Postcard From Poland

Confronting violence at the Dialog international theatre fest

Postcard From Poland

Why does a theatre festival in Poland rate coverage in The Austin Chronicle? Chiefly because its Arts Editor is one of a dozen or so Americans attending the festival through the generosity of the Center for International Theatre Development, the entity that's helped bring Russian theatre artists to Austin and send our artists to Russia.

But it's also that rare opportunity for the theatre coverage in this paper to do what the film, music, and book sections do on a regular basis: report on and analyze work being made by artists of global stature. Unless a theatre company from elsewhere tours through Austin -- which isn't that often -- we at the Chronicle have little chance to see and write about what's happening on stages outside our community. And there's much to be seen and learned from companies whose work is rooted in, say, recent or current political repression in their homelands, not to mention the individual creative approaches that artists of varied cultures bring to the staging of plays.

The seventh Dialog-Wroclaw International Theatre Festival lived up to its remarkable reputation -- CITD Director Philip Arnoult considers it the best theatre festival in all Europe -- drawing companies and artists from Rwanda, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Iran, Estonia, and Hungary, as well as a half-dozen of Poland's own top-tier theatre companies, to address a weighty theme: "Violence makes the world go round." That's meant much much of the work presented in the festival's eight days -- 16 productions in all -- confronting in explicit words and visual images our inhumanity, a steady drumbeat of oppression, torture, and genocide. Absorbing so much brutality in such a short period can be draining, especially when the majority of the productions focus on exposing cruelty and evil rather than deaf eating or surviving it. hope is in short supply this week, at least onstage. But what has kept me coming back to the theatre again and again even when I've been drained by the horrors described and simulated there is the commitment of the artists to the work they're presenting, the creative risks they've undertaken to make the unimaginable visceral, the lengths to which they'll go to make us feel another's pain and make it our own. Ten plays in, I've yet to see a work that wasn't driven by an extraordinary passion, and most of them were also fueled by an attention to theatricality and craft that we don't often see in Austin.

Then there are the dialogue sessions that follow, in which members of the creative teams of the presented works of the day are asked questions not just about their individual productions but also how they relate to one another and to larger themes of violence, such as authority's relation to violence and violence against the Other. Though the conversations are frequently slowed by translation -- Dutch to Polish to English and back again, for example -- the precision of the questions and eloquence of the artists has, in every session, given me a key to unlocking some question I'd had about the production I'd seen. In short, Dialog has proven to be an intense and challenging festival but also an illuminating one.

Oops, if I don't leave now I'll miss the bus to the first of today's three productions, a Polish staging of The Tempest. More to come.

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