In Conversation with Mark Krawczyk

Mark Paul Krawczyk is a Polish-American actor who received a BS in Theatre from Towson University,he also received a MFA in Acting from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.He currently lives in the Baltimore area where he teaches at George Washington Carver Centre for Arts and Technology, whilst also continuing to perform for the theatre. Mark performed in various plays such as : The Comedy of Errors (Baltimore Shakespeare Festival), Hamlet, Henry IV-Part I, Three Sisters and The Winter’s Tale.

We were delighted to get a chance to ask Mark a few questions regarding his acting career and teaching methods at George Washington Carver Centre for Arts and Technology.

Maggie : You have been performing in a theatre for many years now, could you tell us : is theatre in the US as popular as it is in the UK and how do you see its future?

Mark : No.  Theatre is not as popular in the United States as it is in the U.K.
I hate to designate myself a spokesperson for my country, but the fact is that theatre in the United States is not a part of the culture as it is in Britain.
I have travelled throughout the U.K. and the continent, primarily Slavic countries like Poland and Slovakia, and in almost every country across the continent of Europe theatre seems to be more of a natural part of citizens’ culture and their lives.  From a young age students are taken to the theatre, or exposed to it via their families, friends, street fairs, and a myriad of other ways.  I have found it quite difficult to meet people who have not, at some point in their lives, to have attended several performances of live theatre in one way or another.

In the United States quite the opposite can be said for our people.  Having taught at both the college/university and high school levels, as well as having coached children of younger ages, I have run into many instances in which I have met students of theatre itself who have never attended a live theatrical performance, and their only exposure to performance has come by viewing it on television, the computer screen, or in the movie theatre.  Those who do attend are taken by their parents and seem to come from well off, or middle class to, at the very least, upper middle class backgrounds.

However, good economic standing is not the factor that dictates whether or not students go to the theatre or not.  I also have had the opportunity of working with students who are simply taking introductory courses to theatre at both Universities, private and public, and high school, and even a great deal of middle class to wealthy students have admitted to never having attended a live theatrical performance prior to my class.

The idea of theatre in Europe seems to be much more intertwined with daily life, something essential that shapes a person’s vocabulary both linguistically and culturally.  In America it seems to be much more of a luxury.  Ticket prices tend to soar in cities like New York, where, it seems, most Americans can rarely these days afford tickets that reach prices as high $130…or more.  It’s also been my experience that most young people, as well as their parents, are rarely aware, or care to find out, if a professional theatre exists in their home city.

For example, I currently live in the Baltimore, Maryland area and many of my students, both in the acting track, as well as those just taking an introduction to theatre course, were unaware that several professional theatres, and about a dozen or so high quality amateur theatres exist in their city.  If they are aware of any theatre it is only the big, Broadway touring house known as The Hippodrome, which is in downtown Baltimore.  My students will commonly know that The Lion King, or Wicked is playing there, but considering most tickets can, again, be over $100 they rarely have the ability, or interest to attend the theatre peformances there.  Therefore, they also don’t treat the theatre as something that’s meant for them to view.  From their comments, as well as comments I’ve heard from adult friends and colleagues not in the theatre profession, theatre is seen as luxury in the United States, meant for the rich, snobby, elite, or those dumb enough to part with the cash to see these shows.  In Europe I commonly come across people from a variety of social and economic classes, from both rural and urban areas, who commonly seek out ways to see live theatre.

So I guess this dire observation leads to the question of where I see the theatre going in the United States.  I have to paraphrase something I read the famed Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski, once said when asked, “Do you think theatre is dying?”  He said that he didn’t like answering rhetorical questions because theatre would never die, but it would be in varying states of health throughout the following years.  I believe that interview happened sometime in the 1960s or 70s, and Grotowski saw theatre in general going in a more commercial direction, or in a more deadly direction.  However, he also saw that people would always have an inherent need and desire for live performance.

I have to agree with that assessment.  Although the mainstream theatre has gone toward an extremely commercial direction (one can see this by simply walking down Broadway and seeing a glut of high priced musicals, most of which are produced by Disney), there is still a need for live performance in general.  People attend the theatre, perhaps not in the droves I would like for both my intellectual, and financial desires, but they still go.  And although a number of my students have not ever been to theatre and view it as something foreign, strange, or elitist, they are in my classes, and a good portion of them are there because of a curiosity of this strange thing called “theatre.”  Sure, several of them are there because the curriculum of a particular school has, at times, forced them to take a class I teach to fulfill an art credit of some kind, but they are still there…and many of them have left my class expressing an appreciation for, and a desire to see more theatre.

