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    A Good Show: Traditional and Nontraditional Puppet Theater in Poland

Mark F. Tattenbaum


In November 2005, Paweł Chomczyk, Dagmara Sowa, and several shipping crates arrived at JFK Airport in New York City. In one of the crates were twenty-one handcrafted puppets designed by Wiesław Jurkowski and constructed by Zbigniew Romanyk, Małgorzata Roman, Helena Popławska, and Teresa Czerniawska, all faculty members and master puppet builders of the Puppetry Department at the Aleksander Zelwerowicz Theater Academy in Warsaw, Białystok campus. The crates also contained a magnificent Szopka (pronounced: Shopka), created by Marek Szyszko of the Białystok campus. The Szopka is a puppet creche based on Renaissance architecture of the city of Kraków, Poland. During their month-long engagement, Paweł and Dagmara performed their recreation of the original Polish Szopka in different venues across western New York state. Their journey and performances were made possible by the support of the Polish Cultural Foundation of Western New York, presided by Professor Kazimierz Braun; Department of Theater and Dance of the State University of New York at Buffalo, chaired by Professor Robert Knopf; and The State University of New York at Buffalo’s Office of International Education, headed by Professor and Vice Provost Stephen Dunnett. The donors in Białystok were the Theater Academy and the city of Białystok. Paweł and Dagmara also conducted workshops for students at the university and elsewhere.

Originally Szopka was a traditional Polish Nativity play performed with puppets. It morphed into a genre all its own, with puppets performing on a stage resembling a cathedral with three playing levels. The text for the American performances was freely adapted from Polish folk texts by J. Krupski, J. Czerniak, and J. Lewanski. In the interview Paweł and Dagmara describe their work and its history, and discuss the new cutting-edge puppetry they have utilized in Europe at international theater and puppetry festivals. The members of the Kompania Doomsday include Martin Bartnikowski, Paweł Chomczyk, Ewa Gajewska. Adam Jakuc, Agnieszka MoÏejko, Urszula Raczkowska, Anna Rakowska, Karol Smaczny, and Dagamara Sowa. The director is Michael Vogel.

This interview was conducted on 4 December 2005. (MFT)

MARK F. TATTENBAUM: What is the history of Szopka as an art form?

There are several theories about Szopka; you would have to look into history books for details but an abbreviated story is as follows. The Szopka has its roots in medieval Poland, in the thirteenth century, to be exact. It probably developed from a Christmas tableau representing visitors to Jesus’s manger in Bethlehem. Another conjecture is that it developed from the altar tableau. It had three levels: the first representing heaven, the second representing earth, and the third representing hell. As time went on, Szopka performances drew on other religions themes and the figures themselves became mobile, as the puppet masters learned to manipulate them. Eventually the range of Szopka themes began to include secular topics as well.

DAGMARA SOWA: These included political topics, satire, and animal fables. The Church authorities took note.

PCH: And somewhere in the eighteenth century the bishops began to forbid this type of activity in churches.

MFT: Yes, the Church took a similar course of action in medieval times, when churchmen used short plays to educate the faithful about Christ’s Passion and related religious topics. These plays were similar to what we today call the Stations of the Cross. Over time, lay people became involved in these plays and the stories drifted away from the liturgy of the Church toward secularism. As a result, the plays and their players were banished from churches into the streets.

People were captivated by your performance. They were laughing and reacting to it in a variety of ways. You have resurrected a theater art form and brought it to a group of people who have never seen it before.

PCH: In the case of Szopka performances, people apparently were going to church not to pray but to be amused. From the Church‘s point of view, this was wrong. You do not go to church to have fun. However, banishment to the streets did not stop the tradition of this type of performance. A demand for it developed, especially during the Christmas season. The actors would go from to house to house with a portable stage. This brings me to a technical explanation. There are several different types of Szopka. There is a mechanical type, or a wind-up type, that does not involve the stage. The mechanical Szopka has small figures that repeat the same movements. There is also the Szopka that uses puppets or actors on the stage. When you hear the word Szopka or Jasełka in Polish, they may mean either a mechanical Szopka, or a particular type of theater activity performed by either puppets or living actors. There is also the third type of Szopka involving a mechanical stage, carried by people who sing Christmas carols.

MFT: Is the mechanical Szopka similar to the Swiss clock?

PCH: Yes, indeed. And here are some illustrations from the 1800s that depict the carolers carrying a portable stage [he shows the interviewer the pictures].

MFT: So it was an actual piece of scenography! And they carried it on their shoulders.

