Who Let You In Here, Theatre Provocateuses?
The situation with Feminist perspective in the institution of Polish repertory theatre resembles that of choreography: it is great that it exists; it can often even be appreciated for bringing in a new interesting perspective – but only provided that it stays away at a safe distance and does not threaten the dominant tendency. Its presence is accepted as long as artists or employees of the arts sector refrain from asking difficult questions about the legitimacy of the current work systems and structural hierarchies – they may raise such issues as long as they work at smaller theatres, in a project mode, and speak the voice of the minority, weak enough not to undermine the status quo. This situation was very pertinently summarised by Weronika Szczawińska in a conversation with Agata Adamiecka-Sitek and Milena Gauer:
For some ten years, we have known that “Polish theatre is women,” that we have ever more female directors who work on all stages including the important, fashionable and prestigious ones, even those called “national.” So we have conducted an efficient and superficially feminist shift in the theatre – and it’s all done. But Milena and I are convinced that in fact nothing like that has been accomplished. That in the end feminism in Polish theatre is useful primarily as a promotional PR strategy, switched on when clear identification situating a cultural product in the right context is needed.
In my opinion, the Polish model of the institution of repertory theatre, regardless of many beautiful declarations and several truly fascinating programmes, is neither a space of real democracy nor an equal-rights institution – it actually never was. After all, it was established in a specific place and at a specific time in order to serve the interests of a specific social group and consolidate the order that it imposed. Therefore, the activities of those artists and employees of the arts sector who reveal and challenge the operative work principles as well as propose new equal-rights forms of collaboration, ask about the possibility of emancipation of their collaborators and fight for the visibility of the usually hidden work, are indeed accepted and even held in high esteem, but only as long as they remain dispersed and ephemeral, as long as they do not pose a real threat to the stable status quo.
In my curatorial practice, I have often heard the opinion that because I try to critically examine the theatre or festival institution and initiate collaborations with artists for whom this perspective is important, I work in a niche, and therefore I should go back to where my place is: to a basement/a small theatre/a squat. The opinion that institutional mainstream repertory theatre is not for me, as it ultimately also turned out with one of the most important international theatre festivals in Poland – even though I co-created its programme and it owes its position also to my work. This argument often recurs in response to programme proposals that introduce critical thinking and ask questions about the existing institutional and social order – that was the accusation faced, for instance, by Magda Grudzińska and Weronika Szczawińska when they headed the Bogusławski Theatre in Kalisz as well as the reproach to the programme direction that we proposed with Grzegorz Reske between 2013 and 2017 for the Theatre Confrontations festival in Lublin. As it turns out, critical activities are accepted in a given institution provided that they do not pose a threat to the current hegemony.
The Polish system of theatre production is still dominated by the hierarchical and patriarchal model of repertory theatre (also followed by many former alternative theatres and independent art centres), which is entirely subordinated to the Romantic myth of the artist who works individually, who has experienced a flash of inspiration while sitting in a dark cellar, and has at his disposal a devoted team of employees always at his beck and call. That is why even the sheer presence of more and more women theatre directors and heads of the institutions of repertory theatre will not change the situation of actresses, invisible (often female) administrative employees, technicians as well as craftsmen and craftswomen working at an institution as long as the current hierarchical structures and models of power and oppression continue to be respected and reproduced. Change may occur only when the Feminist movement, or any other equal-rights movement, is no longer limited to the level of ideas and essays in beautifully edited programmes, but finally begins to be applied at the structural level of the institution and in employment relations.
At the same time, the Romantic myth of the artist who is allowed more because they have a talent at their disposal – a myth of fundamental importance for repertory theatre – holds extremely strong in Poland (also in the leftist circles), and the current political context strengthens it even more. It is because of this myth, for instance, that double standards can be used and sexist or violent behaviour can be accepted if it concerns people from the same social class. This mechanism has been laid bare by the row around Janusz Rudnicki, who is allowed more as an outstanding writer and a good friend – staunchly defended by Polish left-wing Feminist intellectuals and journalists. A similar phenomenon occurs in the theatre world, where misogynistic and violent behaviour of some artists is supported and accepted (also by the most eminent Feminist women intellectuals and artists), because behind it stands a great talent or a beautiful idea. In turn, the artists and employees of Polish theatre who demand changes in working methods, infringe on the current hierarchies and question the institutional order are viewed rather in terms of random disruptions; they may be seen as petty, problematic, incapable of strategic thinking (you should not fall into disfavour because nobody will give you a job); they incarnate the unexpected and the dangerous, and their behaviour is frequently seen as – you guessed it – mad.
