A Polish Bear Hug
by Robert Smythe
The man in the leather jacket growled at me, his thick mustache hiding his teeth. Beside him, Anna translated from Polish:
"Who are you? What do you want?" At least Anna smiled, showing her teeth, even as the bear beside her glared.
That, actually, was a really good question. I mean, I had traveled several thousand miles and many hours to arrive at the red velvet upholstered office of the director of the Wroclawski Teatr. He was smoking a cigarette, pinching it between thumb and forefinger and staring at me
"Uh, International understanding?" It was all I had.
"Tak!" cried Aleksander Maksymiak, nodding vigorously. "Tak, tak!" It was enough. I was “in.”
In 2003 I had the worst touring experience of my life at a dance festival in Silesia, the southwester part of Poland. If it had not been for an invitation on that same trip to travel to Bialystock to perform on the 4th of July for the US Embassy and teach at the puppet academy there, I would not have had the chance to meet the great people of this northeastern town.
"Silesia!" cried all the technicians at the theater, "there is nothing good there!" Still, despite the excellent beer at the pub conveniently located next to the theater, I was loathe to return to Poland.
Poland came up again a year and half later, when Martina Plag, Mum's Artist in Residence, told me about the phenomenal show she had just seen at La Mama in New York. The run was over, but she had saved a program from The Puppet Theater of Wroclaw, Poland. I looked it over. "Interesting," I thought and then threw it away. In that day's mail I received an invitation to apply for an international travel grant from the Theater Communications Group, the national organization of non-profit theaters. I wanted to travel, but where would I go? I then realized that I had spent years telling grantors that Mum Puppettheatre was a world-class puppet theater without really knowing what one looked like. I rescued the program from the trash and sent an e-mail to Wroclawski Teatr Lalek. 'Teatr' and 'lalek' I understood from my previous trip. "What an strange way to spell 'Warsaw,'" I thought, with that funny little line through the "l".
I carefully arranged my trip with Anna Hejno, the marketing director and foundation officer for Wroclawski Teatr Lalek. Much later I learned that while Warsaw is in the northeast of Poland, near my friends in Bialystock, Poland's second largest city, Wroclaw, is in the west.
It is a matter of hotly contested conjecture which puppet theater in Poland is older, bigger or better: Wroclaw or Warsaw. What I can tell you about the puppet theater in Wroclaw when I was there is that Aleksander Maksymiak was in charge of the seventy people who work there full time, ranging from ticket takers and coat check people to janitors, actors, truck drivers, puppet builders, lighting and sound engineers to cleaning ladies. He personally okays the payroll expenditures and has to make sure there is enough toilet paper. In a country still trying to catch up to market economy thinking, he had the responsibility of finding the money to keep this relic from the communist days with its bloated payroll afloat. One of his chief challenges was to find as many ways as possible to infuse hard currency from other sources into his theater.
Now, in his office, he was giving me precious time to prattle away about puppetry. "Is there much puppetry in the United States?" he asked through Anna, surprised to hear the answer. In all his years of work and in running the theater, he had never had an American visitor before and was not all that charmed by his first. The work and focus of puppeteers in Poland, I learned, was on performing and competing at puppet festivals held throughout the country. Resulting prizes meant prestige; prestige meant more students in the theater classes, working to get the certificates that would enable them to get jobs. More students meant an easier job of getting money from the local city government.
At this exact moment, he told me, the company was in Warsaw, at a festival competition. It would be impossible for me to see them. What a pity. When Anna finished translating, her smile was a little less bright, a little more sad.
"But Pan Maksymiak," I cried, using the ultra polite form of address for him, the equivalent of "sir,""I have come all this way—"
"The schedule changed." He shrugged. "But while you are here you can visit the shops and the puppet makers. Nice to meet you."
So I spent the rest of the week on the basement level of the theater, visiting the puppet makers, none of whom spoke English, my Polish limited to my Berlitz pocket guide (which has a lot to say about going to the dentist in Poland though it is somewhat limited in stage terminology). I saw extremely raw materials transformed: a massive block of Styrofoam carved with nothing more than a very sharp kitchen knife; a bolt each of silk and cotton fabric dyed as needed to match Pan Maksymiak's designs for Beauty and The Beast. While I didn't get to see them perform on this trip, I was intrigued and mesmerized by the evidence of the work: an exhibition of puppets from past shows was set up in the marble lobby of the theater. These puppets were clearly from some place different than what is normally seen in the United States: while most American puppet theatre focuses on creating the illusion of life, Wroclawski Teatr Lalek uses puppets to create characters who seem to straddle life and death.
