Triumph of the Loners

Poland has hosted its forty-fifth National Festival of One-Man Theatre Shows.  Or, to be more precise, one of many festivals - this genre has not only taken root a long time ago, but it is also rapidly growing.  Wiesław Geras, the festival's creator and permanent director, skillfully juggles the programs, moving from one theatrical "spot" to another: Toruń, Wrocław, Warsaw, Tallinn...  And in between projects, he travels around Poland and the world in search of new talent. 

Toruń - this charming, "honey cake" city, untouched by war and protected by UNESCO for its original medieval appearance - has two of every theatrical sort.  Two children's theatres, two drama theatres, two musical theatres, two festivals: "Kontakt" - Poland's most topical and celebrated festival, and the Festival of One-Man Theatre Shows - its oldest.  The latter is a worthy response to any theatrical crisis (economic or creative), the director's cult that became established in the 20th century, and the widespread assertion that actor is a dependent profession.  Here actors create their own destiny.  

Everyone is equal here: Jagoda Rall, the first-year student, Iolanta Goralczyk, dean of the acting faculty, who aspires to obtain the position of president of the Higher Theatre School, and Agata Kucinska, whose infant son waits for her behind the curtains (though, admittedly, this boy is already an experienced traveler, for his mother's production has toured nearly all over the country).  Some, like Janusz Stolarski, become so used to the adrenaline of this single combat on stage (one-man show performers spend more time on stage than Hamlet) that they start seriously thinking about trading their life as "imperial theatre actors" for the nomadic existence of a loner actor. For others, like Oleg Chechenev from the Belorussian city of Molodechno, having their own production is just about the only opportunity they have to break free from the vicious cycle, where the city's only theatre crumbles under the burden of a financial "quitrent", performing at sanatoria and clubs just to reach its financial target. 

Confession productions involve all kinds of different topics and means.  Actor, performer, animator, and dancer Krystian Wieczynski acted out an imaginary meeting between Chaplin and Hitler, creator and dictator, who need each other ("I, the Dictator").

Janusz Stolarski, an incredibly flexible actor both physically and emotionally, came on stage with a confession of a contrabass player, who had taken to heavy drinking ("Revenge of the Red Shoes").  He hates polkas and twists that he is forced to play and dreams of avenging himself on his colleagues from the "Red Shoes" ensemble and performing his beautiful song. But the production ends when the imaginary revenge succeeds, and the musician announces his song - the energy of negation still seethes where the energy of creation no longer exists.

Iolanta Goralczyk prepared Medea's situation by acting out parts of Euripides's tragedy using the play of light, which "painted" her face a warm yellow (Medea), or an authoritative blue (Creon) and so on and so forth. 

Oleg Chechenev together with his protagonist - a writer of second-rate novels (and now, more like hackwork for TV series) - peeled off layers of extraneous cynicism and eradicated "the infertility of moral deadlock" to break through to his own true self ("The Heavenly Runabout").
Pawel Palcat, on the contrary, took a plunge in the extraneous, playing a sexy nymphet Roxxy, who went through the thick and thin of show business.  Roxxy was so sexy in fact, that the festival director had to reassure the honorable audience that Pawel is a normal guy.
Katarzyna Flader added some real Polish lady charm to a bitter confession of a woman, whose family life crumbled and whose primary catalyst for human relations was a... cat ("Through My Wife's Eyes").  

Agata Kucinska chose to stage Lydia Amejko's ingenious philosophical text about the creation of the world and one house that is home to sinners with great designs (and that is why they deserve to be called saints).   The Creator - a jean-clad guy, wearing a puppeteer's black camouflage cloak - fusses over his creations, while the actress, winner of numerous festivals (one of which has a telling title "Puppets Are Human Too") picks up her puppets (finger puppets, stick puppets, mascots) and masks and acts out her divine comedy of the absurd human life.

Anna Skubik, who chose Racine's "Phèdre," likewise turned to the puppets.  Her Phèdre in clown makeup engages in dialogues with the Maid and Hippolyte - soft puppets sewn into her dress like inalienable parts of an amorous and vengeful queen.  The festival's audience jury seemed to have preferred these puppet-playing actresses more than any others.
Larysa Kadyrova was presented the Audience Jury Award (a year ago her work earned her the Grand Prize of the Festival of Mono Performances in Moscow for her production of "The Old Woman Sits Waiting"). The audience rose to greet her character - a striking urban madwoman, a beggar, abandoned by her son but holding on to the remnants of the luxury of old: a hat, feathers, "furs", gathers, a lorgnette, fake eyelashes, gloves (of course - what kind of a lady does not wear gloves!).   Gradually ripping off these traces of bygone "splendor", stripping to her undergarments, her character makes the journey from side-splitting eccentricity to real tragedy.  Such journey inwards, toward one's own self is the most agonizing and most attractive to those, who choose this dangerous genre.  

