Danuta Kuźnicka


In Poland, dynamic changes in the organization of theatres have occurred since the downfall of the Communist regime. Prior to 1989, repertory theatres were subsidized by the state and tended to operate in permanent locations. Although other forms of theatrical activity such as student theatres or experimental stages also existed, they all usually functioned in particular locations sanctioned by the authorities. Since the political watershed of 1989 and especially since Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, which both entailed the rise and fall of numerous enterprises, new opportunities came into being for theatre groups and actors alike. Subsidized by various institutions that support cultural activities, theatre people sought out places for their work and performances. These were found in disused cinema houses, abandoned industrial sites, tenement houses and depots. The presence and activity of theatre groups in such places brought to public attention the variety of historical, social, political and cultural issues which, due to the increasing speed of the changes, not only reflected but also actively revealed the multiplicity of their interrelations. The new theatre venue’s place within the urban topography, its accessibility, the character of the neighborhood, as well as the way the theatre group organized the space, what they chose to restore and what was left untouched, what was made use of or otherwise abandoned, made visible or hidden -- such factors added up to a given theatre group’s “strategy of space.”

Some of the new theatre venues in Warsaw, as well as in other cities such as Cracow, offer a clear example of Foucault’s heterotopias, as shall be seen. They all possess “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to question, neutralize or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect”.1 It is possible to refer to each of these venues in terms of the principles of heterotopias established by Foucault. According to the first principle, it is unlikely that a single culture existing in the world fails to constitute heterotopias. Second, a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion. Third, a given heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces or several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Fourth, heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time and they begin to function at full capacity when humans achieve a sort of absolute break with /their/ traditional time. Fifth, with heterotopias a system of opening and closing is always presupposed that isolates while simultaneously renders them penetrable. And last, heterotopias possess a function in relation to all remaining space.2

Although all these principles are of relevance to the theatre places I present, the third point concerning the juxtaposition of several spaces in a single real place, as well as the fourth one regarding the slices of time, seem to be particularly inspiring. Because of the interplay -- both real and imaginary -- of several spaces and times they perform, the heterotopian theatre sites in Warsaw are often the subject of public debates. In many cases, they have influenced planning strategy applied to the city’s development.  

A first example is the new theatre venue of the Nowy Theatre located in an abandoned complex formerly belonging to the Municipal Rubbish Collection Service (MPO).

kuznicka1Theatre venue of Teatr Nowy at Madalinskiego Street in Warsaw, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka

The Nowy Theatre lends its name to a cultural center, introducing its participants and spectators to a previously unknown, unexpected and essentially undefined space. A variety of cultural activities, such as concerts, art exhibitions, lectures and theatre performances, take place in two large buildings.

kuznicka 2Foyer of the theatre at the former Municipal Rubbish Collection Service (MPO)
in Warsaw, 2014. Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka

The venue is situated in the genteel inner-urban Warsaw quarter of Mokotów, in an elegant and wealthy neighborhood of villas, gardens and expensive blocks of residential flats. Spectators visiting the Nowy Theatre typically unfamiliar with industrial sites, or in this case the removal of waste, may easily be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of meanings generated by this site. The two adjacent buildings of the complex and its large open unroofed car park are surrounded by a perimeter wall that practically eliminates the surrounding quarter’s presence. Everything within this site is old, rundown, and basic. The tranquil, mildly lit place with the open access buildings of the complex encourages contemplation. Indeed, as Foucault said, at this place people arrive “at a sort of break with their traditional time.” Outside the theatre venue, the heavy grey stones prevail. Inside the theatre, the visitor stands face to face with the dark, dusty walls supporting a web of cables, levers, switches and other technical devices of long-ended functions. The world of bygone technology evokes the space of old factories alongside an undefined one of struggling physical forces that seem to pose potential danger.

This spatial context contributed in a potent way to one particular spectacle presented here by the Teatr Zar Theatre Company, Armine, Sister.3 The production commemorated the extermination of the Armenian population of Eastern Anatolia in 1915.4 Its main goal was to draw attention to the ignorance – or indifference – that leads to oblivion and subsequently passivity when, due to their unfamiliarity with historical facts, entire populations come under the influence of this kind of process. In Armine, Sister the performance space consisted of sixteen 4 meter high columns set in the darkness of the depot.5 The light of several candles placed on the floor helped create the atmosphere of a temple or a church. The space’s excellent acoustics reinforced the effect of beauty created by the ancient monodic singing of four male and female singers hidden in darkness. A group of black clothed men equipped with hooks and ropes systematically tore down the columns which, together with dramatic poses and gestures of symbolically tortured women, conveyed the idea of catastrophe. The image of the Armenians’ national tragedy was reinforced by the backdrop of this severe and to some extent threatening venue. Thus, in a single, post-industrial site, the space of the Armenian temple, both in its proper and destroyed form, and the space of the actual performance were juxtaposed.6 Similarly, different moments from history and their interrelations became apparent.

