A trans-historical man

Braun's retirement is beginning of a new chapter in globetrotting journey

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It's 1982 - a year after the communist government in Poland instituted martial law, censoring the arts and forcing many playwrights, directors, artists and intellectuals to begin working illegally through a cultural underground.

Fifty people are crammed into the living room of a Polish home. In front of them, in the adjoining dining room, sits a row of actors - their faces illuminated by desk lamps and candles. Everyone knows the risks and potential consequences of being there, but they have still gathered to observe the reading of Kazimierz Braun's "Valesa."

"Valesa" is the first of two plays Braun produced illegally through the Polish underground.

"It was like a bad dream," Dr. Braun said of martial law. "A nightmare."

"Valesa" was a premonition; he began writing its plot about what could happen if martial law were declared over Poland before it actually occurred.

Braun faced intensified cultural oppression and had to persist through confrontations with the communist government from 1981-85. He moved out of Poland in '85 to find work.

None of it made him consider quitting on his lifelong love of theater, though.

Whether he was on the stage, directing actors and helping them understand their role within a play or embracing the "gypsy life" and moving to direct various productions all over the world, Braun was constantly moving throughout his life. He didn't settle down until he came to UB 29 years ago. Still, his passion for passing on his knowledge of theater has kept him active as a professor in UB's Department of Theatre and Dance.

To date, "Kaz," as many people know him, has directed more than 155 plays around the world, written 50 books about theater and its history and received more than 20awards - including a Golden Owl award in Vienna, a Chivalry Cross, the Officer's Cross and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic. He has also received Guggenheim and Fulbright awards.

Braun's production of "The Tempest," which opened in the Center For the Arts' Black Box Theater in March, was his last at UB. After the 2014-15 academic year, Braun will retire.

***

To understand Braun today, it's essential to understand his past. He was born to two well-educated parents in 1936, in Mokrsko Dolne, a province of Kielce, Poland.

His father was a lawyer and graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where his mother also graduated and studiedPolish literature.

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the town where Braun and his family lived became occupied. They were expelled.

"Our house was incorporated into Germany and we were expelled as Poles," Braun explained.

A year before the war had begun, Braun's family had a summerhouse built in the Polish countryside, which became their refuge for five years during the war.

There, Braun was homeschooled by his parents, who immersed him in the world of literature, poetry, theater and religion. From a young age, Braun read poetry, which he would recite during family reunions and gatherings.

"My parents organized [an] artistic and cultural life [for us] ... we had a home theater in which we, the children, performed and of course we did a lot of reading," Braun said.

A family full of actors, playwrights, pianists and other intellectuals surrounded him.

His uncle, Jerzy Braun, was a playwright, poet and philosopher who became a leader of the Polish underground during World War II. Another of Braun's uncles was an actor who would visit the summerhouse to recite and perform various plays.

One of the Braun family's biggest inspirations was Braun's aunt, Jadwiga Domanska.

Domanska was an actress who starred in several plays and was a courier for the Polish resistance, the Armia Krajowa, or "Home Army." She was caught trying to cross the border between Nazi-occupied Warsaw and Soviet-occupied Wilno.

After being caught and sentenced to eight years in a Soviet Gulag (a forced labor camp), she was one of many prisoners of war released after the Polish and Soviet governments signed a treaty. She served one year of her sentence, and upon release joined the newly formed Polish army and became the general manager of the army's dramatic theater.

Her actions made her a legend in the family.

Braun's devotion to poetry, literature and theater growing up was only matched by his devotion to his spiritual Catholic upbringing. At a very early age, Braun began to discover that "there is more to reality."

"It was my environment from the very beginning," Braun said. "From my childhood throughout my life [until] today ... basic and essential in it is the belief that there is more to reality. There is more than life as we see it and perceive it."

Braun's deep-rooted spiritual beliefs are a way for him to experience the other parts of reality, like theater is a way for him to expose those parts to his audience.

And these two elements, theater and religion, guided Braun for most of his life. The two even merged in many of the plays he directed later in his career.

"Father Maximilian's Cell," a play he directed in Poland in 2011, tells the story of Maximilian Kolbe, a devout monk, teacher, writer and journalist who died in Auschwitz in 1941. Braun describes him as "someone living here [on Earth] working very hard, but all the time being open to heaven ... [he] was a modern man and in a way a trans-historical man - taking values of the past, living today and open to future."

Braun could similarly be considered a trans-historical man. In his work as a professor and director, he takes values of his past, applies them to the present and looks onward to the future.

***

Although Braun was passionate about theater, he focused on Polish literature when he first attended the University of Poznań. During this time, he became a well-known expert on the famous Polish romantic poet Norwid. But as his studies progressed, he became more interested in acting and directing.

