ISSN 2451-2966


Panel 2

Theatre Collectives, Panel 2: Doing Things the Polish Way

From left: J. Michalik, A. Smolar, J. Sobczyk, M. Borczuch, S. Godlewski, A. Siwiak, 'Theatre, Artistic and Research Collectives' conference, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, 19 June 2018. Photo from the recording by Anna Paprzycka.

From left: J. Michalik, A. Smolar, J. Sobczyk, M. Borczuch, S. Godlewski, A. Siwiak, 'Theatre, Artistic and Research Collectives' conference, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, 19 June 2018. Photo from the recording by Anna Paprzycka.

Read Abstract
The following records the second panel discussion during the conference ‘Theater, Art and Research Collectives’, organised by the Institute of Theatre and Media Arts in the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, in collaboration with the Malta Festival, on 19 June 2018. The panel comprised the directors Michał Borczuch, Anna Smolar and Justyna Sobczyk, each of whom works both in collectives and in institutional theatres, and thus have experience from both sides of the spectrum. The scholars Stanisław Godlewski and Justyna Michalik moderated the discussion. Other conference participants were invited to join the debate and were free to speak throughout. The transcript below has been edited and slightly abridged by Stanisław Godlewski.
Theatre Collectives, Panel 2: Doing Things the Polish Way

The following records the second panel discussion during the conference ‘Theater, Art and Research Collectives’, organised by the Institute of Theatre and Media Arts in the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, in collaboration with the Malta Festival, on 19 June 2018. The panel comprised the directors Michał Borczuch, Anna Smolar and Justyna Sobczyk, each of whom works both in collectives and in institutional theatres, and thus have experience from both sides of the spectrum. The scholars Stanisław Godlewski and Justyna Michalik moderated the discussion. Other conference participants were invited to join the debate and were free to speak throughout. The transcript below has been edited and slightly abridged by Stanisław Godlewski.

Stanisław Godlewski: I’m going to ask this point-blank: would you describe yourselves as working in collectives?

Anna Smolar: I’d like to start by saying that since we’re here to talk about collectives, our line-up is something of a paradox. Michał [Borczuch] and I are practitioners of working in informal collectives originated as part of specific projects – usually ones carried out in institutional theatres – but we’re not part of an autonomous structure grounded in law. It's true that collectiveness underlies our work model, and distribution of responsibility among everyone involved is quite democratic. But our collectives are informal and symbolic. In fact, Justyna Sobczyk is the only one here who can testify to how challenging it is to found a collective and keep it alive.

But the fact is that there’s still a shortage of collectives in Poland; the fact that theatre professionals who have a history of working with certain actors and directors nevertheless choose to be part of other structures rather than founding collectives says a lot about our present situation. We’d all like to work on a shared vision, we strive to achieve a certain quality – and we’d like to do this with people we’ve most in common with, wouldn’t we? This is still my dream; this is also how I started out in theatre. I grew up and studied in France, where it’s quite commonplace for people in arts circles to found collectives straight out of university. That’s where they learn how to secure funding independently from institutions, how to persuade others that their ideas are good – and many other things. At the age of twenty, I, too, had my own collective in Paris – but we had to part ways because I moved to Poland. So I’d love to have a conversation about collective work in art; I think it’s a hugely important thing; but when it comes to organising an ensemble and showing responsibility at the helm, I’m not really an expert...

Justyna Sobczyk: I think, though, there’s one thing we first need to agree on: does ‘collective’ mean ‘being part of a team’? My feeling is the word ‘collective’ is often used today to avoid saying you’re ‘part of a team’. I work with a team, as part of a team. And for me, this has a special double significance: a team of people, and Down’s syndrome [in Polish, zespół is used for both]. It took some time for the company 21 Theatre [T21] to take shape, but during the thirteen years I’ve worked with the actors, new people have joined successively: actors, directors and other collaborators who contribute to shaping the creative space for our productions and looking after the organisational side of things. They include dramaturge Justyna Lipko-Konieczna, choreographer Justyna Wielgus, stage designer Wisła Nicieja, lighting designer Sebastian Klim, and Marceli Silecki and Jakub Drzewiecki who are in charge of organisation and communication. Until recently, our team included video artist Tomasz Michalczewski and composer Piotr Andryszczyk.

For a long time, I was focusing exclusively on expanding the acting ensemble, and ignoring organisational development: we were in fact an informal company, working under the banners of associations we saw eye to eye with. At the moment, we’re trying to make up for this and create a robust, well-defined structure.