So I hung out in Wroclaw for a week, not with actors, but with the artists who make the puppets. I got to see Pan Maksymiak in action, teaching a class to students training for their certificates. In Poland it is impossible to get any kind of job, I was told, without a five-year certificate of some kind of training. There were students in the class who only wanted the certificate; others who hoped to work as puppeteers someday. But, with a limited number of places in the state puppet theaters and a number of certified puppeteers graduated every year, landing a job is nearly impossible.
Given that Poles are not used to paying very much for tickets, and all state support going to keep up theater buildings, it is next to impossible to start one's own theater. So the class I observed was an exercise in frustration, and I didn't need my Berlitz guide to translate Pan Maksymiak’s growing irritation at students who wouldn't or couldn't follow his instructions, students losing heart while rehearsing with puppets from a theater repertoire they knew they would never perform. Through it all I recognized Maksymiak's drive and passion as my own: like a badly dubbed film, I could supply my own dialogue during his 3-hour class, filling in what I knew he had to be saying.
Maksymiak was my kind of guy.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I got an idea. Working with the Lang Center for the Performing Arts at Swarthmore College, I wrote to the Cooper Foundation (a private college foundation), proposing to bring Wroclawski Teatr Lalek to the college community and then to Philadelphia. The Foundation generously provided all the funds necessary to bring the eleven members of the company to the United States to perform Ostatnia Ucieczka(The Last Escape).
Ostatnia Ucieczka is Wroclawski Teatr Lalek's signature work, based on the works of Bruno Schulz. Schulz is considered to be the greatest Polish writer of the 20th century, best known for his collection of short stories: The Street of Crocodiles.
Thanks to the leadership of the Cooper Foundation and its generous lead money for this trip, Wroclawski Teatr Lalek was able to book other engagements in the United States, including a week at the Disney Center for the Arts in Los Angeles. Even more than the prestige of a tour of both coasts of the United States (the previous appearance at La Mama had only been to New York) the trip would provide the theater with badly needed cash. They would open the show at Swarthmore College, perform for a week at Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia, fly to California and perform for a week there, then return east to perform in New York again before returning home. This show was a massive hit at the box office and at puppet festivals in Poland; the question was now whether it would play in Pennsylvania.
There is a moment in any kind of foreign travel that involves performing where, just as the plane is being exited, you think, "my god, what have I done? I've flown halfway around the world to do puppets in a place where I don't speak the language. My own countrymen don't understand me: what hope do I have here?" I discovered in this project that similar thoughts run through the mind of the producer while he watches his guests pass through the doors of immigration. "Oh, god, what have I done?"
To drive eleven Poles around a major American city you need a large van. The baggage gets its own ride. As I herded my group of international visitors through the airport concourse I gained the distinct impression that Pan Maksymiak did not truly remember who I was. Leather jacket thrown over his shoulders, he walked straight ahead without really saying hello. The ten other members of the company look relieved, as if they had each had their own "what have I done" inner dialogue just before seeing my handwritten sign. Anna was there, of course, and I was grateful for her translating every bit of tourist information I threw out at them in the van. She sat next to me in the passenger seat while
Pan Maksymiak sat directly in the center of the bench behind me, looking perhaps as Caesar might have looked during his triumphant return to Rome.
It was clear to me that Pan Maksymiak did not feel that the Artistic Director of a puppet theater could be driving a van around Philadelphia. Therefore, if I was driving the van, I couldn't be the Artistic Director, and he spoke to me as he would any driver back home, which is to say not at all. I decided that I would continue to address him as "Pan" since it was clear that the American custom of using first names would be a non-starter. "So much for international understanding," I muttered under my breath.
