Risk in the Body and World at Warsaw’s Generation After 3 Showcase

Several months after adapting a play by the early twentieth-century avant-garde Polish playwright Stanisław Witkiewicz, I was invited, as an American theatremaker, to the Generation After 3 festival in Warsaw. The theme of this third annual showcase of recent Polish theatre was “risky projects,” and fourteen distinct pieces that centered on risk—ranging from theatre to performance art to dance—were presented.

Risk, by definition, involves two main elements: severity (the danger or peril of the situation) and likelihood (the probability or chance of the situation occurring). Curiously, the program booklet didn’t provide this overarching definition but rather asked each artist to respond to the question: “What is risk theatre for?” One person answered that it’s to be used as a form of play, while someone else said it’s for ending theatre being used as a support of the “myth of male genius” and reproducing “harmful patriarchal systems of power.” Consequently, throughout the festival I reflected on several questions: What is risk? Is it adaptable and unique to individuals? Is theatre inherently risky? And how does a portrayal of risk theatre in Poland change how I as an American think of risk or theatre?

Noting my surprised reactions to many of the performances, Joanna Klass, senior theatre expert at Poland’s national cultural center the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, gave me some insight into the festival’s curation, telling me that many of the shows involved nudity, sex, and defiance of the Catholic Church and God. These themes had emerged from the current culture wars and regulation on women’s bodies in Poland, where the country has one of the strictest bans on abortion in the European Union, largely due to the Catholic Church’s influence. With this knowledge in mind, I found myself noting the multitude of themes on religion, revolution, and the country’s increasingly conservative politics—though, as an American woman of color who has family ties to Eastern Europe but is only now encountering Polish culture and politics, I found myself most strongly drawn to the themes of risk as it intersects with the body and the world.  

three actors onstage in red lighting

The power and powerlessness of birth is reenacted in Renata Piotrowska-Auffret's Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me.

The Body

Susceptible to injury, disease, and age, our bodies are constantly sites of risk. The likelihood of danger to them is compounded further by environmental factors, societal expectations, financial burden, and legislative policies. Thriller and Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me addressed these elements head on.

Generation After 3 opened with Thriller, a collaboration between Sonia Roszczuk, Paweł Sakowicz, and Anna Smolar that posed the question: Is it possible to reclaim one’s body for one’s own self? Their exploration of this question involved experiencing an “ordinary day” in two dancers’ lives from the perspective of their bodies. While unflinchingly gazing at the audience, Sakowicz and Roszczuk danced vigorously to rock and electronica music, taking pauses to narrate moments of their day and parts of their bodies: obsessions with long fingernails, embarrassment at an air-kiss greeting that ended with lips on earlobes, paralysis when a mother walked in on a private masturbation moment, and horror when menstrual blood soaked through a leotard.

By the end of the show, the performers have completely exhausted their bodies from the hour of high-powered dance, and their initial sparkly makeup has mixed with sweat on their clothes. Roszczuk slumps against Sakowicz, and they fantasize that their bodies have changed—that they have a long, long tail, which, “in the end, could destroy cities.” Is this how one reclaims one’s body? By pushing it to exhaustion so much so that the mind transforms it into a fantastical beast? In Thriller, the only way for a person to claim physical control of their body—especially after it is fatigued by a “normal” day—is to use imagination. Whatever risks exist in the physical world for our bodies, the imagination can mitigate them.

Whatever risks exist in the physical world for our bodies, the imagination can mitigate them.

In Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me by Renata Piotrowska-Auffret, the artist moved through the terror and ecstasy of the politicized relationship women have with reproduction, asking: “What if the desire to give birth is impossible to fulfill if it is restricted by legal regulations and restrictions?” Pregnancy and birth is already a risky undertaking, with approximately 830 women around the world dying every day from childbirth-related complications—a statistic with deep political implications, as maternal mortality rates often highlight the economic inequities of healthcare accessibility. Add on top of these risks the reports of the Polish government targeting women’s rights and access to reproductive health (and, closer to home for me, the impersonal and dangerous conditions of maternal health care in the United States and the worsening state of women’s reproductive rights as I’ve been writing this piece), and Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me morphed into a powerful piece that drew strong emotional reactions.

