Polish-born writer and dramaturg Magda Romanska is an assistant professor of Theatre Studies and Dramaturgy at Emerson College in Boston, MA, and a research associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center. She studied literature and drama at Stanford University and Yale School of Drama, and earned a Ph.D. in Theatre from Cornell University. In addition to her scholarly and dramaturgical work, she writes creative fiction and non-fiction and is now directing the first African American Playwrights Exchange (AAPEX) Festival where her students are currently evaluating 16 scripts submitted by AAPEX playwrights.
What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
I was born and raised in communist Poland. During that time, theatre and the arts were part of our everyday life. Since everyone – from janitors to doctors – made about the same amount of money, the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” revolved around one’s artistic endeavors. In some ways, they were simultaneously politically very oppressive and artistically idyllic times. Everyone I knew was doing some kind of art as a way of spending his or her free time, not necessarily with ambitions to become an artist. I was six when I did my first play. It was a puppet production of Pinocchio staged for the neighborhood children. But I spend most of my time painting. I had my first art exhibit when I was eleven, at the house of Tadeusz Brzozowski, a Polish surrealist painter who combined expressionism with the grotesque. I also wrote a lot—short stories, fairy tales and such, which I illustrated myself. But everyone around me did that sort of thing.
Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
Growing up surrounded by art and literature, I didn’t want to commit. When I first moved to the U.S., I actually took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and literature classes at the Chicago City College. But in the U.S. you have to make a choice. You have to specialize. Theatre seemed like a big canvas . . . a perfect blend of art and literature. To some degree, I still haven’t escaped that way of thinking about theatre, as a combination of image and word, gesture and sound . . . I still work that way, arranging words into images and images into words. I can’t seem to be able to analyze a play without drawing it. After each production, there is a pile of impromptu drawings and diagrams, illustrating pretty much everything, from dramatic structure to the layers of subtext and leitmotivs . . . DaVinci’s Golden Ratio, or the Golden Triangle, can be as good of a tool of play analysis as Aristotle’s Poetics.
When did you come to the United States and what brought you here?
When I came to the U.S. I was 21. In high school, I studied French and Russian, so my English vocabulary was limited to rock song lyrics. But I’ve always loved American literature. I particularly identified with the 20th-century Black writers, such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. Growing up disabled in communist Poland has been challenging and, for me, African-American literature uniquely captured the toll of such a life. So to answer your question, Richard Wright moved to France to escape Jim Crow. He was free, but he could no longer write; he lost his connection to his native language. I left Poland because I couldn’t have a life there, but the price of gaining a life in the U.S. was losing my language. In fact, to this day, I have a complicated love/hate relationship with my native country. Janusz Glowacki once said that for a writer there is nothing better than humiliation. . . . Poland has four Nobel Prize Laureates for Literature (five if you count I. B. Singer). Yes, Poles have been humiliated quite a lot as a nation, and as a result, they have more poets and writers than stray cats. Poles think and communicate through their literature; it forms the very core of their being. So, I will always wonder whether the trade-off was worth it . . . Language for freedom. . . .
From your point of view, what goes in to training young dramaturgs?
Good theatre is a complex, multilayered puzzle of textual and contextual, visible and invisible, spoken and unspoken, of violence and tenderness, of the tragic and the laughable, the grandiose and the grotesque. It should pass through you like a spring storm and wrap you up like a quiet night. It should sneak up on you, break your heart, and put it back together again.
Reading theatre is sophisticated detective work that consists of unraveling the subsequent layers. In all that, the dramaturg is like water – sliding in between the layers of meaning, into the nooks and crannies of the text and performance. Theatre is a visceral art, built from the sediments of your experiences, the good and the bad, from the books you’ve read and the people you’ve met. If you’re young, your palette might not have all the hues, but you always have the primary colors to play with.
There are some concrete things I tell my students. One of them is: read. Read everything, especially the stuff you don’t agree with. You need to stay on top of the national and international dialogue, and you need to understand the arguments that people are making and why they are making them. You can’t empathize with the characters if you don’t know where they’re coming from. Be in the world: watch and listen to people, listen to their stories, told and untold; observe small gestures, subtle exchanges, silences, and absences. Research: find out what you don’t know, and then some. Take chances: be Prometheus, Icarus, and Phoenix all rolled into one. Play with fire, get burned, get up and start all over again.
What are your thoughts on Boston as a theatre town?
I think right now Boston is a great theatre town. We are going through a true renaissance. Our theatre district has been revitalized. New theatres have been built, and old theaters have been restored. In the heart of the theatre district alone, Suffolk just restored their Modern Theatre. And course, I have to brag about Emerson’s own two grand theatre spaces, the Cutler Majestic and the Paramount Center. After more than three decades, the Paramount was recently restored, and it opened with a bang last year, with a formidable first season with shows from the Abby and Druid theatres. This year we have John Malkovich, Mabou Mines and Anne Bogart. In fact, this upcoming spring, I will be a dramaturg on Café Variations directed by Bogart. So, what’s not to like?
Paramount Center photo courtesy of ArtsEmerson.org, photo by P. Vanderwarker