Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski
The Theater of Social Anarchy
This week on HowlRound, we're looking at different kinds of theater happening in Poland. In this series, we'll be exploring the historical tradition of the Polish public theater, the ubiquity of Polish theater festivals, how theater in Poland has anticipated and responded to politics, and the current dynamic and vital Polish theater scene.
After the first show I saw directed by Monika Strzępka and written by Paweł Demirski, Once Upon a Time There Was Andrzej Andrzej Andrzej and Andrzej (2010), I had to check the Internet the moment I got home. The scenic language of “the most famous Polish duo” was composed of elements of popular theater—burlesque, parody, physical comedy, grotesque, farce, kitsch, the absurd, and musical quotes that resonated strongly with the spectators—it was, by definition accessible and engaging, but the story and characters were… shockingly Polish.
The “Andrzej” in the title was the worldwide famous filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, and the whole piece was about a gathering of prominent Polish figures (referred to as the “master generation”) that had shaped the public sphere in the 1980s and ‘90s, brought together at Wajda’s mock funeral. Obviously, in real life, Wajda wasn’t dead—the artists were in fact announcing the “death” of the social narrative that had being been dominating Poland since the beginning of the Solidarity movement. Present at the ceremony were: Leszek Balcerowicz, former chairman of the Bank of Poland and father of the Polish shock therapy of the ‘90s; Krystyna Janda, the fetishized actress of both Wajda and another well-known film director, Krzysztof Kieślowski; and Kazimierz Kutz, a Silesian filmmaker and member of the Senate. Of course, they were not on stage as themselves, but more or less as metaphorical representatives of the master generation, in a clash of discourse and values with the equally metaphorical provincial actors and other anonymous characters that were crashing the party dressed as teddy bears or conference presenters.
Full of insider Polish cultural and social references (like one of the teddy bears singing “Janek Wiśniewski Fell,” a famous protest ballad performed by Krystyna Janda at the end of Wajda’s 1981 movie, Man of Iron), Once Upon a Time… was a passionate yet somehow cynical questioning of the monopoly that the master generation still has on those who might speak in the agora. This monopoly is of a cultural elite very similar to that existing in all the former communist countries, responsible for turning its own understanding of freedom into the main social value. On a different level, Strzępka and Demirski were actually defending their own right to speak—in the name of the lower classes, the poor, those left behind by the transition to capitalism, and those who watch cheap TV series instead of art-house movies (reportedly, Once Upon a Time…was created because Andrzej Wajda left their previous production, Once Upon a Time There Was a Pole a Pole a Pole and a Devil, before the applause). It was for the Poles that speak a different language than the one in literature, to which all Polish playwrights are supposed to pay their respects—Demirski credits his wife Monika Strzępka for making him discover the beauty of laughter and dirty language. Their whole work is a denial of the elite legacy of high culture (see: Grotowski and Kantor), that still dominate the Polish stages.
In fact, Polish pop culture, national history, and contemporary social ethos have proved to be the focal points for all of the couple’s shows. In a previous production, Long Live the War! (2009), based on a very popular book and TV series from the ‘60s, Four Tankmen and a Dog, they ridiculed the contemporary nationalist discourse on the heroism of Poles during WWII. Among other things, they asked: How could the war be a victory when 200,000 civilians died and much of the city was destroyed? How does not admitting defeat and instead celebrating war make the Poles superior as a nation?
Looking at the present through the lens of the past came back again In the Name of Jakub S. Jakub Szela was the disputed leader of a peasants’ riot in 1846. In the piece, Strzępka and Demirski draw a very harsh parallel between the nineteenth century’s serfdom and today’s indebtedness to banks. Once again, in this show, the duo is tackling subjects that their own audience prefers not to talk about.
But Strzępka and Demirski’s artistic tactics are never very orthodox. In 2011, when Poland was preparing itself to co-host the 2012 European Soccer Championship with Ukraine, Strzępka, Demirski, and their long-term collaborator set designer Michał Korchowiec, made Rainbow Stand 2012, a show about a group of gay soccer fans who launch a citizens’ initiative to win the right to openly attend the matches. The project was based on a real-life fans—something quite daring for the rather homophobic Poland to take in. News of the fans’ stand even made it into the Western press. Not long after the premiere of the show, however, it became public that the whole citizens’ initiative was a hoax. It was Strzępka, Demirski, and Korchowiec themselves who had devised the story in order to put the issue of gay rights not in the cultural section of newspapers, but on the front page. Rainbow Stand 2012 also featured some public Polish figures as characters, like the mayor of Warsaw, a supporter of LGBT rights. The topic of gay representation also made space for a very critical debate on Poland’s development priorities, such as building a stadium for the sake of the Soccer Championship in the first place, which led to rapid gentrification of the surrounding community. But it was done with the typical farcical approach of these artists.
Heavily text-based and getting much of its strength from the subtle use of vernacular language, Strzępka and Demirski’s work is most likely not destined to gather large audiences abroad. Their shows are not universal artistic experiences; they are voyages into an intricate social and cultural landscape, with a lot of necessary footnotes. But few other artists in Eastern Europe—or in Europe in general, for that matter—have had such a strong influence on the reinvention of the local theatrical aesthetics and also on turning theater into a common space for public debate. For a long time, the couple remained faithful to the only theater company in the poor city of Wałbrzych, a former mining region with a high rate of unemployment where theater played a strong role in the community. They are all too aware that, even with the controlled ticket prices of the state-subsidized institutions they now work with, their own growing popularity inevitably makes their productions less and less accessible. Both Strzępka and Demirski are known for not holding their tongues when defending their right to speak and the need to democratize the Polish society, starting with theater itself. They are not doing just art, they have chosen theater as a form, to activate social change. A very local tool that works… globally.