What does teamwork look like in our company? All our productions are structured around a theme, basic at first; they are born out of actors’ improvisation, although Justyna Lipko-Konieczna and I do produce a scenario. So one understanding of the team nature of our work is that we are simply working together at every stage of making a production; still, I think the people we invite to work with us are given plenty of space. Second, teamwork is also about everyone stepping slightly out of their box and working on things that aren’t necessarily part of their job description. The company shares responsibility for keeping our theatre going and this, too, has an impact on us. It was only quite recently that I really felt how strong we are as a company – because we don’t have a space of our own, we drew up a long-term plan. Its main premise was to collaborate with a variety of Warsaw-based institutions. We called this venture the Downtown Centre for Inclusive Art, then presented our idea at the Municipal Arts Department.

SG:You do have experience working both in a collective and in a municipal institution, though. Have you tried to transfer methods of working in a collective to a repertory theatre?

JS: The first thing I need to say is that at 21 Theatre, actors speak out, and their voices are heard. Entire productions are based on clearly articulated actor experiences: our performers are critical of the reality that disabled people have to tackle. But T21 can stand their ground even with smaller projects. I’ll give you an example: some time ago, the Artanimacje Association invited me to collaborate on a theatre project for children, to be called Psoty w lesie [Woodland Mischief]. I worked on two scenes with a mixed ensemble including T21 actors and young actors fresh out of drama school. The T21 actors wasted no time in defining the nature of their presence: Michał Pęszyński, who played the Wolf, announced he wasn’t going to chase children, which I expected him to do: after all, wolves go on the prowl at night, and our production was set in the daytime. As for Aleksandra Skotarek, who appeared as the Fire Salamander, she had no intention of walking the length and breadth of the stage showing off her beautiful costume: she announced that salamanders, when it’s warm, spend all day basking in the sun, and this was the aspect of her role she was planning to focus on.

The directing method of giving so much platform to actors is based on principles of collaboration that stem from theatre teaching: the focus is on ensuring that the voices of those involved are heard. When I work with actors in an institution, the T21 experience is an obvious inspiration. For example, I’m not that keen on telling actors what they need to do: I find a situation in which I force a role on them odd, to say the least. I also like to get to know the people well with whom I’m working. And I don’t come in with a ready-made concept of the whole because at T21, Justyna Lipko and I don’t do that either: we deliberately don’t bring the text along, we view rehearsal time as an opportunity to come up with a structure and form which are to spring from a specific constellation of actors and other creatives working on the production. This is very difficult from an institution’s point of view because this way of working seems very risky and unpredictable. Thankfully, those fears gradually subside once several successive projects have been completed in institutions: actors and managing directors alike can see that this is a consciously developed process, concluding with a scenario then a production.

SG: Did the time spent in drama school give you an opportunity to prepare for collective work?

Michał Borczuch: At the moment, I teach at the National Academy of Theatre Arts [AST] in Kraków – it used to be called the State Tertiary School of Drama, or PWST, not long ago, reputedly Poland’s top drama school – and my sense is very much what it used to be when I was a student there. I feel that, at school, directing isn’t seen as an art at all. And directing studies are in fact a form of theatre studies, expanded to include working with actors. As if AST wasn’t an art school. Directing is regarded as a craft, to be utilised later by institutions for putting together productions whose merit as works of art is less important than their intellectual foundations on the one hand, and a certain technical skill on the other. An emerging director needs first to persuade the managing director, in the latter’s office, about what she has in mind, then transpose the same persuasive mode to working with actors in rehearsals.

SG: What about your curriculum? Did it at least include classes that would focus on collective working methods?

MB: Theatre is an institution with the task of mounting productions on a given subject: no room there for any slogans about collective work. Working with actors is all you’ve been taught to do. If you want to change things, if you don’t plan to use actors to your own ends but want a different kind of relation with them instead – that’s where the problem starts. It also needs to be said that while events outside of institutional circles in Polish theatre do offer different sorts of relations, they are doomed not only to perpetual underfunding but are also given ‘off’ status straight away....

Małgorzata Jabłońska: I find it frustrating to separate the two environments, professional and off-theatre, and set a boundary between them, to say the least. I’ve been struggling to overcome those divisions for years now. By the way, it would be interesting to note that some companies – for example, Teatr Ósmego Dnia [Theatre of the Eighth Day] in Poznań – went the distance between an off-theatre and an institution, fighting for survival every step of the way.

