THERE CAN BE FEW MORE sensitive challenges for a theatre director than to cast the role of a foreigner. Unless they're happy to go down the' Allo ' Allo route and put an offensive national stereotype on stage, they are limited in the number of actors they can draw on. Try finding a Scottish actor of Asian, African, Chinese or Eastern European descent and you'll be searching in a very small pool for performers who, even if they have the looks and accent, still might not be right for the part.
So you can imagine the delight of director Matthew Zajac when he found Magdalena Kaleta. Not only was she a perfect match for the part of Anna, a Second World War refugee from Poland, but she also had six years experience in the ensemble of the Teatr Zaglebia in Sosnowiec, south-west Poland, and had been living in Glasgow for three years. Today, Scotland has no shortage of Polish plumbers and bar staff, but it's not exactly bubbling over with Polish actors.
Zajac's good fortune means his Dogstar Theatre production of Henry Adam's play, 'e Polish Quine, which has just opened for a six-week Scottish tour, has an extra tang of authenticity. Written by the author of the post-9/11 satire The People Next Door and the anti-imperialist Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5, the play tells the story of a man who retreats to the tranquility of an Aberdeenshire farm after suffering the horrors of war. The Wick-born playwright explores themes of trauma, xenophobia and love as the former soldier's relationship develops with the Polish refugee, herself a victim of war crimes.
It's a story that Kaleta responds to, not only because she herself has left Poland, but because of her family history. "There are some parts in the play where I had to bring up my own experience, because it helped me," says Kaleta, whose grandmother survived two wars. "But it was more important that I built a real person with a lot of different shadows and patterns. Anna went through hell, but she has a new life to live and wants to leave the past behind. In the beginning, like everywhere, people sometimes are not that friendly, but she doesn't care about what they say. I'm not saying I'm the same person, but I do try to get on with my life."
Unlike most recent arrivals, Kaleta came to Scotland for love, not money. In 2004 she took advantage of her theatre's long summer break to spend a couple of months in London. On her very first day she met a man and fell in love. Her new partner's cousin lived in Glasgow, so together they moved north and she became pregnant. Acting went on the backburner while she brought up baby Michelle, now 20 months old.
"When I saw an advert saying they were looking for Polish actors, I thought maybe now is a good time," she says. "I'm glad I responded. Dogstar is an incredible company. Of course it's different because in my country we rehearse for nearly two months and sit round a table talking about characters for two weeks. Here we had four weeks, but it was very constructive. It was a challenge for me, but I'm honoured that I got to work with the company because all of them are great. It's my first experience of acting in Scotland and I'll remember it to the end of my life."
Sadly, the relationship with her daughter's father came to an end but, after a period of readjustment, Kaleta decided Scotland was where she wanted to be. "When I broke up with my partner I was lonely, I was a single mother and I missed my family, my country and my friends," she says. "I was desperate to go back.
"But I've found my new home here, I've made a lot of friendships and I'm happy."
That feeling has only been strengthened by seeing more of the country as a result of working with the Inverness-based Dogstar. When we speak, she's in Kingussie with dates in Dervaig, Lochinver and Strathpeffer to come.
"I knew Scotland was beautiful because I've seen it in the movies, but it's totally different when you can travel and see everything," she says. "The mountains, the sea, it's a beautiful country and that's why I want to stay here."
As well as acting in English for the first time, she has been given the secondary challenge of dealing with the Doric tongue. "When I first came to Scotland I thought I'd struggle all my life to understand people and now I help a lot of Polish people who are not good at English," she says. "But reading the Doric in the script for the first time, I thought, 'Oh, my God!' Glaswegian is nothing compared with Doric. But I've got used to it, it's very melodic and I feel closer to it."
Kaleta says she's always felt welcome here, although she remains connected to her background by attending a Polish church and shopping at Polish delis. "I like to feel I have Polish roots," she says. "In London I was very lost, but in Glasgow people are very generous and welcoming. Wherever I go I am given those beautiful smiles. When I go to Poland now, after three weeks I want to get back to Glasgow."
• 'e Polish Quine is at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, tonight, and across Scotland until 23 June. Visit www.dogstartheatre.co.uk
What other people are saying...
"It seemed obvious to try and find a Polish actress to play this character, and Magdalena had quite an impressive CV from theatres in Poland, where she worked for seven years in some fairly major roles. I was taking a chance in a way because this is her first role in English but she's risen to the challenge fantastically well.
"She understood the world of the play, which is about the shocking effect the Second World War had on individuals, and that it took a long time to recover from.
"The audiences have been aware that we've got a real Polish actress and that gives an extra tension or frisson of excitement, to watch Magdalena achieving what she does on stage. It'll be interesting to see how her acting career goes in Scotland. The available roles are going to be limited in a way, but there's much more openness now among Scottish theatre companies to embrace actors who aren't Scottish, because immigration is so much a part of contemporary life now. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend her to other directors."
Matthew Zajac, Dogstar Theatre Company