These observations offer me reasons to think that Polish repertory theatre is currently not open to any alternative to the patriarchal and elitist model, which, in turn, ever more often ossifies in self-provincialisation, thus becoming hermetic to unknown forms and making it difficult for local artists and audiences to encounter the international context. For this reason, the Feminist current, akin to every socio-political movement that pursues the goal of eliminating the dominant forms of oppression and dismantling the current mechanisms of the reproduction of power, poses a grave threat to the order of institutional and repertory theatre – which is why it is constantly marginalised, weakened and ridiculed.
Aggravated even more by the current political context, this situation in my opinion clearly shows the failure of critical theatre which we have developed and delighted in so far. Not only has this theatre failed to bring about any social change, but above all it has not managed to revolutionise the principles of production within its own institutions. It has served the development of new narrations and building a new discourse, yet it has not been implemented at the level of institutional structures. We have failed to use it as the basis to develop new working models that could offer an alternative to the dominant hierarchical structure of repertory theatre; we have failed to create new democratic solutions that would prove strong enough to usher in genuine emancipation of actors and actresses.
As a result, the institution of repertory theatre in Poland has found itself in a deadlock of several factors that effectively prevent it from functioning as a democratic institution and an institution that operates for the common good. Firstly, it is based on the model of hierarchical, patriarchal and violent power structure, which it reproduces, most often independently of the declared programme and the head of the institution. Secondly, it is subordinated to the Romantic myth of the artist (mostly male) who is allowed more because he is talented. Thirdly, reflection about public institutions in Poland is dominated by the “folwark” model, in which the entire mechanism is supposed to serve the implementation of ideas and demands of the owner, as it has been shown by Monika Kwaśniewska in the brilliant text The Actor in the Deadlock of Contemporary Folwark Relations, published in “Polish Theatre Journal.”
The fourth and final point pertains to the fact that the stalemate in Polish public theatre after 1989 has been aggravated by the ever greater deadlock between the demands of politicians who expect that repertory theatre, as an institution financed from municipal and/or state funds, should represent the interests of the state (and therefore become a tool to promote those who happen to be in power) and the strong pressure of economists and politicians attached to the neoliberal definition of self-regulating market, who expect institutions to finance themselves (according to the neoliberal principle: “good art earns for itself”) and have attempted to eliminate or drastically cut public funding while putting a constantly growing pressure on effectiveness (more events, always new and more attractive; success measured by the number of sold tickets). In consequence, the institution of public theatre has often been reduced to a machine that goes into overdrive and thus cannot function as a space of real artistic work because it often leaves absolutely no room for exploration, research, testing various directions or risk-taking, not to mention preventing the excessive exploitation of its employees.
