Łukasz Gazur

Theatrical Kraków

Reading time: approx. 11 minutes

Kraków is unequivocally one of the most important cities on Poland’s theatrical map. The city is home to important stages, develops new initiatives and supports directors, stage designers and actors at all stages of their careers. Even though Poland’s theatrical landscape has been changing over the years and the centre of gravity has been shifting, theatrical Kraków of the past and the present remains an important reference point.

Although the first permanent public theatre was founded in Kraków as early as the late 18th century, the current legend of Cracovian theatre dates back to the 19th century and the two oldest institutions in the city. The first started at two adjacent tenement houses at Jagiellońska Street adapted to stage performances in 1799 (renovated in 1906 in the Art Nouveau style); today the site is the main stage of the National Stary Theatre. The second is the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre (opened in 1893), located at one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind in Poland at the Św. Ducha Square, on the site of the former hospital of the Order of the Holy Ghost.

It was there that Stanisław Koźmian founded the Cracovian acting school. In 1908, Irena Solska was the first actress in Poland to appear naked on stage as Lady Godiva. Helena Modrzejewska, who went on to conquer Hollywood as Helena Modjeska, made her first triumphs here; until the rise of Pola Negri (AKA Apolonia Chałupiec), she was the most famous Polish actress in the world. Kraków was also home of Stanisław Wyspiański, one of Poland’s most acclaimed dramatists; the premiere of his acclaimed play “The Wedding”, featuring characters inspired by famous Cracovians, is now the stuff of legend.

Theatre as an exhibit

No other Polish city is home to as many museums showcasing the history of theatre as Kraków. The MICET Interactive Museum/Theatre Education Centre is located in the cellars of the National Stary Theatre. The Theatre Museum – branch of the Museum of Krakow can be found at 21 Szpitalna Street, next to the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre. The Rydlówka – museum of the Young Poland movement in Bronowice is located in a former peasant’s cottage which was the setting of Wyspiański’s “The Wedding”. The Tadeusz Kantor Museum (at Nadwiślańska Street), run by the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor, commemorates this acclaimed artist whose dramas have entered the global canon of theatre works.


In terms of animating social and cultural life, in recent years Kraków’s stages have been catching up with museums.



For many years now, nominations and prizes such as those awarded by the “Teatr” monthly and the National Competition for Contemporary Polish Drama Staging have included artists and spectacles from Kraków.

While theatre education barely existed just a few years ago, today the majority of Kraków’s theatres hold workshops, meetings and discussions on current social and political topics explored in their performances.

In search for national theatre

Kraków has an extensive network of theatres, including the National Stary Theatre under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre supported by the voivodeship authorities and the municipal Łaźnia Nowa, Ludowy, STU, KTO, Bagatela, Groteska and Variété theatres.


Stary Theatre is certainly best known on the national scale. It is one of only two national stages in Poland, however, it represents a different tradition to its Warsaw counterpart: it tends to take a critical take on Polishness, dating back to traditions founded by Stanisław Wyspiański – author of ultra-Polish dramas such as “The Wedding” and “Liberation”. Due to its outstanding company of actors and the legendary directors who have worked here (including Konrad Swinarski, Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Jarocki and Krystian Lupa), it is one the most important stages in Poland.


In recent years, the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre has been upping its game as Stary’s rival. Its spectacles have changed approach in terms of its aesthetic and explored themes. It has also invested in an urban offensive including the highly-publicised nighttime paratheatrical tours of its legendary venue and hosting DJ events. All this has contributed to the theatre’s increased visibility.



In search for national theatre

The neighbouring Łaźnia Nowa and Ludowy theatres are perhaps the most important municipal venues. The former has its origins in Bartosz and Małgorzata Szydłowski’s independent activities in the former Jewish quarter. The theatre relocated from Kazimierz to Nowa Huta where it has been following its own path ever since. It focuses on local topics, works with amateur drama groups and encourages social life in the district through initiatives such as the summertime cycle Bulwar[t] Sztuki (Boulev[Art]). It is also developing the innovative project School of Utopia, which will support artistic residencies and activities in all spheres of the arts. Today, Łaźnia Nowa is one of the most distinctive stages in Kraków.


Ever since the director Małgorzata Bogajewska took the reins at Ludowy Theatre in Nowa Huta, the institution has also been increasingly looking for local contexts. It hosts a range of activities aimed at local residents, and it is fast becoming one of the most important institutions driving social life in the district.

Municipal theatres

The Scena STU Theatre has its own dedicated audience. It was founded as a student theatre and has matured with its viewiers, so it can be broadly described as a theatre of a certain generation.


KTO Theatre specialises in outdoor spectacles in the city space, although its repertoire also includes indoor performances. Its work on its new building in the Podgórze district is likely to be an attempt to create a fresh identity for the institution.

Municipal theatres

The remaining municipal theatres tend to focus on entertainment. Groteska mainly presents spectacles for children and young people, with occasional forays into plays for adult audiences. Bagatela boasts the highest attendance figures, shaped by its repertoire including “Mayday” directed by Wojciech Pokora – one of the longest-running plays in Poland. Finally, Variété, one of Kraków’s youngest scenes, specialises in musicals.


As well as the institutions mentioned above, Kraków is home to over a hundred theatre groups and independent stages. Although the quality of their output varies, they work with leading directors, participate in festivals and prepare their own grants and community campaigns, reflecting the dynamic changes in cultural circles.


