The Ludowy (People’s) Theatre in Nowa Huta opened on December 3, 1955, at a time when the official policy of socialist realism came to an end and the 1956 de-Stalinization of People’s Republic of Poland was about to begin. Thanks to a collaboration of eminent artists the theatre quickly became known as the city’s prime avant-garde stage.
The most prominent figures who, at some point of their careers, were associated with the theatre include theatre theoretician and painter Józef Szajna, Tadeusz Kantor (both, from Academy of Fine Arts), Lidia Zamkow, Krystyna Zachwatowicz and others. The name, “Ludowy Theatre”, had a unique tradition in Krakow in spite of its ostensibly pro-Soviet connotations. In 1902 (during Partitions of Poland), another Ludowy Theatre was opened in Krakow by a renowned actor, Stefan Jaracz, who performed there.
Teatr Ludowy, designed by architects Edmund Dąbrowski and Janusz Ingarden, was built in 1954–1955 and placed in the centre of a socialist housing estate, mainly for ideological reasons (as a possible tool for workers’ indoctrination).
Thanks to the revolutionary vision of its first president, Krystyna Skuszanka, Teatr Ludowy became one of the most interesting theatres in the country, with Jerzy Krasowski as its first resident director, and painter Jozef Szajna as its visionary set designer. Together, they turned the young local venue into an innovative and politically engaging stage with serious intellectual and artistic ambitions. As the political climate began to worsen, the theatre was faced with increasing criticism. The directors were accused of ignoring uneducated audience. Skuszanka and Krasowski left the Ludowy in 1963, unable to carry on with their ambitious repertoire. Jozef Szajna, who remained, was often sharply criticised. The party guided audiences stopped coming. Szajna left in 1966. In the 1970s the Theatre remained unable to find a formula to satisfy the communist apparatchiks and critics. Comedies were staged. Consecutive directors tried to revive the tradition of Polish national and folk theatre, but a true rebirth came with the collapse of the Soviet empire. In Democratic Poland the Theatre was taken over by an actor, director and politician Jerzy Fedorowicz. Under his management, the Theatre won considerable recognition and numerous awards.
Józef Szajna, a survivor of Auschwitz, was the artistic director of the Theatre between 1963-1966. In his popular productions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies he evoked his own camp experiences, called “a theatre of death” by Peter Brook. As a stage director, playwright, theoretician and artist he is a significant figure in Polish culture.
For many decades, under communism, Polish theatre in general employed the artistic technique of political allusion and metaphor in order to overcome censorship. Theatre was not created from the text alone, but from what often remained unspoken and only visually significant. The realities of life under communism inspired broader philosophical and ideological questions.