MB: But my point isn’t to emphasise divisions – I simply want to indicate the massive difference in how both types of companies approach their work. In 2013, I worked on an adaptation of two [Bernard-Marie] Koltès’1 plays at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. My ‘professional’ life was going through a crisis. That was when [curator] Agata Siwiak invited me to work at the children’s home in Szamocin as part of the project Wielkopolska: Revolution. I went there with the team I normally work with: stage designer Dorota Nawrot, lighting designer Jacqueline Sobiszewski and actor Krzysztof Zarzecki. Our professional skills turned out to be completely useless, the entire lot of them. We each had to find a new way and new tools for working with children. We also had to ask ourselves, once again, who we were within the company, what our tasks were and how we were to work and find common ground with people who know next to nothing about theatre. But the children’s home was the first place where I actually had the sense of doing things together: everyone was making a contribution and a production was then shaped from the contributions. On several occasions, I had similar experiences when working with disabled people at institutional theatres, but, when it comes to that strange sense of community and equality, there’s nothing like Szamocin. We keep going back.

Zofia Smolarska: Justyna Sobczyk has just said she couldn’t and didn’t want to start work on a production before she got to know her actors. This has a noble ring to it, but we must remember there are other motives underlying the ‘getting to know’. After all, Justyna, the knowledge you garner at that stage then provides material for constructing your scenario. And though in collective work, which is usually voluntary, this strategy becomes liberating for an actor, for whom it is an opportunity to become Richard Sennett’s ‘public man’, we know in institutional theatres that acting ensembles can resist this method quite vehemently. And I don’t just mean the example mentioned by Jan Lauwers in the previous panel, when professional actors rebelled against the director’s strategy of drawing inspiration from their personal life. I’m thinking instead of the charge of moral exploitation when the actor has to shoulder responsibility for the scenario’s ideological overtones – with the pretext of granting her the status of an equal partner. The director and dramaturge are then free to hide behind the actor and her view of the world, treating her as a shield.

In that context, I’d like to ask Anna and Justyna: when you worked in repertory theatres, structuring your work around actors’ biographies and personal opinions, were you ever accused of morally exploiting the ensemble you worked with? Maybe people went as far as accusing you of economic exploitation: after all, the introduction of ‘fluid’ non-hierarchical relations within the ensemble – in the name of the catchphrase ‘every man is a creator’, to paraphrase Joseph Beuys – may give the director or dramaturge a convenient pretext to shift some of their tasks to actors or burden them with responsibilities beyond the terms of their contracts?

AS: I suppose my collective experience began to germinate when I worked on Jewish Actors2 – and it is true that the fact that this was a self-referential production has been hugely significant. At the time, I’d just finished working within an extremely hierarchical company, which was quite a trauma. I felt I couldn’t go on like that even a minute longer; I was unable to engage with people professionally using violence as a working tool. With Jewish Actors, it was quite a different story: a group of people was formed, all of them keen to be partners at work. Dramaturge Michał Buszewicz and I gave advance warning to the whole ensemble that the production would be based on the actors’ personal experiences; it would tell their own story, recount their circumstances as they are today – and, in light of this, people were welcome to join in, provided they accepted this attitude.

This has been my way of starting work ever since. It was a similar story in Kalisz, where we staged a production about alcoholism, based to a large extent on actors’ improvisations – a safe space emerged, based on trust, a sense of subjectivity manifested itself, the actors were given a say on the scenario and seized the opportunity – and it must be said that some actors simply want to be handed the finished text. Collective work on Henrietta Lacks3 was yet another story: four actors – Marta Malikowska, Maciej Pesta, Sonia Roszczuk and Jan Sobolewski – and I worked at the Copernicus Science Centre, outside of a theatre setting, on a modest budget, no stage and no foothold. And it was true that everyone did everything: we ironed our costumes, prepared props, sorted the entire production out. We wrote our lines in rehearsals and validated every thought and every decision. When it comes to the financial aspect of the collective-work mode, all five of us are now receiving royalties for the text. I think it’s important that we should all agree to put a percentage value on each contribution, and its nature. When a similar line-up got to work on another production at Komuna//Warszawa,4 the text had a different gestation: though it too was based on actor improvisations, the definitive version was written down by Michał Buszewicz and in the end he’s the only one receiving royalties – but we agreed on that over the course of the collective-negotiation process.

