"We debunk the myth of an elitist Shakespeare." An interview with Agata Grenda.
I met with Agata Grenda, the director of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre and the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival, in her office just as the Shakespeare Festival was in full swing in late July and early August. It is a spectacular event where one can see various Polish and European productions of William Shakespeare's plays or works loosely connected with Shakespearean drama. In this interview, you can read about the festival and also about the building that serves as its centre. What’s more, the dialogue also unwittingly reveals what someone with as much insight as the director of the International Shakespeare Festival thinks about current trends in the staging of Shakespeare.
A brief history of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre
At the beginning of the 1990s, Polish theatre scholar Jerzy Limon conceived a plan to build a theatre in the Baltic port city of Gdańsk that would bear a reference to the Elizabethan theatre in its name. As part of his doctoral research, he found that English theatre companies regularly came to the town in the seventeenth century to perform after lessons at the Fencing School. According to Limon, it was the first public theatre in Polish territory. There are surviving applications from companies for permission to hold performances and also a historic picture of a Gdansk building similar to The Fortune Playhouse in London.
Jerzy Limon, who died unexpectedly in 2021 after contracting COVID-19, was a visionary who uncompromisingly pursued his dreams, even in the face of doubt from those around him. In 1990, he founded the Theatrum Gedanese Foundation for the purpose of building the theatre and sent a letter by regular post to Prince Charles asking him to be its patron. After a few months, the prince’s consent arrived back the same way, impressing Gdańsk officials and, in the following years, other supporters of the new theatre building. The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre celebrated its grand opening in 2014, with 80% of construction costs (over one million euros) coming from the European Union.
The winning architectural project was designed by Italian Renato Rizzi, who created a "double-wrapped" model resembling a jewellery gift box. The facade of the building is black, and when its roof is opened, the Globe-like interior is revealed as a white jewel. The theatre is located on the site of a synagogue that stood until the Second World War, a reminder of which can be seen on the theatre’s façade. Inside the mass of black bricks, one notices the grey ones marking the space formerly occupied by the synagogue. Some locals have dubbed the theatre "the coffin" or "the prison," while others marvel at it. The theatre was run by professor Limon from its opening until his death, after which his position was assumed by Agata Grenda.
The narrative of the "great professor"
The former theatre director, Jerzy Limon, spent his entire career studying the activities of English theatre companies, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe in the 17th century. He specialised in Shakespearean and Elizabethan theatre in general. Do you personally have any professional relationship with Shakespeare?
No, not at all. I took my degree in Polish Philology and Journalism, so I have a literary background, but it’s not focused on Shakespeare at all.
So why did you decide to become Limon's successor in the theatre's management?
Because - to be frank - I'm a good and experienced cultural manager. We're sold out most of the time and I know how to make that happen. Professor Limon fulfilled the dream of his life, which was to build a theater, and he also created the Shakespeare Festival for almost a quarter of a century. At some point he wanted to return to his roots, i.e. academic work, at the University of Gdansk, he wanted to focus on writing books, traveling. So he started looking for his successor.
At the time, I was running my business after the experience of being fired from my position as director of the Polish Cultural Institute in New York by the right-wing, nationalist government that came to power in 2015. Like any authoritarian power, the pols began their rule with staff purges, including getting rid of diplomats inconvenient to them. As a feminist who fought for minority rights, freedom of speech and democracy, and for whom cultural censorship precluded any dialogue, I quickly proved inconvenient to the new government. Besides, so did many of my colleagues, great directors of cultural institutions, cultural managers.
So I started my own company, where I combined activities in the field, PR, culture and business. I helped institutions organize international events, ran PR for a large ceramics company in Poland, taught cultural management to students at universities, and conducted workshops on public diplomacy and networking.
Agata Grenda, credits Dawid Linkowski
Jerzy Limon, source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerzy_Limon
And then Jerzy Limon approached you?
Yes, I was recommended to the professor by several professionals in our industry, we met and then had discussions for more than a year and a half. I was not at all eager to move to Gdańsk. My business was thriving, my daughter had started elementary school in Poznań, our hometown, and the sudden return from New York had provided us with enough stress to not want to move to another city again.
