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Tadeusz Kantor in Kraków, 8 December 1990 to 8 December 2010

Keywords

Tadeusz Kantor Cricot 2 Cricoteka Today is My Birthday acting Polish theatre Theatre of Death

Article

Loriano Della Rocca was an actor in Tadeusz Kantor’s Cricot 2 company from 1980 to 1992, taking part in all the group’s productions during this period and touring with the company to major international festivals and theatres. From 1999 to 2010, he taught drama at the Bernstein School of Musical Theatre in Bologna, Italy’s first full-time training school for musical-comedy actors.


This is the text of a talk given at the international conference ‘Today – Tadeusz Kantor!’, held in Kraków by Cricoteka, from 7-11 December 2010. The event marked the twentieth anniversary of Tadeusz Kantor’s death.

Leaping back twenty years in time, it is hard for me to put together the words to justify picking up the thread of a story (a thread never lost in my mind) that takes me back to Kraków, Poland, to my long experience with Cricot 2 and the day Tadeusz Kantor left us, 8 December 1990.

It isn’t for lack of things to say, mind you; quite the contrary. In fact, much of it is still so clear in my mind that I run the risk of losing myself in the whirl of memories.

My problem, now, is the fear that I will be unable to master the wealth of past memories and pick out a logical selection of meaningful recollections to share during this celebration. So I will try to proceed to deliver a clear and concise tribute, focusing on Tadeusz Kantor as an artist, and on what I have received from my long experience with him, without giving way to banal personal anecdotes from that intense time.

I must admit that I find myself in the grasp of a profound conviction that explains my hesitation in writing: to have spent a great deal of time with Tadeusz, sharing moments of grace but also of weariness, periods of stagnation, and at times even tedium; to have experienced the amalgam of humanity and the driving forces of genius and intemperance that emanated from him; to have intimately shared those instants of tension or euphoria during which something marvellous or something monstrous might take shape – all of this, unfortunately, prevents me from describing in clear and simple terms the alchemy through which, out of the master’s hands, the sublime masterpiece would spring forth.

This is why I hesitate to recount my experience.

Let me put it this way: at that very moment when Art (in general) captures its perfect shape, shows itself, and reveals its greatness in a tangible form, it also hides within itself, rendering inexpressible the combination of elements that produced it.

I was there when the magic took place, I was part of it, and am deeply convinced that I have understood what ‘happened’. Yet no matter how hard I struggle to put the pieces together, I still fail to obtain a logical, communicable summary of how the miracle of creation was achieved. That is, I am unable to grasp the exact formula and offer it to the world so that whoever possesses the necessary talent might reproduce it.

Therefore, in my role as a participant and witness to Tadeusz Kantor’s work, I can only offer personal and simple doses of information (theatre scholars may provide more complex input), with the proviso that the few things I have to say on the subject are the product of my own perceptions and are by no means objective.

I feel better now that I have explained the cause of my discomfort. Many people expect to hear ‘how it really was’ from those who were there, but I can only tell you something incomplete, just a part of it, perhaps only half the story.

There – I got it off my chest!

So now I can confirm that Tadeusz Kantor possessed that mixture of genius and solid experience – or, if you prefer, healthy obsession – which, alongside an original combination of convictions, worldly wisdom, spirituality, profound knowledge of his times and so much more, made him into what is known as … an extraordinary artist. And I would like to share with you the deep feeling I had at the time, which has been confirmed over the past 20 years, that Tadeusz Kantor’s stage directing techniques, aesthetics, and poetics were destined to become an inescapable benchmark even after his death. This is true for those of his colleagues who continue in the theatre, for a multitude of other actors and artists, as well as for all those young people today who choose the stimulating challenges of the theatre as an art form.