Different spaces and times, but in particular contrasting aspects of culture, happen to be juxtaposed in theatre venues in the Praga quarter of Warsaw, situated on the right bank of the river Vistula.

kuznicka 3Praga quarter in Warsaw, Wilenska Street (2014).
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

Since the late nineteenth century, Praga has been an area of mixed, commercial and industrial enterprises. During World War II, while the western side of the city of Warsaw was extensively destroyed, Praga was left largely intact. After the war, it remained an area of small-scale business, private shops and markets. Inhabited not only by factory workers, artisans, tradesmen and stallholders but also by people of ill-defined economic and social status, Praga gradually gained the reputation of a no-go area for most inhabitants of (left-bank) Warsaw who liked to stereotype it as a place where cultural life was poor and the crime rate high. In the era of centralized state economic planning, the authorities waited for the remaining fin-de-siècle quarters of Praga to disintegrate before being subjected to replanning. It thus remained “old-fashioned,” run-down, and yet also full of life unconditioned by the regimes of the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s.

kuznicka 4Targowa Street in the Praga quarter in Warsaw, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

With the change of the political system and the dawning of a free market economy, the perception of Praga began, no more than gradually at first, to alter. Close to Warsaw’s city center, it was possible to find in this part of the city a variety of interesting and, well into the 2000s, affordable spaces. Moreover, the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime turned out to be far smaller than it had been assumed and many artists decided to settle and work there. As far as theatre is concerned, Piotr Borowski (a pupil and collaborator of Jerzy Grotowski) was one of the first to open his experimental acting studio Studium Teatralne in 1997, in a partially ruined tenement house.7

kuznicka 5 Theatre venue of Studium Teatralne and other theatre companies at Lubelska Street in the
Praga, Warsaw, 2014. Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

In 1999, Roman Woźniak and his Teatr Academia theatre moved to a similar venue a few blocks away from Piotr Borowski. Soon, theatre and dance festivals found an excellent performance space in the disused Koneser vodka distillery plant complex. Praga thus became fashionable and “in.”8

However, both for theatre groups and their audiences, everything outside the theatre space, namely the architecture of the building and the specificity of the neighborhood, proved to be of equal importance. They stood face to face not only with the urban infrastructure that was slowly succumbing to formal municipal policies of “revitalization” but also with the problem of the neglected, not infrequently destitute people living there. The history of the location and area was being interfered with by current forms (methods) of theatre work, no less than by the fictional time of the actual performances. Similarly, the real-life spaces of inhabitants on Lubelska Street and those designated by the theatre had become juxtaposed. Aware of the influence they exercised on their neighbors – and vice-versa – and in order to establish good relationship with the actual residents, Roman Woźniak and Teatr Academia initiated a program titled “Neighbors for neighbors”.9 These were meetings with Praga’s inhabitants during which they were invited to recount narratives about themselves, as well as to dance, sing, eat, drink and generally be merry. As a consequence, some of the local shops were included in one of the performances. Locating the theatre in an old tenement house had not only led to the transformation of the building’s function but, by establishing informal relations with the residents, it began to contribute to a revision of the still prevailing social and cultural stereotypes. In an area with few high rise buildings and little in the way of large-scale business, a sedate way of life had survived within an increasingly frenetic big city. People would still stand in front of their houses chatting, while children played in the courtyard. The endurance of a street culture, lost to most of the other quarters of the city, seemed possible, while on the other hand closer contact with Praga inhabitants undermined stereotypical perceptions in favor of the specific culture developed by them. In attempting to draw on its roots, theatre people discovered only the omnipresence of popular culture: no trace of a specific ethic code appears to have evolved there. Good will, on the other hand, helped to establish friendly relations with the local population.

kuznicka 6aLubelska Street in the Praga quarter, Warsaw, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

Praga was also the site selected for the Soho Factory Project. Since Warsaw does not possess a clearly defined zone that could be dedicated to a broad spectrum of artistic activity, the Soho Factory Project was intended to bring into Warsaw such a presence, regarded as being equivalent to that of New York’s Soho where, during the 1960s, artists had converted former manufacturing and storage buildings into galleries and lofts. Thus, disused factories and railway property were adapted and developed in many ways, demonstrating in the process various architectural techniques and aesthetics.

kuznicka 6Soho Factory Area in Praga, Warsaw, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

The Studio Koło theatre belongs to the larger Soho Factory Project. According to the spirit of playfulness and ephemerality present in the whole Soho Factory space, Studio Koło theatre’s productions, based on scenarios light in content but still displaying poetic values and requiring a small cast, have been staged in simple multifunctional settings with no more than a small number of elements needed to transform the space. Here, by juxtaposing worn out objects with new ones and clean surfaces with rusty ones, conventional connotations attributed to particular notions changed. “Dilapidated” became “history bearing,” “individual” “precious”, while “rusty” could be associated with “colorful”, “interesting” or “aesthetic.” The juxtaposition of forms and functions, enacted by both the Studio Koło Theatre and the Soho Factory Project in general, has thus contributed to a new perception of this neglected part of Warsaw.

