“There is no present or future – only the past, happening over and over again – now.”

–Eugene O’Neill

Over the past two years Pivot Arts participated in a cultural exchange between Polish and American theater leaders at the invitation of the Center for International Theater Development in Baltimore (CITD). CITD was founded by luminary Philip Arnoult, who is known for building cultural bridges between the United States and Eastern Europe/Russia. The exchange between Polish and American performing arts professionals took place mainly via Zoom but in June 2022, I was invited to join CITD’s Howard Shalwitz and Brandice Thompson on a trip to Poland to meet artists, see their work, and help to set up a larger trip for a festival later this year.

In Warsaw we encountered bold, socially conscious, and high-quality performances and met artists with adventurous ideas. One of the many parallels I found between the U.S. and Poland was how Polish artists and society are grappling with issues of cultural memory much in the way we are still coming to terms with our colonial past in the United States. Tension over how history is told and who gets to tell it appears universal.

A few feet outside of our hotel in central Warsaw, there was a plaque marking what was once an entry point to the Jewish Ghetto. It was a peculiar juxtaposition, one revolving door leading to a modern hotel, and one historic (now imaginary) door that once led to the imprisonment of around 380,000 Jewish people. World War II is a constantly felt presence in Warsaw. In 1944 the Germans razed most of the city in retaliation for the Polish uprising. There is a section called the “Old City,” constructed to look like pre-war architecture, it appears like a kind of Disney-esque apparition. The city was rebuilt by the Soviets after the war and at the center is the looming Palace of Culture, Stalin’s “gift” to Warsaw.

“Warsaw is a city of ghosts,” described Weronika Szczawinska, a theater director and professor who explores issues of memory, myths, and history in her artistic work. We spoke with her at length about these historic layers within the architecture of the city as well as this feeling that the city is haunted by its past. Jews once comprised almost 30% of Warsaw’s population. While only a handful remain, their presence is felt in the many memorials constructed since the end of communism (the Soviets sought to erase even the memory of a once thriving Jewish culture).

As Polish theater artists like Sczawinska and Wojtek Ziemilski grapple with issues of cultural memory and the attempted annihilation of a people in their work, we began to see parallels to our own cultural moment in the United States where the theater community is also coming to terms with the erasure of indigenous populations and the impact of slavery, Jim Crow, and years of sustained racism. You can read more about the artists and performances we encountered in a recent article we wrote for the online theater journal, HOWLROUND.

Thanks to a grant from the Driehaus Foundation, I was also able to attend the IETM conference, an international performing arts gathering that took place in Belgrade this year alongside the Bitef Festival. Nowhere is the confluence of cultures more keenly felt than in the former Yugoslavia where the juxtaposition of Ottoman influence versus the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet occupation, and tribalism from the war in the 1990s remains on constant replay. All these cultures, conflicts, and resentments were present in the architecture of the city as well as the topics of several of the performances I encountered.

As part of a pre-conference trip to Novi Sad, a city just north of Belgrade, we saw a performance by a theater company that represents the city’s Hungarian minority. A visceral and at times violent production, the work screamed out for equality and pushed against the image of Novi Sad as an accepting, multicultural city. The performance took place in Hungarian (with English sur-titles) and was performed by Újvidéki Színház (the Novi Sad Theater), you can watch a trailer on YouTube.

As part of the Bitef Festival, I attended productions with multiple themes: a performance about Serbian doctors being mistreated in Berlin; a comedic take on sexism in the theater in Serbia; and a work about homelessness. However, nothing could compare to the energy, bravery, and sheer exuberance of the young Slovenian theater artists who presented a work called Solo. At four hours in length, the work vacillated between being maddeningly self-indulgent, shocking, boring, and then jaw-dropping. Imagine Steppenwolf Theater actors from the late 1970s speaking Slovenian, exploding beer cans, and throwing themselves and each other (literally) across the stage. The piece centered around the disconnect that those who were born after 1991 (the year of Slovenian independence) feel from the generation who lived as part of the former Yugoslavia. The director, Nina Rajić Kranjac, (pictured above) won the festival’s Grand Prix for the best performance as a whole.

Eastern Europe remains a fascinating place to experience theater alongside a society grappling with the scars of many wars, occupations, empires, and the ghostly remains of what was once a large, Jewish minority. Ukrainian flags fly everywhere – another reminder of the past repeating itself; a warning shot to the rest of us not to let it.

Julieanne Ehre
Author + Director, Pivot Arts

Pictured above, director and performer, Nina Rajić Kranjac, in the devised work, “Solo.” Photo by Jelena Janković