Michał Borczuch (b. 1979) is one of the most important voices on the theater scene of the generation imposed after 2000 in Polish directing. A multi-talented artist, he graduated from the graphics department of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and later theater directing at the Krakow State School of Theater. In the Polish theater he made his debut in 2005 with KOMPOnents, a documentary-based show based on interviews realised by Małgorzata Owsiany with drug addicts. The production was included in the repertoire of the Stary Theater in Krakow, and from here followed other invitations to important theaters in Poland; in 2007 he staged Leonce and Lena by Georg Büchner at the Warsaw Dramatyczny Theater. He was the beneficiary of a Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative scholarship that offered him a one-year creative internship under Patrice Chéreau’s mentoring. In 2012 he was selected from the seven artists who presented at the Venice Biennale excerpts from Apocalypse, the show created within the Rolex Mentor scholarship. It premiered at the Stary Theater Krakow where it entered the repertoire of the 2013-2014 season. Michał Borczuch feeds his creativity with universal literature which is one of the milestones of his spectacles: The Portrait of Dorian Gray (2009), The Sufferings of the Young Werther (2009), The Twelfth Night (2010), Brand. The city. The Chosen One (2011) etc. His international debut took place at the Schauspielhauss Düssedorf with the world premiere of the adaptation of the documentary novel The War Has No Woman’s Face by Svetlana Alexievici (2012). In 2017, he received the prestigious “Paszporty Polityki” award, given by the weekly Polityka, a recognition of young Polish artists from various fields, which opens their access to the international art world. Michał Borczuch signs performances in important theaters such as Stary Theater Krakow, TR Warszawa, Polski Wrocław Theater, and these are constantly selected and awarded in Polish theater festivals.
Oana Cristea Grigorescu How does your interest in literature and cinema, in philosophy and psychology is reflected in your theater performances? What determines the choice of a text for the stage and how is it updated through the show?
Michał Borczuch: To be honest I was always a person who prefer cinema then going to the theater. Somehow I came into theater world accidentally. I was studying in Fine Arts Academy in Krakow and after 3 years of studying I was a little bored by solitude, with its connection with drawing, painting or graphic art. I was trying to get into Krakow’s theater school and I did it. I stayed with theater. So my inspirations many times comes mostly from cinema. I was studying for example Jean-Luc Godard movies for specific narrative gestures: non-linear construction of a plot, self-referential thinking about a story or characters and editing process. I think I learnt a lot from Godard and I was developing my own style with structures or characters of his Pierrot le-Fou, Detective, Sauve qui peut (le vie). Later I was relating many times to the cinema I like in more direct way. But I’ve never have a need to make a cinema on stage or to work on any film script on stage. It is something much more connected with my fascination with cinema and how cinema (with, for example, its possibilities of creating an objective time and space) can extend time and perspectives in stage situation. So when I made All about my mother (an original script by Tomasz Śpiewak about the death of my mother when I was a kid) Almodovar’s movies was just an inspirations for developing highly emotional and melodramatic landscape of the performance. In Cinema of moral anxiety we, one more time, went in dialog with polish cinema from 70s (Kieślowski, Wajda) to search for political and moral connotation between modern society and that one of our parent’s generation. In 2018 I made my own movie Komodo dragons so I also learnt a lot about editing process – I realize I was using this tools in my earlier theater productions. When I am working with a text (which is not this one written by my dramaturg) it is usually some intuitive process. Sometime it is what I just reading or some text I like but also not so obvious for stage adaptation (for example Freud psychoanalytical cases). But in last years I work like this: a book can be just an excuse for my theater performance, so we are not starting rehearsing with adaptation but we are reading a book with actors on rehearsals and searching for connotation between a text and reality around us, or sometimes very private experience of the actor. This process extend a book in direction of very contemporary and personal perspectives. (The best example is my working on Knausgard My struggle). I never believed in my work that a good adaptation can create a good performance. Somehow I feel books are to be read, movies are to be seen and theater is something what happens in-between particular people and the book or the movie or the music.
I like a lot contemporary Romanian cinema (of Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu), and especially in Mungiu’s works I found a lot of connotations with polish cinema of moral anxiety. They are observing carefully reality around but in the same time they not loosen the sense of poetry. That’s what I’m looking for in the theater since around four years.