The Nowy Proxima Theatre, founded by Piotr Sieklucki and Tomasz Kireńczuk, is a genuine competitor to institutional theatres in terms of infrastructure (featuring a large stage and a smaller club stage downstairs) and artistic level. The Kazimierz-based theatre tackles important social issues, while its club stage hosts Poland’s only drag queen revue.


The nearby Barakah Theatre, run by Ana Nowicka and Monika Kufel, is located on the site previously occupied by Łaźnia Nowa and also explores important social issues. One of the most popular local cycles is the “Night of Vanilla Mice” – a cabaret production providing a commentary on local, regional and national social and political issues.


The Mumerus Theatre is run by Wiesław Hołdys; the director has developed a unique form based on words, movements and unearthly aesthetics rooted in concepts such as object degradation and functioning beyond time.


Teatr Figur is an up-and-coming theatre of form featuring the concept of drawing with shadows. Its spectacles challenge traditions of puppet theatre and are frequently staged at unusual locations.

Different steps

Dance has become increasingly fashionable in recent years. This is partly thanks to the popularity of talent and celebrity shows on TV, as well as performative elements of theatre with their devoted audiences and attracting growing interest from critics. Kraków is one of the leading centres of artistic dance in Poland. The city is home to the Krakow Dance Theatre, run by the Eryk Makohon and Paweł Łyskawa duo with Magdalena Skowron. The artists show that dance is just as effective at tackling important social and existential issues as other artforms; alongside the company’s dance and choreography technique, it is the theatre’s greatest asset.


The Art Color Ballet is a very different beast indeed: it is an experimental form combining body painting with music and dance. It is a unique phenomenon on Kraków’s cultural scene.


The Cracovia Danza Court Ballet, founded by Romana Agnel, is an urban ensemble whose goal is to promote historic dances from Poland and abroad. There are also notable independent enterprises: as well as running a range of dance workshops and events, Hurtownia Ruchu also launched its ScenaOFF a few years ago.


Dance also frequently features on stages usually reserved for dramatic performances, such as Łaźnia Nowa and the Małopolska Garden of Arts (branch of the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre).

Kraków’s theatre circles host Poland’s only Dance Night, held alongside Theatre Night and featuring dozens of presentations.

The in-between world

The global trend of breaking rigid, stereotypical divisions between different media and spanning the boundaries of different genres is reflected in the fact that Cracovian theatre and paratheatre activities are apparent in seemingly unrelated fields. Several of Kraków’s festivals, such as Unsound, Sacrum Profanum and the Miłosz Festival, have already featured theatre performances.

The in-between world

Exhibition spaces also host spectacles, such as cycles of performances held at the Cricoteka. This is hardly a surprise given the institution’s patron was one of the leading figures in Poland’s post-war theatre; as well as exploring the past, the museum also presents the latest theatre, performance, dance and music projects. In recent years, MOCAK, and the Main Building and individual branches of the National Museum in Krakow have also staged dance and performance events.

Festival madness

Kraków has long been one of Poland’s major festival centres. December is dominated by the Divine Comedy Theatre Festival, founded by Bartosz Szydłowski and Małgorzata Szydłowska. The event features shortlisted Polish spectacles competing for the statuette of Divine Comedian in several categories. The jury includes representatives of international theatre circles and directors and curators of events and institutions from all over the globe. The aim is to step away from hierarchies defined by the local perspective and to strengthen ties between Polish artists and international institutions. This makes Divine Comedy one of the most highly regarded theatre festivals in Poland.


The Groteska Theatre and its director Adolf Weltschek present the biennial Materia Prima festival. The event showcases myriad facets of theatre of form. Ensembles from all over the globe present spectacles rooted in their local traditions and explore brand-new concepts. Performances differ greatly in terms of form, including circus art and acrobatics; the avantgarde shows explore pressing issues facing today’s society.

Festival madness

The annual ULICA International Street Theatre Festival, prepared by KTO Theatre and its founder Jerzy Zoń, spills onto Kraków’s streets and squares. Ensembles from all corners of the globe present the latest incarnations of open-air theatre.


Kraków also hosts the “Cracovia Danza” Court Dance Festival. Prepared by the ballet ensemble founded by Romana Agnel, the event explores myriad aspects of historic dance, with European and Polish dances dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque presented alongside more spectacles from further afield, such as the courts of Indian maharajahs.


Plans are also afoot to combine three existing events – the BalletOFFFestival, the 3…2…1…DANCE! choreography competition and the SPACER Contemporary Dance Festival – into a single Kraków Dance Festival. It will be ran by the Krakow Choreographic Centre at the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre.

P.S., or instead of an epilogue

For theatre circles, the pandemic has only accelerated changes which were already starting to take place. Theatres are increasingly moving their activities online, while state-of-the-art technologies are serving as tools allowing growing circles of audiences to participate in performances and as actual materials used by artists. Let’s see how many of these virtual tricks are here to stay!

Łukasz Gazur

Journalist, publicist and author. Graduate in political science and art history at the Jagiellonian University, former head of the cultural section at the “Dziennik Polski” and “Gazeta Krakowska” dailies. Author of numerous articles on visual arts, theatre and dance, he has been working at TVP Kultura since 2020.

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