Spirits of Theatre

10 February 2023

Who really plays the lead violin in theatre? It’s time to reveal some secrets!

Justyna Skalska
Kraków Culture

They are invisible to the audience, but without their talent and hard work the magic of theatre wouldn’t exist. Although the technicians are true artists of their trade, they frequently remain anonymous. You won’t find their names on posters or in programmes, even though they are responsible for the stage settings, costumes, makeup, sound and light.

“I think that theatre technicians are true artists. Their knowledge and experience have a direct impact on the implementation and quality of the performance,” says Małgorzata Szydłowska, stage and costume designer and deputy director of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. She explains that this professional experience inspired her to prepare the educational project Thinking Hands at the House of Theatre Craft at the J. Słowacki Theatre, resulting in an exhibition and book of the same title.

Elite professions

Are there schools for theatre technicians? The State Theatre Technology School operated between 1945 and 1969, and one of its students was Krzysztof Kieślowski who started out as a dresser. After passing final exams, graduates of the school flocked to theatres all over Poland, where they became important members of the teams and something of an elite group of professionals. It’s hard to believe that since then there hasn’t been another school preparing young people for work in theatre!

Technical workshops which once were an essential part of every theatre are being phased out. Many traditional theatre professions, such as wig-makers, milliners, curtain operators and prompters, hardly exist beyond Wikipedia pages. Today, it is stage mangers, tailors, dressers, makeup artists, propmakers, upholsterers and sound and light technicians who are “spirits of theatre”. So what does theatre look like from their perspective? What does the future hold for their professions?

Lead violin

Dramatists write, directors give shape to the spectacle and actors perform their roles – and stage managers, in charge of the artistic and technical teams, are responsible for coordinating rehearsals and making sure everything runs as it should. “Anything can happen in theatre on both sides of the stage. My favourite thing is to watch the development of the creative process which culminates in the performance,” says Anna Wójcicka, stage manager at the J. Słowacki Theatre. The job is highly demanding: you need great attention to detail and the ability to multitask and to make quick decisions, frequently in stressful situations.

Made to measure

Dressmakers from Kraków’s theatres made the headlines in early 2020 following their campaign of making facemasks for hospitals during the first weeks of the pandemic – and it’s no wonder: “In theatre, you have to be able to make everything. From underwear to fur coats, from contemporary skirts to period dresses to fairytale costumes,” says Grażyna Cichy, director of the women’s costume department at the J. Słowacki Theatre. Theatre dressmakers must be skilled tailors as well as being open to new ideas, especially when they are asked to make something unusual. “Back in the day, stage designers made detailed sketches of all costumes. They understood how we work, which made our lives much easier. Now most of them know nothing about dressmaking, and we often have a hard time figuring out what they want,” Cichy adds.

The way stage designers work has changed, as have fabrics used to make costumes. “When I was retiring, I asked the director to keep the costumes I made because they might be the last ones of their kind. It wasn’t so much about how they were made, but about the fabrics. Materials of this quality aren’t used by theatres any more,” says Leszek Wyżga, legendary men’s costumer at the J. Słowacki Theatre. Many costumes made decades ago are still in use – they are still in great condition despite the years.

“Sometimes the dressmaker is long gone, yet their costumes are still on the stage. And even though no-one will learn who the dressmaker was, their costumes will always remember them,” adds Cichy.

Wardrobe secrets

Audiences don’t realise that dramas also frequently unfold behind the scenes… They are played out by dressmakers helping actors change costumes and coming to the rescue when a seam or zip bursts; when the performance is over they review, wash, press and mend the clothes ready for the next spectacle. “Our work is all about precision, speed and collaboration, as well as trust and discretion. The dressing room should be like a confessional,” says Ewa Jędrzejewska-Balicka, dressmaker at the J. Słowacki Theatre.

Makeup artists are responsible for characterisation and hair. “Of course we apply makeup, including designing all kinds of wounds, but my main job is styling hair and beards,” says Irena Kowal for whom wigs, bald caps and fake facial hair hold no secrets since she specialises in historic hair styling. This is an increasingly rare job in contemporary theatre.

Fabric of theatre

As well as looking after the artists’ appearance, theatre technicians must make sure the sets are just as perfect. This is usually ensured by upholsterers – they make and mend hangings and curtains, stage sets and even furniture, jobs once the domain of leathermakers and cobblers. “Most people think that upholsterers work with just furniture. This may be the case in the ordinary world, but theatre is nothing if not extraordinary. It’s somewhere we create different worlds,” reveals Tadeusz Sobucki.

Other invisible heroes are sound and light engineers. “Some people think we just press ‘play’ and the computer plays music and sound effects at the right time. This is sometimes possible during concerts, but never during theatre performances,” says Tomasz Dziedzic who started out as a sound technician at the Scena STU Theatre.

Artists, sculptors and model-makers are also very important. “Puppets have been accompanying humankind for millennia. I’m fascinated by the fact that this format – almost a fetish, really – has survived in puppet theatre,” says Waldemar Libera, artist and animator at the Groteska Theatre. “My paintings and sculptures are often at the forefront of the performance, while I remain anonymous. Still, that’s the fate of theatre technicians,” adds Łukasz Pipczyński, sculptor at the J. Słowacki Theatre.

Behind the scenes

The role played by technicians cannot be overestimated. We can learn more from the book published by the J. Słowacki Theatre and the latest exhibition of the Museum of Kraków, titled Theatre Machinery and presented at the Pod Krzyżem House. The exhibition is divided into three intertwining sections presenting technical aspects, introducing theatre professions and exploring the administration that goes into productions. The reference point is the history of Kraków’s stages at the turn of the 20th century – the most important period in the history of Polish theatre.

“The Pod Krzyżem House presents theatre machinery and equipment from different periods revealing the evolution of certain professions, partly forced by technological progress. We confront the changes in management processes with the constancy of the fundamental tasks and problems facing directors of theatres. We want to show our audiences that in spite of technological progress and political changes, the basic system of working in theatre remains unchanged,” say the exhibition organisers.

On the scrapheap?

The long tradition and rich heritage of theatre crafts is something to be proud of, but unfortunately it’s hard to look to the future with optimism.

“The world of grand theatre workshops is gradually coming to an end, and the generation of master craftsmen is disappearing. Soon the only professions remaining in Polish theatre, opera and film will be directors, composers, artists and actors in general, and – as an awkward aside – stage designers,” according to the pessimistic Paweł Dobrzycki, stage designer, architect, artist and pedagogue.

It makes it all the more important to save “spirits of theatre” from oblivion.

In writing this, I reached for Thinking Hands published by the J. Słowacki Theatre (Kraków, 2020) for some of the quotes, as well as promotional materials of the Museum of Kraków.
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