Polish stage director, actor-puppeteer, theatre managing director, dramatist and teacher. Jan Wilkowski first collaborated on satirical publications (1945-1948) as a graphic artist, and then studied at the Szkoła Dramatyczna Teatru Lalek (School of Puppetry) in Warsaw (1948-1951), directed by Janina Kilian-Stanisławska at the Niebieskie Migdały Theatre (see Lalka). He began his career as an actor-puppeteer in 1949 at the Niebieskie Migdały. When this theatre was renamed Lalka in 1950, he served as its stage and artistic director (1951-1969).
Wilkowski’s reputation was consolidated in the mid-1950s with Guignol w tarapatach (Guignol in Trouble, 1956), written with Leon Moszczyński, produced together with Adam Kilian, and Wilkowski’s Zaczarowany fortepian (Enchanted Piano, 1957), but especially with O Zwyrtale muzykancie, czyli Jak się góral dostał do nieba (Zwyrtała the Musician, Or How the Tatra Highlander Got to Heaven, 1959) adapted by Wilkowski after a work by Polish poet and dramatist, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer.
In Guignol, where he appeared in the leading role of Jean the Parisian strolling puppeteer, Wilkowski adopted the idea of the theatre within theatre, a dramatic concept produced by the simultaneous presence of the actor-puppeteer and the puppet on stage, applying a Brechtian principle to the classic Guignol, thereby making a contemporary statement about human society and revealing the dangers that money and power can pose. Zaczarowany fortepian exemplified a search for the poetic language of the metaphor in the repertoire for children. O Zwyrtale muzykancie, “the best production in the history of world puppetry”, according to Harro Siegel, was an artistic transposition of a folk, highland imagination and philosophy rooted in the art of the Polish mountain foothills, especially the paintings on glass.
After his departure from Lalka, Wilkowski worked as stage director at the Guliwer Theatre in Warsaw and at the Białostocki Teatr Lalek (Bialystok Puppet Theatre). He was one of the founders, the dean and longtime professor in the Faculty of Puppetry Art at Warsaw’s Theatre Academy of Bialystok, Akademia Teatralna w Białymstoku, where he trained young generations of Polish puppeteers who recognized him as a master. Sporadically, he directed productions in other puppet theatres in Poland as well as in Cuba and the United States. By the 1970s he was already a legend in the field of Polish puppetry.
Wilkowski’s return to the puppet theatre in the 1980s consolidated his reputation and authority among puppeteers. He produced Rzecz o Jędrzeju Wowrze (The Thing About Jędrzej Wowro, 1983), a performance composed in two parts as two separate plays – Spowiedź w drewnie (Confession in Wood) by Wilkowski, and Żywoty świętych (Lives of the Saints) after Jędrzej Wowro (an illiterate farmer and self-taught sculptor who gained national recognition with his art). The plays were produced at the puppet theatre, Teatr Lalek Pleciuga, in Szczecin, winning the Grand Prix at the 1983 Opole Festival. At the Bialystok Puppet Theatre, Wilkowski produced Zielona Gęś (The Green Goose, 1984) and Decameron 8,5 (1986). Elaborately designed and staged plays for adults based on carved figures (Spowiedź), masks (Żywoty), animated objects (Zielona Gęś), and combined techniques (Decameron 8,5) demonstrate Wilkowski’s artistic versatility and the universality of his theatre.
Since his early years in theatre Jan Wilkowski also devoted himself to literature, writing around fifty plays and scenarios for puppet theatres, notably the popular series of plays about the adventures of the teddy bear, Tymoteusz Rymcimci, a children’s puppet hero that observes the world of adults. And, in a more serious vein, Spowiedź w drewnie (Confession in Wood) – a touching and deeply humanistic dialogue between the artist, Jędrzej Wowro, a folk sculptor, and his works, the carved figures of saints – one of the great works of Polish dramaturgy for the puppet theatre.
Several Polish television puppet series are connected to the name of Jan Wilkowski, author, actor and producer: Teatrzyk w koszu (Theatre in a Basket, 1958-1965), Ula z Ib (Ula of Ib, 1964-1965), Ula z Ilb (Ula of IIb, 1965-1966), Ula i świat (Ula and the World, 1966-1968), Przygody skrzata Dzięcielinka (Adventures of Sprite Cloverleaf, 1969-1972), and Karampuk (1977).
- Jurkowski, Henryk. “Wspomnienia o Janie Wilkowskim” [Memories of Jan Wilkowski]. Teatr. Nos. 3 and 4. Warszawa, 1998.
- Jurkowski, Henryk. Métamorphoses. La marionnette au XXe siècle [Metamorphoses. The Puppet in the Twentieth Century]. Charleville-Mézières: Éditions de l’Institut international de la marionnette, 2000. Second edition revised and updated. “La main qui parle” [The Hand that Speaks] series. Montpellier: L’Entretemps/Éditions de l’Institut international de la marionnette, 2008.
- Waszkiel, Marek. Jan Wilkowski. Dokumentacja działalności [Jan Wilkowski. Documentation of His Work]. “Lalkarze. Materiały do biografii” series. Ed. M. Waszkiel. Vol. 7. Łódź, 1995 (with a bibliography).
- Waszkiel, Marek. Dzieje teatru lalek w Polsce, 1944-2000 [History of Puppet Theatre in Poland, 1944-2000]. Warszawa: Akademia Teatralna im. Aleksandra Zelwerowicza, 2012.[S]