DS: Yes, including the puppets. Singing was also involved.

MFT: Were they carolers and musicians, or were they puppeeters, or both?

PCH: Sometimes it was both. Sometimes it was just to present the Szopka as an art object, with some figures that were not movable; sometimes there were puppets; and at other times, living actors playing angels, devils, or the Three Kings.

MFT: What about the costume of the horse and rider from Krakow?

PCH: You are speaking about Lajkonik, which is the specialty of the Krakow region.

MFT: So it is not connected to the Nativity stories?

PCH: It can actually be part of the Nativity. The last time we were in Rochester I saw that they had a Cracovian Szopka; this is the kind of Szopka typical of Kraków because it is connected to a Kraków story and to many buildings in that city. When we saw this Szopka in a church in Rochester, there were some figures standing inside it. There was an angel, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus. In front of the Szopka was Lajkonik, or the man on a horse. But Lajkonik has a different history.

MFT: So he can be a part of Szopka?

PCH: Yes, but only in Kraków.

MFT: The character I am referring to is an actor dressed in a period costume from Kraków; he is riding a horse, so part of his costume is a horse. . . . But let us go back to the 1800s; we have carolers performing with and without puppets, with the Szopka behind them.

PCH: Yes, most of the texts used by carolers came from the oral tradition.

DS: Passed from generation to generation.

PCH: As a spoken word, but then . . .

DS: They began to be reduced to writing.

PCH: Yes, in Krupski’s or Cherniak’s works you can find Szopka scripts that are actually compilations of folk texts. Our compilation is based on the works of these authors.

MFT: They were written in Old Polish?

PCH: Yes, they are all poems and sound a bit archaic.

MFT: So the original text was in verse?

DS: Yes, it is poetic and yet simple.

PCH: Szopka is also connected to the puppet tradition that originates in humorous shows and political satire.

MFT: So you used written texts to work out a script for your current performances. When were these folk tales transcribed?

DS: Sometime in the late nineteenth century.

MFT: I have heard that the Szopkas are not widely performed anymore?

PCH: You are right, it is a tradition in decline. However, sometimes Szopkas are taken up by the professional theater troupes.

DS: At Christmastime every puppet theater group in Poland offers shows related to Szopka, but a really traditional Szopka is rare because of societal drift toward recorded music and standardized characters. Szopka is more of an improvisation. Each performance is different.

MFT: In your performance you provide your own music.

PCH: Yes, and we use lights and a computer. These accessories are not portable, and in winter we could not use them if we went from house to house, as the traditional Szopka performers had done. Our show is meant to be performed on a theater stage.

MFT: So you are rescuing an old tradition. Your work is to bring that old tradition to people who have never seen it, like here in America.

PCH: Yes, and it does not happen very often that a small group of performers presents a Szopka that can be played out in diverse places and countries. We are quite different from the improvised Szopkas used in Christmas caroling, when kids go from house to house. That Szopka is made of cardboard and poorly constructed, it is meant to last for that evening only and earn the carolers some money. The tradition that we are presenting is much more serious and elaborate. And one more thing: Polish puppetry has a certain traditional technique called the stick puppet technique. We occasionally use it in our Szopka performances. The puppets are operated from below with a stick.

MFT: This is what you have also called the rod puppets?

PCH: Yes.

MFT: After seeing the performance I can say that both of you use that technique very well.

PCH: Thank you! That is part of our desire to do something very different. That is why we started the Szopka Project.

MFT: Did you see Szopka when you were a young girl?

DS: No.

PCH: I do not remember any such thing either.

DS: I lived in a small town that did not have a puppet theater. I do not remember anyone carrying the Szopka from house to house.

PCH: I do remember the carolers going from house to house, with an improvised Szopka of poor quality. I kept these images in my mind, but I never associated them with puppet performances. When we started our puppet activity at school, we gradually became more aware of the tradition and its history.

MFT: So you discovered it in school?

PCH: Yes, we took classes in the history of the puppet theater, and Szopka was part of it. We also took classes in the rod puppet technique. Sometimes we worked in the old Polish tradition, and at other times we did contemporary work. One semester was dedicated to Monty Python’s Flying Circus recreated with the help of rod puppets.

MFT: What kind of school did you attend?

PCH: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Białystok and majored in theater. I grew up in Białystok and once saw a puppet theater in my childhood. I decided that I must learn more about theater, and I enrolled in graduate school of the Drama Academy in Białystok.