The university had a theater that Braun began acting in. Eventually, he became good enough to perform in a local professional theater, at which point he decided he wanted to go into directing. Anyone could apply to the Warsaw School of Drama as long as he or she had the equivalent of a master's degree.

After graduating from the University of Poznań in 1958 with a Master's of Polish literature, he applied to the Warsaw School of Drama. After a grueling three-day entrance exam, he was accepted.

As a student in Warsaw, Braun met two of the most important people in his life: his biggest critic and adviser, his wife, Zophia, and Karol Józef Wojtyla, who went on to become Pope John Paul II.

As a young priest, Wojtyla was a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin, later renamed the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin. At the university, Wojtyla created a group in which he mentored students, and Braun became a member.

Like Braun's uncle, Jerzy, Wojtyla was an underground actor and playwright during World War II, according to Braun. Shortly after the war, Wojtyla joined the seminary, but he never lost his interest in theater, Braun said. Braun believes that Wojtyla got close to him to remain connected, educated and advised on theater.

In 1978, Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. After being friends for years, Braun received multiple audiences with the Pope in the Vatican and saw him for the last time in 1998, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the group's creation.

"Because he was a poet, he was an actor, he was an academic teacher and he was a thinker [and a] mystic, his impression on me was very important," Braun said.

While Wojtyla was crucial part of Braun's spiritual development, Zophia was instrumental in his career as a director.

"My mom was instrumental in my dad's career in helping him move from directing mostly classes to directing contemporary drama," said Justyna Braun, their daughter, who is an English professor at SUNY Geneseo. "She gave him the plays of a well-known Polish playwright and said, 'Why don't you read this?' And he did, and it was a turning point in his career."

Braun worked tirelessly toward his Master of Directing and directed his first professional play, Nora Szczepańska's "The Cooks," in 1961.

Over the next 20 years, Braun directed 95 plays all over Europe, primarily in Poland. "Directing is a sort of gypsy life," he said.

Between 1962 and 1988, Braun earned a Ph.D. in Polish Literature from Poznań University and two habilitations (higher versions of a Ph.D.) in the History of Theatre at Wroclaw and University and Directing at the School of Drama in Warsaw.

Braun submitted his dissertation for directing in 1984, shortly before he left Poland, but didn't get his degree until 1988. The School of Drama told him he would never get the degree, but he received a letter in the mail while he was living in the United States years later that said he got the degree anyway.

Braun's constant movement wasn't just dictated by his career.

"We had to move constantly from one city to another ... because of political reasons," Zophia said. "He was chased by the Communist Party. They didn't like him very much."

He was relentlessly pursued for his anti-communist views.

***

After the "Iron Curtain" fell over Europe following World War II and Poland became a communist nation, there were "waves of protests and uprisings," according to Braun, because Polish people resisted that regime.

For religious, ideological and political reasons, Braun never became a member of the Communist Party. His choice meant that his plays were often prohibited and underwent intense amounts of censorship - more than others, especially those belonging to the party.

He often participated in protests during the Solidarity movement and continued producing, directing and putting on plays. The institution of martial law in December 1981 changed everything.

Before it was instated, "officials could pretend like people had freedom, like they gave freedom to artists and like they didn't want to see what everyone was saying about the regime," he said.

At the time, Braun was the general manager and artistic director of the WrocÅaw Contemporary Theatre, which he described as one of the best professional theaters in Poland. He was also a professor in the School of Drama at Wroclaw University.

Braun recognized the significance of his positions as not just a means of furthering his own directorial career, but as something that gave him prominence within Poland's artistic community.

Because of his prominence, when censorship became a major issue for the artistic community throughout Poland, Braun became a leader of the underground culture movement, just like his uncle Jerzy did during World War II.

Through his illegal underground connections, Braun produced multiple plays and held readings and performances of them in people's homes.

"Imagine in an ordinary living room, in an apartment or a building ... 60, 70, 80 people cramped, sitting close to each other and the play is read," Braun recalled. "Actors perform in a way that the space allowed them to do. [There was] some lighting, improvised with regular desk lamps. Incredible theater. Incredibly intense."

A copy of "Valesa" was smuggled out of Poland with the help of the cultural attaché in the Canadian Embassy in Warsaw and a version of it premiered in the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in December 1983.

Braun's daughter, Justyna, who was 8, attended one of his illegal productions with her mother. Even at that age, Justyna described it as something that formed her political consciousness and sympathies and began helping her develop intellectually and artistically.

In addition to illegal play productions, Braun also organized illegal parties of artists and scholars, concerts and art exhibitions in churches, which weren't checked by censorship officials, and held lectures in private homes. When Braun signed a letter of protest that circulated through the underground, he was arrested and interrogated for hours.