Everyone’s contributions are renegotiated every time, depending on our roles in the collective. Although I often work with Michał Buszewicz, our roles of director / dramaturge are far from fixed, so we reach an agreement on our respective job descriptions for each and every production. We also talk to the actors, agreeing with them their contribution to our work together: whether they’d be willing to share their own experiences (as it was with Kilka obcych słów po polsku [A Few Foreign Words in Polish5), what their roles in constructing the production would be: I think this opportunity to renegotiate roles, by and large absent from institutions, is precious: you get to know yourself in new roles; and there’s a freshness and a change of dynamics to the work.

Justyna Michalik: But we talked earlier about how a collective always needs to have a leader: a leader-less collective is a utopia. How does one square that with the renegotiation of roles on every occasion, which you’ve just mentioned? Is it always necessary to have someone who shoulders the bulk of the responsibility, or can the burden be scattered after all?

AS: My experience tells me shared responsibility is possible, but only provided you’ve got the right configuration of people, and even then you sometimes need to perform elaborate contortions to make things work. Building trust and understanding in matters of art, to the extent that you can let go, isn’t possible in every group. I once tried to take a step back and see what the decision-making process might look like in a more open form without the conclusive, imposing voice of the leader. And I have to say it wasn’t a good experience: chaos, anxiety – in fact, downright mutual hostility escalated. It’s likely none of us was mature enough to tackle that sort of situation. People didn’t know who was at the helm, if we were heading in the right direction, whether anyone had any control over events at all. The hostility had a hugely negative impact on our work. I couldn’t cope with it.

It’s a different story now: I’ve had experiences which have shown me that when you meet people you see eye to eye with, you can achieve a great deal together. True, I enjoy decision-making: I find it natural, and not a burden. At the same time, I would probably be pleased if someone invited me to join a company or collective where I would be free to look at my colleagues’ work and wouldn’t shoulder the entire responsibility. I would be part of something, but I’d also have my own free space. I loved the concept used in the previous panel of ‘solidarity-driven collective’: a collective where people are one entity regarding the organisational side of things but remain independent when it comes to art. Could I find fulfilment in that undulating movement? Sometimes in the foreground, driving the project forward, at other times I lean on someone who happens to be the stronger one. I think, by the way, this is a matter of competence and skill: everyone in the company has advantages, of which the utmost should be made.

Participants, 'Theatre, Artistic and Research Collectives' conference, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, 19 June 2018. Photo from the recording by Anna Paprzycka.

Julia Lizurek: I would like to return to work you [Michał Borczuch] have done with children in Szamocin. I think I saw the second performance and I remember feeling awfully sad because I didn’t like what I saw at all. This went on until I caught Krzysztof Zarzecki’s eye, and saw, or so I thought, that he was utterly lost in this children’s world. Then I understood I didn’t ‘like’ the show because that’s how it was supposed to be: the gap between us and the world these kids come from was simply too big. I also realised it wasn’t really a production at all, but rather a way of making your own powerlessness available, making it public....

MB: As a director, I find encounters like these vital: they expose the boundary between the production and another thing that’s completely different. That other thing emerges unexpectedly from the process of working with children on material they brought to the table. It can be compared to the situation in theatre when rehearsals turn out to be more interesting than the final product; it’s more fascinating to watch people getting lost and trying to find things than to look at people perfecting their command of material they’ve already mastered. The whole point of our work in Szamocin is that when we’re there we get lost, too. True, by now we’ve now arrived at a certain modus operandi, but we still find ourselves taken by surprise; the situation is precarious – after all, it’s a children’s home. It’s an environment with a distinct dynamics of its own, it refuses to adapt to any expectations or projects we might have.

In any case, we’ve decided to bring our theatre work in Szamocin to an end: theatre is no longer the best way to communicate [there], and now the kids and us are working on a film together. We decided to focus on recording, on grasping fleeting moments – this has nothing to do with polishing the kids’ acting skills or perfecting roles, and it hadn’t been that way in the past. Art is to be something completely different: a means of communication. I also found I don’t have the reserves of patience, which I’m sure Justyna does have, that are needed to work with children in theatre. Perhaps I should say this outright: I wasn’t patient enough to tinker with theatre with the kids but I still want to be part of their lives, so I needed to change my tools. That’s why we’ve focused on film.

