It was in Krakow that the first Polish paschal mystery, Historyja o chwalebnym Zmartwychwstaniu Pańskim written by Nicolaus of Wilkowiecko, was published in 1570. The traditions of medieval religious theatre were taken up by the Jesuits and transformed by them in the late Renaissance. In the years 1489-1562, comedies by Terence, Plautus, Seneca, and Euripides were read and analysed at the university. Performances took place in the house of Prince Sigismund, at the royal castle, and in university halls. The most outstanding native work of the time is Jan Kochanowski’s famous Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys; 1578). It initiated the tradition of civic theatre in Poland.
Krakow is a city of theatrical experiments. In 1781, the first national stage was established in Krakow: Teatr Krakowski (the Krakow Theatre) – the National Stary Theatre since 1956. Stanisław Koźmian, connected with it in the years 1866-1885, shaped its image by carefully selecting the repertoire. Stars of the Polish stage performed in the theatre, including the icon of 19th-century acting of worldwide renown – Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska). In the periods of its greatest splendour, the Stary Theatre, derived from this tradition, was above all a questing theatre, a theatre of the young, of radical ideas, a theatre of “man and life”. This is how one of the most eminent contemporary Polish theatre directors – Krystian Lupa – described it.
The Krakow theatre maintained a high level, even in the reality of post-war socialist realism.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, the most outstanding personalities of the Polish stage worked here, including Jerzy Jarocki, Andrzej Wajda, and Konrad Swinarski, as well as Tadeusz Kantor, founder of the Cricot 2 Theatre, director, painter, stage designer, and graphic artist. In the mid-1950s, Kantor joined the trend of the newest formal experiments of the contemporary theatre – he organised happenings, created “objects of art”. Kantor’s most famous works include: Dziennik z podróży, Człowiek i stół, Niebezpieczne odwrócenie, and Powrót do domu rodzinnego, as well as renowned theatre performances of The Dead Class and Wielopole, Wielopole. Not afraid of experiments, producing the performance of Let the Artists Die, he was the first director in the history of the Polish theatre to cast a woman (his wife – Maria Stangret Kantor) as Józef Piłsudski, eminent statesman of the interwar Poland.
In 1980, the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor (ul. Kanonicza 5 – currently the Archive) was established. For almost 10 years, it has created institutional bases for the functioning of the Kantor theatre. In accordance with the Master’s will, Cricoteka still carries out its fundamental and the most important statutory objective, based on the unique collection of several hundred items and costumes from the Cricot 2 Theatre’s performances, Kantor’s theoretical texts, drawings, and designs, video recordings, photographic documentation, and finally thousands of multilingual reviews, magazines, and books, collected and stored in Krakow. The effects of Tadeusz Kantor’s and his actors’ many-years-long wandering are constantly enriched with new items, analysed and compiled. Cricoteka is a specific place, functioning at the same time as an archive, museum, gallery and academic institution. Tadeusz Kantor’s Gallery-Studio, functioning since 1995 is a kind of an “annexe” to Cricoteka.
Since 1991, on the anniversary of Tadeusz Kantor’s death (the 8th of December), actors of the Cricot 2 Theatre literally go out to the street (Kanonicza) and form “live monuments”, thus introducing the characters from plays staged during their master’s life to the wider public. Historic buildings become an element of projections or facade mappings. Krakow becomes a city of interesting street art, graffiti, and other manifestations of creative activity.
Since 1975, the Krakow Theatrical Reminiscences have been organised, focusing on alternative theatre works. It is the oldest theatre festival in Poland. During the 2011 Reminiscences, the annual convention of almost 500 performers and animators of performing and theatre arts of the IETM – International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts – took place in Krakow. Ambitious theatre undertakings include the Dramaty Narodów (Nations’ Dramas) Festival and the Dedications festival (both organised regularly by Stowarzyszenie Sezony Teatralne [Theatre Seasons Association]), as well as the young, but very developmental Divine Comedy festival. Each year, it gathers the elite of Polish theatre creators, actors, audiences, philosophers, and theoreticians. Apart from a review of Polish performances, competing for the title of the best representative of the previous year (selected by a group of international qualifiers and theatre directors), international theatre groups also perform here.
The popularity of the industrial district of Nowa Huta, growing after the political transformations occurred in Poland, resulted in new cultural offers appearing in this space. In 2005, the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre began its activity here – in a place where only several years before, future workers of the conglomerate plant were trained, in the former electrical workshops. The theatre’s famous staging of Oedipus the King, involving the local community and making theatre an important element of the social dialogue, passed into legend. It is here that the events of the Genius Loci and Divine Comedy festivals take place, as well as concerts of contemporary music as part of the Sacrum Profanum festival, experimental music as part of the Unsound Festival, and popular music during the Coke Live Music Festival. Since 2005, Łaźnia Nowa has been a member of the international Trans Europe Halles network, connecting independent European cultural institutions that operate in the post-industrial space.
Almost every theatre in Krakow has its own festival, whether big or small, each one reaches out to the audience with its works, gets involved in international projects, and has international partners. The National Stary Theatre presents the all-year-round re_wizje (re_visions) festival, using its connections within the Mitos21 network. In the recent years, the Groteska Theatre has organised events such as: the Shadows Festival, the Materia Prima. Form-Mask. International Form Theatre Festival, and the Dragon Parade. The Bagatela theatre organises the EURODRAMAFEST International Theatre Festival. The Children’s Theatre Festival is an undertaking of the Nowa Huta Cultural Centre. Krakow is also home to the following festivals that take place here: the International Festival of French-Language University Theatres, the PROSCENIUM Festival of University Theatres, the Festival of Non-Institutional Theatres, the Review of One-Man Theatre Shows, the Krakow BaletOFF Meetings, and the Krakow Theatre Miniatures (a project of the Śródmieście Cultural Centre presented on the stage of the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts). Moreover, Anna Dymna’s Foundation and the Brother Albert Foundation have been organising the Albertiana Polish National Festival of Theatre and Musical Works of the Disabled for 9 years now.