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English drama in Poland

3 Dec

I once went to an inter-schools drama competition in Liberec when I was up on a visit there, but that was in Czech, and my aim was to try to understand as much as possible. In spite of my poor command of the Czech language, it was sufficiently visual for me to grasp most of it. It helps when you are watching a play in a foreign language if you already know the story – that way I enjoyed the Italian version of the Bacchae  that I saw in Siracusa’s Ancient Greek Theatre, and The Taming of the Shrew in Polish  I saw in Bydgoszcz’s theatre when I first came to Poland.

I was once a judge at an inter-schools singing competition in Bydgoszcz, and that was in English, so I hoped that the singing would not be like the concert that I went to in Prague with the Czech singers Lucie Bila and Karel Gott singing. Though the singing was lovely, it was clear that Lucie Bila could not speak a word of English. Karel and Lucie tried to sing some American songs and her diction was so muddy it sounded as if she was making the words up, i.e. singing Double Dutch. She didn’t just go la-la-la-la. I feel pretty sounded more like I fel potty. I remember a singer at a hotel on News Year’s Eve in Ayvalik, Turkey, who once again had a beautiful voice and said she was going to sing us a few Greek songs in Greek, but in spite of my better command of my Greek than either my Czech or my Turkish, I could only conclude she was making up the words, because there wasn’t one word of Greek, let alone Turkish, in her rendition.

Luckily the singers in that inter-schools singing competition in Bydgoszcz were great, and their diction was pretty amazing. It really was difficult to come to any conclusion about who the best and who were less good, but after some horse-trading at the judge’s table we reached, I think, a satisfactory and fair result. One decision was quite controversial – the second prize. I felt though she sang well, she was too introverted, and call me a showman, but I would have preferred her to sing facing the audience, rather than singing the love song with her back to it. There was a reason; she was singing the love song to her guitarist sitting on a ‘park bench’, who was even more introverted. He looked down all the time, as if oblivious to her love. But after reflection and discussion with the judges, this ‘cool’ rendition of a love song did well. 

The most memorable judging  for me, however, was an inter-schools drama in English, mainly because of the politics of it. It took place in Zlotow, a town some kilometres from Bydgoszcz.

Marysia, a former student of mine,  had recently taken up teacher training in Zlotow, some way from Bydgsozcz, but not off the map. Zlotow has little to recommend it except a smattering of history, and the beautiful countryside around it. It was perhaps to raise the profile of this place, and more especially of the teacher training college, that her boss inaugurated the first inter-schools drama competition in the region, in the Zlotow cinema.  On the third day it was the plays in English section. Marysia , knowing that I was a film buff and had been a film student, as well as being an English teacher, decided to rope me in as a judge.  I was nervously introduced to the audience as “Daniel Villiers, English teacher and film expert,” and I couldn’t help smiling. My fellow judges were a real mix: one of Poland’s leading Methodolgists, a nice ageing gentleman who knew all about the politics of these occasions. “Not a bad idea, old boy, to support the villages, within reason; they need all the encouragement against the might of towns like Pila.” The idea of Pila being mighty would be like saying that Milton Keynes in Britain is mighty, but in school drama terms,  and in this part of the world, this was very much the case.

There was an American drama teacher who was working in Pila and was trying to pick up tips from this competition on good ideas; another judge was Marysia herself. This all made solid sense to me until we realised that the final judge, a local celebrity who had made a name for himself as a theatre director,  could not speak a word of English. As the plays were performed in English, we wondered a) whether he would understand anything, and b) what angle he would take on everything – or would his whole approach be on the design, the costumes, etc? It turned out that he was as interested in the acting and the language as the rest of us, and, presumably, much like my ability to gauge the Shakespeare play that I had seen in Polish when my grasp of Polish was minimal,  watched these school Shakespeare adaptations in English with the same kind of gist understanding.

  The English of the young actors, when considering their age and the general level of education in the villages, was really very good, and we enjoyed the performances without cringing at flat delivery, atrocious pronunciation, etc., that can mar these occasions. It was a tribute to the skill and devotion of the teachers in these places that the performances came off well, and that their enthusiaism had evidently got the young actors well on their way. Even if none of them ever take up acting, or become translators or English teachers themselves, you could see that they had enjoyed themselves  as much as we, the judges, and the capacity audience did.

However, the judging was quite a lark.  We even gave a new category prize to ensure that the villages came away with at least one: this was later deemed unnecessary as the villages did as well as Pila, and the genuine overall winners of the competition were in fact one of the village schools.  Pila took a couple of other important prizes. As for the local TV celebrity not speaking a word of English,  a certain amount of translation during the judging process went on, and he understood far more than he spoke.