"All the time, it was fight for freedom, freedom of expression," Braun said. "The situation in Poland was a lack of political freedom, lack of personal freedom. In theater [there was] constant censorship and pressure. Imagine that every play to be produced [in a] theater had to be censored. I was trying all the time to push those boundaries imposed by the regime to enlarge my freedom."

Eventually, Braun pushed too far.

His adaptation of Albert Camus' novel "The Plague" was the beginning of the end for his career in communist Poland. Written during World War II, Camus' novel used metaphorical language to describe the situation of France under Nazi occupation. But Braun adapted the novel into a play and used the same metaphor of a plague being unleashed on a populace to discuss the situation of Poland under the "unwanted" dominion of communism.

Before a play could open to the public, the production, script and a final rehearsal had to be approved by a censor. When a censor came to observe a rehearsal of Braun's adaptation of "The Plague," Braun lied and said, "I'm following Camus and the metaphor refers to the totalitarian Nazi system, not the communist system." Braun called it "a shield that allowed me to [get the play passed censorship]."

Unlike "Valesa," this play wasn't produced and displayed underground in someone's private home; it was put on in the WrocÅaw Contemporary Theatre and premiered on May 6, 1983.

"It was a metaphor. The characters did not say, 'I'm talking about communism, which is bad and should be rejected and so on,'" Braun said. "But it was obvious that this was the message of the production and because it was a good production and it was well known ... because it was so obviously anti-communist, this was practically the production [that got me] fired."

After "The Plague," Braun directed four more plays before he was fired from the Wroclaw Contemporary Theatre. This, however, was only the beginning. After being fired as the theater's general manager and artistic director on July 5, 1984, he was fired from his position as a professor in the School of Drama in Wroclaw. For a while, Braun was in what he described as a "void." He was jobless.

"He came home one day and said, '[Zophia], I lost my job. I don't know what to do next.' And we didn't know for a while," Zophia said.

Because he was running the theater successfully and becoming a well-known director in Poland and Europe, Braun was outraged that management had taken his job from him. He saw it as a malicious decision.

"I got terribly angry ... it was so unjust, so unfounded," Braun said. "[When] I was dismissed, they took away everything from me because of political reasons ... My theater was doing very well and I had successes in Poland and internationally with theater ... they interrupted me doing theater, which I was doing quite well and I wanted to continue to do."

Though he was furious, he didn't lose hope; he didn't quit.

"He is truly an artist because he could have spent his whole life just following the rules and doing what he was told, but he pushed boundaries," said Ariel Judson, a senior theater major who played one of four Ariels - spirits - in "The Tempest." "Unfortunately, he was punished for that, but that just shows how much of an artist he truly is."

***

When some of Braun's work started becoming prohibited and the rest became increasingly censored, theater directors and professors from the United States began inviting him to direct plays. In the early '80s, he produced a play based on Tadeusz Różewicz's "Cardindex" at the University of Connecticut and Notre Dame. He also taught a two-week-long series of workshops about Polish theater at the City University of New York.

He began making friends and developing connections with actors, playwrights and professors across the country. When they found out he had lost everything and couldn't get a job, they encouraged him to move to the United States.

"Kaz told me one night, after many weeks of thinking about it, 'I should try with the States,'" Zophia said. "He told me, 'I'm going to try it,' and he called some people over here in the States. 'Is it possible to find a job? Is it possible to come over?'"

His friends told him yes, it was possible, and implored him to try it.

The Polish government, however, wouldn't allow Braun to leave, so his friends in the States sent telegrams to the Ministry of Culture, which needed to give Braun permission to direct abroad and approve its portion of his visasaying, 'We want this director. Give him a passport. Give him an exit visa.'

Finally, the government allowed Braun to leave, but he had to leave his wife and three children behind.

***

Braun spent the majority of 1985 teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and commuting to New York University as a visiting professor teaching the history of directing and directing for one day each week. Unable to get their exit visas, his family was still in Poland.

"It was very hard to be separated from them and the situation in Poland was very dangerous at that time," Braun said. "I was all the time worried about them."

While Braun was working in the States and sending money to support his family back home, Zophia was summoned to the police station and interrogated for a day.

"They tried to tell [Zophia] I wasn't going to return. They tried to expel her from our apartment because I was the owner and I wasn't there," Braun said. "It was unpleasant."

For the first five months that they were apart, phones in Poland were disabled, so the Brauns were forced to communicate through letters, which took 2-3 weeks and were read by the censor bureau. When phone lines were reestablished in Poland, calling a Polish phone number prompted an automated message informing the caller that the call was being monitored and recorded.

