by Sarah Katz
Robert Zawadzki’s is making a strong first impression on New York audiences in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new production of Quietly.
He has been with Quietly since its premiere in Dublin, Ireland in 2012. The play has garnered critical acclaim and praise for its powerful political story and stirring characters. Zawadzki, who is making his US debut with the show, is thrilled to be bringing this Irish-based play to the hearts and minds of the New York theatre community.
Zawadzki is no novice to the acting world and has appeared in numerous television shows and films. He appreciates and understands that the theatre is a completely different type of art form than the latter two. Having performed in Quietly since its beginning, Zawadzki has the unique and invaluable experience of seeing a production come to its fruition. Having won numerous awards already, including recently being picked as a New York Times Critics’ Pick, Quietly seems to be making a rather resounding and exciting splash in the New York theatre scene.
Zawadzki, who can be seen in Quietly from now until September 25, spoke to Stage Door Dish about his acting technique, the lessons he’s learned from Quietly, and his favorite place to relax in the hustle and bustle of New York City.
You have been with Quietly since its premiere at the Abbey Theatre in 2012. It has since been performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013, and the Soho Theatre in 2014. You are now performing it at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Has the play stayed the same since its premiere? If not, what types of changes have been made to it?
The story itself stayed the same. We haven’t cut or add anything that would fundamentally change it. The changes, that we have made over the years I would describe as cosmetic changes. They were natural consequence of the conditions in the venues where the show has been presented. For example, in the original version my character received text messages from the women of his life. The Irish wife and Polish mistress. Messages were seen as visualizations on the windows of the bar. With time, it has been changed, due to the technical reasons because in some places there wasn’t enough space to put the projector. Today, Robert simply rings them or reads aloud incoming text messages, commenting on them to himself. I think this solution opens up more opportunities for the actor.
Do you think you’ve changed the way you play your character, Robert, over the years?
Well, we all grow up, we all became much more mature. It’s a consequence of our life experiences. So of course it has an influence for what we do. And the role always matures along with the actor. So it was in this case. During that time I have had a chance to understand more the world and the circumstances around me. Also the circumstances in the play. It’s still not enough, and it’ll never be. It’s still less than it’s gonna be tomorrow, but much more than it was yesterday. I hope I also improved my English during that time. I mean it wasn’t so bad but training makes perfect. Last two years for example, I was listening to WNYC Radio Station to stay in touch the language and get to know what’s going on in the city that I was hoping to visit soon. It became my daily habit and I became a big fan of this station. They have many very interesting things to offer. Especially connected with culture.
With Quietly making its US debut, how do you think American audiences will respond to it? Do you think they will be able to grasp the idea and message as well as your previous Irish and European audiences did?
I do not divide the audience between American, Irish or European. It doesn’t matter. People can be intelligent, vulnerable, mature or not. That’s all. But I assume that a theater artist should believe in the intelligence of the viewer at the same time giving him the opportunity of mental effort. A good play, even if it is placed in a very strictly defined circumstances should entail universal problems and universal values. I am convinced that happens in ‘Quietly.’ The problems of this brilliant and deeply humanistic play are universal. We don’t live on other planets, or other dimensions. We all live on one Earth, and we should have a basic awareness of the world of which we are a part. On a basic level we also are not different as a human beings. But it’s up to us what we learn, what ambitions we have, what books we read and how we perceive other people. So I’m not afraid of reactions and responses. I believe it’s gonna be alright. Actually it already is.
You play Robert, a Polish barman. Your character has the same name as you. What similarities do you share with your character, and what makes you different from him?
As an actor I always built a character on myself. I think we can’t escape from ourselves. Robert has a similar bitter sense of humor as I have. I really enjoy all the funny situations, exchange of malice and intelligent dialogues contained in this play. It all gives me a lot of fun each time we do it. I also love to listen to people. I talk a lot but still prefer listening than talking. This is the main similarity between us. I think I also am a good watcher. I like football or as you call it here – soccer. The border between us is unclear. I’d say, we penetrate each other. I have also experienced emigration, so I know exactly what may he feel. I haven’t experienced racism or xenophobia towards myself but it isn’t hard to imagine. You can just look around or for example listen to some politicians.
This is a very political play. Were you familiar with the Irish politics the play discusses, even before you became involved in the production? Had you always been interested in politics?
Indeed, even if, as I mentioned ‘Quietly’ delivers a humanistic message, then it’s still deeply rooted in politics and history. I used to live in Ireland for some time. At that time I was trying to get to know as much as I could about this beautiful and fascinating country. I traveled a lot, I was interested in Irish culture and history. I’ve read a few books about it. I always try to combine these two things. The theoretical knowledge, that is derived from what I hear or read, with practical, empirical experiences. So before I read ‘Quietly‘ and went to the audition I knew what term ‘the troubles‘ means. I visited Belfast few times before. I’ve been to many places where even some residents of this city are afraid to go. Maybe it was risky and foolish but also so fascinating that I couldn’t deny myself the opportunity. Before we came over to New York we rehearsed for one week in Belfast and I also went for a long walk along the Peace Wall, Shankill Road and Falls Road. To feel the energy of those places. I believe this was my key to get this role. I knew a bit more of the story that is in the words of this play. I felt it somehow and that helped me to understand more and to prepare better for the audition. And yes, I had always been interested in politics. I think we should have had clearly defined point of view. It can’t be achieved if we don’t care. Political consciousness is a very important link in civil society, and in turn is an important factor of democracy which is maybe imperfect but still the best possible of the systems.
