When thinking about staging their next project while eating pizza, young theatre professionals Tadeusz Kabicz and Maciej Pawlak had no idea what their planning would bring.
In Poland, amid the pandemic, director Tadeusz Kabicz was searching for a show to stage. Knowing that cost-effectiveness would be the only factor theatres would consider for the foreseeable future, he knew it had to be a small ensemble and low-cost production. That is when Thrill Me came to mind.
Thrill Me is a musical drama by Stephen Dolginoff, based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the so-called “thrill killers” who murdered a young boy in 1924 just to commit “the perfect crime.” The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with a 1958 parole hearing. Since its premiere in 2003, stage designers have typically set the scene in a 1920s Chicago household, a prison, and a forest.
Tadeusz Kabicz and young actor Maciej Pawlak saw an opportunity to tell a universally relatable story rather than another 1920s crime tale.
After talking to the author of the musical, they found the Jan Kiepura Masovian Musical Theater in Warsaw, which was interested in producing it. The company was keen on greenlighting the project but pressed them to cut the budget and the involved production crew as much as possible due to public health restrictions.
That’s when they thought to design a minimalistic and easy-to-build scenography. By themselves.
The theatre awarded them the job, and they began to feel more responsible for the show than ever before. Yet, despite having acted and directed on the sets of great designers, they had no first-hand experience with scenography.
Nonetheless, they were filled with ideas that paid particular attention to avoiding implied aesthetics. It was then that they came up with a concept that would enclose all the action in an arena made from wood and LED screens.
The screens would be used to symbolically project and introduce locations from the script, emotional contexts, and featured actors. However, there would be only two actors and a pianist on stage, while two other actors appeared in pre-recorded videos, with one of these sharing several scenes with the live actors on stage.
They thought the idea was uber simple, but they felt the show had much more gravitas that way. It also shifted the tone of the story from criminal and historical to a greater focus on the complicated relationship between the protagonists.
Polish mapping artist Karolina Jacewicz created the video projections, co-creating the world where the action would take place.
The show premiered in August 2020, one day before theatres reduced audience capacity to 25%.
The story’s finale is one that Kabicz and Pawlak would have never predicted. The following year, their stage design was nominated for the 15th Musical Theatre Awards (Teatralne Nagrody Muzyczne), one of Poland’s most coveted prizes in the musical theatre industry.
And it won.
They were astonished and even thought the honor bestowed on them instead of a professional scenographer was inappropriate. Still, the jury had spoken. They chose them for their clever use of innovative storytelling through stage design.
They had never thought their work would achieve such success. They definitely didn’t plan it, considering they spent one night building a mock-up scenography out of pizza boxes cut into shapes, just for fun.
The duo reprised their roles as scenographers and costume designers in the next show they collaborated on – Preludes by Dave Malloy. They took it a step further and designed a more extensive and varied set. One that included a huge Faberge-like egg cage for the pianist that opened like a flower in slow motion. Unfortunately, the show tells the story of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian-themed piece which is no longer being played in Poland, as they stand in solidarity with Ukraine.
The premiere has been postponed twice so far, and it’s not looking like it will play soon. Hopefully, a time will come when it will be possible, and the show will go on.
About the authors
Tadeusz Kabicz – director and screenwriter. He graduated from Krzysztof Kieślowski Film School in Katowice. Before that, he studied Polish and European Culture at the University of Warsaw. He created a few award-winning short films and music videos. He also directed radio and musical plays, for instance, “Thrill me” by Stephen Dolginoff at Mazovia Musical Theatre and “Preludes” by Dave Malloy at Musical Theatre in Łódź. Occasionally, he works in the advertising industry and runs film workshops for teenagers.
Maciej Pawlak – actor and singer, graduated from Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk. His most acclaimed credits include “West Side Story” as Tony, “Pippin” as Pippin, “Thrill Me” as Nathan, “Miss Saigon” as Chris, “The Addams Family” as Lucas, “The Sound of Music” as Rolf, “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Judas, “Pretty Woman” as Happy Man/Giulio, “Legally Blonde” as Emmett Forrest, “Preludes” as Rach.
Karolina Jacewicz, graduate and teacher of animation at UAP in Poznań. Her projects are eclectic images based on classic animation techniques, often combined with broadly understood multimedia. She debuted with the animation “a.e.i.o.u” in 2008 at the exhibition at the Gallery Mittwoch in Berlin. She’s the author of several large-format multimedia projections in various urban spaces in Poland and Berlin. She’s especially known for international opera productions, for which she created advanced multimedia visuals.
About the production
Stephen Dolginoff’s “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story”
Director: Tadeusz Kabicz
Set & costumes designers: Tadeusz Kabicz, Maciej Pawlak
Cast: Maciej Pawlak, Marcin Januszkiewicz
with the guest appearance: Filip Kosior and Mirosław Zbrojewicz
Piano: Karina Komendera
Video designer: Karolina Jacewicz
Lights director: Dariusz Albrycht
Polish translation: Małgorzata Lipska
About the theatre
The Jan Kiepura Masovian Musical Theater in Warsaw was established in April 2005. Since the very beginning, it has been nurturing and continuing the mission of preserving the operetta genre in Warsaw as well as producing concerts and musicals.