18 edycja 18 edycja 18 edycja konfrontacje teatralne

The Party of Artists

The next question will be: “Maybe you should start a political party.” I know the way people think, shouted Paweł Demirski during Grzegorz Chlasta’s show on TOK FM Radio, when together with Monika Strzępka they presented their initiative “Theatre Isn’t a Product/The Spectator Isn’t a Client”. They heavily criticised the social situation in Poland and the Civic Platform’s Government and its ignorance towards matters concerning culture. Perhaps our reality has changed, perhaps you can start a political party and take matters into your own hands, but we all know that without money and connections it’s practically impossible. Therefore choosing a political side seems to resemble “The Lesson”, a legendary street performance by the Academy of Movement, in which a scene called “Elections” presented actors carrying cardboards with signs on both sides saying: “Who’s for? Who’s against? I can’t see, thank you.”

With this lack of political alternatives in mind, some artists, tired of feeling powerless, infuriated by being seen as “formalistic”, decided to enter the game. In the field of visual arts Artur Żmijewski developed the idea of “applied social arts”, which can blur the lines between art and political activity. His work incites vivid discussions (described in the articles by Agnieszka Sabor and Piotr Kosiewski in “TP” 33/2012).


A similar movement has recently gained popularity in the world of theatre. With their last performances Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski as well as Michał Kmiecik have shown that they want art to make a real effort to improve society. That same aim, although interpreted in a slightly different way, is furthered by Bartosz Szydłowski, who engages local community in the activity of Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. Agnieszka Błońska and Marta Górnica also follow this trend. I will not mention civic mission and tackling important issues onstage, because this is a long standing tradition in Polish theatre and every self-respecting institution tries to continue it. However, the tendency to make the stage transcend itself and enter into real life to influence social matters and shape or create political movements is a fairly new phenomenon, which has so far been reserved for independent amateur theatres called “theatre for life” by Lech Śliwonik. They treated art as a form of social therapy or simply a communal initiative.

The artists’ desire not to be enclosed in an ivory tower, to put their creative potential into action is as old as art. The revival of these ideas took place in the 20th century, when the great theatre reformer in Russia, Vsevolod Meyerhold, demanded a “Theatre October”, which for him was a synonym for an artistic Bolshevik Revolution. In his performance “The World Turned Upside Down” the revolution started with taking the audience by storm while the Red Army soldiers were putting up red flags singing “The Internationale”.

At about the same time an outstanding German director, Erwin Piscator, sympathising with the Communist Party of Germany made a statement: “Down with art, it’s finished!” Writing after the turbulent years of World War I, he believed that art is nothing but a political measure used for propaganda purposes. He organised performances in which professional actors collaborated with members of amateur workman’s groups, who at the same time became agitators of a working class theatre. The party even gave him a job organizing the agitation programme before the Reichstag elections.

Those are only two out of a whole group of outstanding theatre artists driven by a desire to change the world through art and seeing this aim not only in a metaphorical sense. It would take a volume of impressive size to describe the history of theatre that actively entered politics. The will to create “more than theatre”, in compliance with Aldona Jawłowska’s description of the 1970s student theatre, is revived in different times and societies and brings about a turning away from the routine and conservatism of the institutional models of art that kills what is truly creative and alive.


A poor community is visited by an investor who promises to build a factory next to an already existing chimney. He brings the hope of progress and prosperity. In the short story by Sławomir Mrożek, all that’s left of the investor’s promises are the village headman’s impregnated wife and a deceived community. This bitter piece adapted by Bartosz Szydłowski as Łaźnia Nowa Theatre’s manifesto, invited the residents of the Nowa Huta district in Krakow to take part in workshops, which resulted in the creation of a performance called “Fakir”. The piece presents fragments of rehearsals that show a group of people who came to the theatre with their own hopes and expectations.

In the performance, Fakir is played by Bartosz Szydłowski himself.  He is in charge of music and initiates events and interactions among people. In interviews, he has said that the performance became “a dream about the role of theatre in life, the beautiful entertainment that can change the world”. At the same time he realises that his influence on the life of the residents of Nowa Huta, and the financial conditions they live in, is very limited. But his performance and the existence of Łaźnia Nowa are a lot more than a short-lived hope or emergency aid, because such activity helps residents of different ages discover their right to creativity. The association Save the Chance, working with young criminals, has a similar goal.