And when repertory theatres today become increasingly subordinated to particular interests of politicians or surrender to the pressure of commercialisation, we have neither the power to effectively protest nor a reasonable alternative to offer. The last two years have shown particularly clearly that the institution of public theatre continues to slip out of our hands. Firstly, in a situation when freedom of speech is at peril and overt acts of censorship occur, we stand helpless, writing a string of petitions or tapping into neoliberal solutions (such as crowdfunding), thus strengthening the argument regularly put forward by the conservative side: everything is allowed in art as long as it is privately funded – although, as we have painfully learned from the case of the Dialog – Wrocław International Theatre Festival, this argument also does not work anymore. Having observed the situations of censorship related to Oliver Frljić’s spectacle The Curse at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw (withdrawal of financial support by the Ministry of Culture for the Malta Festival in Poznań because it was co-curated by Oliver Frljić), in the summer of 2017 the organisers of the Wrocław festival took the risky decision to finance the spectacle exclusively from private funds: the performance was to be held only if the viewers decided to cover all the involved costs by purchasing exceptionally expensive tickets. Obviously, such a move is a dangerous step towards further limitations of the frames of the public art institution – access becomes privatised and limited only to the social class who can afford to buy extremely costly tickets. Moreover, it was also a dangerous precedent which showed that critical artistic practices that fail to win the favour of decision-makers in charge of distributing public funds for culture will soon have to rely on private funding. In a certain way, the decision of the festival organisers anticipated such a future scenario. To make matters worse, that solution simply proved ineffective because the Minister of Culture withheld the payment of state funding for the festival when it turned out that Oliver Frljić’s The Curse from the Powszechny Theatre formed part of its programme, which was ultimately carried out only owing to a broad fund-raising action. And although the necessary funds were quickly raised, which was a reassuring proof of the solidarity of a vast part of the theatre milieu and the audience, we are fully aware that the scope of the action was limited to the social group that can afford to co-finance an event like a festival. Does it therefore mean that the target group of a public institution such as a festival consists only of the socially and economically privileged audiences with the means to buy Jan Klata’s memorial blessed candle?
The problem of censorship and the question of what is allowed in publicly funded art did not appear with the premiere of Frljić’s spectacle at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, and not even during the last two years with the Law and Justice party in power. Acts of censorship have recently become more powerful and adopted a direct form (for instance, the withdrawal of funding previously granted to the Malta and Dialog festivals by the Ministry of Culture or the attempt to prevent the premiere of the spectacle Death and the Maiden at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław in 2015), but the phenomenon of economic censorship and self-censorship is much broader and its symptoms could be frequently seen in the recent years in Poland. I am referring here, for instance, to the attempted funding cuts for the EEPAP project in Lublin in response to staging Xavier Le Roy’s spectacle Low Pieces at the Theatre Confrontations in Lublin in 2013; the cancellation of the premiere of Karol Tymiński’s spectacle at the Body/Mind Festival in the autumn of 2015; the prosecutorial proceedings related to staging of Oliver Frljić’s spectacle Naše nasilje i vaše nasilje at the Festival of New Dramaturgies in 2016, which allegedly offended religious feelings and the Polish nation. After the latter performance in Bydgoszcz, a group of protesters appeared in front of the building of the theatre which organised the festival with a banner: “Who let you in here, theatre provocateurs?” This slogan seems to show very well the character of the dispute concerning contemporary public theatre and its institutions. To whom do they actually belong and who decides about it? Who is authorised by a public institution to decide about what is art and what is not, and where its borders lie? And finally: in defence of what institution do we write our subsequent letters, petitions and organise demonstrations? What solutions do we have at our disposal in a situation in which the Polish institutions representing the dominant model of repertory theatre one after another undergo a conservative turn and their directors are replaced with new ones who ruin the achievements of their institutions (as it is the case with the Polski Theatre in Wrocław and the Stary Theatre in Kraków) or, in the best-case scenario, squander their critical potential and interesting programme (for instance at the Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz or the Bogusławski Theatre in Kalisz, where contracts of successful directors were not extended after three seasons in office – they therefore participated in competitions in which they lost with much weaker and less distinctive programme proposals)? How is it possible that after years of pursuing political and critical theatre, after a debate about various forms of democracy, we are left with nothing, intimidated, deprived of the possibility to continue our work, and instead of organising state-wide solidarity actions, we surrender without question to another requirement of competitiveness in a struggle for a place in those scarce institutions that have still remained open to experimentation, explorations and political thinking about art?
We may, of course, ask: why does it matter today when fascists and neo-nationalists are marching on the streets with full acceptance of the government, and when the necropolitical fetishisation of the mythical “death for the motherland” is becoming an official state narrative? Is concentration on the institutional order of theatre really the most urgent task at this moment? We should definitely invest all our forces in the struggle for freedom of speech; yet there is one question that keeps troubling me: whose freedom are we talking about? Who in the Polish theatre milieu has the real freedom to voice their opinions, to speak, to manage the public debate, who is visible and can make their voice heard? Are we now mounting resistance in order to preserve the institutions in their current state or to finally undertake efforts to introduce a real, structural change, to democratise them, to reclaim them as real spaces of the common good which belong to all of us?
