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Actors and Their Truth

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Krzysztof Warlikowski TR Warszawa Nowy Teatr acting directing ensemble The Dybbuk The Tempest Jacek Poniedziałek Renate Jett Stanisława Celińska Magdalena Cielecka Andrzej Chyra

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Krzysztof Warlikowski is a founder and Artistic Director of the Nowy Teatr (New Theatre) in Warsaw and among the foremost European performance practitioners working today. He has directed more than fifty theatre and opera productions in Poland and internationally, including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel. Early in his career, Warlikowski was an assistant to Krystian Lupa and to Peter Brook, and he also trained with Ingmar Bergman and Giorgio Strehler, before becoming a directing associate and regular collaborator of TR Warszawa, where his work received widespread critical acclaim. In 2008, along with a group of his long-term collaborators, he co-founded the independent Nowy Teatr, which presented its inaugural production (A)pollonia in 2009. For further biographical and career information and source materials, see ‘Krzysztof Warlikowski: Chronology of life and work’.

Piotr Gruszczyński is a literary director, dramaturg, theatre critic, and author of an important book on recent developments in Polish theatre: Ojcobójcy. Młodsi zdolniejsi w teatrze polskim (The Father-Killers: The Younger, More Talented in Polish Theatre). He was also the editor and interlocutor in an extended series of interviews with Warlikowski published in Polish as Szekspir i uzurpator (Shakespeare and the Usurper, 2007) and in French as Théâtre ecorché (Flayed Theatre, 2007). He has collaborated with the Nowy Theatre since its founding in 2008, and is jointly responsible for its artistic programme.


This text was edited from an extended series of conversations between Krzysztof Warlikowski and Piotr Gruszczyński, which appeared in two differently edited versions, in Polish and in French, in 2007. 

The original transcripts are no longer available; this discussion has been re-edited from the previous publications in dialogue with the authors.[1] All footnotes and annotations are by the PTP editors.

(Eds.)

Piotr Gruszczyński: People talk a great deal about the inimitable acting in your theatre – they often use the phrase ‘Warlikowski’s actors’. It’s clear that you become attached to your actors and that when you finally ‘get hold of them’, you do not willingly let them go. They appear regularly in your theatre, they’re at home there. Tell me, how do you go about searching for them? How do you assemble your cast? What do you do if you don’t have a suitable actor for a part already within your ensemble?

Krzysztof Warlikowski: When I’m searching for an actor from outside the ensemble, it’s from among people I know or with whom I’ve already worked. I prefer to be already familiar with someone and to work with them, rather than with someone I don’t know. Recently the latter hasn’t happened very often. [...]

Gruszczyński: How does an actor from outside integrate themselves within this strong ensemble, within your performances, within your world? Is this process smooth and straightforward, or something difficult and painful?

Warlikowski: I don’t think about that as such. I’d like it to be as straightforward as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult because people approach my theatre like a ‘church’ that they somehow can’t live up to. Perhaps it’s because of this that I prefer to remain among people I’ve met, among people I’ve worked with. Then it’s easier to get to the heart of things.

Gruszczyński: And what happens when you’re working abroad? There you usually don’t have the luxury of knowing the actors from past meetings.

Warlikowski: When I work in the West, my method is based on trying to learn something about each other over several weeks. But in these conditions it’s a lot more difficult to make performances that require a deep knowledge of the place and the people. Of course, I listen to the actors and try to get to know them, but it’s the theatre I make in Warsaw that is within me and which comes from me, fully.

Gruszczyński: When you begin to work with actors you don’t know, do you have a full, clear vision of the whole process?

Warlikowski: I used to think it had to be this way. I’d go to rehearsals and pose questions, but I’d already have all the answers. I would construct the theatrical reality, and this was precisely what the actors were expecting from me. Now, after many different experiences, the more I’m in control of a situation, the more willingly I expose myself to risky situations in which they realise I might not know everything – I don’t set it all out in a defined way. I don’t want to speak too soon about my ideas for the set; I’d rather work on this collectively. This contrasts with the way theatre productions are usually organised. Theatres become increasingly hysterical about arranging dates – for example, often the set needs to be conceived six months before the start of rehearsals. These dates become so mechanical that you have to fight on all possible fronts so that improvisations – something fresh that might come from rehearsals – can still influence the performance.