Our first stop was the College theater where they were to rehearse and perform the following night. The equipment had arrived from Poland the week before, and the crew had been working for days to set up the company's materials. Immediately upon getting out of the van and without saying hello to anyone, Maksymiak began yelling at his technical people and gesticulating wildly. I eventually was able to introduce him to Jim Murphy, his Swarthmore College sponsor and, I explained, the man who had found the money to make the trip possible. Maksymiak grunted at him and grabbed Anna the translator, his lifeline in a new country where he didn't speak the language. Patiently, diffidently, Anna listened to Maksymiak and then, it was clear, put her own spin on what he was saying.
"Pan Maksymiak wonders if it would be possible to move the set forward on the stage."Jim, a veteran of working with the challenges of puppetry. explained that for this stage and audience configuration, the set was truly in the best place. More gesticulations.
"Pan Maksymiak says the lighting is not correct. Is it possible to move this lantern?"
And so it proceeded, the two chiefs of large theater complexes executing a tensely polite pas de deux of give and take. The chief of the American puppet company was hidden underneath his chauffeur's cap until, finally, the issue of the subtitles.
The Last Escape, being composed of the work of Poland's greatest writer, is very heavily text based. Two screens had been set up on either side of the stage to show the projected translation of the text. This had been arranged from the very beginning and was practically a condition of the tour. But now Pan Maksymiak, having caved on a number of other issues, was ready to take a stand. But the chauffeur was also ready, having had time to remember the meeting in the Director's office in Wroclaw. We were in my hometown, now.
"Pan Maksymiak says that the screens must be removed. There cannot be subtitles. They will interfere with the visuals of the performance." Anna at this point was serenely translating everything, aware that as a sibyl she was not responsible for the words of the god flowing from her mouth. "Can this be done, please." A statement, not a question.
"Well, that's impossible." I'd had enough and was standing my ground. Jim and I had worked really hard to get those projections working. As artists ourselves, we understood the desire to create a truly aesthetic experience. But this particular experience required that the audience understand what was happening. "We need the translations. Otherwise there is no way that this audience will understand what is going on."
"But the power of the performance is so strong, everyone will understand it." "Pan Maksymiak, the purpose of this visit is to show our American audiences not only the beauty of your production, but the power of the Bruno Schulz's words. There are not many people in America who speak Polish. If this production is to truly celebrate the text, then we must see it, read it and understand it. This is a condition of this performance contract. The screens stay."
And for the first time, a shrug of acquiescence. Acceptance. Maksymiak extended his arms out toward me and turned his palms upward in the universal of gesture of "c'est la vie." On the ride back to the hotel he retained his seat in the center of the bench, but his spine had given up some of its rigidity.
So what does it feel like to sit in an audience and finally see the show you have worked six months to bring to the US? I realized that for almost all of my international touring, other producers had been in the very same predicament with my shows. "I hope to god this is good," I thought as the audience entered the auditorium.
Out of the eleven people who were touring with Wroclawski Teatr, only four performed on stage, but it became clear why there were so many in the company. Seamless transitions of sound, light, and staging had been accomplished in just twenty-four jet-lagged hours. The subtitles were not always easy to follow: there was simply too much text. It was possible to follow what was happening on stage, for the most part. But when the specificity of language was needed, the text was crucial to understanding not just the action on stage, but its deeper meanings as well as why Schulz is the author he is. One scene where a stack of books becomes a dovecote of fluttering pigeons (aided by incredibly smooth sound effects) was astonishing. The throaty, dusky singing of Jolanta Goralczyk in the background of many scenes, accompanied by (recorded) accordion was achingly touching, even without knowing a word of Polish. But it was the scene that took place through a broken window, where a mother and her small boy are looking outside, that proved that while visual theater is universal, language is not.
"Come," she says to her son, "a storm is coming." They turn, and the lights fade to the sound of thunder and rain.
This is the end of the play, and reading the words on the screens the entire audience was immediately struck by their meaning—these two are not just looking at the weather; the Nazis are on their way to Poland. Martina Plag, who recommended the show after seeing it in New York without the text, had no idea that the play was as complex as it was. For her, in the initial seeing of it, it had been an amazing display of technique with no idea for what purpose it was being used. Understanding at least some of the text, it was clear that, as amazing as the performances, puppets, and production were, they were all in service to something even more amazing: the work of Bruno Schulz.
