Interview with Małgorzata Szydłowska and Bartosz Szydłowski

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The set designer-and-director couple Małgorzata Szydłowska and Bartosz Szydłowski are the founders of the youngest repertory theatre in Kraków, built on the principle of recovering disused industrial buildings and converting them into cultural spaces. The building of the former school workshops in os. Szkolne residential area in the working-class district of Nowa Huta was transformed into the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre, designed and adjusted to the cultural needs of the local community. Earlier, in 1996, the artistic couple founded the independent Łaźnia Theatre in the basement of the former baths (which lent its the name: Łaźnia) in Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Kraków. In its present form, the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre was set up in 2005 as an affiliate member of Trans Europe Halles – a network of artistic organisations operating in post-industrial spaces. The repertoire choices favour the new drama, experimentation and interdisciplinarity, working with important directors for the aesthetic dynamics of the contemporary Polish theatre. Faithful to the social mission of their theatre, Małgorzata and Bartosz Szydłowski, Łaźnia Nowa’s two directors, carry out numerous interdisciplinary cultural programmes, and community and educational projects that make a direct impact on the life of the local community, in parallel with the current repertoire.

In 2008 Bartosz Szydłowski started the Boska Komedia/Divine Comedy International Theatre Festival, which became one of the most important theatrical events in Poland as well as an international showcase of contemporary Polish theatre. An international jury selects competition winners, whose performances are largely hosted by the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. Thus, in concentric circles, from local to national and international, the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre has grown, gained in importance, to become today the epicentre of the Boska Komedia/Divine Comedy Festival and a landmark in contemporary Polish theatre. Combined with managerial activity, Małgorzata Szydłowska and Bartosz Szydłowski pursue an important artistic career, both as independent artists and as a duo working together.

Oana Cristea Grigorescu: What drove the need to set up the Łaźnia Theatre Association in 1996, and how did it transform into the institution we know today: the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre. What needs of Nowa Huta does it currently answer?

Bartosz Szydłowski: I believe that it was a sign of the time of transformation in Poland, the faith in independence being the passport to success, the guarantor of development. However, the first Łaźnia was set up spontaneously, without much planning, in an attempt at creating an option alternative towards the institutions of culture that at the time were fairly tight and hierarchical. As a young director, I did not identify with the repertoire of the large theatres, I found restraints that did not correspond to the dynamic of changes taking place in the society. Although they produced plenty of magnificent dramas, theatres were not the places free from restraints, offered no sense of holding the hand to the pulse, and did not resonate the way a place built from scratch – and that absolutely independently – could resonate. Łaźnia answered the need of the language of art to find alternative forms of communication, when we do not have to discuss matters we find important in a way that makes us stand at attention but can do it directly. These were dreams about a melting pot, exchange, and chaos that is a reflection of our generational experience, with hopes and dreams mingling with anxiety and loss, and the ever harder economic reality. I remember what a success the uncontrolled „Artistic Meetings” (Spotkania artystyczne) were. Events at which we invited people into one-night labyrinths of events: a lecture by an authority on a very important subject in one hall, a performance and film screening in another, and immediately a concert and exhibition in the corridors and well, and an all-night-long party. That haze of entertainment was mingled with the inspired and intensive conversations about catharsis, matriarchate, the taboo of violence, and many others. It made me highly emotional recently when Katarzyna Kalwat, a magnificent young director, made me realise she was one of the Kraków generation who were brought up on the Łaźnia, that this independent institution formatted people, pushed them into a gear, and stimulated to intellectual and emotional journeys. We reached for the latest Polish drama, and the Polish premieres of Sarah Kane and Dea Loher took place nowhere else but in the Łaźnia.

OCG: What changes in the community were brought by the multidisciplinary cultural programmes that you propose? What events constitute the awareness of the community and its cultural needs?

BS: The idea is rather to regain the trust in the institutions of culture, the language and the thoughts usually associated with higher culture dedicated to the elites. After the watershed of 1989, the symbolic narrative was neglected in Poland. The powers that be suddenly found education and culture less important than the issues of the economic transformation. And a great social rift quickly developed precisely on that fulcrum of the capitalist development. A particular original sin of the New Post-communist Poland. The Łaźnia Nowa Theatre wished to cover up that rift, to cut the distance, and to take interest in the displaced and the marginalised. To say that they were as important as the glittery Poland of the economic success. Therefore, the message was highly affirmative, the theatre was there to give people power and faith in themselves. To become a place of their narratives about themselves, instilling sense into those lives that can inspire others.