Gruszczyński: What conditions does an actor have to meet to work with you? What are your demands and expectations?

Warlikowski: I look for and expect authenticity. One day I had to replace Magda [Magdalena] Cielecka in The Dybbuk. It would have been incredibly difficult to accept casting a girl who’s young, ambitious, and who wants to play the part because she wants to get noticed. So I search for people who are already past this point. Then no one has anything to prove to anyone. Although often it also happens that we discuss the possible casting all together. When Janusz Gajos quit the role of Prospero in The Tempest, we collectively began to think about who might be able to replace him.[2] [...]

Krzysztof Warlikowski in rehearsal. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Krzysztof Warlikowski in rehearsal. Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Gruszczyński: Do you set tasks for the actors?

Warlikowski: The tasks are linked concretely to shape of the scenes. I speak very little about this. Only at a certain stage – when the meaning or the essence of the scene is already there – do I open things up and begin to put things in order. Or I open up and develop things as I’m in the process of arranging them. At first I try instead to activate what is closest to the character within the person, within the actor, and also to open what is closest to the character in me. I try to check how important it is for the actor and for me – what is so important to say in working on this play, in working on this character, what it’s about, what sort of experience the character might give to the actor and spectators. And then the propositions follow – the text is filtered through the actor’s own sensibilities and then we begin the more ‘theatrical’ work. Because at the beginning we don’t speak about theatre at all. When we start the first rehearsal, I don’t have a single element of theatre in mind...

Gruszczyński: None at all?

Warlikowski: Sometimes I’d like to try to establish something, but not necessarily at the start of the process. Often I speak about various possible situations and the actors listen and try one of them out – or they propose their own, totally different solution. [...]

Gruszczyński: Do you examine every word with the actors?

Warlikowski: For us it’s the only starting point. It begins from the words, then images arrive – but the word remains the most important thing. It’s this that builds the force of the performance.

Gruszczyński: Do you use exercises – any stimulation or concentration exercises, or physical training?

Warlikowski: No – improvisation works best for us. And when I make changes to the scenes following the premiere, then the actors improvise in front of the spectators.

Gruszczyński: Does this mean that certain solutions end up in the performance without having been rehearsed?

Warlikowski: In many cases, yes. The actors say themselves that they can only engage with certain elements with the audience present. I think the spectators are fully taken into account within their acting, that they are subtly drawn into the actors’ playing.

Gruszczyński: What’s the worst mistake an actor can make in your theatre?

Warlikowski: Such mistakes don’t exist – there’s no need to create barriers and rules. I often make embarrassing mistakes myself, but this is normal when you’re really searching for something. These aren’t the kind of mistakes you should have to explain.

Gruszczyński: Krystian Lupa says that his actors ‘sin’ when they start trying to win the approval of the audience.

Warlikowski: I don’t have any such suspicions about actors. I also don’t have such a need to interrupt their rhythm on a particular day that I’d go after them and demand changes. When something doesn’t work, I understand that perhaps there’s not enough energy – that it’s not possible to carry out everything we’ve arranged every evening. It’s difficult work. My performances are often very long. Like very long journeys during which the spectators can also get tired. We’ve often felt this when playing Krum... [...]

Gruszczyński: What constitutes a bad or failed performance for you?

Warlikowski: It happens when the actors submit too much to the role, when they begin to work along the line of actor-actor rather than fulfilling their task with people.

Gruszczyński: With people – that is to say with the audience?

Warlikowski: Yes. I say then that something is too ‘characterised’ – this happened to Jacek Poniedziałek, for example, who overplayed the drunkenness [as Stephano] in The Tempest (2003). Then the actor loses some of their edge.

Gruszczyński: What do you mean, precisely?

Warlikowski: When Stephano says, in all lucidity, to Caliban: ‘Kiss my feet’, this is something different than if he says it in a state of drunkenness. It’s a very fine line.