I myself had the chance to observe how the presence of residents can vitalise institutions and change the way of thinking of their employees. As part of the “neighbours’ stage” the Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz organises workshops and rehearsals for the group Amadeo, which has disabled people among its members. An international co-production “4 cities, 4 stories” is being prepared and it includes workshops with pensioners dedicated to the problem of the future of Europe. Their opinions are then incorporated into the script. Citizens of Bydgoszcz also took part in two performances “About Animals” by Elfriede Jelinek directed by Łukasz Chotkowski and “The Un-Divine Comedy” by Zygmunt Krasiński directed by Paweł Wodziński. In the first performance local women joined actresses onstage to express, through Jelinek’s words, their outrage and protest against the discrimination of women. In a theatre installation by Paweł Wodziński, residents became witnesses and participants of a political game between Henryk and Pankracy, the characters from the drama “The Un-Divine Comedy”. It exposed the ways common people are manipulated on a daily basis, unable to find solutions to their real life problems in the slogans they are fed. Thanks to the presence of real citizens the problems raised did not function only as a declaration.

For several years now similar projects have been conducted by the Theatre Institute in Warsaw. They were initiated by Agnieszka Błońska, a director educated and living in England. She made “There Once Were Old Man and Woman”, a project dedicated to dancers, who have to face early retirement. Her other performance was “Fatties”, a project presenting obese participants and discussing the social standards of beauty. Another artist, Rafał Urbacki made a performance about the motor abilities of the disabled in “W Przechlapanem”. Most successful were the two performances under the title “The Chorus of Women” directed by Marta Górnicka. The only thing that connects all of the women in the chorus is the fact that they live in Warsaw. They are of different age, occupation and they meet to sing and shout out the problems that brought them together.

These are all examples of theatres following their “small politics” and reaching out directly to the people, creating small communities, listening to their problems as well as providing them with the opportunity to enter the stage and speak about their own views, fears, and manifest their subjectivity. The essence of such actions is to create a theatre project, but also to implant a new, unconventional perception of the world in people, and teach them to contemplate social reality in a critical way. And for artists, such meetings are very often a chance to more closely investigate the problems the performance discusses. They also help to set theatre in reality and make it a truly common ground for both artists and citizens.


Is it possible, however, for a single performance or theatre’s activity to become a hotbed for a big social movement capable of influencing as many people as a social media campaign or even the political decisions made by the highest authorities?

That is the direction Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski took in their artistic work in “Rainbow Stand 2102”, which had its premiere at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław.  At the same time they were working on their performance, they tried to create a social initiative fighting for opening sections in the national stadiums built for the Euro 2012 for gay people . It was a great occasion to discuss the problem of tolerance and minorities. This initiative was never extended beyond the situations and provocations created by the artists and the administrators of the website. However, they did manage to “leave the theatre” with the assistance of the media, who discussed the matter broadly and through comments on numerous Internet forums on the action . The subject of minority rights became visible and this way, as Igor Stokfiszewski puts it, theatre became a laboratory of social behaviour.”

The social movement “Theatre Isn’t a Product/The Spectator Isn’t a Client” had a similar influence on creating the performance “On Being Good” for the Szaniawski Theatre in Wałbrzych. Before that, there was also the maternity ward operetta “Women in Labour From St. Sophie’s Hospital” at the Rozrywka Theatre in Chorzów. It was created in response to an administrative absurdity publicised by the initiative aiming at improving the conditions in maternity wards in Poland “Giving birth with dignity”. The question always hanging in the air was to what extent the system we live in lets us be free and to what extent it is a “democracy of clerks”.