MFT: The Puppetry Department of the Aleksander Zelwerowicz Theater Academy in Warsaw, the Białystok branch?

PCH: Yes, I received my Master of Fine Arts there.

DS: I come from a small town in the south of Poland. When I was in secondary school I went to the drama theater in Kraków a couple of times. I did not know puppet theater at all. I did know that I wanted to be on stage and work in the theater. After receiving my undergraduate degree I tried to get a job at the drama theater but was not accepted. Then I went to a little puppet theater near Katowice. I spent one year there and then I enrolled in the drama school. During that year I participated in an international puppetry festival and I saw many performances from around the world. My eyes were opened and I knew what I wanted to do on the stage.

MFT: It certainly shows. I know the rod puppets have only a limited range of motion, yet you make them come alive.

PCH: The puppets that we use in our Szopka performance have swinging parts, primarily hands and shoulders. Many rod puppets do not have any movable or swinging parts at all. Working with them provides a good training, because with these puppets you can only work with rhythms, with different speeds, and with different kinds of composition on the stage. You have to be very clear and precise. When you have several characters on the stage at one time, you have to give them unique characteristics.

MFT: I could see that when you had three guild members on the stage. Even though you used a special device so that you could move all three of them, each had his own individual movements and personality.

PCH: One thing that helps us is the visual characteristics of each puppet. Each and every puppet is different. Each and every puppet has its own range of movements, as they are made from different materials and their costumes are made from different fabrics. When you have twenty or so of those puppets, you have to be awake and listen to what the puppets are trying to tell you.

MFT: And each puppet has a different voice.

PCH: Yes, and you have to watch them. It is not a matter of trying to make each and every character very original; it is a matter of making every character reliable and truthful.

MFT: The same is true in ordinary acting, where you are searching for the truth as well.

PCH: Yes, but with puppets shortcuts are possible. In normal acting, according to the Strasburg Method, you have to go through a thought process. Puppets do not have to do that.

MFT: Still, you are acting; each puppet is different and has its own signature. The simple vocal intonations are so very effective. For instance, when the three shepherds were searching for Bethlehem.

PCH: They were speaking to the Devil disguised as angel. The Devil was trying to mislead them, so that they would go in the wrong direction.

MFT: It was so simple. “Bethlehem?” “UhUh!”

PCH: Yes. I think that if you add too much, the work loses its clarity. We wanted it to be as simple as possible.

DS: In the beginning we thought that it was too simple. We were our own directors and wondered if it was perhaps too naive. But we finally decided that Szopka looks like this, it is traditional and we like it.

MFT: After sitting behind the stage at the SUNY-Buffalo’s theater and listening to the audience respond, one relizes that your performance is far from trivial. The majority of the audience did not understand Polish, yet the response was overwhelming.

PCH: The fact that so many did not speak Polish and yet understood the performance provided us with a great deal of energy.

MFT: People were captivated by your performance. They were laughing and reacting to it in a variety of ways. You have resurrected a theater art form and brought it to a group of people who had never seen it before.

PCH: We are doing something very traditional and do not want to change it.

DS: We are very happy for this; it is an investment in our heritage and culture.

MFT: Students were fascinated by the fact that you compose your own music.

PCH: Yes, it preserves the medieval character of the performance.

MFT: Were you surprised by the reaction of the audience?

PCH: To be completely honest, I did not expect this kind of response from non-Polish speaking viewers. It was very gratifying. Theater is a form of art that happens between spectators and actors. Whenever we “make theater,” we are thinking about people who will watch it. It was hard to imagine that people here, on the other side of the ocean, would be so generous in their response.

MFT: It was a genuinely heartfelt appreciation of your work. The next day in class, my students who did not attend were very sorry that they had missed the performance. Turning to new work: in Germany your theater company, The Doomsday Theater Company, performed an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. That performance included both puppets and actors. Would you like to talk about that?

PCH: Well, that is a completely different story.

MFT: It also involves puppets, but they are the most unusual puppets I have ever seen.

PCH: With Szopka we had just little problems in putting together the performance. Sometimes when you are working within a traditional form, you do not feel so creative. The Salome performance was like going into the open sea, or trying to find one’s way in a dark room.

DS: It was great because it created a big space in which one could play and do anything.

MFT: Yes, and the puppets you operated in Salome were not small rod puppets. You also employed masks in that performance. What interested me about it was that you took ancient art forms and transformed them for a new use in theater.