As obvious as it may sound, I can’t help saying that those ten years spent with Kantor and Cricot 2 between 1980 and 1990 were among the most important and decisive of my life. Let me add without false modesty that at the time I even felt inadequate to the task. Indeed, this great opportunity initially brought about a complete overturning of my universe: everything I had been before was turned upside-down. I had to subject myself to repeated trials that pushed me to the very limits. Fortunately, and despite the hardships involved in meeting the continuous demands of that remarkable artistic adventure, and of Tadeusz himself, I understood the fundamental importance of such a challenge. Thus, I accepted it as unique and inevitable. But in the midst of such an intense experience was the security and protection that Tadeusz Kantor offered all of us actors, in bringing us to the best stages all over the world to experience the glamour of the theatre of the time; it was like a kind of daydream. I must admit that the demanding challenge of working with Tadeusz also came with considerable repercussions in terms of inner wellbeing and personal growth.

As I now try to describe in a modern sense the ‘thread’ that still binds Tadeusz Kantor to all those who worked with him, I wonder: how can I take advantage of this twentieth anniversary celebration to help restore to the limelight the inspirational force behind his work? I’ll start by describing some intense moments I experienced just a few hours after his death, to help you understand the vital gift he left me and how intriguing and fascinating it was to observe in Tadeusz the continuous flow between reality and stage invention.

What I am about to tell you focuses on that day, 8 December 1990, which put an end to my own and the other actors’ collaboration with Tadeusz Kantor. It will give you a sense of the place and cultural environment in which Tadeusz Kantor used to work, aspects of his personality, his role as an artist, and the relationship that existed between him and us. Just a few things that may, however, bring you closer to the creative atmosphere we inhabited both on and off the stage.

This atmosphere consisted of a non-stop back-and-forth between the depths and heights of life, so that amid the unmasking and reconstruction of a variety of human experiences, in the sounding of their crudest and basest meanderings and the scaling of their highest achievements, the combination of obscurity and sublimity in which we are immersed, unaware, every day, could be revealed on stage.

To sink into the horrors of history and then take flight and soar high above made it possible for us to tackle the grandiose events and miseries of humankind from a number of perspectives, points of view, and angles. This included a glance at ‘Lady Death’, whose presence was accepted inside our troupe’s eccentric caravan as a possible guest, but only within the game of theatre – a character to rub shoulders with and yet to keep at a fair distance, all in a strictly cathartic fiction, in a kind of rehearsal (perhaps) for the greater challenge awaiting both players and audience: the battle of life!

Here are the facts: on that day, when we heard the news, I, the other Italian actors, and the French actor from the company, hurried to visit Tadeusz at the hospital morgue (where many of the Polish actors had already arrived). He was wheeled before us in a squalid little room inside a poorly kept building, lying on a worn-out, faded white stretcher, already inside that reality of the lowest rank dear to the master. The way the nurse was pushing the shabby bed, and Tadeusz’s own posture and readiness to play his part, reminded me for a second of the caretaker character in The Dead Class. Tadeusz had been placed before us head first, laid out on the gurney and covered by a blanket. So it was true: Tadeusz was really dead! We were all still incredulous. It was tempting to touch his surprisingly relaxed, waxy white face, all too similar to that of the dummies Tadeusz had obsessively, for so many years, attempted to create: alive-but-dead, dead-but-alive. It was tempting to implore him in a kindly voice: ‘That’s enough, Tadeusz. Now, stand up.’ Instinctively, though I knew it was useless, I followed the impulse and stretched my hand out to his forelock of hair that, inappropriately to the time and place, hung untidily in mid-air over his forehead. After touching it gently, I slid my hand down to stroke his cheek. ‘Come on, Tadeusz, stop playing games. Get up – let’s get started again.’ No. His cheek was too cold. Tadeusz’s body was there, but Tadeusz was with us no more.

We were all terribly sad, but not dispirited. Something inside us wanted to resist the evidence and, as on the stage, defeat alongside him one last time that well-known antagonist, Death! So when the visit was over, we left with a sweet sensation inside: Tadeusz had left us, but – I can’t put it any other way – he would stay with us all the same.

