Inny teatr
Tadeusz Kornaś
Włodzimierz Staniewski i Ośrodek Praktyk Teatralnych "Gardzienice"
Divine Questions at the End of the World

Twenty Years of Theatre Archeology in Gardzienice

An Interview with Wlodzimierz Staniewski

Twenty years ago in Gardzienice, a small Eastern Polish village not far from Lublin, a new theatre came into being in a deserted space in a chapel formerly belonging to a 17th-century palace. Founder Wlodzimierz Staniewski has since that time remained the director of the 'Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices', one of the most interesting and unusual theatre groups in Poland today.

The Gardzienice productions are inspired by old, often forgotten, songs on which the staging and the actors' comportment and gestures are based. Musical and theatrical precision result from the company's mastery of physical and dramatic expression combined with musical skills and the dynamic pace of the scenes.

The early Gardzienice productions came about through encounters with "living" song material. The group undertook "expeditions" into the most remote East Polish villages, where the relics of ancient music and customs have survived up to the present day. Performances such as 'The Evening Play' (based on Rabelais' 'Gargantua and Pantagruel'), 'Gusla', and 'The Life of Protopope Avvakum', which is rooted in Greek Orthodox culture, were the results of these forays. The production of 'Carmina Burana' was a departure from the Eastern European cultural sphere, but further evidence of the group's fascination with the past as a source of theatrical inspiration.

'Metamorfozy', the group's most recent production, was based on Apuleius' 'Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass' and material Staniewski terms "the songs of stone"- ancient Greek lyrics dated between 500 BC and 200 AD. A focal point lay in the spirit of the myths of antiquity and the crucial historical and mythological turning point of the abdication of the old gods Apollo and Dionysos in favour of Jesus Christ.

THEATERSCHRIFT: In the late 1970s, a period of grown social and political opposition to communism which subsequently culminated in the mass strikes on the Baltic Coast, you and your company turned your back on the city for the deepest Eastern provinces and began your theatre work in Gardzienice.

WLODZIMIERZ STANIEWSKI: Now, many years later, it has become clear to me that my departure and retreat followed a deep, instinctive need to resist everything we were dealing with during that period. It was an uprising of the heart and mind against the injustice, aggression, repression, hypocrisy and humiliation of the times. It was not so much a step forward as a leap.

But why a leap into folk culture, of all things? All your colleagues were city-dwellers, products of urban culture. Polish villages were somewhat backward, and those in the East especially so.

One had to go away, far away, and find a wholly different context from which to oppose, condemn and protest against the official version of society and the arts. Equally, I was attracted by the idea of the location as an opposite extreme - Poland's "savage reservation", a region that had been a rich source of inspiration for the Polish Romantics in the past, and one that still had authentic, hard ground under its feet in the form of values and customs that had been cultivated for centuries and had resisted ideological corruption. An extreme that withstood the political structure in which we were living. Villages were particularly stalwart defenders of the right to property and personal freedom.

You went on tours in which you played for audiences composed of villagers, many of whom were seeing "real" theatre for the first time.

These journeys - "expeditions"- brought us a feeling of great happiness, of vast freedom and fresh energy. At that time, artists were permanently conscious of living in opposition to themselves because they were forced to sell themselves or bow to some kind of social order. In Gardzienice, however, we were totally liberated from all that. We were interested in the natural, organic way the villagers went about their daily business, their everyday rituals and ceremonies. As long as you can translate the distinctly theatrical element in all of these actions into the language of modern theatre, it can serve as inspiration.

Wlodzimierz Staniewski and Tanya Moodie

The works produced in Gardzienice deal with various civilizations. After producing 'Gusla' [Death Cult] which was based on Adam Mickiewicz' 'Dziady' [Ancestral Ceremony], one of the major works of Polish Romanticism, you turned your attention to the Orthodox Church and staged the 1 Jib-century work 'The Life of Protopope Avvakum'.

It's something of a paradox: both the Christian and Orthodox cultures in our part of Europe are strongly influenced by monotheism. But when you talk to the people you get the impression that dormant in their innermost selves is the belief that other divinities exist alongside the one God. And if you follow this hidden "stream of faith", you embark on a journey through an intercultural time-space in which Catholic, Orthodox and heathen elements mingle organically. And that's why our Protopope Avvakum curses God and simultaneously begs him to pull back the heavenly curtains behind which await other gods and forces friendly to humankind.

In ‘Carmina Burana' you allude to the Arthurian saga and the myth of Tristan and Isolde. For the first time, we hear no stricken, yearning cry for God. That was also the time in which Gardzienice became famous, and you began to receive invitations to festivals on various continents.

