When Stephen Sondheim wrote the song "Art Isn't Easy'' for "Sunday in the Park with George,'' he was being ironic.
But art has not been easy for director Jan Skotnicki and stage designer Jaroslav Malina. They both dealt with repressive Eastern bloc governments during the long careers in the theater.
Now the men live and teach in newly emerging democracies. Their work can be seen in Lawrence in the upcoming production of the opera "Carmen,'' which opens Friday at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall.
"Carmen'' is co-produced by the Kansas University Theatre and the department of music and dance. Skotnicki directs and Malina designed the sets and costumes. Julian Shew, the director of the University Symphony, will conduct the orchestra, and Mark Ferrell, associate professor of music and dance, is vocal director. Delbert Unruh, professor of theater and film, designed the lighting.
SKOTNICKI DISCOVERED his artistic inclinations as a student in Lodz, Poland, in the 1950s and early '60s. He joined political theater groups, including the 7:15 Company, named after the starting time of the performances.
"When we were students we got into political theater, and of course we had trouble,'' Skotnicki said in a recent interview. "Everybody got into political trouble. I didn't get any permission or rights to leave the country. I couldn't work as a journalist. I spent some time sweeping floors. Of course I was still in theater, but my official profession was floor sweeper. I was very proud of that.''
He went on to teach at the Warsaw Academy of Theatre Arts, where he still is situated, and has directed more than 100 productions around the world as well as Polish television series.
HE HAS directed the plays of arguably the two great Polish playwights of the century: Stanislaw Witkiewicz, who wrote the plays "The Water Hen'' and "The Shoemakers'' and who committed suicide when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939; and Slawomir Mrozek, the absurdist author of "Vatzlav,'' who lived in exile in Paris and recently served a residency at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis.
"Mrozek was banned in 1968,'' Skotnicki said. "I directed a play called `Turkey,' it was a good production, and we produced it six times. Then I went on summer vacation, and when I came back he was already banned. Mrozek had become politically unpopular.''
But Poland offered more freedom than Czechoslovakia after all, Poland produced the avant-garde director Jerzy Grotowski.
"POLAND WAS more liberal than some of the Communist bloc,'' he said. "Polish people have always been able to do things much easier. We didn't have as much censorship or trouble. Poland was called the most joyous barrack in the concentration camp.''
Malina ended up feeling the effects of the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring a time in 1968 when the Communist government began instituting liberalized reforms. A native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, Malina studied at Charles University and the Academy of Performing Arts. He has designed productions around the world since 1965, including a 1987 production of "Antigone'' at KU. He also designed world and Czech premieres of plays by Vaclav Havel, the oppressed Czech writer who is now president.
WHEN THE CRACKDOWN occured in 1968, Malina was in London. But he returned home that December, and he found it difficult to find a job. Later on, he continued to work in stage design, particularly at the F.X. Salda Theater in Liberec. But when he went abroad the government would hold his family back.
"In the '70s it was very bad,'' he said. "In 1977, they made people sign a loyalty charter for artists. All artists had to sign it, but I couldn't. Havel wouldn't either. He is a tremendous person, and I felt that I couldn't sign it.''
Malina, who is now a scenography professor at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, was active at a time when Czech designer Josef Svoboda invented what has been called action design a system that incorporates movable stage pieces and in some cases film to add energy to a production. But Malina's own style is subtler, he said.
"THAT KIND of design is not my cup of tea,'' he said. "It's too high tech. Svoboda also used the system to advance his career. The productions were not competitive. I would have $20,000 dollars for a production and he would have $600,000.''
In some ways, the two men's production of "Carmen'' parallels how Westerners once saw the rivalry between the bad East and the good West. First produced in 1875 in Paris, Georges Bizet's opera depicts Carmen as a fiery gypsy who seduces a soldier named Don Jose. Don Jose deserts his lover, Micaela, and in turn Carmen falls for a bullfighter. Tragedy ensues.
Skotnicki says he sees Micaela as purity and Carmen as corruption in the first act Carmen shows up wearing black and Micaela white.
"In `Carmen' you have a fight between evil and good,'' he said. "It's between the angelic and the demonic. So Micaela is an angel, and angels are always late. That's why the opera is a tragedy.''
MALINA'S set and costumes reflect the aura of Seville during the period in which the production is set. The stage is encompassed by a platform constructed to look like an arena. Essentially, the entire four-act opera takes place in a metaphorical bullring. The costumes take off on Spanish themes and seek a harmony of color, he said.
"I very much admire Spanish culture and Spanish painters,'' Malina said. "Spanish culture, particularly Catalonian culture, is very emotional.''
Skotnicki said he decided not to experiment too much with "Carmen'' at a university because students, who may be seeing the opera for the first time, need to understand it as written.
"I am trying to be faithful in some ways to the original script and the idea of the show,'' he said. "These are not experienced performers, although there are some very talented people in the cast. This means I should try to follow the script.''
"Carmen'' will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. next Sunday, and again at 8 p.m. April 10 and 11 at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office.