On the other hand, the proposal to take over the helm of such an extraordinary institution was extremely prestigious and professionally challenging, so when professor Limon suddenly died at Covid-19, which was a shock and unimaginable loss for everyone, I knew I had to try to take on the task. I owed it to him, he believed in me a lot.
In the first year, the team and I worked out the direction of the theater under my management, created our artistic manifesto, got to know each other. I created new positions - my plenipotentiaries for contact with the theater's partners and business, I focused on greater promotion and marketing of the institution, as well as audience development.
Are you also trying to maintain the memory of your founder?
Of course, the professor's legacy is with us all the time. We continue his ideas both at the international Shakespeare Festival, in the artistic series initiated by him, and in educational activities. The professor's widow has donated to the theater the professor's entire private library, his awards, medals and memorabilia related to his work. The library can be visited daily. We organize symposia devoted to the professor's activities, and remember him at every opportunity. You can also buy books written by our founder in the theater.
You said that you are advocating a different approach than your predecessor. How would you describe your role?
My approach to theater management, different from that presented by professor Limon, is due to the fact that we have a completely different background. The professor was a generation older man, a Shakespearean and scientist, a great visionary and, as some said, a conceptual artist. I am a woman 20 years younger than him, a practical cultural manager with extensive experience in project management, promotion, and international relations. That's why our management styles are different. But our goal is the same.
For me, it is also very important to create theater that is accessible and understandable to audiences who have little theatrical experience and the very word "Shakespearean" may frighten them. This, in turn, comes from my experience of working in New York, working with American partners, promoting Polish theater in the United States. In order to successfully sell a theatrical product, the audience must identify with it, it must somehow be important, moving and understandable to them. This is my goal.
~ 1 ~
We are a theatre of two tenses. We build on tradition and history to create the present and the future.
~ 2 ~
We comment on the contemporary world, taking inspiration from Shakespeare's work and debunking the myth of an elitist Shakespeare. We are a space where the sacred and the profane meet, just like in the days of Elizabethan theatre.
~ 3 ~
We believe in a culture of dialogue – with audiences, theatre partners and private businesses. We listen to our audience and respond to their needs, but we also create new ones.
~ 4 ~
We present the most interesting events from Poland and the world in the highest quality. We inspire and support new adaptations.
~ 5 ~
We set the course for cultural education and are becoming the best centre for education through theatre in Poland.
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We rely on the cooperation of cultural, scientific and business circles; we believe in the local community.
~ 7 ~
We are open to all forms of art and communication with the audience.
source Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski
Our team can write grants
What does the year-round operation of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre look like? How connected are you to Shakespeare?
We relate directly to Shakespeare only twice a year: during the summer festival and on Shakespeare's birthday, April 23. We also conduct a family workshop Plays with Shakespeare. For the rest of the year, we present the best Polish and international productions, we conduct debates which are always touching the most important issues in our society happening now, we do concerts of different genres and have a wide range of educational activities – some of those activities might be connected with Shakespeare, but 95% is not.
Who is your audience during the regular theatre season?
Most of them come from Gdańsk and the whole Tri-City, while a certain percentage of them are tourists. That’s why we offer subtitles while presenting theatre shows. We are also great tourist attraction, so all year round people come to see the building. Very often when they find out that there is an event taking place in the evening, they come to see it. During the theatre season, however, it is mainly Polish people, from all over the country who attend the actual performances, over half of them is from our region.
What does your theatre programme consist of?
My goal is to present the best musical, theatrical, and sometimes visual arts and film productions being made in Poland. I would like people from the north of Poland to know that they don't have to travel all over the country to see what interests them, that if an event has achieved success, it can certainly be seen here. We also produce or coproduce our own shows. In 2022, for example, we staged four of our own productions or co-productions and hosted eleven productions. I inherited The Merry Wives of Windsor (coproduction with Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk) and The Tempest (our production) from professor Limon. We staged a family production of the popular British play The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in 120 Minutes. And also the biggest Polish hit last season, the hip-hop musical 1989 in co-production with the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow.