We were successful, certainly, but it wasn't the start of a meteoric career. After the New York performances, I said our theatre would enjoy five minutes of fame in certain circles, but then be forgotten until being re-discovered at a later date. And I want things to stay that way.

'Carmina Burana' was a hymn to the God of Love. Admittedly, love was emblematic for the three years we spent on the production, but unfortunately we failed to find the God of Love. There was no great correspondence between "our God" and the consummate love and yearning recounted by the medieval goliards, minstrels and even the monks in the monasteries in the shadow of the Alps. Not to mention the songs in the wonderful anthology 'Carmina Burana', which was discovered after centuries of concealment in the wall of a Benedictine monastery. These lyrics transcend the boundaries of the religious canon because they invoke a God whose integral component is Eros in a form the church refuses to tolerate. I wanted my production to make the church become a free zone in which, to quote Bachtin freely, "all beings and phenomena of Heaven and Earth would sing a hymn to love." The production pivoted on the interaction of choir and actors. The choir sings the hymns to love, and the protagonists question the latter with their bodies (dances), gestures, emotions and voices (acting out). Singing, they are brought closer to each other by the scales woven with such artistry, and then separate once more. The act of coming together then parting is one of the oldest and most beautiful rituals. That's where the theatre's beginnings lie - in a ritual I call mutuality.

Apuleius' 'Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass' contains an impressive fragment describing the initiation into the Isis mysteries. How far did you penetrate the sources of the ancient Greek mysteries through your work?

The eleventh book of those 'Metamorphoses' is one of the few surviving documents of the Greek mysteries. That's why I got involved with the text. But there's another aspect: ancient Greek music is difficult, and hard to sing. But the overcoming of these obstacles is exactly what reveals the universe of spiritual riches and vast energies. The world of the mysteries divulges itself. And the only question can be whether or not we gain a feeling of joy and happiness through this enormous effort.


Spiritual issues figure prominently in your work for theatre. How do audiences react?

I've just returned from the USA, where I was teaching at several universities. I showed students there films with footage of our journeys, meetings and performances. It seems to me that Americans have rather lost the spiritual and religious perspective. Responsibility for the sphere of spiritual experience has been transferred to the psychoanalyst. The students' reaction to our work was one of simultaneous irritation and fascination. Unfortunately, Americans tend to trivialize Eastern European culture. For them, spirituality is like a religious cap the church has slapped down on our heads, the product of enslavement to a religious worldview, and therefore a constraint on freedom. I told them our work in Gardzienice is heretical in the terms of such religions - it's a quest for areas of freedom. I asked them: "How do you hope to handle problems of individual and societal freedom if you cut away and discard the transcendent questions?"- It's impossible to address the problems of freedom, of social order and morality, even of health issues, if you've blocked out the transcendent dimension.

Could you envisage an ideal spectator for one of your performances?

Somebody who is willing to have stray animals, wild plants and simple, unscented people as neighbours.

My guess is that audiences at the major festivals wouldn't be too keen on having simple peasants sitting next to them. Your works must meet a different reception in the big cities - do urban audiences even stand a chance of recognizing the spiritual dimensions of your work?

The reception does vary from place to place, and that is particularly true of how people perceive the spiritual sphere. If audiences come to Gardzienice, the spatial context can trigger spiritual associations: the white building on a hill, in a clearing between trees, archaic wooden huts visible in the distance. Inside the white building an auditorium with red-brick walls and high arches. Nothing but silence and concentration all around. Something in the spectator's soul is already touched by nature and the environment. But we take this atmosphere along with us when we put on plays somewhere else. The productions have to be good, crafted pieces of work that justify their existence as new performances alongside the original composition. - We know about the existence of a phenomenon known as the metaphysical tremor, which is provoked by an artistic masterpiece. In order to experience such a shiver of awe at the mastery of a work, you need special powers of concentration, a special state of attention. It's that kind of masterpiece one should aspire to.

What would you describe as the most valuable experience gathered in 20 years of creativity in Gardzienice?

We have created a living place at the end of the world. We show a specific theatrical perspective in the search for the artistic links between high and vernacular culture. Other artists have struck out on this path, too, and founded theatre companies in villages all over Poland.

But for me the greatest inner fulfilment of all is that we are able to concern ourselves with "divine questions" in this village known as Gardzienice. Some people might find it surprising to hear that in this backward, traditional Polish village, of all places, somewhere you might expect fundamentalist reactions, our "heretical" exploration of the gods, as opposed to God, has not met with aggression. So far, at least, nobody has tried to drive us away.

Interview carried out by Tadeusz Kornas

Translator : Thomas Morrison

Theaterschrift - Utopie: spiritualiteit? - No 13 September 1998