The Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Cracow marked its centenary in 1993 by presenting a one-woman show for the first time in its history: Helena, directed by Kazimierz Braun and with Maria Nowotarska in the title role.
The play tells the story of the great Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska and Maria Nowatorska was thrilled to return from retirement for the role. “I had left the theatre after 33 years and thought I would never stand on a stage again. What a surprise it was to come back and get to play Modrzejewska!” she said.
Director Stefan Szlachtycz was in the audience and was so impressed by the play he felt the story should be re-told as a television drama: The Thing About Modrzejewska. Ms Nowotarska added: “I thought if this is about to be created, it has to happen in California, in the house of the great actress.”
The house was well-known to Ms Nowotarska. The premiere of Helena in Toronto journalists drew excellent reviews and one director and writer, Jarosław Abramow, introduced himself to Ms Nowotarska. Later, the Helena Modjeska Foundation in Los Angeles promptly invited the actress to perform the show in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Ms Nowotarska took the opportunity to acquaint herself with the area where the great actress had lived and worked for many years.
“Obviously, I had to visit the house of Helena Modrzejewska,” she said. “Together with my late husband (Jerzy Pilitowski) we set out and as we approached her house we began to see her name popping up everywhere – Modjeska Canyon, Modjeska Fire Station, Modjeska Store. We arrived at the house of the actress and were welcomed by Helen Lee, the custodian, who just happened to be on site at the time – normally the house is closed.
“She was truly moved when she learnt that I played Helena. She gave us a tour through the beautiful garden, her bedroom, library, and living room. I was simply breathing in the spirit of Modrzejewska, and I thought I had to come back here. The custodian held my hand and said: She sometimes visits the house, and today she is here for sure.”
Agreement was reached and the filming of The Thing About Modrzejewska took place in the house with Ms Nowotarska’ own daughter, Agata Pilitowska, also an actress, in the role of the young Helena. The theatre play, Helena, was produced in many theatres, including Paris, in the famous Polish Library of Paris. Tuning in to the spirit of Helena Modrzejewska is still a vivid experience for Maria. This year, while appearing in Secrets of Ordonka (Tajemnice Ordonki) in California, she visited the house once again, and once again it was open. “It is as if Modrzejewska is watching over me” she said.
Helena was the first play in the Great Polish Women Emigrants series. When Kazmierz Braun handed Maria the role saying: “It is for you and you can do everything you want with it” – he had not planned on writing a whole series of plays on the same theme – that idea came later, and has created a vehicle for Maria Nowotarska and her daughter Agata Pilitowska, two emigrant actresses who determinately continue practicing their job abroad. The cycle includes: Radiation (Promieniowanie) – about Maria Skłodowska-Curie; Secrets of Ordonka (Tajemnice Ordonki) – about Hanka Ordonówna; Pola Negri – about the only Polish woman who conquered Hollywood, and Tamara – about a Polish painter, Tamara Łempicka.
Maria Nowotarska and Agata Pilitowska have taken Great Polish Women Emigrants on tour, visiting the USA, Canada, Brazil, Poland, Lithuania, France, England, Sweden, Greece, Portugal and Austria.
More information on the artistic activity of Maria Nowotarska and Agata Pilitowska can be found via the website www.teatrpolskitoronto.com.