Outside the bus windows, puffs of white pollen floated in the air like spring snow. We were headed to Bydgoszcz, Poland, to attend the 22nd Kontakt Festival, where we planned to see Winter’s Journey, directed by Maja Kleczewska. Traveling with me was Malgorzata Semil, the renowned Polish translator and theatre journalist; and Philip Arnoult, head of the Baltimore–based Center for International Theatre Development, who was receiving the 2014 Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz Prize, presented by Poland’s International Theatre Institute, for sustained excellence in promoting Polish theatre abroad.
A year earlier, longtime friends Arnoult and Semil had been discussing some of the country’s most interesting contemporary directors when they realized that many of those artists happened to be women—a surprising phenomenon, perhaps, given Poland’s history of male director/auteurs and the fact that the country holds tight to its traditional roots and gender roles. “It’s noteworthy that we have so many women directors,” says Piotr Olkusz, a professor at the University of Łódź and editor of Dialog, Poland’s premier theatre journal. “Traditional thinking is that women are in the house taking care of children, so it’s surprising that Poland is still quite Catholic but has a lot of women in public life—not just theatre directors, politicians, too.”
And artistic directors as well: Two of Poland’s premier international festivals, Kontakt and Wroclaw’s Dialog festival, are run by women, Jadwiga Oleradzka-Świątek and Krystyna Meissner, respectively. “It used to be, let’s say in the ’60s, that talented male auteurs wouldn’t let women in,” confirms Kontakt’s Oleradzka-Świątek. “Women were allowed to do certain kinds of theatre, like comedy and children’s theatre—but they couldn’t touch the classics. The most talented women in those times made their way through contemporary literature.” But when democracy arrived in Poland in 1989, everything changed. (See AT’s May/June ’02 issue, “Lights over Warsaw.”) Women directors still specialize in contemporary literary adaptations, but the playing field is more open than it was 25 years ago, and the work that is gaining women traction is often being created in smaller cities.
Kleczewska’s Winter’s Journey is one such take on current literature, though it certainly doesn’t offer up any stereotypically soft feminine aesthetics. Based on Austrian writer’s Elfriede Jelinek’s book about the Fritzl case, in which Elisabeth Fritzl was held captive in a basement for 24 years and abused by her father, Winter’s Journey takes spectators to a palpable hell; stuffed animals à la Mike Kelley are used for set dressing, as deeply disturbing images of degradation (mostly female, but sometimes male) recur. At one point, naked actors writhe in colorful paints and a huge bag of chicken feathers bursts open amidst the thrashing; at the performance I saw, spectators hid their noses beneath shirts and scarves to avoid coughing from the dust.
In a post-show discussion, onlookers asked about Kleczewska’s controversial “constellations” acting method, which draws on the work of German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. “It’s not mandatory—there’s no coercion. Maja is not a demon,” one actor said, defending her director. “But the subject of this play is madness and social disease. It’s about putting the victim and the perpetrator in the same place and asking: Will this recur? The constellations help us prepare for heavy things.”
Semil took time, on the bus ride back to Toruń, to discuss Kleczewska’s intent to psychologically awaken the audience. “I recall her saying something along the lines of, ‘It’s hard to do anything important when you’re flirting with the audience.’ She’s obsessed with flesh and interested in madness, rape, murder, corruption, loneliness and the dark and brutal parts of life,” Semil observed. In attacking misogyny, I reflected, Kleczewska certainly used a lot of it.
It’s no surprise that Kleczewska’s work sparks strong reactions, especially when one considers Poland’s religious culture. Kontakt’s Oleradzka-Świątek, who sports a pink leather jacket, notes, for example, that the cultural expectation of women staying at home and looking after children has resurged in Poland, especially in light of the country’s low birthrate. She chalks up part of the current wave of women directors to changes in the economy. Between puffs on an e-cigarette she explains, “Under Communism everyone was poor, but in the ’90s you could start earning money in a capitalist system, and such efforts went unpunished. Men went to TV and film to make money, and that made some space for women directors in the theatres. A few women opened the door, and once they did, a whole wave came. The floodgates have opened.”
Speaking of the ’90s, the Seattle grunge movement and contemporary Poland might seem like odd bedfellows, but in Courtney Love, created by Monika Strzępka (direction) and Paweł Demirski (text), they mingle quite well. The four-hour play with music, which played in Toru─, features one of rock’s most despised widows and interweaves Nirvana’s narrative with the story of Darek, a Polish man working as a janitor, who, according to program notes, “can afford the luxury of not liking his job, because he can pursue his passions after hours, without the risk of them turning into chores.”
Questions of greatness in art surface throughout the play, which ultimately uses Love as a jumping-off point to ask philosophical questions. “When does making art end?” an actor from the show queried during a post-show discussion. “When does the artist become a money-making machine? Poland opened up to commercialism in the ’90s, what have we done?” Another Love actor chimed in, “We have failed as humans, because if you’re not successful, you’re trash. Our show attempts to look at how we dream of success and fear failure. Our spirituality and creativity have been reduced to product, so where does that leave us as humans?”
These questions are crucial to director Strzępka. “I feel like a proper actress when I work with Monika,” says Katarzyna Strcązek, who plays the ferocious yet vulnerable Love. She notes how Strzępka’s surplus of energy and willingness to perform alongside her actors contribute to her skill in team-building: “She is as precise as a mathematician.”