We have won all possible Polish festivals with it and are now in the process of translating it into English so we can tour with it abroad. Which takes time, because not only it's hip hop, it is also hip hop about Polish modern history. We wanted to create a Polish answer to the famous Broadway musical Hamilton, which was the first rap musical and became an incredible commercial success. The musical follows Hamilton from his early life as a poor orphan in the Caribbean, to his ascendency as the right-hand man of George Washington, to his death in an infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Our musical 1989 shows the fall of communism from a new perspective. Events familiar from newsreels and history books come to life on stage viewed through the eyes of three fascinating couples, including the Walȩsas. Ideas compete with love, enthusiasm collides with the weight of history, and heroism intertwines with family tragedies. The audience accompanies the characters in iconic moments - during strikes in the shipyard and at the Round Table - but also in intimate moments of joy and suffering experienced in the privacy of communist-era apartments or prison cells.
As for other theatrical offerings that could be seen on our stage during the last season, we presented both plays touching on important social issues (such as the LGBTQ+ community and its situation in Poland), as well as plays from Greece, Iceland or Norway. We also hosted Theatre Together, whose members are artists with intellectual disabilities, for a residency at our theater. They have prepared a moving premiere, "You Approach My Loneliness," based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." This is just a small part of our activities.
In one press release you said that the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre wants to be a "link" between Polish and foreign artists under your leadership. How broad are your activities in this area?
In 2022, we offered the theatre to the InlanDimensions International Arts Festival and they brought productions from South Korea and Japan. We celebrated Shakespeare's birthday in cooperation with the German group bodytalk from Münster. The production, on which they collaborated with Poznan's Polski Teatr Tańca, Romeos & Julias unplagued. Traumstadt, won the main prize, the Golden Yorick, at last year's Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival. With Norway Grants we have implemented the entire big Direction: Iceland, an 18-month joint Polish-Icelandic project called Treasure Iceland – Theatre Inclusions.
We have a block in the programme called Directions (Kierunki), which is my way of continuing Limon's idea of European Weeks. The professor wanted to thank the European Union for making it possible to build this theatre, so he decided to organise Theatre Week for each EU country, we had 15 different countries and their work presented in our theatre. But since professor Limon was bigger than his dreams, as we say, he soon expanded the scope and organized Belarusian, Chinese and Israeli weeks. The European Union was not enough for him (laugh). I decided to slightly change this concept and turn it into “Directions”, which allows us to present international work all year long, without being limited to particular weeks. We also have Direction: Poland within which we present the best Polish productions of the given season.
Do you consider yourself more of a EU theatre than a Polish one?
When thinking about our theater, I don't think about geographical boundaries. I would like us to be a place for artists from all over the world to exchange ideas. We are presenting mainly those from Poland and Europe for now, but only because of the financial aspect, not territorial restrictions. Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre is open to art and culture from every part of the globe.
How does the theatre scene in the Tri-City look during the season? Do you collaborate with other theatres at this time?
Yes, together with Teatr Wybrzeże we created one production, The Merry Wives of Windsor, but we are friends with all the theatres in the Tri-City. Teatr Wybrzeże is a typical repertory drama theatre. This year they provided the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival with two small stages, and next year we will be able to use the big one, it is being renovated as we speak. We have good repertory theatres in the Tri-Cities, there is the Musical Theatre, which specializes in large-scale musicals, including two popular Broadway musicals. Gdynia also has a repertory theatre that regularly includes comedies with tourists in mind. In Gdańsk, opposite the Baltic Opera House, where the Philharmonic Orchestra is based, we have a great children's theatre called Miniatura.
Your manifesto says you believe in the local community. What does that mean?