Gruszczyński: So, what is the main task of the actors? Should they keep contact with the spectators or make them believe in the character?

Warlikowski: They should reinforce the subject matter of the performance, in harmony with the spectators. The actors shouldn’t exist only for themselves, they must oblige the spectators to enter into their problem. If the spectators don’t experience anything, it means the actor has missed something.

Gruszczyński: Do unsuccessful performances like this happen often?

Warlikowski: No. This normally happens on tour when the actors are a bit nervous, uncertain, when they’re somewhere unfamiliar. The Teatr Rozmaitości (Variety Theatre) has made us accustomed to a small space. A sudden distancing from the spectator, which happens in other, larger spaces, causes the actor to create a form (which is often very good, as good actors are capable of doing this instinctively), to cease to have a dialogue, and to declaim, to impose something, to ‘play a role’. They enter into forms, and this is no longer interesting.

On top of this, a distance is created on tour by the simple fact that we are a Polish company performing in Polish. And yet it’s always about how to seize and captivate the spectators, about giving them time to think, letting them forget that they are reading surtitles and that we’re demanding a lot from them – that is to say, two and a half hours of their full attention and of reading the translation. Our theatre consists in nuances, pauses, and not in a re-working of defined and convincing forms and characters. Because then nothing comes of this, apart from a skilful – perhaps even a little outdated – theatre.

Let’s take, for example, the scene in the bathroom between Chonon (Andrzej Chyra) and Henekh (Jacek Poniedziałek) in The Dybbuk (2003). When Chonon says that another world exists beneath the earth’s surface, Henekh responds: ‘You’ve plunged too deeply into Kabbalah’. Chonon replies: ‘You’ll never understand me – the path to God is through the body. What are you most ashamed or afraid of? Contact with women’.[3] These words, uttered in a debate between students or philosophers, only restate the problem. On the other hand, coming from the mouths of two guys, hot from the baths, aroused by their own physicality and sexuality, these words create a completely different scene and completely different theatre.

Henekh (Jacek Poniedziałek, left) and Chonen (Andrzej Chyra) in the bathroom scene in the first part of Warlikowski’s The Dybbuk (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Henekh (Jacek Poniedziałek, left) and Chonen (Andrzej Chyra) in the bathroom scene in the first part of Warlikowski’s The Dybbuk (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Gruszczyński: It seems to me that your actors often have to search and construct ‘on top’ of the text – not neglecting it as such, but rather surpassing it in order to render its full meaning. How is this done?

Warlikowski: In The Dybbuk for example, we had a whole strategy for working on the monologues that opened or preceded the performance. After the premiere, we thought for a long time about this first scene. During the performances we did in Austria, Andrzej Chyra came up with the idea of trying something different: he put out chairs on the forestage, sat down and waited for the others. They were to come in together, talking among themselves. And then there would follow a sort of competition within the group as to who could really shine when telling their story. We went ahead with this proposition and we managed to capture the attention of the Austrian audience. So we still keep delving into things, we wonder what else we can do with them. Especially since we learned in France and in New York – where the audience was often eighty percent Jewish – that The Dybbuk can actually be entertaining. In New York, people laughed from the first moment to the last, which was a shock for us. This made us relax, it allowed us to treat the performance differently, without this sense of gravity – which we hadn’t sought after but which, in spite of everything, had always been present within us until then. When people laugh, it’s not possible to go against the current and for us to attend less to what’s happening than the audience do themselves.

The opening scene of The Dybbuk, after Shimon Ansky and Hanna Krall (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

The opening scene of The Dybbuk, after Shimon Ansky and Hanna Krall (2003). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Gruszczyński: [The Austrian actor] Renate Jett has performed in three of your Polish productions, two of your German productions and your opera in France.[4] Do you perceive any differences between her work as an actor and that of the Polish members of the ensemble?

