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Girls on top: Poland embraces a raft of women directors.

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 Lodz 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-Swiatek 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-Swiqtek. "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 ATs 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 a 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 Torah, 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-Swiatek, 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 Strzepka (direction) and Pawel Demirski (text), they mingle quite well. The four-hour play with music, which played in Toruri, 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 Strzepka. "I feel like a proper actress when I work with Monika," says Katarzyna Strcazek, who plays the ferocious yet vulnerable Love. She notes how Strzepka'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."

A STATUE OF COPERNICUS, WHO WAS born in Toruri, looks out over the city's main square. The elegant city has a population of just 210,000, but boasts a number of well-appointed theatres. Another thesis I heard to explain the rise in women directors is that because women weren't getting jobs in the big cities, they went to smaller ones where they could make work and gain a following. Dialog's Olkusz describes a kind of "art tourism" that has blossomed as a result. Walbrzych, a working-class city in southwestern Poland known for its mines, is one example: "There's a theatre building and municipal funding, but no audience for 'high art.' The joke is that every Friday the train from Warsaw to Walbrzych has a special wagon only for theatre critics. Now that such interesting, award-winning work has happened there, the city is proud."

Many of the directors I was keen to speak with were making just such work in far-flung smaller cities. Amatorki, another Jelinek-inspired piece, directed by Ewelina Marciniak, was a highly physical comedy of sex and manners I caught in Gdansk. The theatre was packed with young people, who howled with laughter not just at the show's commedia-esque sexual calisthenics, but also at the improvised bits of direct audience address. Marciniak's former teacher and mentor, Anna Augustynowicz, possesses a more staid style, though one that is similarly clean in its storytelling approach--Each His Own Wilderness, in Sopot, was a spare take on Doris Lessing's 1959 classic; watching it felt like eating a piece of meat with all the fat trimmed.

As Oleradzka-Swiatek and I spoke (with masterful translation by Semil) between performances at Kontakt, our conversation drifted away from women directors (and women playwrights, who are also on the rise) to the choices that govern her festival's programming. A number of the plays had felt, to this American viewer, heavy, dreary and rather overtly political, but Oleradzka-Swiatek put this reaction into perspective. "The festival used to be a meeting of East and West, but that's changed recently. I try to look at what's going on in the world and see how theatre reacts to reality. And now we've got a civil war next door. So I thought it was important to show what war is, and what leads to war."

Hypermnesia, directed by Selma Spahic with actors from the former Yugoslavia, could not have been a more apt choice. In it the actors, all in their 30s, play themselves recalling memories from childhood, which of course just so happens to correspond with the war that affected them some 20 years ago. This show was powerful, poetic and alternately deeply funny and moving.

All things considered, the productions I saw in Poland convinced me that the emergence of female leadership in the nation's theatres has resulted in a muscular reinforcement of the unforgiving themes and bold aesthetics Polish theatre is known for. With girls on top, Polish theatre is sure to continue investigating gutsy topics and gritty aesthetics, while also taking a giant step toward gender equality.

Bent's trip to Poland was supported by the Center for International Theatre Development.
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Author:Bent, Eliza
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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