We have a lot of projects focused on the local community. For example, every Saturday we open the theatre to families with children, who can participate in our Shakespeare workshops. These are theme-based. For example, when the theme was Romeo and Juliet, parents and children created masks and costumes for the Capulets and Montagues with a fashion designer. Then everyone could show off their costumes and props on the main stage. In addition to our Shakespeare seminars, schools can also purchase our Chemistry of Theatre classes. We teach kids science (chemistry and physics) by showing how it can be used practically in the theatre - for example, in special effects or makeup.
Last year we held ten music concerts in the theatre, and these attracted over four thousand visitors. We had visual arts exhibitions and multidisciplinary projects. Seniors, young people and people with mental disabilities participate each year in the Theatrical Solitaire project where those three groups work on the same production and present 3 different versions of it. We are a home for a Shakespeare Youth Theatre, where high school students meet once a week and rehearse under the direction of an actress from Teatr Wybrzeże. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, we tried to be helpful by accommodating Ukrainian families, providing residences, working as volunteers and serving as a storage for all the donations for Ukrainian families. We also got big EU grants to become more accessible to people with disabilities, and so on.
I've noticed that some of your rooms, especially those in the basement, are set up like party bars.
We rent the theatre for private events at least once a month – it is an important source of income for us. When it's nice out, we also try to brighten up our courtyard.
On what occasions do you open the roof of the theatre?
Either on special occasions, like yesterday's tribute to the passing of Peter Brook after Tempest Project, or any other time when we have visitors and the weather allows it. Our roof, like a casket with a gift inside, opens in 3 minutes. Unfortunately, the roof has very accurate wind and rain sensors installed, so in order to open it, the weather has to be very good indeed, and as we know by the sea, this can vary.
The Gdansk Shakespeare Festival Award System
The festival as such awards three prizes, two of which will be discussed in more detail in the interview, but the main one is the Golden Yorick for the best Polish Shakespeare production. It is now possible this year to compete for this prize with productions created in established theatres as well as independent ones. Apart from the prizes awarded directly by the festival organisers, Polish journalists and the Polish Shakespeare Society also award chosen performances presented at the festival.
Romeo and Julia directed by Dominika Feiglewicz a Zdenka Pszczłowska, the winner of Golden Yorick, credits Kinga Kowalska
How to get Shakespeare on stage more often
Who attends the international Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival?
There are several groups: loyal fans who have been attending the festival for twenty years. I even heard about one couple who bought an apartment in Gdańsk to be closer to the festival! Every year the theater industry visits us to see not only Polish but also the best foreign Shakespearean productions. There are a lot of tourists, our festival is held in the summer, and all plays are presented with subtitles. This is really a festival for everyone, we try to show at least one production for children every year as well.
So is your festival a place where people from theatre journalism and critics meet?
Paulina, who is in charge of media communication, issued fifty accreditations this year. And then there are the international journalists, whose presence is supported by the tourist organization of the city of Gdańsk. Some come at our invitation, others come independently and from different parts of the world.
Last year, in an interview for Svět a divadlo/World and Theatre magazine, you told my colleague that only eight Shakespeare productions were being staged in Poland in the 2021/22 season and that interest in staging Shakespeare was declining. Does this shortage still exist?
It's a little better this year, but not by much. In particular, we have noticed a certain change in our approach to Shakespeare. There are five productions competing for our main Golden Yorick award this year, the same number as last year. Back then three of them were comedies and this year three are productions by artists with disabilities. Which is completely new because, as far as I know, this has never been a widespread approach to Shakespeare. Moreover, such projects would likely have been off-programmed in previous years because the mainstream audience is not used to actors with mental or physical disabilities.
This year, Romeo and Juliet is performed by actors with hearing impairment (ed. note: on the second day of the festival, Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dominika Feiglewicz and Zdenka Pszczołowska, won the main festival prize, the Golden Yorick). The play was performed in two languages: sign and spoken language, as the main roles were played by two pairs of professional actors, one hearing and one deaf. And that production was taken just as seriously as any other, and we judged it by the same criteria. This is something new, because this year Shakespeare is primarily a tool to speak about social issues and open our eyes to things we didn't want to see on stage before. But otherwise, the crisis of Shakespearean productions persists. As I said to your colleague last year, young male and female artists oppose the narratives of his plays.