Warlikowski: She belongs to the category of ‘actor-leaders’ – like Staszka [Stanisława] Celińska or Jacek Poniedziałek – the most crucial actors, those who convey the subject-matter to the audience, who actualise the message with the most intensity before the audience. They also help those actors who understand being onstage in a more traditional way. This double play [podwójna gra] grabs the attention of the spectators and directs them.

Gruszczyński: What do you mean by ‘actualise the message’?

Warlikowski: Let’s go back to Jacek Poniedziałek – Stephano in The Tempest. He says to Caliban: ‘You want me to be your god, so kiss my foot’. Actualising the message means to pose a question before the audience and with the audience. If Jacek is drunk and says, ‘Go on and kiss my foot’, he does it for himself. Then we just watch this in safety – the case of someone who’s unhinged. Instead of opening something in people, the actor superficially depicts a person demanding that someone kisses his feet, which has no broader relevance to anyone.

Gruszczyński: So in playing a ‘double role’, the actors are your agents?

Warlikowski: They guide the performance’s main concept, from within the performance. [...]

Renate Jett (right) in Warlikowski’s production of Cleansed (2001). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Renate Jett (right) in Warlikowski’s production of Cleansed (2001). Photograph: Stefan Okołowicz.

Gruszczyński: Are you concerned with creating illusion in the theatre?

Warlikowski: Illusion – no. A prolonged state of discomfort, of keeping questions, challenges, and emerging thoughts open – yes. I don’t dot every ‘i’. Also, the performances don’t really finish – this moment is blurred.

Gruszczyński: I have the impression that you treat the theatre as a place where the actors arrive just as unprepared for what will happen as the audience. Only during the meeting between the actors and spectators does establishing or talking through a certain problem take place. A discourse emerges.

Warlikowski: A performance is successful when we manage to create a ‘vibration’ among the audience – when we sow many seeds among the spectators, this is a victory for us. And the audience begins to ‘intervene’, to be present, to build up a focus – very internalised, very genuine.

Gruszczyński: Do you plan the audience’s reaction? What sort of reaction are you interested in creating?

Warlikowski: During rehearsals we go through several traumatic months with the text, with other people, with ourselves, with our problems – which in fact begin to mingle with the problems of the characters. We become very sensitised to what it is we’re touching on. The most essential question is: how can we make it so that the spectator is able to go on this whole journey that we’ve been on, in a much shorter time? What can we do in order to liberate certain thoughts and associations in the spectator?

Gruszczyński: And do the spectators themselves have any responsibilities in your theatre?

Warlikowski: The spectators have nothing but responsibilities.

Gruszczyński: Of what kind?

Warlikowski: They should forget all about their mobile phones, listen to the text, and after the performance, think... They should absorb, absorb, let it buzz, vibrate – and then later return to it in some way. It’s a catastrophe if a spectator goes out after the performance to a restaurant or to meet someone, and is left with just one thought: ‘that was a cool performance’. [We] want to address the neglected human being – the person wrecked by the dominant system, the remains of the post-war, post-communist, post-Catholic human being. It’s about a performance being able to act like a lightning bolt that seeks out a sensitive place within each of us.

Gruszczyński: Do these intentions towards the spectator translate into your work with the actors, into the approach to acting?

Warlikowski: Yes. This requires us to create a sense of absolute security, a certainty that I can be completely open and say anything about myself. Renate Jett did something like this in the opening monologue of Cleansed. It was the timid reflection of someone who’s lost, someone very close to us, who also – due to her accent – spoke an almost child-like language, who spoke an alphabet of love.[5] And all this began to touch on something, it seemed to open people up. Or else it caused a nervous rummaging around in handbags, or a rearranging of clothes among part of the audience. For some people this kind of sincerity was too difficult, too dangerous, unacceptable.

Gruszczyński: Is it possible to ‘activate’ this kind of spectator as well?

Warlikowski: It’s hard for me to say what happens with them, because maybe they find the experience of aversion to be stronger.

Gruszczyński: Do you have any particular methods of working with the actors that help them to reach the level of openness you expect from them?

Warlikowski: No, it depends entirely on the trust that I can say anything, that we know a lot about each other, that there are no taboo subjects, that no one will be offended if I use something extreme from their lives [in the performance]. We always tell each other extreme things about ourselves, we don’t hide. These are the moments when we best get to know each other.

