It’s Sunday night in Krakow. I’ve been here for a few days now, visiting the Ulica festival. Ulica means ‘street’ in Polish and this is a festival of theatre on the streets and squares of Krakow.
I'm always looking for the best shows for next year at Bell Square, and I go to festivals to see around 25 shows in 3-4 days. Festivals, though, are also a great opportunity to meet new artists and talk to other programmers, often from all over the world, and to be inspired by new ideas and new people.
At Bell Square, the underlying theme of much of the programme is shows that tell contemporary stories that affect us all. Sometimes these are local, but often they are wider – global stories of what is happening in the world. I am always looking for artists who bring these stories to life, bringing different perspectives to our shared understanding.
The Ulica Festival
The Ulica festival in Krakow this year has had a theme called ‘Wind from the East’. Its aim was to present outdoor and street theatre companies from East of Europe, introducing the themes, concepts and trends prevalent in outdoor arts in Asia. There were many different artists and companies here from Ukraine, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and Turkey. I had seen very few of these companies before, so this was a feast of new experiences for me!
The festival also presents new shows each year by some of the most established outdoor theatre companies in Poland, alongside younger companies who have not yet started international touring. Poland, like much of Eastern Europe, has a deep and rich tradition of powerful, political outdoor theatre which speaks beyond borders with its highly visual language.
The Ulica festival is organised by Teatr KTO, a theatre company based in Krakow, who have toured internationally for many years. Bell Square audiences may remember their performance of Peregrinus in 2015, which talked of the bland corporate cultures created by global capitalism and the dehumanising effect on its workers. This show was very popular at Bell Square!
For me, festivals are usually 3-4 days of watching back-to-back shows – sometimes 12 shows in a day, and rushing from one location to the next to make sure I see as many as possible.
Ulica was not so frenetic, with a little more time between shows to meet, talk and reflect. It all felt a little more relaxed than usual. This has been my first time at Ulica – and my first time in Krakow – but I suspect this may reflect a city in which people seem to make time for each other. A few minutes here, half an hour there, gave me time to catch up with artists and other programmers to chat about their plans and possible future collaborations with Bell Square.
It is very noticeable in Poland that the artists there work together, share so much, and really support each other. In fact, one of the actors from Teatr Biuro Podrozy, Jarek Siejkowski, actually helped the Director of Teatr KTO to devise this year’s Ulica festival. Some of you may also remember Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s show, Silence, last September at Bell Square. Silence was an obvious example of those big, powerful, political dramas that I was talking about earlier. Jarek is one of the main actors in this wonderful company. And as a sneak preview, they will be back at Bell Square on 6 October with an absolutely stunning production of The Winter’s Tale!
A few highlights
The last few days have offered many new shows and I cannot talk about all of them, but I will just mention a few. Teatr KTO, the company who organise the festival, performed The Fragrance of Time, a production about a young child growing up in Poland in the 1920s/30s. Twenty seven actors, a giant birdcage, stilts, smoke, fire, a vintage Rolls Royce and more – this was certainly a memorable show!
Very different was an installation by Teatr Wagabunda (or Vagabond Theatre), Old Homestead. This is a collection of beautifully-made, old-fashioned games and household items that would have been in everyday use by earlier generations. Laid out on the small market square, this was thronged with children and adults alike for hours every day. There was laughter and play for all – one of my favourite moments was two middle-aged men having a pillow fight!
Another highlight for me was a show called Foam Days by The Engineering Theatre AKHE, a truly amazing group of artists from Russia. The company produces a mix of circus and visual theatre, with live music and quite a cinematic feel to their performances – it really is quite unique and difficult to define. Their show, Foam Days, is based on Boris Vian’s book, L’Ecume des Jours’ and has an air of absolute madness from start to finish!
So, will you see any of these shows at Bell Square? Well, I certainly think so. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t!
But right now, it’s time for a little break – and oh, this looks like just the place!