Because they're considered misogynistic?
And also anti-Semitic. They don't want to stage them because they treat women badly. Which is of course due to the fact that these plays were written four hundred years ago, and that was the reality back then. It's not that the actors don't care about Shakespeare, it's that they rebel against him.
But this is just one of the reasons why not many Shakespearean productions are being staged. It is also the case that Shakespearean productions in Poland are rarely low-cost. Theatre directors don't want to entrust these spectacular projects to young artists and risk the chance that they could fail. They rely instead on established directors, and as a result, young artists have no chance to encounter Shakespeare in large institutions. To try to partially remedy this situation, we announced a new festival competition this year called New Yorick exclusively for young directors, be they directing students or fresh graduates, but they needn’t have any formal theatre education. It is important that no competitor has more than three non-school productions to their credit.
This year we invited three Polish theatres to participate in the organization of the New Yorick: The Helena Modrzejewska Theatre in Legnica, the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw and The Polish Theatre in Poznan. Twenty-six competitors submitted plans for a Shakespeare production, but they had to take into account certain restrictions, one being that at least fifty percent of the original drama has to be in the script. The cast cannot exceed six actors, the production must not last more than ninety minutes, and only ten rehearsals are allowed. It is expected that the creators will use prompters, subtitles or that the actors will read from the script. It's a special opportunity, because we don't usually invite people to the theatre after ten rehearsals. And then the festival jury will award one project the New Yorick. But it is also possible that they won’t award any of the projects.
How did the cooperation with the three theatres go?
The management of the theatres read all the submitted projects, from which they could choose one, and then in May we held a Zoom meeting with them and the three selected concept teams. The artistic directors then talked to them as if they were choosing directors for their own projects. They invited them to their cities to rehearse with actors from their companies. We also paid for the contestants' travel and accommodation costs, so the theatres did not risk anything. If they like what is created, they can have it finish it in full format and keep the production in the repertoire. And if they weren't happy, they didn't lose anything – we covered the costs. For us it is a unique opportunity to present three new Shakespearean productions in Polish theatres. Maybe the theatres will enter them in the competition for the Golden Yorick next year.
Where do the independent Shakespeare productions you have in the ShakespeareOFF programme come from?
This category includes brand new works that premiere at our festival, five of which will be performed this year. We are recruiting creators through an open call with clearly defined rules, and anyone can apply, be it an actor, director, musician or even a set designer. Another condition is that they embrace the festival motto which this year is "The excellent foppery of the world!", a quote from “King Lear”. The artists will receive 20,000 złoty (nearly EUR 5,000) for rehearsals and will provide us with their script and a concept for the production. From the 47 applications submitted this year, our curator for this area selected five. And then we have rules that relate to the actual rehearsals. But in the end, anything can be created: dance theatre, opera, drama with a large cast, or a virtual installation.
In a previous interview you said that you are limited by Shakespeare and therefore you cannot be expected to become another Avignon Festival. It sounded a bit like you saw this profiling as a disadvantage.
It's a Shakespeare festival, but we are very open, for example, to presenting other Elizabethan playwrights. Shakespeare is just the starting point. The productions at ShakespeareOFF sometimes have very little in common with Shakespeare. Yesterday we saw the project Imperium, which documents the situation of war refugees. A rendition of Romeo and Juliet featuring actors with Down syndrome took part in the Golden Yorick competition. It was a story about their search for love and their own Romeos and Julias and their parents, who know that such love is very difficult to fulfil for their children. It is enough that there is at least some connection to Shakespeare for a production to be included in our programme. So, no, I don't think I'm limited by Shakespearean profiling. I'd say we're inspired by it.
Interview conducted by Barbora Etlíková
Czech version of the interview here
Five productions based on a thorough knowledge of a fragment of Shakespeare's work are described in the article From Tragedy to Comedy and Back, which will appear in Issue 5 of Svět a divadlo/World and Theatre magazine.