OCG: Your theater performances are elaborate, they have a precise relationship between image and text, they assume a polemical position towards the clichés in society. At the Boska Komedia 2019 festival we saw Cinema of Moral Anxiety for which you received the award for best director. The performance offers a critical look at the canonized perception of Kieślowski’s work, associated with Thoreau’s novel Walden, as a pretext for debating a topical issue in society, civil disobedience. Where do you p this way of relating narrativity to politics in theater?
MB: We developed Cinema of moral anxiety in the moment when right wing political government started to destroyed in Poland everything we connected with democracy and liberation since 1989. So we started to realize how political authorities behave absolutely with our dreams and beliefs and how they start to create a social anxiety about the future. I found similarities between this mechanism of radical right wing politics and the youth of my parents in a communistic era in Poland in 70s and 80s. That’s how I started to watch again movies by Kieślowski, Wajda, Zanussi or Holland from that time. And Thoreau’s Walden was of course in the opposition to this topic- an utopian vision of living outside of society, into the wild nature. Before the script appeared we where talking a lot with actors about how they understand their position in a society in a moment when you can stay silence and you have to express your political beliefs or you have to struggle directly on the street for your personal rights. We investigated how far we are responsible for current political situation or in which part generation of our parents is responsible for what we have now. (For example in a transformation after 1989 nobody was questioning the political position of catholic church in Poland and because of this church supports a PiS Government and they protect Church hiding pedophilia cases or giving a lot of money to them. Of course Church use his power for cynical manipulation of the society in the name of PiS political program). So in this discussions on rehearsals Walden was a kind of happy, sudden escape from political world. But we knew this kind of escape is not possible in contemporary times (from practical but mostly from moral reasons). And then we start to understand that Thoreau needed this utopian time or let me call it extravagant experiment to write his Civil disobedience – and idea of this text each of us feel very well in Poland 2015-2021 (Thoreau wrote Civil disobedience few years after he come back to live in civilization). We were working in three groups of actors representing three generations- actors who were young in 70s and 80s so they felt on their own skins oppressive power of communistic era, my generation who were brought upon political and economical transformation era and the youngest who were born in a free Europe. We developed that civil disobedience can be a tool that connect this generations together in fighting for future and not looking only in the past (looking the past with sentimentalism I see as a main destructive power of contemporary authoritarian governments and for PiS it is main propaganda language). In cinema of Kieślowski or Holland (from 70s, 80s) civil disobedience was not yet a topic – the political system was too oppressive, and every character who was dreaming about a freedom had to be severely punished. In my performance (Cinema of Moral Anxiety) we see characters in an in-between moment when they are growing up to Thoreau’s civil disobedience as an only constructive way to fight a political system in 21st century Europe.
In performance (Cinema of Moral Anxiety) we are using some fragments from Kieślowski’s Amator. The film is about Filip, an employee of a state-owned enterprise, who buys a camera when his daughter is born. Filip wants to shoot moments from his life, but it quickly turns into a passion that destroys his marriage. At the same time, he begins to have more and more enemies at work and the society, terrified by the political system. This conflict of art, power and private life interested us the most, because to some extent it started to concern ourselves – artists working in a country ruled more and more authoritarian. With the performance, we asked a question not only about creative freedom and its price, but also its purpose. We did not give an answer, rather together with the audience we wonder how art should respond to reality. I think that this is a fundamental change that we feel now in Poland and Polish theater – experiments are less important than looking for tools for real dialogue or defense against the authorities.
OCG: You have a long-term collaboration with playwright Tomasz Śpiewak with whom you have been working with since 2012. How was your theater influenced by him?
MB: Tomek is the author of the language of my theater. I’m not writing and I don’t like to write. What you hear from stage (or it is an original script, actors improvisations or fragments from a book) it is always something transform by his sensitivity and sense of humor. Tomek had to learn my sometimes chaotic thinking and far connotations between issues. Because we understand each other without words sometimes the work on rehearsal can be more experimental and really an investigating process. He is a person who can write down (sometimes in very poetic way) very complicated or intuitive thoughts that appears in my discussions with actors. We created together my most important performances (from extremely personal All about my mother to the adaptation of a huge Knaugaard novel). This kind of cooperation allows us to work on the most impossible projects. Because he is open for innovation and he is a very talented listener. What more could I expect from a dramaturg?
