Polish company mixes up performing styles

It’s not every Monday morning that Yalies can jump, shout and contort themselves in bizarre ways — all while under the instruction of a half a dozen Polish forest-dwellers.

The Staniewski Center for Theatre Practices in Gardzienice, a world-renowned Polish company, hosted a workshop and lecture Monday, co-sponsored by the World Performance Project, the Yale School of Drama and the Department of Classics.

Polish playwright Wlodzimierz Staniewski — the center’s founder and namesake — spoke to undergraduate and graduate students during the event about the importance of performance methods that incorporate Ancient Greek iconography, song and dance and their role in theater.

Gardzienice Theatre began in Poland under the shadow of Soviet Communism. In 1976, Staniewski started what he called a “political protest” against the subjugation of culture and theater. His reaction against the government was loud and vocal — he cited Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in describing the fears of the theater community at that time.

To preserve their artistic freedom, Staniewski and his colleagues fled for the woods of Poland — “the most forgotten part,” as he called it.

“I escaped to the middle of nowhere. It was a forgotten land made up of villages from the Middle Ages next to the Soviet border, beside the Iron Curtain,” he said. “It was the land in which the devil says good night.”

The Theatre is known for its use of classic Greek texts and the rural folk traditions of Central and Eastern Europe. The company has influences reaching as far back as 600 B.C. — the era of Thespes, father of Greek tragedy — but also has incorporated indigenous sources of inspiration while living in the Polish woods, Staniewski said.

“We had a very clear purpose — seek new poetics for theater, in which traditional ways of performing rituals would be married with modern theater techniques,” he said.

Elements of ritual were visible in Monday’s workshop, and instruction focused on song and dance. Gardzienice Theatre’s actors took students through an extended series of fluid movements and then coupled these movements with melodic chanting and a physical interpretation of text. A screen in the corner of the studio showed images of Ancient Greek ceramics, and the men and women depicted on the pottery served as models for how the students were to position their arms, legs and torsos.

Gabriel Sloyer ’09, who spent one month last summer working with Gardzienice Theatre in Poland, spoke of the fundamental difference between this method — channeling text through voice and body in an anti-psychological way — and Stanislavski’s psychological acting, which relies on internal motive and thought.

He referred not only to the beauty of vocal and physical movement in the Gardzienice style, but also to the disconnect between the typical training University students go through and what was to come in the workshop.

“They don’t know what they’re in for,” Sloyer said jokingly of his fellow Yalies.

The incorporation of diverse techniques into personal performance paralleled the World Performance Project’s broader purpose. Theater studies professor Joseph Roach, the co-founder of the WPP, said the company’s incorporation of myth, song and story into performance is particularly relevant to the three-year-long project.

Feedback was positive following the morning workshop. Adam Horowitz ’09, who spent part of his summer working with the Grotowski Institute in Poland, emphasized the necessity of sessions like these in reviving the concept of theatrical totality. When united, dance, music and speech provided the origins and foundation of theater in Greece.

“Since then, it’s been a process of dividing and losing,” said Horowitz. “This morning’s experience is so far removed from the dominant theater here.”

But this didn’t prevent antendees from delighting in the experience.

“Everyone enjoyed it,” Horowitz said. “What was new and exciting was the idea of reinventing and reimagining the Ancient Greek traditions.”

Gardzienice Theatre is currently staging “Iphigenia at Aulis (Euripedes)” at New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, with weekend performances running through Oct. 21. Staniewski acknowledged that many people are surprised when they learn that the company came to New York with the purpose of staging a show — many think his actors teach more than anything else, he said. Nevertheless, he was excited by the willingness of so many to learn new techniques.

“We’re very happy to do this,” he said of promoting alternative forms of expression in theater. “Acting is about voice, body and thinking; it is what we very much need. We are not only talking heads.”

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