One of Monika Strzępka’s collaborators on “Rainbow Stand 2012”, Michał Kmiecik, has proved to be a talented student. He staged his own version of “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky, a performance entitled “Who Killed Anna Ivanovna?” at the Dramatyczny Theatre. It was announced as the reaction of the theatre to the murder of Jolanta Brzeska, a social activist fighting for housing law, whose burned body was found in a forest near Warsaw. Kmiecik spiced it up with the topical story of the struggle to keep the Bar Prasowy in Warsaw open, the case of mass murderer Breivik, and Lars von Trier declaring that he understands Hitler at the Cannes Festival, as well as other issues that covered the problem of the right of citizens to use their city space which is being gradually privatized by important business for big money. After the premiere a girl with a disguised face burst onto the stage to read a letter about the unclear circumstances of Jolanta Brzeska’s trial, pointing out the potential murderer, and appealing to the audience that they should take part in the forthcoming hearing.

A couple of years ago Paweł Demirski wrote a play for the Wybrzeże Theatre entitled “When They Come to Burn Down Your House, Don’t Be Surprised” dedicated to the problem of violations of the employment law in the Indesit factory in Łódź, which lead to a lethal accident for one of the workers. A reviewer wrote that this story of a wife seeking justice through publicising the accident has been simplified for propaganda reasons and it can be included in the genre of “capitalistic realism”, a continuation of socialist realism. That is, of course, pure nonsense!

We cannot classify the current works by Strzępka and Demirski as part of the politically correct trend in art praising only one ideology or political system. A critical approach towards examples of social injustice is directed mainly towards the representatives of the elite, the people in power and the clerks. However, they also show no leniency towards the so-called “common people”, who demonstrate very little interest in what is happening around them and blindly follow the accepted way of thinking.

That is why despite all their work, the “Rainbow Stand 2012” was unsuccessful, Jolanta Brzeska’s case has still not been clarified, and the theatre union still hasn’t managed to change the existing regulations.   Every single one of these performances influenced reality even if it was only through publicity. It might not have helped to solve those issues but it brought these issues to light, and that is a success in itself.


On 27 August 1830 the French premiere of “The Mute Girl of Portici” at the Theatre du Parc in Brussels evoked such strong patriotic feeling that the spectators leaving the theatre started rioting against the Dutch authorities. As a result of those events, Belgium was granted independence.

In Poland, the performance that led people into the streets and caused riots that provoked the events of March 1968’ was “Forefathers’ Eve” directed by Kazimierz Dejmek. The question as to whether the protests were provoked by the authorities or spontaneous remains unanswered to this day. However, the legend that the performance and the monologue “Wielka Improvizacja” by Gustaw Holoubek led people onto the streets is still alive.

That same year in Paris, protesting students wrote pieces of text on their banners by theatre reformist Antoin Artaud directed against the old order and his “Letter to the Rectors of European Universities” was put on posters around the Sorbone. The question is whether that was the action Artuad had in mind when he postulated “introducing the notion of reality into theatre” and wanted the stage to become a place, “where life is put at stage every minute”.

What about the spontaneous reactions of the spectators during performances in Polish theatres during Marshal Law? Making noises while the actors who gave their support to general Jaruzelski’s regime were onstage turned even the most innocent shows into political sabotage. Militiamen storming the doors of the cathedral during the performance of “Murder in the Cathedral” directed by Jerzy Jaroski made the show more popular with the audience and turned it into a political declaration. Patriotic fervor was magnified by some actors who boycotted radio and television, which had lost social trust. But can those spontaneous events described through a concrete historical situation be repeated? Can a powerful social movement be consciously created within theatre? Or is the only thing that theatre can do, if it wants to have a say in shaping reality, is to try acting in the sphere of “small politics” and create intimate communities, providing them with the tools for critical thinking?

Art handing out political remedies is most often a very risky idea, because it is too easy to fall into cheap populism. But a common sphere for art and politics is also the duty not to reproduce the image of the world but to transform it in a creative way, paying attention to the unobvious and the disputable terrain. At the same time, art, and especially theatre that analizes social relations is a perfect laboratory that enables us to touch issues seemingly unimportant or so controversial, that there is no space for them in the parliament. Even if they don’t turn into a spontaneous social movement right away, they will be noticed and that is the first step towards social transformation.


“The Party of Artists”
Paweł Sztarbowski
Tygodnik Powszechny issue no. 36/02.09

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