JS: You mention reserves of patience I’m supposed to have, but if you’d asked me thirteen years ago if I’d have enough patience to spend years working with people who have Down’s syndrome, I think I’d have said no. Thirteen years! Let me go back, then, to when I started out: I began with something small and I don’t think I had any idea that a great thing – I mean a lasting thing – was being born! But even further back down the line, you don’t work with some sense of achieving a long-term goal, do you? Not from one day to the next. Quite the opposite: reserves of enthusiasm have a natural tendency to run out. A friend we’ve worked with for years confided in me recently: ‘You know, I don’t get as much of a kick out of this work as I used to....’ It’s normal to grow weary of things as time goes by. The fact that we hang on is not a matter of patience or any similar characteristics, but – in my case – a sense of responsibility: for the people, for my team. Although I must admit I still find it a huge inspiration: I’m keen for the company to expand, to invent new sets of circumstances for itself. Hence our decisions to work with professional actors, to put on productions for audiences of different ages, to accept invitations from various institutions.

When it comes to me as leader and my name always being brought into the foreground, I don’t think there’s much I can do about it.... The crucial thing for me is that my colleagues are also associated with T21 and, even more important, have ample opportunity to develop their interests as part of their work with T21 actors: for example, Justyna Wielgus explores the field of DanceAbilities, while Justyna Lipko-Konieczna focuses on disability studies. In any case, I felt from the outset I wouldn’t be able to cope with working with the actors alone, and a diverse team needed to be established. Perhaps my name has slightly stronger resonance, and that’s because of the media: someone has to represent the team. But I recall the pleasure of listening to our composer, Paweł Andryszczyk, who stepped in for me as a good colleague would and went on the radio to give an interview, as had been agreed earlier. What struck me was that he assumed an entirely different perspective: the things he said about our work and the company were poles apart from what I would have said. It was wonderful: it made me feel each of us retained his or her individuality in our collective after all, although I’m the one who’s being regarded as the company’s ‘voice’.

The thing that made me take yet another perspective on the leader’s work was T21 starting a serious debate on its future development. I’m away more and more often, working elsewhere, and the company has to run smoothly. Some people found the prospect of hiring another director hard to swallow. We had numerous conversations about how we were to function in the future; some of us believed we had to take great care to protect what we’ve achieved so far – develop, yes, but only within our own circle, in an enclosure, as it were. I was always vehemently opposed to that model, I’ve known too many examples of ‘closed’ theatre companies coming to a woeful end in this country. Looking at people who are completely devoted for the long term to their companies, and seeing how much it cost them – I know perfectly well I don’t want to go down a similar path, don’t want to be the mule dragging the cart on its own. And so I keep searching for new solutions: the point is to still be able to work with people who said in the past ‘Yeah, this is great, we want to do this together’, and to create a comfortable working environment for us all.

That’s the point. A way has to be found – I’ll say it again, out loud – of ensuring the Theatre 21 ensemble are comfortable in their working environment. This is my greatest dream: to put an end to this ‘ethos’ of working ‘for the benefit of people with disabilities’ – ideally for free, and on the side. Really, these days I’m mostly driven by the work I do to ensure that, at T21, we are all able to work effectively, so that we grow, and the field of inclusive art grows too – let’s put it that way. I’m also keen to implement a structure enabling us to work on a day-to-day basis and at long last to support ourselves. That’s already starting to happen: the Downtown I mentioned earlier – or the Centre for Inclusive Art,6 as the municipal authorities prefer to call it – is already coming into being. We’re searching for new formulas. I’d also like to invite professional actors, directors and choreographers to work with us as often as possible – despite the fact that many people, even company members, tell me that way ‘we’re losing something that’s our own’.

Since I am the leader, after all, I’m quite insistent on this. I prefer to leave things slightly ajar in theatre, I prefer it to be less uniform and tightly-knit. Perhaps our sense of security would be greater if we remained an airtight group, and the friendly atmosphere would receive a boost, too – we do like each other a lot – but I’m keen not to become secluded from the world. I’m extremely proud of the fact that we’ve recently produced a book, Odzyskiwanie obecności7 [Reclaiming Our Presence], which got noticed, was well received and nominated for major awards. We got out of our niche. The next step will be translations, and meetings of groups of scholars. And – who knows? – perhaps, in the near future, in collaboration with a university, we’ll start a new academic degree programme: disability studies.

Long story short, I’d like to provide every member of our company with a working environment where they’d be able to grow. And I don’t just mean the actors – of course, their growth is wonderful, too, and I can see how it translates into their everyday life. I mean all members of our ensemble. I’d like Downtown to become a genuine space for change. I occasionally get frightened by comparisons to a repertory theatre: my close friend, a dramatic actress, is so exhausted and bedraggled with her precarious, galloping professional life, that when she moans ‘Chekov’s my dream...’, I don’t find that funny at all. And I know some people do. I know that, underlying those words, is something more than simple longing for an intelligible text and measured acting. I can see in them the extent of the drama caused by a situation that is exhausting and stressful to the utmost.