OCG: Your theater reveals itself as an instrument of knowledge, of exploring the realities of the world. You have worked over the years with people with autism or visual impairments, with non-actors that you have brought on stage together with actors. Why did you turn to these people, what role do they play in the performance’s economy?
MB: The main reason I started to work also with non-actors and specific groups of performers (children from orphanage, autistic adults, and blind people) was a need to give space for people that high art very often forgets about. Of course this kind of work was also based on long term workshops but we were not trying to learn anyone from outside of theater world acting, but I wanted to learn from them. It was as much important for as for professional actors. When you spend time in a circle of people you know well, in a rehearsal room, you can create a lot of beautiful things, but you still stay locked in a black box (rehearsal room). So not to lose the contact with a real world and the real problems (and not only reflected by literature or text) I open myself and my theater (I mean people I work with, actors, art department) for an experience of research and meeting with those specific groups of people. You can call them excluded. Excluded from art, from mainstream, from social care, political strategies, social awareness. Of course I know it was also a political gesture. You can clearly feel who in a society of new capitalistic era is really left behind. But of course this experiences were mostly my research into performing art. When you work with children who have no idea about theater and even have no need to play in the theater you are opening a stage for a kind of wildness and honesty which destroy every typical habits the stage has. You need to start to think in a new way about dramaturgy, beauty, acting. In Paradiso that I made with autistic adults I was totally surprised by the rhythm of the performance (dream like but keeping audience in a constant expectation and mindfulness). For some autistic people time and borders between reality and fiction are blurred, so when we have an improvisations in a performance you’re never sure when and how it will ends. It took professional actors to be especially alert. Always this kind of work is a lesson. We are learning from each other about who we are and where we are. It is like a draft of fresh air in black boxes of theater practices. And I think audience in those kind of performance can be much more awareness as well. They start to be a politically engage audience. They have to follow not only problems that are outside the mainstream or criticism of social systems, but they have to participate in the presence of those excluded or left behind parts of society. It can be very hard experience, but when you filter it through the art it can be also very powerful. The power of realness.
OCG: The interference of politics in contemporary Polish theater is a reality that Polish artists oppose, resist, challenge. How do you comment on the relationship between Polish theater and power, what tools do artists have in regulating today’s socio-political balance?
MB: Since 2015 main direction in government politic is what they call „historical policy”. It means the same in any other authoritarian countries: you as an artist don’t have to be even talented or worldwide recognizable, but you have to speak about glorious moments form Polish history or on some religious (national catholic) topics. Of course those „moments” from the past are use cynically as an element of political propaganda. Since 2015 some national institutions took those direction which was preceded by a change of management by the minister of culture. Some institutions took this national (with a tendency to being nationalistic) direction, others have not. It is hard to say that we in theater has to deal with any censorships. Of course some (especially religious) topics were always under the attack from right side. Polish theater always reacts very quick for any political, social or moral movement. So it is like this right now. When the PiS started a media and street fight with LGBTQ community artist in theater took the topic on stage. There are still places (theaters) you can really speak openly from the stage. When „Women Strike” was going through the streets of Warsaw (huge movement against policy of tightening abortion law) in theaters around Poland actors where manifesting their support in the end of the show by bringing symbols of the strike or reading special statements. It is hard to say if polish theater has any special tools for fighting with the authorities. The Polish theater scene is very sensitive to any “street movements” and reacts quickly within the freedom it still has. But politic scene in Poland change very fast and especially now when theaters stage are closed from time to time because of lockdowns connected with COVID-19 it is really hard to say in which directions radicalization of free theaters stage it will go. For sure right now theater has to stand on position of self-defense (against cultural minister policy) and defense against the authorities anti-democratic and anti-liberal moves.
(The interview is part of the Contemporary Polish Theatre File, coordinated by Oana Cristea Grigorescu, published in print edition of Scena.ro no. 52(2)/2021)