A theatrical Memoir


Christopher Vened Szwaja

Table of Contents

Part I : My Theatrical Beginnings 1

Part II : Getting Into the Wroclaw Pantomime Theatre 23

Part III : Becoming an Actor-Mime 69

Part IV : Playing Dionysus 95

Part V : Defection 125

Part VI : Immigrating to West Berlin 138


INTERVIEWER: You began your career in mime theater. Is that correct?

ME: No. I began in musical theater.

I: Musical theater?

M: Yes.

I: You?

M: Yes!

I: Ha, ha, ha, I can’t imagine you in a musical.

M: Well…

I: It’s not true, is it?

M: Yes, it is. I started as a dancer and worked about two years in the ballet of the Wroclaw Operetta. Afterward, I joined the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater of Henryk Tomaszewski and became a mime.

I: That’s curious.

M: Yeah.

I: I suppose you had to go to ballet school prior to working in the Wroclaw Operetta?

M: No, I didn’t. When I started working there, I was entirely raw material and already twenty years old.

I: That’s incredible.

M: I was a late bloomer.

I: Does one often become a dancer without ballet school at such an old age?

M: No. In fact, it’s very rare. One is supposed to start at a young age. But there are some exceptional cases, as was mine.

I: How did it happen?

M: By chance.

I: Tell me.

M: It’s little bit convoluted.

I: Tell me anyway.

M: I was twenty years old at the time. I had just moved to Wroclaw, rented a room, and enrolled in college.

I: What kind of college?

M: The Business College of Foreign Trades.

I: You went to a business college?

M: Yes, I did.

I: I thought you hated business people.

M: Yeah, I know.

I: Did you want to become a businessman?

M: No, I did not.

I: So why did you go to business school?

M: It was just a temporary solution. I had no interest in business but enrolled in the school to avoid being drafted into the army.

I: Yes, it’s a little bit convoluted.

M: I need to explain something about the reality of socialist Poland in the seventies to make it clear.

I: Please, do.

M: You see, at that time the army was obligatory and lasted between two to three years. But it could be postponed or exempted or shortened to one year if you were a student in a college or university.

I: I understand that. But I still don’t understand why you chose a business school. Did you have other options?

M: I did, but under the circumstance, this one seemed the best.

I: What was the circumstance?

M: I wasn’t certain what I wanted to study and couldn’t make up my mind. My parents always wanted me to study at a polytechnic school to become an engineer. I wanted it too, so I had been focusing on science and technology. But with time, I lost interest in it, not because I stopped liking those subjects, but because I realized that those fields were backwater in socialist Poland. There was no exciting future in them but instead fraudulent stagnation, which meant compromised ambitions for the price of a mediocre career and small comfort. That was not good enough for me. So, I grew disheartened and my interests shifted to the humanities, such as literature and the arts.

I: That’s quite a shift, totally to the opposite pole.

M: Yes, it is. I was tempted to study literature but the problem was that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I always thought to become an engineer not a humanist. So, you see, I was in a period of transition, not to say confusion, and that is why I temporarily landed in the Business College of Foreign Trades. Of course, it was easier for me to get into it than to the University for literature. Besides, I had interest in foreign languages and that college offered three of them, English, German, and Russian. So my plan was to attend the business college for a year and in the mean time to make up my mind about what I really wanted to study — science or literature.

I: Did you finally decide?

M: No, never. I kept and studied both kinds of books. Common sense was telling me to stick with science, but my desires were tempting me toward the humanities. I kept hesitating, swaying as a pendulum: the more I leaned toward science, the more I desired literature and vice versa. It was an inversely proportional dynamic. Finally, I became exhausted from swaying in hesitation and my pendulum came to a dead stop in the middle. I was going nowhere, my fate hung in suspension, and I was stuck in the psychologically unbearable predicament of being paralyzed by indecision. In that moment, when my pendulum of fate had entirely stopped and it felt like the end of the world, blind chance knocked on my door and said, “There is a third option for you: the theater.”

I: And you went for it.

M: Without thinking twice!

I: How come?

M: The theater beckoned to me seductively and called, “Come and play! Come and play!”

I: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

M: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

I: And that was all you wanted, just to play?

M: Yes, I just wanted to have fun.

I: Nothing more?

M: Like what?