***

Braun was only planning on teaching in the States for a year. At the end of his year at Swarthmore, Braun was about to return home to his family when his wife and Justyna received their exit visas and traveled to America. Braun and Zophia's other two children were already grown up and remained in Poland.

Leaving her oldest children behind was difficult for Zophia, but knowing Braun would be there to help Zophia and Justyna adjust to a new way of life was reassuring.

"I could always rely on him," Justyna said. "I knew that things would be taken care of, I knew that my questions would be answered, I knew that my dad would make sure we had a sense of stability and a sense of security and that good decisions were being made on my behalf."

Braun oversaw all of the paperwork necessary for his family to obtain their green cards and citizenship. He also ensured that he could provide for them and give them a proper home to live in.

After teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and directing a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, he landed at UB.

"There was a choice: either to pursue work in a career as a professional director, but this would mean traveling all the time, all over a big country," Braun said "Trying to get a new directing proposal and [traveling away from home] for months or to try to establish myself here at UB."

Braun's previous work directing in the States helped him to quickly overcome the language barrier because actors and directors share a universal language no the matter the dialect.

He accepted a position at UB in 1986 but didn't start teaching until 1987. He took a Regents Professorship at the University of California, Santa Cruz and began producing a play at Guthrie Theater.

In the fall of 1986, Braun and his family embarked on a 12-day road trip from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, to California, which exposed them to the enormity of the American landscape.

After the play concluded and Braun finished his semester at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he and his family once again embarked back to Swarthmore before they came to Buffalo, where Braun began teaching the following spring semester.

"I reaped the benefits of our move to the United States," Justyna said. "For the first time, my dad had a steady job ... after he got tenure, his professional position became very stable, which is more than most theater directors can say. So because of that stability, he had more time to spend with me."

***

Next year will mark Braun's last at UB. Braun has spent the last 28 years in Buffalo teaching students and colleagues everything he could about theater.

"This will close in a year one very important chapter of my work and life," Braun said.

Ask people to describe how they feel about their time with Braun and what he has done for the Department of Theatre and Dance and you'll almost universally evoke a sense of speechlessness. There's always a pause, a struggle to find the right words to describe Braun's impact.

"I cannot say things that are eloquent enough to represent how much respect and love I have for Kaz Braun," said Kathleen Golde, the cofounder and associate artistic director of the Buffalo Laboratory Theater, who has known Braun for almost two decades and worked on multiple plays with him.

Braun once told Golde something she will never forget - in fact, she has it written on a post-it note that sits on her desk: "Sometimes, in order for the tree to grow, you have to cut some branches."

In this way, Golde sees Braun as a strong, intelligent tree with deep roots throughout the department - roots that will leave an enormous gap.

"It is going to be very hard for someone to fill that gap because he is such a great role model and teacher," said David Remple, a junior theater and media study major who played Prospero in Braun's production of "The Tempest."

Remple stated something multiple others echoed: he feels sadness and loss for students who will never get to learn from, study under and be guided by Braun.

As Judson put it, "It's a shame that future students won't be working with him. I feel terrible that they won't get the same amazingness that is Kaz Braun in their lives. And I think the theater department is losing one of their best professors. But he will go on to do great things ... His energy is always 110 percent, so even though he won't be teaching here, I know that he will actively be participating in the theater world for the rest of his life ... I love him."

Although his wife worries about what will happen when Braun is no longer able to teach, which has "been most important for him," Braun isn't showing any signs of letting up.

Since 1989, Braun has been working closely with Maria Nowotarska, who runs the Polish Theatre of Toronto. They have completed six productions together and are currently holding rehearsals for a seventh, entitled "Lanckorońska."

The play is about a countess by the same name who was a member of the Polish resistance and was arrested and sentenced to death but avoided execution. Later in life, she published memoires about the atrocities she witnessed during World War II, donated her family's massive art collection to Poland and began the Lanckorońska Foundation to promote preservation of Polish culture.

When Braun came to Buffalo, he didn't know about the Polish Theatre of Toronto or know Nowotarska was in charge. He was reading a Polish magazine one day when he stumbled upon an interview with her, in which she talked about working with many directors, including Braun.

Nowotarska was the star in multiple of Braun's plays, starting with a version of Norwid's "Behind the Wings" in 1970.

"I was very happy because she is an excellent actress," Braun said. "Nowotarska has a daughter who is a professional actress from Kraków, so I began working with them. We produced and I wrote several plays, which they produced and I directed with them."

Braun is also working on a set of memoires.

"Each [of the three sections] is about 40 pages long. I tried to keep it concise, but I've only finished my [time at the] university," he said. "I'm quite old. I've lived a long life in theater and academia. There's a lot to talk about."

email: arts@ubspectrum.com