A Polish Actor in an Irish Play on an American Stage

Robert Zawadzki

In the future, when America is busy not building walls, hopefully it will still build bridges. Polish actor Robert Zawadzki surely feels the same way. He plays a deceptively difficult role in Owen McCafferty’s devastating play Quietly, running at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre (in a co-production with The Public Theater) through Sept. 25 — a character witnessing the trauma, and resolution, of hate.

Zawadzki plays Robert, the Polish-born owner of a Belfast bar who, in the opening minutes of the play, may be facing some strong local xenophobia. The arrival of Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane), a neighborhood bloke, makes clear that Quietly is about the long aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of religious violence in Northern Ireland. It’s about the moment that Ian (Declan Conlon) walks into the bar to meet Jimmy for the first and likely only time as they reflect on the indescribable bloodshed in the very same bar, 40 years earlier, that will bind the men together forever.

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Robert, in other words, must listen. Indeed, during the middle stretch of the intermissionless play, the character utters few, if any, words. As the pent-up rage between Jimmy and Ian is unleashed, swelling ever more, fueled by a bitterness that no political solution can fix, Zawadzki’s character becomes, for the audience, an occasional point of interest. It’s not that the actor steals focus; he doesn’t. But now and then we spot him, a fly on the wall like all of the rest of us in the audience. Except he’s in the bar with these unforgiving enemies, and we’re out there, in the dark.

In an email interview, Zawadzki’s sense of self makes a real impression. I ask him to write a paragraph beginning with “Robert Zawakzki is…” He’s prominent in the theater in Poland as an actor, director and acting teacher, so I expect some verbiage about all that. He starts off with:

At a professional level, I’m an actor, theatre director and cultural manager. On the amateur level, I’m a human being and, as such, complicated, imperfect and consisting of contradictions.

Then he adds that he’s “an eternal seeker of nonexistent things like permanent happiness, endless love, fulfillmen.” Then he goes on — the fellow is on a roll. Maybe he’s never been asked to define himself in this way? What a wonder were the words what tumbled forth:

Heterosexual, atheist, cyclist. Friend of all oppressed minorities, especially LGBT and people of a different than white skin color among the population, living in the absurdity of their own imaginary superiority arising only because of having a white pigment in the skin. Rebel: which draws the joy of throwing a smoke candle in the middle of a boring and puffed-up event. Defender: of democratic order, freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression. Supporter: of separation of church and state — which, in the country where I live, is not so obvious. Prince of irony, especially about myself. Loving people. Adventurer, enjoying nomadic life, permanently living on a suitcase. Rationalist but at the same time, a dreamer. A still-unfulfilled taekwondo champion. Simply, as it was defined by the current Polish right-wing political elites, the worst sort of Pole.

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Quietly debuted at the Abbey Theatre in 2012, was mounted in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013 and was mounted yet again at the Soho Theatre in London in 2014 — each time with the same cast. It is, put simply, a fascinating, galvanizing play that is well worth your time. (For tickets, click here.) It was a privilege to pose additional questions to Zawadzki and to receive such thoughtful, honest, provocative answers in return.

And now, 5 questions Robert Zawadzki has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Are you actually Polish?” This is quite a common question due to Quietly.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I assume that there are no idiotic questions. There are only idiotic answers.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

You just asked three of them.

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In 2012, you wrote a great article for the Abbey Theatre (“My Theatrical Confession of Faith”) in which you mentioned the “demons” in Irish — and Polish — history. Now that you’ve come back to Quietly yet again, has that comparison deepened? What does the play mean for you now in a way that it didn’t in 2012?

In the last few years the situation in the world, in Europe and also in my country, Poland, has undergone a radical change. The right-wing, ultra-conservative groups are gaining more and more support. Xenophobia, racism and antipathy towards immigrants are on the rise. Every day you can meet the behaviors referred to in Quietly. The world is divided, generally speaking, into two parts: the liberal and openminded, and the conservative, shackled in the chains of their own prejudices and ideologies. There is a war of civilizations. The differences are so significant that as a result there is a conflict of interest. Liberal democracy is in crisis. On the horizon are the mad faces of people who rule by hate, prejudice, lust of authority, money and inflated by populism, like Trump, Putin, Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Erdogan and Kaczynski.