AS: I think this signal also reflects the schizophrenic situation in repertory theatres: along comes a director and, all of a sudden, she expects actors to work collectively, improvise, structure their scenario in rehearsals. She’s after a kind of ‘and now give it your damnedest’ attitude – and, as Jan Lauwers mentioned [in part 2 of these conference panels] , those actors are all the while part of the reproductive system. So they switch between production and reproduction all the time, and their growth stalls in both spheres. I think what we’re dealing with here are almost two distinct fields, two arts practiced differently: one is about craft as taught at, say, the National Academy of Theatre Arts, and the other is about the kind of art that amounts to members of a collective creating their own world, based on their experiences and sensibilities. In that work model, it’s impossible to have an understudy, say: the scenario is constructed straight out of the actor, her presence and her body.

SG: It seems to me the schizophrenia is due to Poland’s political system and the system in place in theatre. Until recently, the Romantic-era notion of an ensemble-based theatre as a panacea had been the dominant view. Meanwhile, many companies failed to stand the test of time, and today there’s a marked tendency to found collectives that are by definition short-lived, established only for the completion of a specific project. In part, such collectives are also based on personal relations – for example, an actor has a history of working with a director at different venues. Yet there’s no sign of any tendency to give collectives some stability and make them more durable.

AS: Michał Zadara and his [company] Centrala are trying to do just that. But that’s an exceptional situation, and it can continue thanks to a financially beneficial arrangement.

Agata Siwiak: If you were given the opportunity to establish a collective, would you take it up? Or would you rather remain within a system which, after all, provides an organisational framework for your work because there are institutions in place? After all, you have experiences in both spheres.

AS: I’d join a collective immediately, provided it were underpinned by curators and producers: strong personalities with highly developed management skills. As the Needcompany director [Jan Lauwers] correctly observed earlier: ‘You’ve no idea about anything’. I’ve no idea about finances or admin, or writing grant applications. I’m also interested in building a structure that would undermine things that are so acute about institutions: the tendency to build strong hierarchies, an oppressive structure and an equally oppressive governance model. I’ve recently had extensive discussions about this with the managing director of the Joël Pommerat company in France. For years now, a social experiment has been conducted as part of this very interesting collective: the company takes great care to ensure that relations between all members are egalitarian and based on partnership, that everyone enjoys a good living standard – and even that they’re able to start a family. So the welfare side of things has been set up in keeping with characteristics of just such an company: the actors work nowhere else, they’re not hired by other institutions, they don’t play in films and TV series. All staff members are dedicated to the collective. As they tour the world with their productions, actors and technical staff enjoy a number of benefits: for example, they’re able to take their children along. Second, they introduce high standards to different aspects of their encounter with their audiences.A cameo as an example: the company places great emphasis on the quality of subtitles projected during a production, for the benefit of foreign audience members. Here in Poland, that issue is at the very bottom of the list, the director usually has no control over it at all – still, for someone who doesn’t speak the language, it’s a crucial thing. So Pommerat’s company has developed a whole system of overseeing subtitles: starting with the long, meticulous work on the translation, up to ensuring that the text changes in the correct rhythm – there are special exercises for this! This is the approach of my dreams: we are alert to the needs of others, our work is focused on having the best relations with the audience, and conveying the message of the show in the best way possible, we open up space for growth.

As things stand, when I come into a new institution, I have to negotiate my terms from scratch and spend huge amounts of time discussing things that should be part of a standard: what new names should be given to the tasks of every company member, how to advertise productions, how to find ways of getting a given audience group involved, all the more so when we’re focusing on young people, and the school becomes a strategic partner... and so on, all over again.

MB: I see this a bit differently. In spite of everything, institutional theatre does present us, from the outset, with a clear and convenient situation, so my feeling is the exact opposite of Anna’s: I don’t need to spend time on organisational issues, I can focus on things that have to do with art. On the other hand, the atmosphere at an institution and its expectations towards us are at times an outright deterrent when it comes to working in theatre. So yes, I guess I’d give a good deal for a collective.

Jakub Skrzywanek: But we’re all aware, aren’t we, that even if a collective was in the hands of a highly skilled manager who generated exemplary grant applications, in our system no amount of grant money could hold up in comparison with an institutional production, even one with a fairly average budget. The gap is huge. So anyone’s decision to leave institutional theatre takes great courage and involves taking on enormous responsibility: their budget would be minimal, their infrastructure poor and their means of production non-existent. It’s not just a matter of rates, but also of where you work, where you present your production and are able to put it on.