That gesture was strongly welcomed in Nowa Huta. That image of a place of care, a place of dialogue, a place that comes out to meet people rather than wait for them triggered the need to be in Łaźnia, to join various projects. It is crucial that we were not a theatre of declarations and manifestoes but a theatre of participation and action. The pioneering projects we made 15 years ago are now becoming fashionable in many places. Education, multidisciplinary character, regular presence of amateurs in the theatre, and involvement of the local community into the creative processes. It has been my obsession to step beyond the realm of art towards life, the concrete jungle, and the ordinary. Precisely that thinking but also the profound faith that art and our narratives do not belong to some festive order, that they are an option for the daily life, because, if you treat art as an invitation to a personal journey and expression of your own voice, improves your quality of life. I hated that dogmatic Maslow’s pyramid, with culture included at the very top, as the least fundamental need. In Łaźnia, our thinking had it upside down.

Photo: Monika Stolarska

OCG: How did the position of the Theatre established in the Polish theatrical circles? What is your repertoire policy, and what aesthetics have you promoted in the recent seasons?

BS: It’s all but our statutory obligation to run theatrical quests. We are an open place, and thanks to the production house structure (i.e. no regular troupe) we can contract the people we call the dream teams. And that works perfectly, as artists who cannot meet elsewhere meet here. Employed in different theatres, they suddenly bring up an entirely different whole in the Łaźnia. This increases the determination to work on a project, because what happens in repertoire theatres with set troupes, namely the top-to-bottom assignment of actors to projects, disappears. I also pay very much attention to running the process of work in high comfort. So that artists feel safe, without an institutional pressure. I trust that such an approach gives better results and leaves good energy within the walls of the theatre. Trust in an artist and not expectation of a specific result or aesthetics, and even more not of ideological attitudes. Art rooted in reality – yes, why not, but being more than just a social commentary. Such an extension of the expression by including something unique comes in the productions by Michał Borczuch, who created here Paradiso, a beautiful project with people with a spectrum of autism, his best production Wszystko o mojej matce /All About my Mother, and the Wałęsa in Kolonos community mystery play that I directed, with a choir of several dozens people from Nowa Huta and a dazzling role of Jerzy Sthur.

I always believe we do here things that cannot be done anywhere else. Far away from the centre, our theatre turns into a true laboratory, where everyone is focused on work; a particular green island. We process reality as if in an alchemist’s flask, we investigate the buoyancy of relationships, and create new constellations. I may be tempted to mention yet another distinction that defines our programme line. This is the inclusion of marginalised and ignored people, groups, and narratives. What mainstream rejects in its first reflex, the Łaźnia very gladly accepts, what directors of large institutions are afraid of finds its place and support with us. It makes me glad that thanks to this courage and the faithfulness to the founding idea of our theatre, many elements have been successfully introduced into the mainstream and now continue to change it. Precisely now, we have completed the overhaul and adaptation of a new building. A home is being developed for artistic residences and workshops: dedicated not only to the people of the theatre but also to other artists. This is the UTOPIA HOUSE/DOM UTOPII – International Empathy Centre. We have succeeded in obtaining European funds, and an abandoned school wing is turning into a modern centre.

OCG: You are the artistic director of the Boska Komedia /Divine Comedy Festival, set up in 2008, soon after the theatre moved to Nowa Huta. What actions have been undertaken to allow international renown? Where would you place the festival on the Polish map of theatre festivals?

BS: Boska Komedia/Divine Comedy plays a very important role in Poland, as it beams our theatre up into the international orbit. We invite experts from beyond our milieu to discuss what we have done on Polish stages. I have always fled the all-but-foreseeable salons, where all the opinions are as worn out as the teeth of a 30-year-old mare. Thus this international jury is a fresh breath and an opportunity to de-hierarchise. The international renown first followed my enthusiasm, energy, and persistent penetration. I went everywhere, and spoke about the magnificent and earnest Polish theatre everywhere I went. Then it was enough to show this theatre, as it is truly unique. Ambitious, determined, and do-or-die clinging to reality. The renown spread not only thanks to the quality but also the atmosphere of our festival. It means 10 days of never-ending play, a true mystery by day and night. Dionysus may envy us both the mad artistic dance and the amounts of wine drunk. Also the genius loci of Kraków counts here. It is crucial that, among that degrading reality, there is time for us to show one another respect, and to appreciate the work of our colleagues. That is a festivity that results from the authentic need of recognising the talented and uncompromising people, who – despite their utter individualism – draw their strength from the community.

OCG: Małgorzata Szydłowska as a set designer you have cooperated with many theatres, but you also designed sets for Łaźnia Nowa. What has been the impact of the evolution/development of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and the Boska Komedia/Divine Comedy Festival on you as an artist?