I ultimately hope that more regional theatre movements develop in the United States and that theatre becomes a common part of the cultural consciousness throughout cities and communities everywhere and that students across the country won’t think of theatre as just huge bombastic productions in New York City, or as Cirque Du Soleil shows in Las Vegas, but as an everyday part of their lives in communities all over the country where the can come into contact with new ideas, and new performance styles by professionals in their own communities.  I see this as being possible once this new generation coming up right behind me, the generation being raised with the internet as an endemic and impilicit part of its life comes of age and starts to see the shortcomings of a life that is eternally hard-wired into a computer screen and it begins, en masse, to crave an experience that is more real, more intimate, and more fulfilling in only the way the live theatre can be.  It can, should, and will be an experience that takes their hard-wired lives and fuses it with this traditional live experience.

They will grow hungry.
They will.
They just don’t know they’re starving…yet.

Maggie :What is the most memorable play you have starred in? Do you think you have done justice to  the role that you performed?

Mark: I tend to leave every show I have ever done with a sense of not having completed everything I could have done with the character.  In graduate school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas I got a chance to play Duke Vincentio in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.  That is perhaps my favourite role I have ever played, and a role I have never wanted more to play again, to simply have another crack at “getting it right.”  It was also the first ever full Shakespeare role, outside of scene projects in high school and college, that I had ever performed.  It was a true trial by fire, and I felt like I was just learning the form of playing in Shakespeare’s works at that time, and was too confused to understand the full complexity of how to pull it off.  It was memorable for me because of how much I loved that character, and how much I would love to play it again.

Professionally though, a role that I felt like I did achieve something great was in Bernard Shaw’s Arms & The Man with Constellation Theatre Company in Washington DC, where I performed as Sergius Saranoff.  I don’t get to perform in comedies as much as I would like, and that show was a great opportunity to work with Shaw’s wonderful language, and that role.  Sergius can, at times, be a broad character full of swagger, machismo, and impressive facial hair, but he is also a man tearing apart at the seams of his own vision of himself.  It was a great experience to every night work through his thought process of what exactly makes a real man, and have that fall apart and be rebuilt night after night.  We ran that production for about 4 weeks, and I felt like I could have worked with that character for another month or two just to keep figuring out what it was that Sergius was going through in every scene.  Also, the work with that particular company of actors was some of the most joy-filled work I had done in years.  I truly loved that experience because of the character, the people with whom I worked, and the conversation we had every night with the different audiences through our performance.

Maggie : What was the challenge with adapting any of the plays you were in, was it difficult to memorize the script? Is there a specific way to learn the text or do you have your own way of remembering it?

Mark: This is an interesting rephrasing of a question we commonly get as actors:  How do you learn and remember all those lines?!

During the course of the run of any show I’m working on I’ll normally hear that at least once after every performance from a member of the general public, or a close friend, or family member who has come to show.  I struggled for a long time with how to answer that question until a friend related a story to me about how to answer that question.
He was approached after a performance and was asked that question.  The common response he used to give was, “Oh…it’s just what we have to do,” with a silent, internal rolling of his mind’s eye, as if to say, “Why am I always asked this damn question?!”  However, on one particular occasion he was approached by a patron who asked him, and as opposed to answering in a manner meant to brush the patron off, he asked the women a question in return:

“Well, do you drive, Miss?”  “Yes.”

“Do you drive to work?”  “Yes.”

“Do you remember how to drive to work?  The directions?” “Yes.  Yes I do.”

“Now, do you remember those directions as one large clump, or a mass of information, or do you remember it turn-by-turn?”

“Turn-by-turn I guess.”

“Well, I’m the same.  That’s how I learn my lines.  Turn-by-turn.  I can’t figure out how to drive home unless I’ve learned the directions of where I’m going.  And that’s how I remember the lines to this play.”

Essentially that is how one must learn his or her lines. However, I’ll now answer your questions, with the second question first.

Each and every script needs a new methodology on how to learn the lines.  Shakespeare is one of the easiest to learn.  The meter and rhythm of his verse lends itself as a great aid in memorization, and in grasping the sense of his characters’ thoughts.  Also, the rhetorical devices in his prose are usually so well structured that those also become quite easy to remember.
I found Shaw to be quite easy to memorize as well.  His characters’ thoughts built so well, one on top of the other, that it became difficult NOT to remember those lines.  Still, any process, whether it be with a classical play, or a modern, or some strange postmodern/experimental play, or text, requires diligence in the rehearsal process on the part of the actor to make sense of all the turns one’s character is taking throughout the whole journey.  A memory gap, or a constant lack of remembering one specific line, or section of text, usually exposes a gap in my character’s process (i.e. a line I haven’t made sense of, an action I haven’t chose to commit to, a lack of clarity on physical movement or blocking, etc.)

Currently I’m working on a production of Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen.  This a translation of a work originally written in Russian and is proving to be one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to memorize.  The script is written in a poetic style, but not akin to the straight forward narratives of Shakespeare’s plays.  It is written, at times, almost like an esoteric poem, and making sense of the lines cannot simply be done in this piece through classical text analyis.  Instead, what is required for me to remember the lines is to be absolutely certain on where I am physically in the space in this piece that, at times, more closely resembles an art installation with two live performers than it does a play.

