Theater Professor Allen Kuharski Receives Fulbright Grant

Allen Kuharski

The recipient of a prestigious Fulbright research grant, Allen Kuharski will spend the next year in Poland tracking the Loch Ness Monster.

At least, that’s how he describes the romantic dramas of 19th-century Poland, which a history of political turmoil has pushed underwater.

“These artists are for Polish poetry and drama what Chopin is to Polish music,” says Kuharski, Stephen Lang Professor of Performing Arts. “But they’re completely unknown throughout most of the world. Their work is not translated or performed outside of Poland, and there’s always been this struggle to get this work out and seen by the world.”

Kuharski, a fourth-generation Polish American, is determined to change that. He will spend the next year immersed in the work of five major playwrights through both text and performance.

It’s a homecoming of sorts, as Kuharski's original Fulbright experience as a student, based at Warsaw's Teatr Studio, was itself cut short by political crisis in 1981. He will return to the landmark studio and reconnect with Polish director Michal Zadara ’99 to stage a production next spring.

“I’m extremely excited and gratified for the opportunity,” says Kuharski. “This project will have a totally different emphasis than any other I’ve worked on.”

The play, Salomea’s Silver Dream, written by Juliusz Slowacki in 1843, embodies the essence of Kuharski’s research project. His role will fall somewhere between dramaturge and co-director, as he drafts the text’s first-ever English translation and collaborates with Zadara on the staging. Zadara is considered an innovative leader among Poland's contemporary directors in embracing the country's romantic repertory. 

“That will be the culmination of my experience,” says Kuharski. “We’re thrilled with the prospect of doing these types of plays and bringing them to the outside world — Swarthmore, especially.”

Kuharski has long facilitated Polish artists coming to the U.S. for performances, often with the support of the William J. Cooper Foundation, and American artists, students, and colleagues traveling to Poland.

In 2015, Kuharski and Associate Professor of Music Barbara Milewski brought Chopin Without Piano, directed and co-authored by Zadara, to Swarthmore and Philadelphia for its North American premiere. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage provided one of the largest grants in the College’s history for the project, alongside major support from the Cooper Foundation. 

He also helped bring Poland's Silesian Dance Theater to campus for a Cooper Series event in 1999. The success of that residency jump-started a semester-abroad program [pdf], co-directed by emeritus professor of Dance Sharon Friedler and Professor of Engineering and Environmental Studies Art McGarity, that sent theater, dance, and environmental studies students to Poland from 1999 to 2009.

Kuharski's work has also earned international honors, including the Fringe First Award (Edinburgh), for a stage adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke, whose English version was first performed at Swarthmore in 2000; The Order of Merit in Polish Culture, given by the Polish Ministry of Culture in 2002; and the S.I. Witkiewicz Award for the Promotion of Polish Theater Abroad, in 2006.

He kept the prospect of a Fulbright research grant in the back of his mind over the last 20 years, but the timing was never right. Between stepping down as chair of the Department of Theater this year and his spouse retiring, though, “several windows aligned,” he says.

Kuharski spent early last summer writing the proposal, with a strong hand from Tania Johnson, the College’s Fulbright Scholar liaison and director of sponsored programs.

“Whether faculty members venture abroad on a short- or long-term basis or bring scholars to campus, Fulbright awards are an excellent way for them and for the administration to deepen the international dimensions of their teaching, research, and service," Johnson says, "while promoting cross-cultural understanding and the ideals of a liberal arts education."

Kuharski also received a letter of support from the distinguished professor Maria Prussak, a faculty member in Warsaw's Institute of Literary Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The Institute is hosting and collaborating with him on the project.

“The joining of our experience in research with his distinct perspective, emphasizing different contexts and aesthetic experiences, may produce hugely interesting results and to a significant degree broaden our understanding of the reception of Polish Romanticism,” says Prussak.

Adds Kuharski: “Contemporary Polish theater and poetry have each long enjoyed a high level of international recognition, but joining them are these elusive romantic verse dramas. These plays contain some of the greatest Polish poetry the world has yet to hear — and also make for exciting theater.”