Gruszczyński: Isn’t it difficult to sustain this situation?

Warlikowski: No, I think it’s the opposite – it continues to activate us, because we constantly rebel against life. [...]

Gruszczyński: What are the personal costs of making this kind of theatre?

Warlikowski: The tensions that are provoked by the ongoing searching within our own lives, by the stimulation of our most painful spheres, by everything that destabilises us and causes unease. The actors [...] don’t just give themselves to the performance in a professional sense, but it can be painful each time an intimate part of them begins to resonate for the audience. There’s also an element of risk linked to the functioning of a group that has to live and be together all the time – especially during tours. There is a greater expectation about the performances and about what we ourselves can take from them. The actors come to the Teatr Rozmaitości with their incurable sickness with life, with all the ‘defects’ that caused them to be actors, and to live and search beyond their everyday reality.

Gruszczyński: Is it possible to make theatre that takes artistic risks while also retaining a professional distance?

Warlikowski: Professional distance is a certain discipline we are lacking in Poland: this awareness of knowing why and for whom we make a performance. Our artistic life is full of monads, without a broader awareness – that is to say, without what I understand by ‘professional distance’. For me, this distance means an awareness that we work for the audience, in direct contact with them. [In Poland] we never made the actors aware that they can unmask society by expressing its thoughts and sicknesses. Too often we have emphasised the individuality of the artist rather than teaching what is intrinsic to the art of the actor and to their social responsibility. We don’t put on plays – we try to speak to the spectators and to communicate with them.

Gruszczyński: And with their intimacy?

Warlikowski: There are no intimate spheres – we don’t have the right to hide anything.

Gruszczyński: Is this why, in Poland, you’re reproached for a kind of amateurism? Is high-risk theatre fundamentally not professional theatre?

Warlikowski: It’s more ‘a-professional’. It’s not about getting rid of professionalism. But when something is too ‘well done’, when it starts to lose its sincerity, when it becomes a theatrical form that everyone accepts, this theatre sends us to sleep... The operatic form already has this effect. Theatre still has a chance, precisely by going against ‘professionalism’ as such, by running away from the more ‘charming’ kind of transmission that acts superficially on the spectator’s intellect. [...] Theatre should pull us out of the rhythm of our everyday lives rather than affirm it. There is no compromise. Theatre should be an instrument for knowledge rather than just an artistic instrument.


Translated from French and Polish by Duncan Jamieson and Adela Karsznia, with Marie Magneron.


Notes

  1. ^ The original publications are in: Szekspir i uzurpator. Z Krzysztofem Warlikowskim rozmawia Piotr Gruszczyński (Shakespeare and the Usurper: Krzysztof Warlikowski in conversation with Piotr Gruszczyński) (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo WAB, 2007), and in Krzysztof Warlikowski, Théâtre écorché (Flayed Theatre), ed. by Piotr Gruszczyński, afterword by Georges Banu, trans. by Marie-Thérèse Vido-Rzewuska (Arles: Actes Sud, 2007).
  2. ^ Gajos, a celebrated theatre and screen actor, resigned from the production before the premiere of The Tempest. For further discussion of this situation, see Justyna Drobnik-Rogers, ‘Krzysztof Warlikowski and Collaborative Processes to Performance: An intertheatrical reading’, elsewhere in this volume (pp. 23-51 (pp. 50-51) of the print edition).
  3. ^ Warlikowski is paraphrasing from the discussion between Chonon and Henekh, two students at the Brinitz synagogue, in Act I of Solomon Ansky’s The Dybbuk.
  4. ^ For further details of these productions, see the annotated ‘Chronology’ of Warlikowski’s life and work elsewhere in this volume (pp. 181-197 of the print edition).
  5. ^ For further discussion of Jett’s work on this monologue, see Monika Żółkoś, ‘Body, Word, Memory: The actor in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s theatre’, elsewhere in this volume (pp. 134-148 (p. 146) of the print edition).

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