However, even this play resembles the process for other plays.  I can only speak for myself as a young early 30s actor who still has a good memory.  The roadmap I develop to memorize any text is a three dimensional one that involves text on a page and bodies moving through space.  I often wonder, and try not to dwell on, as I age, how much more difficult it will become to remember lines for a play.  I have worked with several actors in their 80s.  Some have had memories on par with any actor in his or her 20s, and others have clearly had diminishing memory skills.  I’m not seeking to speak ill of older actors here, but simply saying that I believe that learning lines for a play is an ever evolving process that provides new challenges with each and every new project, and with every passing year.

I think my roadmaps will considerably change over time.

Maggie :You have been teaching drama to young people, can you give us some details of your work with students of drama? How challenging the teaching is, and is it important to expose the younger generation to plays to teach them about culture?

Mark: I’ve mentioned a bit of my work with students, so I don’t want to repeat myself, but I will answer.
It’s incredibly challenging to teach in general.

What I think people in the general public don’t understand about teaching is that it is a performative art.  It takes, at times, a level of focus and energy I normally would reserve for a full production of a play.  Other days, I can get through it by letting my students do all the work, but even then the work is intellectually taxing and can leave a person feeling as if he has been evaporated by the end of the day.  Everyday is a new challenge that involves managing the varying, and clashing, personalities of young people within a confined space, and asking them to work together despite whatever difference they might be having on any given day. Currently I teach at a school called George Washington Carver Center for Arts & Technology in Maryland.  I guess the biggest challenge of teaching there is that teaching is not my chosen profession.  I enjoy doing it, very much so, but my main objective in my life was, and still is, to be an artist working in theater.  However, performing doesn’t always pay the bills, and one does have to take a job in order to survive.  So I’ve come to accept that, in the words of one of my former teachers, John Manlove, “Teaching is a part of the gig, baby!”  One has to accept that at some point or other in his career he will either be teaching formally, or informally, in order to make ends meet, or during the course of a project teaching a younger actor through direct conversation, or through example.

As a teacher what makes my day more than anything is when a student openly, and honestly, without a desire to get on my good side, or to “suck up” to me, tells me he or she enjoyed my class, or learned something on any given day.  An example I’m proud to offer up is a couple of months ago I taught a workshop to one of my introduction to theatre courses on how to read a Shakespearean text as a director might read it.  The class involved using the first scene from Hamlet and simply figuring out how to stage the first few moments between Barnardo and Francisco.  The class lasted roughly over 90 minutes and I was warned by friends and colleagues alike that they might find the class deathly boring.  However, I kept the class active, questioned their choices, constantly kept them moving through various exercises, and by the end of the class got them to do what I wanted them to do, which was simply tell me how to make clear, competent, and confident decisions in staging, and how to legitimize them in a way that was consistent with the text.  I achieved that and felt fine about it.
One of my students approached me at the end of this particular class lesson.  He was someone who commonly seemed if not disinterested, then dismissive of most of the work we did in the class I often felt and thought like I never got through to him because of his silence and distant stares.  He had a distant stare in his eyes as he approached me, but it was very different; intense and focused on some distant point beyond me.

He opened his mouth to speak and paused seeming not to know what to say, and then simply said, “That class was awesome.  I thought you should know that.” I replied, “Really?”

“Yeah.  Really.  I always think your classes are great, but this one in particular…man…that was something else.  I like directing.  It’s interesting.  I never looked at Shakespeare like that before.”

As a teacher I live for moments like that. Those are the moments that give me more than a narrow, sliver of hope for the future…for the theatre…for the world in general.It’s experiences like that which make me believe that questions like, “Do you think the theater will ever die?” are truly rhetorical questions with the same answer, “Of course not!  Now stop asking me rhetorical questions!”

I could give some long diatribe about how educating the young about theatre will save the world, or some such tripe like that, but I don’t know if that’s true, or not.  Frankly, I think the world needs more caring doctors, decent carpenters, and competent sewage engineers. However, I can’t deny that my student’s words to me that day meant a lot to me.  And what meant more to me than the ego boost he gave me was what I can’t describe…which was what world I saw in that student’s eyes that day.  It belies any sort of description.I only know I helped give him part of a road map, part of the directions on how to get to where ever he was at that particular moment, and that he wanted to go there again.I hope he gets there again through theater.I hope he helps others get there someday.It seemed to be a good place to be.

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Roxy Simons

You can read more about Mark’s work on    http://markkrawczyk.weebly.com/  Also the above picture was taken by Bode Helm

Mark Krawczyk in ‘Henry IV'(photo by Carol Pratt)

International Music Institute,USA,Mount Saint’s Mary University Emmitsburg, MD, Summer 2011.

Reading of Being Harold Pinter at Theater J for Free Belarus DC Benefit 2011.