PCH: I have not met many true artists in my life. Our director [the director of the Salome performance], Michael Vogel, is one. He is trying to find the truthful way of expressing things. We were given the freedom of improvisation and he was directing us in this improvisation. It might seem as if all the things we had done on the stage came exclusively from within us, but of course that is an illusion, because the director was always there, orchestrating us, suggesting ideas to us, and pushing us a little bit more in one direction or another. I think that several times we surprised him as well. His way of putting this puzzle together was to search for solutions that really work with Salome. This puppet [Salome] was a very original one, but we could not really explain how that happened.

MFT: Tell us how the performance came about.

PCH: Our performance was based on Oscar Wilde’s text, which in turn goes back to the Biblical story. Salome is the daughter of Herod and the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. There is Jokanaan, or St. John the Baptist, who is imprisoned in the dungeon. He is a prophet, and Herod Antipas is afraid of him because he speaks in a strange way about strange things. Jokanaan prophesies that something tragic will happen to the king and queen who do not listen to the voice of God. Hearing the voice of Jokanaan, Salome orders one of the soldiers to bring him to her so she can meet him. She falls in love with him and wants to touch him, and wants him to pay attention to her. He refuses each of her requests, which makes her all the more desirous of him. She states that no matter what she will kiss his mouth. Jokanaan is returned to the dungeon as Herod arrives for a party. Herod wants Salome to dance for him, over the objections of his wife. Herod promises her anything if she will dance for him. Salome agrees, and after her dance she demands the head of Jokanaan. Herod pleads with her to ask for something else, but Salome will not relent in her demand. Jokanaan is beheaded, and his severed head is brought to her. Salome kisses the head and announces that she has kissed his mouth, and that the power of passion is stronger than the power of death.

MFT: You, the other actors, and the director were able to make your own adaptation of this story.

PCH: In the performance we did not use much text. It was more like using the text to create images and scenes representative of moods and feelings in the text. This was not a linear progression from point A to point B, but engaging the spectator in the work of interpretation. This sounds confusing, but I can only express it this way. When I watch the video of our performance, I see the tableaux or pictures of the energy that we tried to place on the stage. To do so, we used what I call “floating characters.”

MFT: You said that you did not play a particular character.

PCH: Correct. We tried to take care of particular lines. My friend Karol took care of the lines of Herod. I was more into the lines of Jokanaan; Dagmara took care of Salome. This does not mean that we were not able to engage with some other characters. That is why I call them floating characters. We are not bound by character or text. The puppets are helping us in this. They are very focused and truthful. They do not think, they are just there.

MFT: And yet the puppets remain constant and anchor you to the text.

DS: Yes! Exactly.

MFT: How do you feel about the performance, now that you have performed and watched your performance on video? I know you do not like the video because it cannot fully convey the energy of the performance.

DS: I am really happy about what I saw on the video. If I were not part of this performance, I know I would have wanted to see it. It has character, and that is a good sign.

PCH: You cannot stay neutral. It is a good sign that half of the audience is happy and the other half is going out, glad that it is over. We have had some spectators that have seen it more than ten times.

MFT: Now the puppet of Salome is quite large?

PCH: Yes, she is about one-half human size and is operated by four or five of us with ropes.

MFT: And, as in Bunraku, you are onstage with the puppet?

PCH: Yes, but we are in costume. As we operate her, we dance with her and she dances with us. The dance is never the same. It is a beautiful performance.

DS: Salome dances with each of us and we with her.

MFT: This theme of passion and redemption through death is also the subject of another of your recent works?

DS: Yes, we took it up in Until Doomsday, which premiered on March 6, 2004, in Stuttgart, Germany. This work is based on Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, and it uses a large, hand-operated puppet/mask of the Dutchman and the technique of shadow puppets.

MFT: The opening sequence of this work features sailors on the deck of a ship, and the sail is operated like a puppet.

DCH: Yes, it takes over the stage for a while.

MFT: Tell us about the puppet for the Dutchman.

PCH: As you can see in the photograph, it is a mask and the puppet is operated by the actor interacting with it.

MFT: What I find fascinating is that the puppet is operated in full view of the audience and yet, as in Bunraku, it does not matter.

DS: Yes, the audience accepts it as another actor, with special qualities.

MFT: This is another example of the actor-puppet interaction which I find so fascinating about your work. I want to thank you both for sharing your art and your thoughts on the ever-evolving nature of acting, puppets, and theater.

PCH: Thank you.

DS: I thank you, Mark; this is my first visit to America, and I have enjoyed performing here.

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 1/9/07