MB: But look, my productions at institutional theatres often aren’t put on at all... They have a run of two or three performances and that’s it.

AS [Siwiak]: This has to do with how repertoire is put together and how public money is spent. The obvious issue here is the subsidy system: if between five to seven per cent of [public] money for the arts is taken up by grants – and public institutions are also eligible to apply – then it’s hard to identify actual sources of funding for non-institutional projects. All we know is that these are laughably low amounts, incomparable to the grant budget in Flanders where, as we’ve just been told, two-thirds of the money is spent on creative collectives. No wonder, then, that people in Poland don’t form companies similar to those in the West: if you want to be part of a collective, you need a [different] job to support yourself. I think we should campaign more vigorously for changing regulations over the distribution of funds.

MJ: Off-theatre circles have long attempted to present the culture ministry with the document ‘Off-Poland’, calling for a budget dedicated to non-institutional productions to be carved out of the whole. This document has been signed by more than three hundred people representing eighty entities, members of the National Theatre Offensive. In the document, we also outline our proposed solutions in some detail: for instance, there is a clause calling for a significant reduction in an entity’s own financial contribution to a project. In my view, this is crucial: as things stand now, the required amount is often a stumbling block for smaller ensembles.

We haven’t had a reply for three years now… The document gets regularly ‘mislaid’ in the depths of the ministry, so we send it again. Radio silence. This might be one way of summing up our conversation about collectives: they are still rather isolated ventures, few and far between and struggling to find serious partners in the discussion about funding reform for non-institutional creative companies.

Translated by Joanna Błachnio

Panel participants:

Michał Borczuch graduated from the Department of Graphic Design at the Academy of Fine Arts and in directing from PWST (now the National Academy of Theatre Arts) in Kraków. Directing credits include Lulu (2007) at the National Stary Theatre in Kraków, Apocalypse (2014) at Nowy Theatre in Warsaw (overseen by Patrice Chéreau, Borczuch’s mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative), Faust (2015) at the Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz, Zew Cthulhu [2017, The Call of Cthulhu] at Nowy Theatre in Warsaw and Wszystko o mojej matce [2016, All About My Mother] at Łaźnia Nowa in Kraków. In 2018, he was awarded Polityka magazine’s annual Passport for theatre. As part of the curatorial programme Wielkopolska: Revolution, he staged Lepiej tam nie idź [2013, You Have No Business Going There] with residents of the children’s home in Szamocin. Autistic actors appeared in his production Paradiso (2014).

Stanisław Godlewski graduated from the Inter-Area Individual Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (MISHiS) at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (AMU). Doctoral student at AMU Institute of Theatre and Media Arts, he has been awarded a grant for a project on theatre criticism. His work has been published the regional ‘Poznań’ section of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, and in print and electronic arts journals including Didaskalia, Teatr, Dialog and He also writes for the Institute of Music and Dance website, Co-founder of Forum Theatrologów, a collective of theatre studies scholars campaigning for the democratisation of theatre-related discourse.

Małgorzata Jabłońska is a theatre scholar specialising in performer training and the history of performer training, and methodology of writing about body dramaturgy within a theatre performance (with a special focus on alternative theatre). She is a Ph.D. student at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, working on a thesis titled “Ku dramaturgii ciała. Pływ biomechaniki Wsiewołoda Emiliewicza Meyerholda na koncepcje treningu aktorskiego w teatrze europejskim XX wieku”. She works regularly with the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław, where in 2013 she organised Praktyki Teatralne Wsiewołoda Meyerholda, Poland’s first international Vsevolod Meyerhold conference. She has co-ordinated scholarly projects as part of the Wrocław 2016 Theatre Olympics. She is co-author of Trening fizyczny aktora. Od działań indywidualnych do zespołu (Łódź 2015). She is a member of the Polish Society for Theatre Research, Poland’s Theatre Offensive association and the International Society for Performer Training.

Justyna Michalik is a theatre scholar and a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. She has co-edited numerous book publications and exhibition catalogues for Cricoteka, the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor, including a calendarium series documenting periods of Kantor’s life and work. She has worked on Kantor exhibitions in Poland and beyond.

Julia Lizurek is a theatre scholar and chief literary specialist at the Wanda Siemaszkowa Theatre in Rzeszów.