And now I come to the funeral, which I remember as magnificent. It was cold as ever. We Italians always feel a perishing cold in Poland, especially when the wind blows from the east, generated by some powerful eastern maelstrom. An icy, unyielding wind that systematically pierces every part of your body that isn’t covered with thick layers of clothing, and defeats all attempts to repel its attacks. Then, before you have time even to think how to free yourself from such an annoyance, a maternal breath pushes you towards a bar, a church door, or the entrance of a museum, anyplace you can find relief in the wonderful warmth that welcomed you everywhere in Kraków’s public places back then.

Many people had come to pay homage to the master and their numbers filled the streets around the Cricoteka, seat of the Cricot 2 company’s archives and headquarters. For years, Tadeusz Kantor had come and gone through these doors at a hurried pace, as if chased by who-knows-what thought or called forth by some unimaginable, pressing purpose. In that last period, an assistant used to follow in his wake, matching his pace and carrying the master’s huge briefcase filled to the brim with stage direction notes and sketches of props and characters from the shows. Tadeusz strode confidently ahead while the other, walking behind, was sure of one thing only: that they must follow unnoticed, grazing the wall. Their comical gait later inspired my performance in Kantor’s last production, Today is My Birthday, in which I had to follow Tadeusz in the impossible role of his ‘shadow’ on the stage.

Even more impossible, for me, has been performing that role without him on the opening night and throughout all the other performances in theatres along the two-year tour previously organized by Tadeusz, in addition to the theatrical review in his memory at the 1991 Venice Biennale.

The last performance of Today is My Birthday took place in Szczecin, Poland, in 1992 – end of the line, everyone home. The story of Tadeusz Kantor and his Cricot 2 company ended there. No one could take the place of the master. That’s how it is with great people. That’s where the future of his work started, fuelled by the strong memory of his creative will.

There. I have told you everything I felt like sharing of those moments. It’s now up to all those who remain fascinated by his work to let themselves be influenced and to keep alive what they consider topical in this artist of genius and his theatre.

Lastly, I’d like to point out a few aspects of Tadeusz Kantor’s creative techniques on the stage and of his relationship with us, actors, that I think are worth keeping in mind.

For instance, I still feel the very vivid impact produced by his writings (or shall I say his manifestos?). Long lists of theories and stage practices through which he announced each day the goal we should aim for. Endless writings, material, and references. In great quantities. Old pictures; historical and personal facts; drawings, many drawings; mottos or outlines of artists who inspired him or whom he considered as travelling companions: Adolphe Appia, Gordon Craig, Diego Velázquez, Veit Stoss [Wit Stwosz], Vsevolod Meyerhold. These, according to Tadeusz, were the ‘coordinates’ through which the actors could grasp the theoretical frame of the play, and then lower themselves into the creative melting pot. We were all supposed first to learn, and then to ‘burn’ (only as actors and only within the fiction acted on stage!). We had to be well aware that being an actor is a complex game of presence, lightness, vulnerability, skill, and vigour… like tiptoeing over the ruins of the world, one might say! But careful: don’t overdo it. Only ‘restraint’. No frills, no inertia.

We played together but from two different shores. From his, Tadeusz dictated the strategy and modes of attack on creation; while we, from ours, tried to understand where he was heading and follow the path he indicated, putting into it as much of ourselves as possible. He didn’t want our submission. Deep down he incited us to betray him and present our own ideas. Tadeusz challenged us to a difficult game, in which we were nearly on equal terms with him. He expected the actor to surprise him. All in all, his definition of the ‘Theater of Death’ translated onstage into a game of vitality, intelligence, and cunning – so as not to fall into the net of certain (apparent) contradictions; a game that required a wholehearted reaction to stalemate, to emptiness, to the kind of despair that grasps you when you have nothing in your hands – when you can only count on life itself.

And to conclude, let me quote once again Tadeusz’s famous line: ‘On the stage, you must not be alive, but dead – that is, dead, but alive!’ Quite a brain teaser, isn’t it? An entire world lies hidden inside, and it can even be fun.