This semester, a group of undergraduate students were given less than three months to learn a previously unfamiliar type of theater before being called to perform it.
Opening Thursday, “Zero or More Disposable Lessons” is a performance by students in the undergraduate production seminar “Objects in Performance,” which is co-taught by Theater Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Dominika Laster and production coordinator Nathan Roberts. Inspired by the work of Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor, the show seeks to utilize puppets and mannequins during the performance to explore ideas such as the disposability of bodies and the anatomy of oppression. The play will open at the Whitney Theater this week before being performed at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in New York next week and then in Krakow, Poland in May.
“When we found out Yale was finding out ways of celebrating this influential theater maker, we decided it would be very special to have him as part of our season,” said Mia Yoo, the artistic director of La MaMa. “Kantor is a very significant part of our 53-year history because Ellen Stewart, our founder, was integral in finding a way to bring his work to the U.S. so Americans could see the work of an artist who changed theater at the time.”
The seminar was offered for the first time this semester to honor the centennial of Kantor’s birth. Laster said that in addition to the seminar, the Yale community has commemorated the centennial in a variety of ways, including hosting a screening of Kantor’s play titled “Wielopole, Wielopole.”
To celebrate the centennial, Andrzej Wełminski — one of Kantor’s closest collaborators and an artist of the Cricot 2 Theatre, which Kantor established — came to Yale with Cricot 2 actor Bogdan Renczyski to discuss Kantor’s work in February. Outside of campus, the Theatre Studies program also sponsored a workshop introducing the work of Kantor at the Watermill Center in New York.
“Wax museums — Madame Tussauds and wax works — have always aroused a lot of emotion and were such places that Kantor often returned to whenever possible,” Wełminski said. “His understanding of the theater, theoretical and above all theatrical practice, are closely linked with the animation of inanimate matter.”
Laster said preliminary designs for the program began in conversations with the Yale School of Drama and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw last year. She said she met both Wełminski and Renczyski in December while conducting research in the Centre for Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor in Krakow.
Students in the seminar studied various aspects of the “theatre of death,” a performance style that Kantor pioneered, along with videos of Kantor’s productions to inform their work. The curriculum also focused on the work of early 20th-century Yiddish puppet troupe Modicut and modernist theater practitioner Edward Gorgon Craig, who developed the concept of “uber marionette,” which employs mechanically operated life-sized dolls in theater performances.
Students in the course also had the opportunity to work with New Haven sculptor Susan Clinard to create objects and mannequins for the upcoming performance. Clinard said she was contacted by Laster because her work reminded Laster of Kantor’s, adding that much of Kantor’s work resonated with her own. While she drew exclusively from her own expertise when working with the class, she noted that the students followed Kantor’s aesthetic style, which included his monochromatic style of coloring, themes of the human body as a machine and the use of stage props as metaphors for emotions and body parts.
“There was something extremely haunting without a doubt about his body of work in that much of the themes were very dark and heavy and about World War II,” Clinard said. “It puts us in another state of mind when we see his work and it is hard to walk away and not think about it for weeks.”
Tadeusz Kantor passed away in 1990.