What drew you to this play?
The play itself. It’s a fantastic piece of writing, isn’t it? But also the desire to experience a new adventure, take on a new challenge. And as you can see it fulfilled it, one hundred percent.
Quietly only has three characters. You act alongside Patrick O’Kane, who plays Jimmy, and Declan Conlon, who plays Ian. How has your relationship with them grown throughout the years and what have you learnt from them?
The whole team accepted me from the beginning very warmly. Also Paddy and Declan. I have a big respect for what they do and I’m impressed what fantastic, wise people they are. I trust them and I hope they trust me. Even if sometimes we have different opinions, which is normal, the basis for the relationship is always mutual honesty. It was so from the beginning of our relationship. I’d say it happened naturally. This very special kind of respect, and I’m not afraid to say friendship, and it’s very helpful on stage. It strengthens the links and strengthens confidence, which is one of the most important elements of our work. It’s a great privilege and joy to work with those two amazing actors. I learn from them each time we meet on stage but also outside of it. I’m a bit younger than them, less experienced and they treat me as their partner. They come to work with great humility. That’s what I learn, with biggest pleasure, all the time.
How do you prepare for your role each night?
I do some diction exercises to warm up the speech engine. This role doesn’t require physical preparation but I also try to keep in good condition. I jog every morning. And before the show starts, I try to relax my body and focus the mind on the task. A few minutes of silence and deep breath helps me to achieve it. That’s all I do.
You have been playing the same character for four years. How do you keep your character fresh?
I try to experience this story each time the first time. And forget that I know it well and I already played almost 200 performances in last few years. But above all, I listen and watch what is happening on stage. And I react to it. Every time it’s a little bit different, so every time my reaction is different.
What are the easiest and hardest parts of playing Robert?
If something is easy on stage, then it has no value. It shouldn’t be easy. It can be sometimes enjoyable, but shouldn’t be easy. The hardest thing is to keep concentration and focus. Especially when you sometimes see or hear unconcentrated people in the auditorium talking to each other or staring at their mobiles. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often.
Is there a message you hope audiences will take away from Quietly?
Yes. Aggression, hatred, xenophobia have no future.
How do you interpret the title’s meaning?
Some things need to be said in quiet – to allow us to hear them.
When did you start acting? Was it something you always wanted to do?
As far as I remember I always did it. It must be some kind of illness or addiction. But I don’t know how you can get sick because as I mentioned I always had this ailment.
Is this your first time in New York?
Do you have a favorite place in New York you like to go to, to relax before the show? After the show?
I like New York City parks. I relax there every time I can. Washington Square Park is fantastic. I feed squirrels every time I go there. I give them peanuts and they’re posing for me for pictures. And then watch people. There’s so many fascinating people in New York.
You are originally from Poland. What is something you miss about Poland that you don’t have here in New York?
I miss my family, my friends, books in my library.
You have been in many television shows and films. How do you compare TV and film to theatre, and do you prefer one over the other?
I’m not sure if it can be compared. These two types of work require a different focusing, different standby and I think I may also say different skills. Theatre gives you a time to rehearse. You can, and even should make mistakes, to learn to develop the ideas and choices you made. When you work in front of camera there is usually no time for all of this. Especially if it’s TV. Time is money and there is no space for mistakes. So, we may say that in theatre you learn and develop your excellence to be able to use it in limited time working in front of camera. It’s also different kind of acting. Camera sees everything. Every small reaction, especially on close up. It means that less means more. In theatre the audience must hear you and your reactions should be communicative for people in the first as in the last row. Live performance also gives you immediate response of the audience. If you make a mistake during the show you can’t say ‘I’m sorry, can we try again?‘. Show must go on… As an actor, of course I do everything to be versatile and ready for every challenge. Terrence Mann once said: ‘Movies will make you famous. Television will make you rich. But theatre will make you good. It is so true…
Do you hope to continue bringing Quietly to other cities? Maybe to Broadway one day?
I have no expectations, because if you have them, you may be disappointed easily. I accept what life offers to me and I try to enjoy it wholeheartedly.
Are there any specific roles you would love to play in the future?
Yes. I’d love to play roles that people will remember for a long time. It’s the biggest challenge and the most beautiful dream of every actor.
What is the greatest lesson you learnt from performing in Quietly?
Many things. Some of them I also knew before but this work has strengthened the conviction of their validity. One of them is, that in theatre the most important thing is the team. It doesn’t mean that there is no place for individualities. But it’s a bit like soccer; you can have a great, world-class players but if they don’t cooperate with each other nothing good will come of it.
What advice do you have for aspiring performers?
Never give up. If you fall, rise. If you make a mistake, work on it for the next time. But never give up.