- ULICA 29: Międzynarodowy Festiwal Teatrów Ulicznych [Street 29: International Festival of Street Theatres] by Teatr KTO
The haunting image on promotional materials for Kraków’s 29th annual street-theatre festival, ULICA, was a human face with upswept hair covered in flaking white paint except for a red stripe across the eyes and a small red rectangle on the lower lip. Its dark eyes stared directly at the viewer, creating a defiant image of a decaying clown in Poland’s national colors. The theme of this year’s festival was “carnival,” which fit the nightmare-sideshow face, but the red and white also suited the festival’s stated goal of taking stock of Polish street theatre. Despite the participation of twelve theatre groups from abroad, the lineup this year was not as international as in years past. Notably missing were Poland’s Baltic and eastern neighbors, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. One group from Lviv in western Ukraine represented that border state, but no groups from the more troubled parts of Ukraine performed. The program billed ULICA as “the largest festival of street theatres in Central Europe.” However, the lack of participation from the region underscored the tensions inherent in carnival: the seemingly anarchic avoidance of societal norms, here represented by a takeover of public space, all sponsored, permitted, and controlled by official powers. If ULICA’s carnival were truly an opportunity for political anarchy, national troubles would not have halted the travel of theatres.
The relative absence of international participation created an undercurrent connecting ULICA 29 to Polish and European politics. Since the festival is sponsored by national and municipal governments in Poland, the fact that the right-wing, nationalist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Order) party is in power might account for a larger percentage of funds going to Polish rather than international troupes. Similarly, Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, saber-rattling toward Poland and the Baltics, and control of Belarus may have diminished troupes’ ability to travel. Regardless, a festival heavily weighted toward Polish theatre highlighted increasing nationalism throughout Europe.
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Despite a reduced international presence, the number of participating theatres actually increased from thirty-two in 2015 to forty-four the following year, including over 200 participants (actors, dancers, musicians) and an estimated 100,000 viewers. Because Kraków has a large market square (the [End Page 656] Rynek) in its Old Town, as well as several nearby smaller squares, viewers could attend both massive outdoor spectacles or happen upon small performances with only a few actors. This year saw the addition of performances in the newly gentrified district of Rynek Podgórski (Podgórski Square), so Kraków’s most popular public spaces were filled for four days with eighty-six free performances.
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Many theatres took advantage of the sanctioned street takeover and did not confine themselves to performances separated from spectators. For example, Teatr KTO’s festival-opening act, Peregrinus, challenged spectators’ space by walking through the crowds without the guide typically used in promenade theatre. Instead, eight characters wore identical oversized, bald, and frowning masks and wheeled hand-luggage behind them as they strode toward spectators who dodged and followed. Dressed in conservative gray or black suits, these Everypersons represented the emptiness of twenty-first-century office work, and could find temporary escape only during a grotesque sexual dance in which men competed for the favor of women. The historical meaning of peregrinus—a free Roman provincial subject who is not a citizen—lent a further sense of displacement, as if these characters were not slaves though apart from the imperial center. This is an apt description of Poland specifically, and Central/Eastern Europe generally. The choreography portrayed a managed workday, not autonomy, similar to the false “freedom” of movement that laborers now possess in the European Union.