Strike immediately followed the performance; everything had to move to Mum Puppettheatre in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood and re-open in just two days. As the actors changed in the dressing room, the American college students and Polish technicians were already stripping the stage and packing the show. As I supervised the loading of the van with production materials, I noticed that the Poles were eyeing their leader with awe. As he brought load after load of boxes, crates and paraphernalia to the loading dock, I could tell that that even as he had grown more friendly and affable since the performance ended, his company had somehow grown more uptight.
I found Anna. "What's going on? Didn't the show go well for everyone? We thought it was just fantastic! I hope no one is disappointed."
"Oh, no Robert! The performance was excellent. It was perfect. Much better than New York. I think it made an important difference to have the subtitles." This time Anna's smile was real and unforced. All of her teeth were showing.
"Then why is everyone acting so strange around Pan Maksymiak? They're acting like he's angry or something."
"No one has ever seen him like this."
"He's helping. He never does that. In all the years of touring we have made, Pan Maksymiak has never lifted even a suitcase. He waits for everyone else to do this work. He never helps."
"Why is he doing it now?"
"I have no idea." We watched as Pan Maksymiak cheerfully took two heavy cases from Piotr, the young sound technician who was the newest member of the company and as a result, the lowest man on the totem pole.
As we only had the one van for transporting everything, I needed to drop the set pieces off at Mum, then return to the college to pickup the company. The total trip would take about an hour. Anna came to me with a proposal.
"Pan Maksymiak would like to make a suggestion. If he comes with you now he can unload the equipment at your theatre and see what it is like. That way the tech guys can finish here and everyone can get home at a reasonable time."
"I thought you said Pan Maksymiak never helps."
"He doesn't. I don't understand it."
As we were loading the last bit of luggage that would fit into the van, I was about to get into the driver's seat when Pan Maksymiak grabbed me by the shoulder. "No, no!" he cried. "Anna!"
"Great," I thought. "what now?" Anna hurried over and Maksymiak laid a huge hand on her shoulder, speaking rapidly and intensely.
"Pan Maksymiak says that tonight was a great success for him and for the company. He says thank you."
"Tak," repeated Pan Maksymiak.
"And," said Anna, "it is impossible that you should call him 'Pan.' You must call him—"
"—Aleksander," said the Director, pulling me into the biggest bear hug I have ever survived.
"This is unheard of," whispered Anna. "No one uses his first name. Ever."
Over the next ten days a lot of things happened. The company gave five sold out performances at Mum Puppettheatre.
"This," said Aleksander, "is a perfect theater. It is beautiful. You have made a beautiful thing."
We drank pivo every night in the lobby. We sang songs. I asked Aleksander what he was doing during his days in Philadelphia. He told me (through Anna, of course) that he enjoyed walking along the river and thinking. He taught two classes in puppetry at Swarthmore. Our intern from Hong Kong took us to eat real Chinese food in Chinatown (Pan Maksymiak would only eat plain roasted meat). The company, in the course of the week, began to call their boss "Aleksander." I took everyone to the annual Halloween ball, where the first Halloween costume the tech guys saw was a young woman wearing nothing but glitter and a smile. "America is a great country!" they crowed, the first time I’d heard them speak English. Various members of Wroclawski Teatr Lalek went to lots of parties with various members of Mum Puppettheatre. International understanding was achieved on many levels.
Their last night in Philadelphia, before they left for what would become an incredible run at the Disney Center in Los Angeles (sold out shows and added performances) we all sat in Mum's lobby, drinking vodka and beer. We were old friends, barely able to communicate through language but eloquent in our shared understandings of a life spent in the theater. While we weren't surrounded by velvet and marble but folding chairs and paper cups, we were exactly the same: worried about whether the things that we care so deeply about would find acceptance among others who were not like us.
Ultimately, it isn't that we are worried about whether our language or culture or art form will be embraced: we're the ones who want to be welcomed. I hadn't imagined that a man who commands a squadron of theater professionals, who has won the highest accolades in his own country, and who leads the theater that has helped create the very notion of serious puppetry could care about the reception he would get in America. But we all want to be liked; what we all want, really, is that big bear hug of acceptance.
Robert Smythe was the founding director of Philadelphia’s Mum Puppettheatre for 23 years until its closure earlier this year, directing, building and performing in scores of plays. He is now a Fellow in the playwriting program at Temple University.