Wiesław Geras talks about his beloved (albeit not young) creation. 
"I was director of a youth club located right across from a theatre.  Our club was often visited by actors, who held artistic gatherings there, or, to put it simply, talked all kinds of nonsense.  I felt I had to object: they come, talk nonsense, get their fee, and leave. And so I made an announcement that whoever wants to perform in our club the following year will have to do something: a poetry program, some type of a performance... And it just so happened that a one-man show institute was created in Poland at roughly the same time.  And the following year I received over ten requests. In 1966, for the first time, I brought these productions together in one place - Toruń.  I was a little over twenty years old, and I didn't even suspect how important that event would become.  Television was only just starting back then, but radio programs and newspapers talked quite a lot about our festival.  And a year later I received so many requests that we had to begin a screening process.

I reviewed over three thousand solo performances and brought over a thousand of them to my festival.  Ten years ago my festival attained international status - we hosted representatives from 28 countries. As a rule, when somebody from Russia comes to us, they leave with one of the most important awards. As far as awards go, I have a very simple system.  Five jury members (from our loyal audience - students, engineers, anyone) can award 500 Euros each. When they become members of the jury, they sign a contract, stating that they will watch all the performances.  And they are not only forbidden from splitting that sum, but are also required to justify their choice.  An actor who receives several prizes is awarded the festival's Grand Prize. That award is funded by the city mayor, and it concerns only the Polish competition. As far as the international program goes, there are no awards. Although guest festival directors can present their own personalized awards. In addition, I have my own personal prize for newcomers - "A Career Step" (it's a step from a wooden staircase, where everyone who agrees with my decision can sign their names). 

Every year we try to find an open-ended theme.  One year, for example, we dedicated the festival to the works of Shakespeare; another year we brought together all the actors that performed in Patrick Süskind's "The Contrabass".  Though we were unable to bring in your contrabass player (Konstantin Raikin - ed.) - his visit costs as much as two of my festivals.  

The one-man show theatre movement has grown in Poland - I receive about thirty requests a year from Polish actors alone.  There is a good chance that the Wrocław Theatre School will soon open a one-man show department, where they will be training these loners.  It is now even customary in many Polish theatres to plan solo performances: a staff actor, looking at the casting schedule for the following season might find there an offer for him or her to stage a one-man show.   In a certain sense, there are financial reasons for this - amid the economic crisis solo performances are cheaper to stage.  But this process has a flip side as well: sometimes you might see a "proper" solo performance that doesn't come from the heart, because the actor was not the originator of the show's idea but its dutiful executor, who is merely doing his job. And yet the most important thing about a one-man show is the impetus coming from the actor, their desire to share something that is of foremost importance to them.  When an actor becomes obsessed with an idea that he or she takes to the theatre management, and, should the latter give their support, begins looking for the right director, the result is completely different.    Of course, I don't believe that any actor would want to release solo performances every year. Those shows must be created, born, not forced by theatre's repertoire.  Many of my festival participants confined themselves to just one solo performance in their lifetime.

Text, of course, is important in a one-man show, but when you have rolling captions, you run into another problem: the audience starts reading the text instead of following the actor's performance.  Still, I believe that an actor's skill is more important. They need to be able to perform in such a way as to make everything understandable.   Solo performances are certainly becoming more and more sophisticated.  These days, actors sometimes bring with them an entire truck full of technical gadgets.  But I still value an actor's skill above all else.  I can usually afford to invite one performer plus one assistant; if they desperately need to bring in someone else, though, I give in.  But then I invite actors with the intention of having them stay through the entire festival - watch the other actors, get a sense for the stage beforehand, talk to the technical team.   I don't want them leaving right after their performance. 

A good festival is a year's worth of work.  My friends - journalists, critics - are tasked with helping me on this project.  They send me records from everywhere, and then I go and watch live for myself the shows that I liked. I have a small team, and I'm the kind of person who has to do everything myself. I have very simple criteria: if I like it, then there's a possibility that another hundred or so people might like it.  And that's just enough to get a full house.


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