I: Like a serious motive or calling to do theater!

M: Come on, what’s a better motive to do theater than a desire to play and have fun.

I: There are many more profound ones than that. You, yourself, in your book on acting, In Character: An Actor’s Workbook for Character Development, said that a purpose of acting is to figure out human identity.

M: That’s right, I said that, but I said that as a mature man. I arrived at that after doing theater for twenty or more years. But in the beginning, when I was starting, I had no other agenda or calling than to play. It was my initial impulse in theater, and I’d better not forget it because there is something inspiring in it, something that still gives me a thrill.

I: What is it?

M: It is the homo ludens in us.

I: For clarity sake, what does it mean?

M: “Homo ludens” means in Latin “the playing human”.

I: Now, less in abstract and more in facts, can you tell me what was the “chance” that brought you to theater?

M: Yes, I can.

I: So?

M: One evening my roommate, Richard Gizowski, came home and said, “I am going to audition for the ballet of the Wroclaw Operetta tomorrow morning.” I thought it was a crazy idea (and totally unrealistic) and yet I got interested and decided to go with him.

I: Why?

M: For fun, no other reason – I was deadly bored with my studies at the Business College of Foreign Trades although I had been there for only two or three weeks. I was particularly bored the day Richard told me about the audition. I had spent long hours that day listening to very boring lectures. This was not only my impression; I looked around my classrooms and saw that almost all, if not all, students were falling into a morbid stupor. In addition, it was an oppressively stuffy day: fog and drizzle stood still. It got into me. When I came back to the rented room in the evening and tried to study, I could not make myself. I was not able to focus. That evening I was seriously in doubt if I would be able to stand that college for long. And when I was in such a foul mood, Richard showed up and told me about his plan. Hey, this idea sounded like a salvation, if only for a few hours. I wanted to go there just to break the monotony. Based on that experience, I may say that my motive to go into theater, if I had any, was generated out of boredom. I later found out that this is typical for many artists.

I: How was the audition?

M: It was quick and easy.

I: Tell my about it.

M: We had an audition at eleven in the morning in the Operetta’s Ballet Auditorium. Richard and I rode there by trolley. On the way, we passed the theater, which was in one of those grand, nineteenth century buildings on Swierczewski’s Street. Richard pointed at the windows on the second floor and said, “It’s there.” I didn’t see much but the upper bodies of two or three dancers exercising at the bar next to the large neoclassical windows, and yet it was enough to immediately impress me.

I: What was your first impression?

M: That the dancers were beings without earthly gravity, as if they were from another much lighter world than ours and by that happier.

I: You thought that then?

M: I don’t remember exactly what I thought then, but I think that now. Then I was just looking and taking in. I saw something extraordinary up there, something that appeared particularly vivid in contrast to the mundaneness of the ordinary life on the street below, which wasn’t so appealing at that time in socialist Poland. But it was just a short moment that pricked my imagination. The trolley stop was a hundred yards or so in the distance. We got off there and walked back to the theater. At the gate, which was inside of the viaduct leading to the inner court of the building, Richard’s friend, Wojtek, was already waiting. He was surprised to see me. Richard laconically explained to him that I was going to the audition too. “Oh,” he reacted really surprised. “Is it okay?” Richard asked him. He took a moment to ponder and said directly to me, “I set the appointment for Richard and me, but I think that there should be no problem if you come along with us.”

I: Who was Wojtek?

M: Wojtek was Richard’s friend. They both were involved together with student theaters, and later on, they worked with Jerzy Grotowski. (They were in his second company that focused on paratheatrical research.)

I: What happened next?

M: We had a few minutes to spare, so we hung at the gate and then around eleven we went upstairs. The rehearsal spaces and offices for the Wroclaw Operetta were located on the second floor of the building. When we got there, we had trouble finding the ballet auditorium, so we dispersed in the empty hallway and began checking the signs on the many doors. A moment later, a blond- haired woman with a coffee pot in her hand burst out from one of the offices. She noticed us and became very suspicious about our presence there.

She stopped and asked with barely hidden hostility, “What are you looking for here, gentlemen?”

“We are looking for the ballet auditorium,” Wojtek answered.

“The ballet auditorium?!” the woman repeated with growing alarm. “What for?”

“We have an appointment with Professor Clara Kmitto,” Wojtek calmly said.

