Theater in the Round
by Carl Sederholm
Professor Richard Scharine can't explain how his application for a Fulbright Professorship to England wound up with the applications to Poland. But he quickly discovered that a fortuitous misrouting of his file would produce an even more fortunate redirecting of his career.
"Some things happen just because they're ready to happen," he says modestly. However, Scharine's appointment to the English Institute at the University of Gdansk in the fall of 1992 was no mere spin of fortune's wheel. A respected University teacher and scholar of British and American Political Drama, Scharine was able to apply his expertise in alternative theater to Polish drama. Through his research he quickly uncovered a long-standing tradition of political commentary enacted through the stage, a tradition he began to review and discuss in academic journals. In fact, most of his scholarship and production work in the last five years relates to his studies in Poland.
When he returned to Utah in 1993, Scharine began planning a means of returning to Poland but this time he intended to take students along with him.
Scharine and his band of students signed up to participate in the Festival of Drama in English. No simple carnival, the Festival of Drama in English is an annual conference sponsored by the British Council, drawing professional and student drama companies from Poland, England, and Ireland to conduct acting workshops and to perform traditional and new plays for each other. Returning to the Festival of Drama again in 1995 and 1996, Scharine's student group the only American troupe to participate in the festival proved to be the most popular offering. Because the festival typically brings in drama companies from England and Ireland, having an American drama company added a more global quality to the festival. Gone was the sense of posturing; these students, inspired by the power of drama to bring people together regardless of communication barriers, eagerly volunteered to participate in several voice, movement, and acting workshops. "There was a sense of growth and a willingness to learn," says participant Shauna Scott, a drama student at the U.
"Communicating via the theater was an amazing experience because the barriers came down so quickly. People realized how important every person in a theater company is." Significantly, these students learned how to rely on each other and to see one another as an integral part of an entire dramatic team.
Part of this experience included working with Polish students who didn't speak English. In fact, many Polish productions at the Festival of Drama in English featured actors who memorized their lines phonetically, without understanding the full import of what they were saying. In Poland, Scharine explains, "theater is used as a means of teaching English."
For Scharine's company, it also served as a means of coming together with an international community of dramatists, an advantage the group didn't have in Utah. To honor the other participants in the Festival of Drama in English, Scharine, with his student drama company, presented one play from three of the participating countries. To prepare for these performances, Scharine first produced each play in Salt Lake City, where local students got a preview of what their counterparts in Poland would soon experience.
Amid a busy schedule of teaching, researching, and working with student groups, Scharine discovered Poland offered a few personal surprises. Having learned his grandfather was born in East Poland, Scharine and his wife went to the city, Slonecznik, armed with a photograph of an old house and a letter addressed to his grandfather from a cousin in search of some evidence of the house in the picture. Knocking at the door of what looked like the breaks house, the Scharines were invited inside, and showed their hosts the letter that read, in effect, "We hope to have the railroad pretty soon here in Slonecznik because we've given this piece of land down at the end of the property next to the cemetery for the railroad." With an audible "Ah," the Scharines' hosts took them out the back door, walked them to the end of the property, and showed them both the cemetery and the railroad. It was the same house. "We were in the right place; we didn't even know it," says Scharine.
A fortuitous rerouting of a Fulbright application had become not only a significant academic experience but Scharine's link to researching his own past.
Carl Sederholm, Continuum editorial intern, is a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of Utah.