My country has veered sharply to the right. For several months the Constitution was regularly broken, democratic standards contested. Secular public space with the approval of the authorities is appropriated by the church. Nationalism is growing in strength. Simple human decency has no argument or place in the discussion. Public media are the hypocritical propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling party. Politicians do not want the consent of the governed. They thrive on social divisions. This trend inevitably leads to tragedy. Instead of learning from the “troubles” in Northern Ireland or Germany in the 1930s of the last century and drawing wise conclusions, we walk to a dead end — an inevitable collision with a wall. No conclusions from history, no reflection. Still the same mistakes.

In 2012, when we started rehearsing Quietly, I couldn’t even imagine that it would go in such a way.

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You’re a well-respected actor, director and acting teacher in Poland. If American audiences know Polish theater at all, however, it’s the work and theories of Jerzy Grotowski — maybe. What are some of your biggest influences as an actor? What should Americans know about Polish theater?

American and global audiences should know that the greatest strength and the beauty of Polish theater now is its species diversity, openness, courage of artistic exploration and tackling difficult subjects. As a result, today we can proudly show to the world the great work of such fantastic artists as Krystian Lupa, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Jan Klata or Grzegorz Jarzyna.

Polish theater has also a great, longstanding tradition of independent scenes. We should mention, inter alia, The Eighth Day Theatre and Travel Agency Theatre, from Poznan; Provisorium Theatre, from Lublin; and Song of the Goat Theatre, from Wroclaw. To the forefront of the most important Polish public scenes we have to put mainly Polish Theatre in Wroclaw, Modjeska Theatre in Legnica, and TR Warszawa and The New Theatre in Warsaw. The strength of these theaters is primarily outstanding teams of actors, a unique phenomenon in the world.

The Western system rejected the model of permanent acting ensembles at public theaters long ago. In Poland, however, this phenomenon is still prevalent and often contributes to downright unusual results. There is also increasing prestige and recognition for private theaters — like Warsaw’s Polonia Theatre, led by an outstanding actress, Krystyna Janda. We should also mention the strength and high level of many puppet theaters all over the country. Another important element of the Polish theater tradition is the theater of television and Polish radio theatre. All this makes the Polish theater very interesting and it offers a lot of valuable travel destinations. It is a great inspiration for me, as an artist and as a viewer.

However, the world should also know that some very important things are taking place now in Polish cultural life, which not long ago seemed only a distant, sleepy nightmare.

Currently, the Polish authorities, due to their ignorance and ideological blindness, are on their way to destroying this beautiful heritage that has been built over the years through incompetent decisions.  Politicians are trying to take control of theaters by assigning executive positions to political figures, having no respect for fundamental democratic principles and procedures or to the artists.

The basic principle that drives them seems to be: no matter whether a theater is professional or has a vision, it’s more important that a theater be loyal. The Minister of Culture is trying to exert influence on the artists and moving to censor performances that he has never even watched.

They are imposing only a right-wing, Christian-national vision of “cultural development.” All other forms of activity are theoretically accepted by the government, but actually they are met more often with economic censorship. This is a very worrying phenomenon — unthinkable in a democratic world. I say this with sadness and I am probably also taking some risk, but I think we should talk about it out loud because it is the only method of exposing these nasty practices.

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Bonus Question:

God grants you the chance to play any role in any play in three theaters worldwide. Which three roles and plays would you choose, and which theater would you perform them in — and why?

There are no roles of which I dream. I love to be surprised by a task. However, there are some people I’d like to work with and also few places where I would like to work. In Poland, the most important theater artist to me is primarily Krystian Lupa. I also appreciate work by Agnieszka Glińska, Agata Duda-Gracz and the aforementioned Jan Klata, Krzysztof Warlikowski and Grzegorz Jarzyna. I would love to meet with them on my career path.

Thinking about theaters across the globe, I should probably mention The Public Theater in New York, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris (and meeting with Peter Brook), and Volksbühne in Berlin and meeting with Frank Castorf.

My dream about the Public Theater almost came true. Quietly was invited to New York by the Public. I would love to stand on the stage there. I hope Oskar Eustis reads this interview and remembers it.

It is beautiful to dream but what is even more beautiful is to find a way to fulfill our dreams.