“You, you are here for an audition? Is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Wojtek confirmed.

“That’s great,” she said suddenly becoming very friendly. “It’s there,” she indicated down the hall.

We followed here as she led us to a waiting room that was adjacent to the auditorium. As we entered the room, the woman pointed to some chairs and told us to take a seat. “Wait for Clara here, she is still in class – it’s running over,” she explained, “which is typical.” She slightly opened the door to the auditorium and took a short peek inside. “I believe it will be over soon,” she said. Then she wished us good luck and left.

So, we waited there listening to the music that came through the door from the auditorium. Then the music stopped, the door flung wide open, and the dancers started pouring out of the auditorium. They were dressed in leotards, tights, and ballet slippers, clothes so tightly fitted to their bodies that they looked almost naked. Seeing them stirred me up, I couldn’t stop staring at their shamelessly exposed bodies. There was something unnatural about it, something narcissistic. I wasn’t sure how to look at them, to look at them as sexual or aesthetic objects.

I: So how did you?

M: Both, and that was what was confusing.

I: Ha, ha, ha. It was all in your mind.

M: Partly, yes, but partly, it was out there.

I: I hope you didn’t shout, “The king is naked!”

M: No, I didn’t, but I was tempted to shout, “The dancers are naked!”

I: Ha, ha, ha. They are, or rather semi-naked, and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

M: Yes, it is. And that’s what I realized only then, while gaping on the dancers leaving the auditorium. The whole company paraded in front of our eyes. What a display it was!

I: And then?

M: Clara Kmitto, the ballet master, appeared in the doorway and invited us in for our audition. She was a short-statured, slightly-getting-plump, middle-aged woman with dark, short hair and enormously high energy – very enthusiastic and driven.

“Do you have exercise clothes with you, gentlemen?” she asked.

“No, we don’t,” Wojtek responded.

“It doesn’t matter,” she assured us. “In this case, please, take off your shoes. It will be enough. I just want to check your anatomical predispositions,” she explained.

After we took off our shoes, she asked us to approach the bar and stand in the first ballet position facing the bar and to make a few battements tendus simples to the side. We, of course, had no idea what the first position was and didn’t understand what battement tendus simple meant. So, Clara showed us, and we repeated after her. Next, she demonstrated how to stand in all five basic ballet positions and do both plies and grand-plies without holding the bar. It looked easy when she did it but was hard to do when we tried. You can’t imagine how grotesquely clumsy we looked doing those exercises.

I: Actually, I can.

M: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,

I: What?

M: I recall the faces of my friends: Richard looked embarrassed; Wojtek, terrified. Both of them were stiff, inhibited, distorted, and wobbly, trying desperately to stay on balance.

I: And you?

M: I don’t know how I looked but I felt as to laugh.

I: Did you?

M: No, I did not. It would have been unbecoming.

I: How so?

M: Clara didn’t laugh at us.

I: She probably did later.

M: I don’t doubt it.

I: How was she?

M: Gracious. She didn’t let us know in any way how inadequate we were to the task but encouraged us when we became shy and consoled us when we were falling off balance. “Don’t worry, you are doing great, keep going, keep going!” she rushed us on. Before we knew it, we were done with the exercises. Then in the end, she tested if we had a sense of rhythm. She took a stick and tapped two rhythm combinations on the floor. Then she handed the stick to each of us, one after another, and asked us to tap the same rhythms. We did that and it was over. Directly after the audition, Clara Kmitto took me aside and offered me a part-time job as a ballet apprentice, starting immediately.

I: Wow!

M: Not really. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it.

I: Why not?

M: I didn’t expect to be offered a job. It seemed unrealistic. So, when it came down to it, I wasn’t ready for it.

I: What did you expect then?

M: Nothing.

I: That’s absurd!

M: Seemingly so, but not really.

I: What do you mean?

M: When I went to the audition, I didn’t mean to take it seriously. I just went for fun, for the company sake, just to entertain myself for a moment, not for the whole life. So when Clara Kmitto offered me a job, I thought, what have I done? It’s a mistake! I didn’t really mean it. But I didn’t tell her that. How could I? Instead, I told her that I would be happy to take the job but on the condition that it didn’t interfere with my studies at college.

I: What did she say to that?