I very much fear that in the current political context – given the radical conservative turn and the apparent need to fight for “what is the most important now” and for the inviolability of the institutions that have survived – we will waste the chance to talk about their shape, role and responsibility; that we will not be able to “reclaim” them and the chances of capturing their critical and emancipatory potential will drastically diminish. For, in the current situation, how can we fight for an equal-rights structure and even distribution of both responsibility and visibility without risking accusations of pettiness? Is it appropriate today – when the public discourse is dominated by conservative and nationalistic language and the left has no representation in the Polish parliament – to lay bare the patriarchy and misogynism of leftist art institutions? Obviously, at a time when the most important and interesting theatres are disappearing one after another from the map of Poland, excellent teams of actors and actresses are disbanding, and the space for creating critical art is rapidly shrinking, it is indeed easy to think that it really may not be the best time to pose such questions. Yet, in my opinion, if we do not pose them now, we might never again be able to reclaim our voice.
Marta Keil – performing arts curator, researcher and dramaturg, based in Warsaw, Poland. She created and curates the East European Performing Arts Platform (EEPAP). Between 2012 and 2017 she curated together with Grzegorz Reske Konfrontacje Teatralne — international performing arts festival in Lublin. Worked as curator and dramaturg with i.e. Agnieszka Jakimiak, Rabih Mroué, She She Pop, Agata Siniarska, Ana Vujanović. Between 2014 and 2016 she worked as curator at Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz and co-curated the first edition of the Festival of New Dramaturgies. One of the initiators and curators of the Identity.Move! project. Curated the Dramaturgical Forum at the Zbigniew Raszewski Theater Institute in Warsaw. Editor of the books: “Reclaiming the Obvious: on the Institution of Festival” (2017) and “Dance, Process, Artistic Research. Contemporary Dance in the Political, Economic and Social Context of “Former East” of Europe”(2015). PhD student at the Polish Academy of Science's Art Institute.
How Far Can You Go in an Institution? On a Feminist turn that wasn’t: Agata Adamiecka-Sitek Talks with Milena Gauer and Weronika Szczawińska, “Polish Theatre Journal”, no. 1/2015, http://www.polishtheatrejournal.com/index.php/ptj/article/view/57/114 (access: 8 November 2017)
This problem surfaces in a very interesting way in an interview with the directors of the Powszechny Theatre, Paweł Łysak and Paweł Sztarbowski, which we conducted with Agata Adamiecka-Sitek after the premiere of The Curse: the directors made an effort, very rare in Polish theatre, towards an utmost democratisation of the production of the spectacle and offered the employees who felt uncomfortable with the project a possibility not to take part in it (I consider this situation exceptional as in the majority of repertory theatres known to me the employees who disagree with the programme profile of the directors and spectacles are rather ostracized or mocked). And yet the directors’ attempts to break the hierarchical structure were successful only in a certain measure. What turned out to be an obstacle was the very working model of the repertory theatre: the craftsmen and craftswomen employed at the theatre and creating the stage design do not form part of the team in charge of the spectacle concept, and they often do not have the chance to get to know the concept until the premiere. Hence, they often participate in a project that stands in contradiction to their own views. Given such a model, a real democratisation of the entire production process proves to be impossible. See: http://www.polishtheatrejournal.com/index.php/ptj/article/view/129/585 (access: 12 November 2017).
Historic type of a primarily serfdom-based farm that operated on the Polish territories – transl. note.
http://www.polishtheatrejournal.com/index.php/ptj/article/view/108/574 (access: 12 November 2017)
One of the awards in the crowdfunding action for the Dialog – Wrocław International Theatre Festival; it was sold for several thousand zlotys.
I wrote about it in more detail in the the text Do kogo należy teatr? O tym, do czego może nam się dzisiaj przydać krytyka instytucjonalna, “Dialog”, no. 11/2017