyond that, there has to be diversification of funding sources, so decisions by people like me won’t make or break arts organizations.”
Conferring with artistic director Piotr Kruszczynski, who inherited leadership of the Nowy a year-and-a-half ago and is intent on restoring the 40-year-old company to the artistic prominence it once enjoyed, I hear much the same narrative. “After 1989, with the new order of capitalism and the free market, theatre in Poland became very different—we started to do things for money, to keep our theatres alive.”
But no relevant legal framework was instituted to suit the new reality; no agreed-upon solutions for supporting the arts materialized. Old-school authoritarian cultural patronage was the system that endured by default—and, Kruszczynski laments, that practice has, over the past decade or so, been diminished and diluted by the forces of commercialization and mass culture. The government tries to dress up its failure to change with the times as neo-liberal generosity, but it is in fact an outmoded and corruption-prone relic of the bad old days, my sources contend. And at this juncture it’s the only game in town.
Klass herself, from her berth as senior expert on theatre and the performing arts at the influential Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, points out that the present debate in Poland is not simply whether one system is better than the other. “The key is that any system, to work legitimately on behalf of the arts, has to have valid, transparent policies,” she asserts. “The condition of culture in this country cannot depend on the generosity of spirit of our present leadership. We have to hold them accountable.”
Romeo Castellucci has a lean and hungry look, and he’s said to have a temper when things go awry. But the 53-year-old guest curator mixed amiably with night-time festival crowds in Poznan’s Liberty Square and consented to take part in an afternoon academic round-table with a cadre of international critics discussing his work. I wasn’t present for that encounter, but in the later critical sessions I attended, the Castellucci buzz—in response to his single entry in the festival lineup, Four Seasons Restaurant, which I’d seen the night before—was mostly about “trans-humanation,” a term concocted to refer to the modification of humans into quasi-humans, resulting in mechanistic, in-tandem group behavior. Obscurantist generalities aside, the critics made some telling points.
Inspired, according to Castellucci’s notes, by artist Mark Rothko’s unfulfilled commission to hang his abstract paintings in the elite New York eatery, Four Seasons (a sensation at Festival d’Avignon in 2012 but not yet seen in the U.S.) is a grisly but elegantly executed horror show of sorts, played to the intermittent high-decibel rumble of (those notes insist) a black hole in deep space, recorded by NASA and shifted to a frequency audible to human ears. After a seat-rattling interval of utter darkness, the curtains open on a bright, nondescript gymnasium; a young woman in old-fashioned pinafore and clogs enters tentatively carrying a pair of scissors, with which she proceeds to cut off her own tongue. The bloody lump of flesh falls to the floor. Nine more girls enter and execute the same operation. As the women cluster in communal pain, a small black dog scampers on stage to scarf up the leavings and lick the floor clean. Scene.
Four Seasons moves on to some pulsing choreography, wielding of guns, naked birthing rituals, a horse carcass and a climactic storm of black-hole thunder and furiously swirling black confetti, through which a final yearning image of a woman’s face can be discerned. There’s a brutal grandiosity, a fatalistic inevitability to the proceedings. Castellucci offers no explication, no apologies, but applied to this sonic and imagistic assault, the critics’ “trans-humanation” theories begin to sound more prophetic than pretentious.
Other compelling offerings on the Malta lineup failed to jibe with either the “Oh, Man! Oh, Machine” idiom or the festival’s undercurrent of fiscal revolt—a revved-up, free-form reading of A Doll’s House, redubbed Nora and performed in English with Polish surtitles by the director-less Belgian collective Tg STAN, for example, showcased a terrific actress, Wine Dierickx, as Nora, but contributed little to the core conversations that the festival aimed to generate. Arts-funding issues were back in the news and in the public consciousness in a major way, though, shortly after my visit to Poznan ended but well before Malta’s almost-month-long schedule had played out.
Back in Warsaw, some 175 miles to the east, there was an uproar in the theatre community over an unpopular appointment by one of the aforementioned arts bureaucrats; reinforced by a growing countrywide “Citizens of Culture” movement pushing for increased government commitment to arts financing, the discontent led to an open competition for a new director of the capital city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (or DCA, which wields a budget of more than $100 million). Tomasz Janowski, the progressive former deputy director of Warsaw’s prestigious TR Warszawa company, won the competition and was unilaterally elected to the post in August. His victory was taken as a portent of change.
Here is Janowski’s own précis, sent by e-mail, of the slice of Polish history I’d been eyeing: “After 1989, the new post-communist Poland benefited greatly from liberal ideas, but with a great detriment to culture. The government on both the state and local levels has been heading to a reduction of its financing of culture, hoping for a greater involvement of the private sector. It soon became clear, though, that models of co-financing the culture by private benefactors (as in corporate sponsorship) could not work out. That brought an onslaught of what we can call commercial culture—not just mainstream, but often trivial, vulgar and silly.”
Proposing a response to the situation that must delight such observers as Grenda and Kruszczynski, Janowski goes on to indicate that he has no qualms about pressing for “government intervention.”
“I intend to conduct an open public dialogue with the arts community and to actively support those institutions and artistic initiatives that respond best to the needs of our times—ones that have a great rapport with audiences, that are open to dynamic changes, that have vision and bring new forms to our culture,” he says, using terms that aren’t often employed in his political whereabouts, even in propaganda.
Janowski’s professed ideal of open, dynamic, visionary institutions is alive, truth be told, in the Malta Festival, where the ferocious perversities of world-class artists like Castellucci and the economic yearnings of the Polish arts community can be given simultaneous, equally persuasive voice. Will the DCA director’s fresh approach to Poland’s cultural ecology help bring the nation’s lagging arts policy into sync with its artists’ hopes and aspirations? Time will tell.
Jim O’Quinn is editor in chief of American Theatre magazine. His visit to Poland was supported in part by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.