Addressing us directly, Piotrowska-Auffret narrated first-person accounts of women (mostly artists) who wanted to conceive but had difficulty doing so due to finances, relationships, biology, and more. Interspersed within the monologues were short movement pieces and a skeleton in an awkward standing position projected on a screen. Piotrowska-Auffret moved, mimicking the skeleton in exaggerated postures. These movements, she told us, were part her process in the studio on a project called “Death: Exercises and Variations” and were meant to juxtapose her role as an artist with women’s desires to be mothers. She was asking questions like: Is the desire to be a mother a kind of death for the woman artist, as she must put aside her process to take care of her child? Or is the act of being an artist—yet choosing to let go of the desire for a child—a kind of death for potential motherhood? Her clownlike poses relieved the tension of stories about endometriosis, ovulation, laparoscopies, and speculums—drawing laughter from the audience—but the reminder of death and choice embodied in the skeleton loomed over her.

Piotrowska-Auffret was eventually joined by Karolina Kraczkowska and Aleksandra Osowicz. They also narrated women’s stories until they began to embody the act of labor and delivery onstage. Bathed in red light, Piotrowska-Auffret and Kraczkowska groaned and writhed on the sides while Osowicz described birth and finally declared, in a guttural cry, “I have power!” With one final blood-curdling scream, Osowicz mimed a baby being born and immediately switched into the role as an onlooker, moving towards the audience and shaking their hands, saying, “Congratulations. You’re a mother.”

During the simulated act of labor, I found myself openly crying, reminded of the nexus of power and powerlessness inherent in the act of giving birth—the laboring mother is a source of power, bringing new life into the world, and yet she faces disempowerment from the medical and political systems around her. Next to me, another audience member was laughing, presumably from the absurdity of it all. Circling back to the piece’s original question, if birth were impossible for women to fulfill based on regulations and restrictions, Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me suggests they would find a way to fulfill their creative impulses anyway—whether by having a child or being an artist or both—no matter what the circumstances.

three actors nude onstage

Three nameless women build a new kind of earth for themselves in Agata Siniarska's You Are Safe.

The World

When it comes to risk and the world, climate change and disaster—both natural and manmade—immediately leap to mind. Is the rate of human consumption of natural resources increasing our likelihood for disaster? What kind of world are we (un)knowingly creating for ourselves? You Are Safe and Fear addressed these questions from emotional spaces that contrasted quite sharply.

You Are Safe by Agata Siniarska dealt with “the problematics of movement and motion in the contemporary world,” her program note explained, followed by: “we cannot escape the problems of our planet, there is no return to a pure beginning.” Yet this piece seemed hopeful and contemplative—even the title of the show was more like a promise than a pessimistic remark. The production began with three still, naked women on green Astroturf and dirt, moving, chirping, hissing, and hooting as they watched the audience take their seats. They shifted positions with achingly slow precision, rustling through the plastic and soil, making sounds reminiscent of a forest floor. As their movements became larger and swifter, they began throwing dirt in the air, rubbing it in their hair, putting it on each other’s bodies. Their breathing intensified, reaching orgasmic and ecstatic heights—and then they abruptly pulled themselves into seated positions, took out plastic pots, and put green objects inside them.

Bright green forks became stalks. Mint-colored gloves became a cactus. Chartreuse sponges became succulents. The three women sang a Polish folk love song and began to bob and swish around as the lights eventually faded. I witnessed a sense of community between these three women and a sense of primal playfulness with the dirt, as if only earth and soil could break them from their slow, controlled motions. I took this as a metaphor for trapped behavior in society. Once the women were fully immersed and moving in the dirt, only then could they gain freedom and the creativity to make something new from inorganic objects. But while the act of creating these artificial plantlike sculptures appeared to signify a new beginning, perhaps their plastic nature did not make them pure? Either way, the love song gave me a sense of comfort in this new world, as if the risks of controlled behavior and motion could be eased by community, and that sisterhood could still be found and even encouraged.