Małgorzata Szydłowska: My work as a set designer was decisively influenced by the fact that I made sets for spaces that were not originally intended for theater. 25 years ago, when I started creating the Łaźnia Theater together with Bartosz, my scenographies were closely linked to the traces of history, of the past. The theater was housed in a ruined house in the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter in Krakow, which had previously been a ritual mikveh (ritual bath – hence the name Łaźnia). The same happened with the new Łaźnia Nowa Theater, established in the heart of the Nowa Huta working-class neighborhood, in the former workshops of the vocational school. The size and character of the industrial building decisively influenced my concept for the stage space. In both cases, I designed the space of the entire building that had never been a theater before. I was familiar with the stage and scale of large drama and opera houses, but their landmarks were not enough to redefine the building in its new dimension, as a theatrical space. Therefore, we approached the building adaptation project in several stages; stages that involved redefining the functions within the stage and behind the scenes. This work had a significant impact on my thinking as a set designer; since then I see the architecture of the theater building as an integral part of artistic expression. In my projects I question the firm boundary between the stage and the audience, I try to define the space in such a way that everyone (spectators and actors) participates equally in the artistic event. I use various strategies to define the viewer’s position and perspective on the show. Most of the changes on stage take place in plain sight, in front of the audience and not behind the scenes. In my work, I pay special attention to the type and quality of materials used on stage, I think they have a great influence on how we perceive the theatrical universe, acting on the sensory sphere. I think that the scenography, apart from its semantic function, influences the emotional and sensory character of the art reception, it communicates simultaneously on several levels.

This freedom offered by the structure of the space works especially well for the perrformances invited to the Boska Komedia Festival. In the last ten years, there has been no show that cannot be adapted for the Laźnia Nowa stage, or lose its means of expression by adapting to the stage. Such a space stimulates the finding of new solutions and is an excellent place to experiment.

OCG: Bartosz Szydłowsk, you are a recognised director, invited to cooperate by numerous state theatres, for whom you prepare dramas based on texts ranging from classics to contemporary drama. To what degree the development of the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre and the Festival have influenced your repertoire?

BS: The influence has been total, as actually I carried out most things in Łaźnia. I follow the subject. I’m interested in the protagonist clashing against a community, against fate, against their role. Faithful to the idée fixe, a holy fool like in Tarkovsky’s films. I don’t believe in dialectics. (Laughing.) Important matters remain outside it. The division of social roles, political narratives and disputes are a trap to catch the human, which is why I’m trying to find him in between, and never give in to the correctness of intellectual fashions that so frequently debilitate the theatre.

Photo: Monika STOLARSKA

OCG: In Poland, independent theatres were the space of social resistance and fight for the freedom of expression already in the days of communism. In the last five years, during the Boska Komedia/Divine Comedy Festival I’ve witnessed the actors’ protests caused by the increasing political control over the theatres, debates about discriminatory practices and sexual abuse in the theatre. What are the dominant moods in the contemporary Polish theatre? Between civil involvement and aesthetic experiment, how do Polish artists construe the role of the theatre in the contemporary society?

BS: That tradition also concerns state theatres, let me recall The Forefathers’ Eve/Dziady directed by K. Dejmek in the National Theatre in 1968, and the riots caused by banning them. In communism, to communicate with the audience we developed a particular language, using allusions rather than being straightforward. This returns, yet let’s not delude ourselves. Nearly all the society stood against communism. Now that we are strongly divided, the theatre does not play such a powerful role. It’s not easy for the theatre in Poland. The involved theatre is treated with mistrust, if not downright slightingly, by the powers that be. A dogmatised picture of political reality with an ambition of captivating every mind encounters resistance among artists, yet let’s say it honestly, it also quietens down many, and efficiently cracks the impetus with which the theatre developed for years. It has already been seven years of devastating the financing of progressive art, seven years of hate speech aimed at everyone who does not toe the ideological line of the government, and seven years of challenging achievements of the last 30 years, including the demolition of many authorities. This results in more than fury. Alas, it burns the wings, and pushes into depression. The reality is so paranoid that the theatre finds it hard to compete with. At the moment, the Polish theatre is dominated by a debate about violence and abuse in theatre schools and in the theatres themselves. A wound has opened, and this will certainly result not only in a change of standards but also of institution management paradigms. I believe that as a milieu we are too zealous in hunting ourselves, yet all this takes place so spontaneously and intensively that evidently it must go on like that as it is necessary. Especially if the theatre is to be the space of moral renewal and harkening to community values, and to stand in the avant-garde in the fight against the political and systemic oppression, then it must build its street credibility far more extensively than just on the stage.

(The interview is part of the Contemporary Polish Theater File, coordinated by Oana Cristea Grigorescu, published in print edition of no. 52(2)/2021)

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