Theatre of 13 Rows

Theatre of 13 Rowsa studio theatre located on Opole’s Rynek (main Market Square), functioning under the aegis of Dom Związków Twórczych (House of Creative Unions), founded in 1958 (the official inauguration took place on 16 May with the premiere of Antoni Cwojdziński’s Freuda teoria snow [Freud’s theory of dreams]) by husband-and-wife actor duo, Stanisława Łopuszańska-Ławska and Eugeniusz Ławski. The theatre had a small space at its disposal (72 m2 of performance space, and a total of 84.5 m2 including backstage areas) with a shallow platform stage and thirteen rows of seats for the audience (around 116 places in total). It was at this theatre in autumn 1958 that Jerzy Grotowski staged the performance Pechowcy ([The Ill-Fated], premiere 8 November 1958), which was based on his own adaptation of Jerzy Krzysztoń’s drama Rodzina pechowców (The Ill-Fated Family). In the spring of 1959, the theatre experienced a severe financial and artistic crisis, which resulted in it completely ceasing activities and collaboration with the Ławskis ending. This, though, gave birth to the idea of bringing in completely new management and a totally new group of actors to Opole, with Jerzy Grotowski ultimately taking over as artistic director of the Theatre of 13 Rows, while Ludwik Flaszen became its dramaturge. The most important talks with the authorities in Opole took place in late May and early June 1959. Grotowski and Flaszen created their company effectively from scratch, with only one actor – Adam Kurczyna – who had previously worked at the Theatre remaining. The group of actors invited to Opole in 1959 comprised primarily young graduates of Kraków’s PWST (State Drama School): Tadeusz Bartkowiak, Barbara Kurzejówna-Barska, Rena Mirecka and Stanisław Szreniawski. They were joined by Antoni Jahołkowski, who did not yet have his professional diploma but was an actor at Teatr Rozmaitości (Variety Theatre), and by Zygmunt Molik, who was an actor with Teatr Ziemi Opolskiej (Opole Regional Theatre). This ‘Opole theatre of Kraków origins’, as Grotowski called it, from the very outset declared itself a ‘professional experimental theatre’ whose aim was to work towards the creation of a new form of theatrical arts in line with the views of its artistic director (see: neo-theatre). The inaugural premiere of the Theatre of 13 Rows under its new management was Orpheus, based on Jean Cocteau’s text (8 October 1959). The subsequent performances created in Opole can be considered further stages on the road leading Grotowski and his collaborators from provocational avant-garde experiments (George Gordon Byron’s Cain, 30 January 1959; Mystery Bouffe based on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s text, 31 July 1960; Shakuntalā based on Kalidasa’s work, 13 December 1960), through the controversial, ‘blasphemous’ interpretations of the canon of Polish romantic drama (Adam Mickiewicz’s Dziady [Forefathers’ Eve], 13 June 1961; Kordian based on Juliusz Słowacki’s play, 13 February 1962), towards the performances in which Grotowski’s leading ideas were expressed fully for the first time in the theatre (Akropolis based on Stanisław Wyspiański’s play, 10 October 1962; Dr Faustus based on Christopher Marlowe’s drama, 23 April 1963). The final performance to be both created exclusively in Opole and also have its premiere there was Studium o Hamlecie (Hamlet Study) based on Stanisław Wyspiański’s reworking of Shakespeare (17 March 1964). Occasionally, the repertoire featured performances not directed by Grotowski (Kabaret Błażej Sartra [Błażej Sartre’s cabaret] directed by Zygmunt Molik and The Idiot, directed by Waldemar Krygier), with a significant portion of these performed as part of the Estrada Publicystyczna (Journalistic Platform) programme. The Theatre’s company underwent numerous personnel changes. In 1960 Jerzy Gurawski, the stage designer, became a permanent collaborator and designed the sets and performance spaces for all productions from Shakuntalā onwards. Actors Tadeusz Bartkowiak and Stanisław Szreniawski departed after the first season, while Adam Kurczyna and Barbara Kurzejewska-Barska left the group during the second season (which began officially on 1 October 1961). They were replaced for a short period by Andrzej Kopczewski (from October 1961 to February 1962) and Maciej Prus (for the 1962/63 season), while Ewa Lubowiecka (1960/61 and 1961/62 seasons) and Gaston Kulig (1963/64 and 1964/65 seasons) remained for longer periods. Andrzej