kuznicka 7 Soho Factory Area in Praga, Warsaw, 2014.
Another view. Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.


kuznicka 8 Theatre venue of Studio Kolo at Teatr Soho, Soho Factory area
in Praga, Warsaw, 2014. Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

Leaving Warsaw, albeit briefly, an interesting example of the kind of surprising and at the same time inspiring meanings that can be generated by architecture comes from Cracow, where a new extension of Tadeusz Kantor’s museum and research center has recently been erected.

kuznicka 9 Circoteca (Tadeusz Kantor’s Museum), Cracow, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

The old building has been incorporated into the new construction while the inscription above its door still indicates its original functions, that is, night shelter, delousing unit, and bathhouse.

kuznicka 10 Circoteca, Cracow, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

In an ironic but nevertheless direct way, the architecture of this heterotopian building recalls the artist’s ideas. Kantor, in his theoretical writings of the 1950s and 1960s (before his Theatre of Death period with The Dead Class performance), elaborated the idea of “the reality of the lowest rank,” and what was informal, marginal, neglected, poor and unofficial became the subject of his art and theatre. Now, at the Cricoteca, the spaces of a traditional Cracow quarter, those of Kantor’s performances, as well as the green river side and a sky both open above and reflected by the surface of the roof, together with the old inscription above the door, are all juxtaposed, as well as a multitude of various moments in time for the benefit of the viewer.

Returning to Warsaw and its right-bank quarter of Praga, venues that no more than occasionally host theatre and dance performances and open up possibilities for various other activities are also worthy of mention. So, for example, the abandoned Koneser vodka distillery plant and the Fabryka Trzciny offer larger and smaller theatre spaces.

kuznicka 11The abandoned Koneser vodka distillery plant at Zabrowska Street,
Praga, Warsaw, 2014. Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

Much the same may be said about the Inżynierska 3 building (named after its street address). Nearby, new apartment buildings have gone up, new shops been set up, and a publishing house, galleries, art studios and restaurants have opened. In each of these venues, initial prototypes have given way to new futures and the individual genius loci creates fertile ground for the birth of new ideas, occurrences and art forms. Artists have made the most of the slower pace of life in the neighborhood and have organized artistic actions in their own flats or workshops. Even developers restoring the old houses invite now artists to decorate their working areas with original art covers.

kuznicka 12 Inzynierska Street, Praga, Warsaw, 2014.
Copyright Danuta Kuzniecka.

In the present period of transition, especially in the Praga quarter in Warsaw where the new line of the underground is opened, the future of all theatre spaces appears uncertain. Praga has become all too attractive for developers and uncompromising (big) business. Different and in many cases opposing visions and interests interfere in urban decisions making. Nevertheless, it is the theatre groups’ and artists’ unconventional use of heterotopian spaces that brings to public attention a variety of factors which, when put in motion, help not only to change stereotypes but also uncover hidden and inspiring meanings.


N o t e s

  1. Foucault, Michel, „Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 46-49; eng. Trans., http://foucault.info/documents[back]
  2. Ibid.[back]
  3. Teatr Zar is the resident theatre company at the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, Poland. The company emulates Jerzy Grotowski’s ethos of ensemble work and develops its productions through a process of creating its own theatrical language.[back]
  4. The Armine, Sister (2013) production was a part of multipronged project referring to the history of Armenian people. The performance was originally presented in Na Grobli Studio in Wrocław. Music dramaturgy, installation, direction: Jarosław Fret; monodic song studio: Adam Kerovpyan and Virginia Kerovpyan; sets built by a team led by Piotr Jacyk.[back]
  5. For a view of the performance space, see http://culture.pl/pl/wydarzenie/o-ludobojstwie-ormian-w-10-jezykach.[back]
  6. See also www.teatrzar.art.pl/armine-sister, www.teatrzar.art.pl/fotogaleria/armine-sister[back]
  7. Borowski, Piotr, „Studium Teatralne,” Konteksty 1-2 (2009): 316-320.[back]
  8. Several authors described the Praga quarter in Konteksty 1-2 (2009).. They referred to the activity of theatre groups, artists and urban activists.[back]
  9. Woźniak, Roman, „Teatr Academia. Sąsiedzi dla sąsiadów,” Konteksty 1-2 (2009): 304- 312[back]


Danuta Kuzniecka is a professor of theatre studies at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and the Vicedirector of this institution. For twenty years (1992- 2012) she has been a professor at the Aleksander Zelwerowicz Academy of Theatre in Warsaw. Her research interests include visual theatre and theory of theatre. Among her publications The Areas of Hope and Despair: Jerzy Grzegorzewski’s Theatre Performances (1966 – 2005) (Warsaw, 2006) [Polish] and numerous articles on theatre. In 2014, she was awarded a Gloria Artis Silver Order of Merit for services for Polish culture by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage of Poland.