M: First, she frowned and said that it might be a problem. But after reviewing my academic schedule, she decided that she could get around it. So, I took the job.

I: Why was Clara Kmitto so eager to hire you?

M: I really don’t know, but it was nice to be wanted for nothing.

I: On which base did she hire you?

M: Clara said that I had very good natural predispositions to ballet.

I: What were those “natural predispositions”?

M: I was naturally athletic and a good mover.

I: But you had no dancing skills.

M: That’s not quite true. I had no ballet skills but I was a good ballroom dancer.

I: Really?

M: Yes, really.

I: How did you learn ballroom dancing?

M: I grew in a tourist town. Ballroom dancing was a way of life. Every evening, except Mondays, there was dancing in the local cafes and nightclubs in Międzygórze. If a boy wanted to get a girl, he had to first dance with her. It was the habitual way of getting to know each other.

I: So you learned ballroom dancing picking up tourist girls?

M: Yes, I did.

I: Did you do a lot of ballroom dancing then?

M: Yes. The tourist tours changed every two weeks.

I: And you had to pick up a new girl from each tour?

M: That was the routine.

I: I see.

M: Ha, ha, ha.

I: So you were a gigolo?

M: No, I wasn’t a gigolo, not at all.

I: Just having fun with girls.

M: That’s right.

I: You were just a natural dancer.

M: That’s right.

I: Was ballroom dancing useful or helpful for ballet?

M: On one hand it was because it gave me confidence to go for it, but on the other hand, it was more of an obstacle because I had acquired certain habits in ballroom dancing that were considered bad in ballet.

I: Like what? What were they?

M: Mostly my inclination to improvise. In ballroom dancing, improvisation is expected, but in ballet, it is forbidden. And that’s a major difference. Ballroom dancing is an art that is partly free in form. Although there are particular patterns of steps to follow, such as a waltz or a tango, the dancer can execute them freely in space, improvising. So, I was used to doing that. I could take a girl for a dance on a parquet floor and lead her wherever I wanted, and she would follow. At least many girls would (at that time, people still knew how to dance.) But in ballet, forget it, there is no room for improvisation. The dances are precisely choreographed, and the dancers are not supposed to change it.

I: It’s called professionalism.

M: Yes, it is. But I was an amateur dancer then, although a good one, the transition from being an amateur to a professional is a tricky one. It doesn’t necessary go in a straight line of progress from one to the other. Some say that it is like two different things, you are either one or the other.

I: How did you manage?

M: I had to restrict my natural impulses, my spontaneity, and learn how to submit to the rigor of form. Classical ballet is a theatrical convention that is entirely formalized. It’s a system of positions and movements that are precisely defined. Nothing is natural about it in a realistic sense. To dance in classical ballet one has to first master its technique, there is no way around it.

I: And that was a challenge.

M: Yes, it was, but I was not aware of it. It was not my but Clara Kmitto’s idea to make a ballet dancer out of me. I was just her guinea pig.

I: How did she imagine or plan to make a dancer out of a novice like you?

M: She created an additional ballet class only for the novices and the beginner dancers that she instructed every day for an hour between nine and ten in the morning. For a month, I attended only this class. It was great! I started everyday with a ballet class then went to college, which was conveniently located in the building next to the Operetta. But gradually I was getting more and more responsibilities in the theater. Clara introduced me to the company and let me exercise in the class with them that was held between ten and eleven in the morning. So, then I was doing two ballet classes per day. A few days later, Clara also started to work with me and three other novices on our first dance number. First, we rehearsed separately from the company in the afternoons, only with Clara, and then, when she thought we were good enough, we were allowed to rehearse in the presence of the company. From that point, I was introduced to more dance numbers and rehearsed longer hours. It was getting more and more difficult to do both college and theater. While scheduling the rehearsal times, there was often an issue about how to get around it.

I: Did it work out?

M: It did, but not for long.

I: How so?

M: After my probation passed, Clara Kmitto offered me a full-time job with a year contract. However, she was urging me to drop college and to make a full commitment to dancing. She said that getting around my academic schedule would be hard, if not impossible. Anyway, she couldn’t understand why I needed that college. “You are an artist now, not a businessman,” she would say half jokingly. So, I told her that I needed to be enrolled in college to be exempted from the draft. Then she enlightened me that I didn’t need to worry about that because I would be exempted from the draft as a stage artist as long as I worked in the Operetta (or any other state theater). Wow, I had no more reason to stay in that college that I found so boring.