Bielski (from 1 May 1960 to early 1965), Maja Komorowska (from 1 October 1961 to 1 March 1968, with a break for the 1963/64 season) and Mieczysław Janowski (1964–69), meanwhile, were longer-term collaborators, while Zbigniew Cynkutis (from 1 June 1961), Ryszard Cieślak (from 1 October 1961) and Stanisław Scierski (from 1 April 1964) would prove to be permanent members of the group. The significant turnover of actors was caused primarily by the specific working conditions and environment, the demands made of the actors by Grotowski, and also by the difficult living conditions encountered in Opole (most of the actors lived in sublet rooms of a poor standard). The Theatre of 13 Rows was an experimental theatre, thus one of its fundamental principles was that it was not to grant the actors an opportunity to show off, achieve fame, satisfy their vanity or other such needs, which are usually the most common motives for working on the stage. Grotowski’s approach to work and his attitude to actors left them in no doubt as to the heavy demands he placed on his company. In their subsequent memoirs, members of the group admitted that Grotowski at the Theatre of 13 Rows was a tyrant who ruled ruthlessly and employed all kinds of strategies of psychological manipulation on his actors in order to condition them in such a way that they become ‘putty’ in his hands. The internal discipline of the group was further strengthened by inviolable ethical principles: being late for rehearsals was forbidden and silence was imposed an hour before performances (this became official policy in June 1961). Gradually, the demands made of the actors in training were increased as part of the development of the laboratory-based approach to working on acting techniques. The growing significance of this was reflected in the decision to change the name of the theatre to Teatr-Laboratorium 13 Rzędów (Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows) in 1962. That same year, following the premiere of Akropolis, a new permanent feature was added to the daily work of the company – namely exercises lasting from two to three hours led by actors who had been made specialists in particular fields. Thus Zygmunt Molik was responsible for voice training, Rena Mirecka for movement, Ryszard Cieślak for physical training, Zbigniew Cynkutis for the fundamental tasks of the actor, while Antoni Jahołkowski was in charge of singing and music-based exercises. This work resulted in the gradual development of a specific form of training which became the Theatre’s trademark. With the performances subsequently created in the first half of the 1960s, the Theatre of 13 Rows within just a few seasons had gone from being a relatively unknown avant-garde theatre to one of the most important theatres in the country, while towards the end of its activities it had even begun to acquire an international reputation. In spite of this, it continued to encounter the criticisms it had faced from certain members of the Opole community from the very outset, with the attacks from local state and party authorities also gradually growing in strength and even leading to the threat of dissolution, thus making it impossible to make lasting improvements to living and working conditions. In order to both counteract accusations of elitism and also spread the ideals and activities of the Theatre, Friends of the Theatre of 13 Rows [Koło Przyjaciół Teatru 13 Rzędów] was created, while ‘festyny teatralne’ (theatre galas) were also organised. Following an initial period characterised by relative goodwill, the authorities’ criticism gradually became more intense and there were serious attempts made to close down the Theatre. Despite embarking on various initiatives involving smaller or larger compromises (Estrada Publicystyczna [Journalistic Platform] or founding a Primary Party Organisation [POP] of the ruling communist Polish United Workers Party [PZPR] at the theatre), Grotowski’s company ultimately had to move in 1965 to Wrocław, where it functioned as Teatr Laboratorium (the Laboratory Theatre). This also brought an end to the Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole, with the building that housed it on the city’s main Rynek square now occupied by the Maska pub.


Zbigniew Osiński: Teatr „13 Rzędów” i Teatr Laboratorium „13 Rzędów” Opole 1959–1964. Kronika – bibliografia, Opole 1997.

Agnieszka Wójtowicz: Od „Orfeusza” do „Studium o Hamlecie”. Teatr 13 Rzędów w Opolu (1959–1964), Wrocław 2004.