Returning to the United States, I mulled over the performances I had seen, which eschewed plot and linear logic and instead lived in spaces of collage and pure emotion.

Contrasting sharply with this world of comfort and new beginnings was Małgorzata Wdowik and Robert Bolesto’s Fear, an exploration of what scares us. “You decide who is in charge of fear,” encouraged the program note. Audience members donned headsets (with options for Polish or English narration) and took seats in the auditorium. As the theatre darkened, soundscapes washed over us: forests, thunderstorms, screams, growls. As mysterious appendages (tentacles? roots?) protruded from a center-stage pit, where wizened pale corpse-like creatures congregated and fed, our headphones filled with the sounds of wet chewing and slurping. Smoke and fog emerged from the pit and wings of the theatre, framing a single red balloon as it gently ascended—and then loudly popped, making the audience jump. I braced myself for more frights while at the same time wondered how scary a theatrical performance could truly be. Turns out, enough to make several audience members leave.

Amidst all the noise, a woman’s monologue broke through, a relief to the uncanny corpse-creatures onstage, who at one point approached the audience so closely they could have touched us. But, despite the mysterious woman’s light tone, her words became sinister. “This is your hometown,” she crooned. A shiver of recognition—what could have happened to turn our hometowns into this grotesque space? Disease? Disaster? War? Then: “You can’t hide behind your headphones,” followed by a revving chainsaw and a dying scream. Could human cruelty risk turning our personal worlds into these hellholes?

When I spoke to Wdowik later, I mentioned the slow rhythm of the piece, that it was more menacing than terrifying. Wdowik agreed, explaining that jump scares were almost too easy to accomplish and that her team found their fears more rooted in sound than visuals. The effect of headphones and emphasis on sound made Fear intimate at best and invasive at worst—but the piece certainly achieved its goal, as I felt genuinely afraid for the characters as they were slowly, agonizingly, drawn into the monstrous pit onstage. Ultimately, Fear was a slow burn, crawling through the gruesome and the intimate, asking—begging—the audience to hear the fear from these tortured characters, who maybe, in an alternate world, could be us.

a dark stage with a spotlight into a pit surrounded by two actors bodies

The mysterious yawning pit of Fear by Malgorzata Wdowik.

What’s Next?

Not until attending this festival did I realize how so much theatre I have seen in the United States has been linear and plot-focused, with a clear distance between performers and audience members. Upon hearing that I was from America, one festivalgoer admitted that he shied away from American theatre because he associated it with “the well-made play” and preferred the messy, Brechtian nature of Polish theatre.

Returning to the United States, I mulled over the performances I had seen, which eschewed plot and linear logic and instead lived in spaces of collage and pure emotion—so much like the Witkiewicz play I had adapted, the one that had brought me to Warsaw. Not only did Generation After 3’s shows provide insight into bodies and worlds as politicized sites of risk, they also explored theatre’s role in exploring these sites. Can the imagination mitigate risk to our physical bodies, allowing us to transcend the limitations of flesh and exist on another plane, as in Thriller? Can women’s creative impulse never be stifled, finding one way or another to fulfill itself despite legal or financial restrictions, as in Pure Gold is Seeping Out of Me? What is the chance of finding new beginnings, as in You Are Safe? Can we work through our own terror and disgust, as in Fear, even if the world seems ugly and hopeless? And where can I invite risk into my own work, making space for pure emotion and messiness?

Olga Drygas, one of the organizers of this Generation After 3 showcase, told me she believes in a new paradigm where “the power of weakness, practicing failure, and subversive rewriting of the status quo can provoke the future.” In this case, it appears that the risk of our bodies and our world—the promise of danger we find ourselves in and the chances that it will occur—are necessary for us to create our own futures. Despite the peril, we must carry on.

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