Anna Smolar is a theatre director, holds a degree in Literary Studies from the Université Paris Sorbonne, and was part of La compagnie Gochka. Her productions in Poland include Aktorzy Żydowscy [2015, Jewish Actors] with the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, Dybuk [2015, The Dybbuk] at the Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz, Mikro-Dziady [2016, Micro-Forefathers’ Eve] at Komuna//Warszawa, Najgorszy człowiek na świecie [2016, The World’s Worst Person] at the Bogusławski Theatre in Kalisz and Cinderella (2017) at the National Stary Theatre in Kraków. She also worked on the radio play Jak pięknie było rzucać płytami chodnikowymi [2008, How Fine It Was to Throw Flagstones] by Marek Modzelewski at the TOK FM Radio Theatre. and has ventured outside theatre. Her 2016 production of Henrietta Lacks at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw was then included in the repertoire of the capital’s Nowy Theatre. In 2016, she received the annual Passport for theatre – a prestigious award from Polityka magazine for emerging artists working in various fields

Justyna Sobczyk teaches theatre and works as a director. She founded 21 Theatre with performers having Down’s syndrome or autism. At the University of Warsaw, she convenes post-degree studies in Theatre Teaching (founded by the university’s Institute for Polish Culture, in collaboration with the Theatre Institute in Warsaw). Sobczyk co-founded Stowarzyszenie Pedagogów Teatru [the Association of Theatre Teachers]. She works with independent and institutional theatres (directing credits include Ojczyzna [Fatherland] at the Polski Theatre in Poznań in 2016). In 2016, she was awarded the Kamyk Puzyny [Puzyna Pebble], an accolade from Dialog theatre journal named for journalist and writer Konstanty Puzyna, ‘for combining creative work with strong involvement in the life of the community’.

Agata Siwiak is producer and curator of the project Wielkopolska: Revolution (2012-2014). Theatre curator and producer. Graduated in cultural studies and cultural institution management from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. In 2008 and 2009 joint director (with Grzegorz Niziołek) of the Łódź of Four Cultures Festival. Curator of the Trickster 2011 project – the performance programme of the prestigious European Cultural Congress in Wrocław. Teaches a specialisation for theatre curators at the Department of Theatre, Drama a­nd Performances of the Adam Mickiewicz University.

Jakub Skrzywanek is a director, with productions including Kordian at the Polski Theatre in Poznań.

Zofia Smolarska is a theatre scholar the Theatre Academy in Warsaw. Graduated from the Theatre Academy in Warsaw, where she now works as a lecturer at the Department of Theatre Studies. Deputy chair of the Polish Association for Theatre Studies and member of the Polish Theatre Journal’s editorial team. Author of a book Rimini Protokoll. Ślepe uliczki teatru partycypacyjnego [Rimini Protokoll. Blind Alleys of Participatory Theatre]. Along with the present journal, her articles have appeared in Teatr, Didaskalia, Dialog, Performer, on, in Svet a Divadlo, Rzut, Art&Business and in academic monographs. The participatory aspect of the creative process is among her main interests (practical as well as research). An urban performer and author of urban social projects, she has collaborated with the Rimini Protokoll collective and with Edit Kaldor on participatory theatre projects. Her book Rimini Protokoll. Ślepe uliczki teatru partycypacyjnego was published in 2017.

1. Quay ouest: Return to the Desert, dir. by Michał Borczuch, premiered on 4 Oct. 2013.

2. Jewish Actors, dir. by Anna Smolar, Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, premiered on 29 May 2015.

3. Henrietta Lacks, dir. by Anna Smolar, Copernicus Science Centre and Nowy Theatre in Warsaw, premiered on 2 September 2016.

4. Ośrodek wypoczynkowy [Holiday Resort], directed by Anna Smolar, Komuna//Warszawa, premiered on 1 Dec. 2017.

5. Kilka obcych słów po polsku, dir. by Anna Smolar, premiered on 10 March 2018.

6. The Downtown Centre for Inclusive Art is being established as part of the project ‘Disability and Society’, convened by the Biennale Warszawa in collaboration with 21 Theatre, funded by the city government of Warsaw. Inaugural meetings and workshops were held and productions staged in September 2018. More information at

7. Odzyskiwanie obecności. Niepełnosprawność w teatrze i performansie, sel. and ed. by Ewelina Godlewska-Byliniak and Justyna Lipko-Konieczna (Warsaw: Fundacja Teatr 21 & Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego, 2017).

Panel 2

Michał Borczuch, Stanisław Godlewski, Małgorzata Jabłońska, Justyna Michalik, Julia Lizurek, Anna Smolar, Justyna Sobczyk, Agata Siwiak, Jakub Skrzywanek, Zofia Smolarska