I: When exactly did you work at the Wroclaw Operetta?

M: From October 1, 1972 until May 31, 1974.

I: So it was about two years.

M: It was twenty months, to be exact.

I: What was you work like in the Operetta?

M: In the first three months, I was introduced to all of the shows in the repertory – it was between four and six productions, I don’t remember exactly. Pretty soon, I performed basically every evening with the exception of Mondays. Twenty shows per month were obligatory for me. I never performed less, but usually more, something like twenty-four or five shows on average. My record was twenty-nine shows per month (it included weekend matinees.) The shows had four to eight dance numbers on average. I often was in all or almost all of them, plus some stage activities and movement in the ensemble.

I: What was your first dance?

M: A Snake Charmer.

I: What kind of dance was that?

M: It was, let’s say, a semi-Arabic dance, a sort of steamy, erotic fantasy transmuted aesthetically into a dance and allegorically disguised as a fairytale about a snake charmer and his beloved snake.

I: You don’t have to explain; it would be better if you described it.

M: Babula, who was a very charismatic dancer of Gypsy origin, dark, square in build, very masculine, performed the snake charmer. He looked like a pirate. In addition, he had acne scars on his face that were so deep that make-up could barely cover them. Lala Kołodziejczyk, a principal dancer, who was, in contrast to him, a blond and blue-eyed beauty, performed the snake. In the beginning of the number, she was hidden in a wicker basket, and he, as a magician, charmed her to come out. She emerged very slowly, first the hand and arm and then the whole body, in a sensual, sinusoidal, snake-like motion. Then he picked her up and rose into a ballet pose while looking at her with admiration. After that, he pulled her down toward his body and embraced her with passion and desire. And then they danced together in a duo that involved many beautiful poses and sensual embraces. One thing I particularly liked that he did was that he threw her around his neck several times, madly rotating her as a snake. It was spectacular.

I: And you? What did you do in that dance?

M: I was the assistant to the snake charmer. In fact, I was one of four assistants who were all, like me, novices hired by Clara at the same time, and for all four of us it was our first dance. Our task was to bring out the wicker basket with the snake in it, that was Lala Kołodziejczyk, and to place it in the middle of the stage. Then we were to withdraw, each of us to a different corner of the stage, in a choreographed motion that involved a long glide and a high jump while throwing our legs into arabesque. The point was to make the moves at the same time, heights, and distances – we never managed to do it right and it was a source of unending frustration. After the dance was done, our task was to take the empty basket off the stage. This part was easy because it didn’t involve any formal choreography.

I: What was your last dance in the Wroclaw Operetta?

M: My last dance was the Moonlight Serenade, a lyrical duo in the operetta L’Affaire Édouard (Opiekun Mojej Żony) by Georges Fedeau. This dance was to be my first serious dance as a soloist in duet with a principal female dancer. But it never happened because I left the Wroclaw Operetta and went to the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. Nevertheless, I was already in rehearsal for that dance, my costume was made, and my name was already printed in the program.

I: What did it look like?

M: What?

I: Your costume.

M: It was made of a semi-translucent material in a bluish-violet color.

I: How did you look in this costume?

M: I don’t really know.

I: Did you try it on?

M: Yes, I did but only once. A tailor brought the costumes (that were almost finished but not quite) to the rehearsal room while my partner and I were working on the Moonlight Serenade. He asked us to put the costumes on and to rehearse the number, so they could see how they fit while in motion. So we did. When we put the costumes on and danced our duet, we got good reactions from the dancers in the company. We could tell that they liked our costumes. Their faces flushed with excitement, they made big eyes, and they applauded the tailor. Then the tailor marked the costumes with a piece of chalk for eventual alterations and took them away. It all happened so fast and there was so much fuss around that I never had a chance to really look at myself in the mirror and see how I looked in the costume. Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be.

I: What was the last moment you remember in the Operetta?

M: That was the moment. That was it.

I: What was the most valid thing you got from working in the Operetta?

M: The most valid thing I got was professional training and stage experience. Besides, I have very pleasant memories from that time. I liked those people and they treated me very well. I can’t complain. In fact, I am amazed how great it was.

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