WHEN Polish theatre directorZofia Kalinska became an actress, she had two offers of work. She could either join the company of her former classmate, or else that of another enfant terrible with a theatrical vision. The former potential employer was theatrical guru and author of the seminal tome Towards A Poor Theatre, and the latterwas Tadeusz Kantor, the legendary leader of the Cricot 2 company, who stormed the Edinburgh Fringe in the 1970s, so it was quite a choice for the young ingenue.
More than half a century on from opting to work with Kantor, Kalinska returns to this country to herald in a new - albeit possibly shortlived - regime at Cumbernauld Theatre. The Privately Personal Lives of Dorian Gray is an impressionistic reimagining of Oscar Wilde's gothic classic concerning a man who acquires eternal youth while his portrait grows decrepit in the attic.
"I wasn't interested in staging the novel, " says the 70-something veteran of Kantor's legendary The Dead Class. "Dramatically, the language of it is very dead, so we had to invent a new language beyond words. But not pantomime, " she stresses. "It's like a sort of morality play."
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Kalinska created similarly inclined morality plays for more than 20 years with Kantor, whose ensemble she joined aged 30. Up until then she had worked in more conventional theatre, and continued to do so even after hooking up with the man she sees as being her mentor.
"Kantor never had any money, " she said, "but he gave me my freedom, and allowed me to express things. A lot of people think Kantor was avant-garde and treated his actors like mannequins, but the opposite was true. All his ideas were based on very personal memories of his from his childhood, and he said himself at one point that he was no longer interested in doing avant-garde work, because everybody was doing avant-garde. A lot of his workwas very funny, like Dada or Surrealist work, and very simple, but sometimes that was missed."
Often the plays themselves were all but missed. Such was Kantor's way of working that, right up until opening night, no script or record of rehearsals had been kept on paper. It's an attitude that Cumbernauld's incoming artistic director and co-director of Dorian Gray, Ed Robson, has co-opted into the working process.
"I studied Kantor's work a lot, " he says, "so to work first hand with a major figure such as Zofia is a real thrill. I originally took part in one of her workshops, so to work at this level, and to introduce Zofia's work to Cumbernauld is very exciting."
When Kalinska finally left Cricot 2 to create her own work, which began with a version of Jean Genet's The Maids, she admits to being "very scared about what Kantor would think, because I'd worked with him for 20 years since I was a young actress".
"But he never came to see my work.
He was always too busy concentrating on his own work, " she says.
Kalinska last visited Scotland with two mini Edinburgh Festival Fringe hits. Requiem For Kantor and Plaisirs D'Amour were performed by herself and others for her Krakow-based Aeriel Theatr. She lives in a small town outside Krakow, which, by all accounts, resembles Cumbernauld.
Kalinska's production of Dorian Gray comes at a crucial time for Cumbernauld Theatre. After ploughing a populist furrow for several years, former artistic director Simon Sharkey's appointment as associate director for education at the National Theatre of Scotland left the theatre in limbo. Just prior to Robson taking over, Cumbernauld became a victim of the Scottish Arts Council's recent funding shake up, when it was taken off fixed-term funding and asked to apply project by project. If this continues, by this time in 2007 Cumbernauld will almost certainly be closed as a producing house.
If all goes well, The Privately Personal lives of Dorian Gray will be restaged in 2007, with a possible visit to Krakow to follow. In the meantime, this three-night run is a rare opportunity to savour a theatre unlike our own. With actor Sandy Grierson, also an attendee of one of Kalinska's workshops, playing the title role, it's almost as if Kantor's baton is being passed down to a new generation.
"I wanted to make a piece of theatre that signalled a new era for Cumbernauld Theatre, " Robson says. "Outside the Edinburgh Festival, few international collaborations go on. But because Cumbernauld's on a periphery, artistically and geographically in relation to the central built, we thought it was ripe to explore different ways of working. There's an exchange of ideas, in terms of generations and of the two different cultures involved."
Kalinska is open about the artistic debt she owes to Kantor, and its something she's carrying with her into Dorian Gray. "His theatre was so simple, " she says, "but so strong."
Dorian Gray, Cumbernauld Theatre, Thursday to Saturday.