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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » October 29, 2010
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We Like Our Independence
October 29, 2010   
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Janusz Józefowicz, the artistic director of the Studio Buffo Theater, talks to Marzena Robinson.

January 2011 will mark 20 years since the premiere of Metro, Poland’s first musical, which you co-wrote. The show has been running ever since and is a constant hit with the audience. What is the secret behind such a spectacular success?
Metro is not just a show; you could say it was a revolution as far as the approach to theater in Poland was concerned. Metro became part of Polish theater and opened a new chapter in its history, a chapter you could describe as contemporary music theater. Before Metro, musical productions were completely unheard of in Poland. Our success with Metro proved there was demand for this genre in Poland and at the same time, it showed that here in Poland, we could come up with something of our own that was fresh. Metro has become a legend in its own right for the stars which emerged from the original cast. The fact that actors and young viewers can still relate to the musical shows that the score by Janusz Stokłosa is timeless. And the book has not aged either, because the subject of young people dreaming of success in life is universal. Meanwhile, Poland still lacks such new original productions written especially for teenage audiences and so.

Metro remains this tiny haven for taking this age group seriously. The success of Romeo i Julia, Studio Buffo’s other original production for young audiences, serves as further evidence that writing musicals for this demographic is worthwhile and that it pays off to build a canon of original Polish music shows.

The Studio Buffo Theater, established in 1992, was the first private theater in Poland after World War II and has since managed just fine without any public grants whatsoever. How is that possible?
Let me start from saying that without viewers willing to come to our shows, we wouldn’t be here any more. We were indeed the first private theater in Poland, marginalized in the beginning, because in spite of the theater community taking so much for granted, we were proving that you could stay afloat without steady injections of public funds. That was a very inconvenient truth to some and so we got ignored for a long time. We did our work somewhere in the background, a little like outcasts. But when people finally realized operating like that was really possible, new private theaters started popping up. Even though the others managed to arrange grants for themselves, we have resisted trying to ingratiate ourselves to officials in order to get money. This might be perhaps a matter of some ineptitude, but it also might be a result of our inner need to retain a sense of independence, and we have succeeded in this department. We owe everything we have achieved to our work, our really hard work. For that reason, we can effectively face the competition from theaters which do what we do, but benefit from subsidies from the state.

Most Studio Buffo performers have no drama training, but they are all very good actors and singers anyway. When you first worked on Metro, you trained the troupe yourself, turning amateurs into professionals who went on to perform on Broadway and later became some of the finest performing artists in Poland. Is that the secret to build a musical team from scratch?
There is no professional school which could provide what I consider appropriate preparation for the profession of a musical stage artist. Consequently, we have had to become a kind of informal school like that, training our actors ourselves and trying to pick talented individuals who are worth investing in. Young people who come to Studio Buffo are first assigned some minor acting, vocal and dancing tasks and as they evolve, they get increasingly challenging roles. Studio Buffo is a school where you get to check how much you are worth live, right before the viewers’ eyes. And then it indeed turns out that our team spawns performers who thrive on this market and often become the driving force of other music theaters. Sometimes Studio Buffo is unable to compete in the wages department against other establishments which have it all easier with public grants. In spite of it all, we have been doing just fine as we get approached by young and talented people. It is an ongoing process.

I myself tried to encourage the authorities of the State Theater Academy in Warsaw to open, or actually reopen, the faculty of stage performing arts in order to meet the demand that is clearly there. A growing number of theaters stage musicals and so a genuine school like that could really come in useful.

The repertoire of the Studio Buffo Theater is extremely broad, comprising more than 20 of the theater’s own productions which you show throughout the year. New shows are in the pipeline. You held workshops for talented young people in July with the premieres in mind. Can you reveal some more details?
That is correct: we have been working on several major projects simultaneously. One of them is a music show, Bramy Raju (Gates of Paradise), based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. We want to hire very young, teenage actors for the production. The summer workshops were the first step towards making the show happen. We are also working on a large project based on the life of Pola Negri, the Polish actress who was one of the biggest Hollywood stars in the days of silent cinema. In some way, this will be a revolutionary combination of theater and cinema living up to 21st-century standards, as the actors and props will be placed amidst three-dimensional sets. Like 3D movies, viewers will be watching the show wearing special glasses. The premiere will most likely take place this coming spring.

Other than that, having played Metro non-stop for two decades, we reached the decision to turn the musical into a motion picture. We want to start shooting in autumn next year.

A while ago, Studio Buffo announced plans to become the first Polish theater to show its productions online. Such interactive live feeds would be seen by audiences around the world. Does this pioneer project stand a chance of becoming reality?
It is certainly possible and could be a highly attractive option for those who cannot come to Studio Buffo in person, but would love to get a first-hand experience of what goes on here every night. We haven’t managed to do it so far, for a number of reasons, but I believe we will try again soon.

The Studio Buffo theater opened its doors in 1992 as the first private music theater in Poland after World War II. The theater is the brainchild of composer Janusz Stokłosa, who manages the venue, and choreographer Janusz Józefowicz, its artistic director.

Over the 18 seasons since it was established, Studio Buffo has staged over 5,400 plays and concerts seen by an audience of over 2.7 million. The theater’s troupe has also performed over 1,500 concerts and shows at stadiums, open-air theaters and other venues in Poland and abroad.

The Buffo has premiered over 20 original productions, spawning hundreds of hits. In addition to putting on its own productions, the theater hosts guest drama performances, jazz concerts, comedy shows and other cultural events.

Jan. 30 will mark the 1,600th performance of Metro, an immensely successful musical directed by Józefowicz. Metro is the only Polish production to have been staged on Broadway in New York City.

Over the years, the Studio Buffo has helped launch the careers of many popular performing artists. Józefowicz was one of the first directors in Poland to cast young and talented individuals without any acting experience in professional theater productions.

The Studio Buffo is home to the Metro Studio of Performing Arts, a school that provides training in music theater for talented children and adolescents.
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