Joanna KrakowskaAuto-theatre in Times of Post-truth
20 August 2016
In the final scene of the 1979 film Camera Buff (Polish: Amator, meaning “amateur”) by Krzysztof Kieślowski, the main protagonist turns the camera on himself. This act is not caused by narcissism – more by pain. Having bought a simple camera to film his infant daughter, he quickly discovers that his new toy can be used not just to record domestic joys and private moments, but also to say something about the reality which surrounds him, subjecting it to criticism, revealing wrongdoings and that which is hidden through shame, unleashing conflicts and shaping human lives. Our “amateur” carries on filming, discovering the weight of responsibility for his actions, and thus the limits of freedom. When he finally discovers how his new hobby ends up affecting people’s lives, forced to pay a personal price for his engagement and honesty, understanding the entrapment and powerlessness caused by the system he is living in – he will turn the camera on himself in order to talk about his own experience, to address his own role and the medium he happens to be using.
This scene has often been described as showing the moment when an amateur becomes an artist, while today it is worth considering how it may be used to illustrate the discovery of one’s own powerlessness in the face of a deep crisis caused by deceit, corrupt surroundings, injustice, degenerate government and a dramatic conflict of value systems.
This instance of what is, essentially, despair also perfectly describes the situation Polish theatre finds itself in today. This “Amateur Moment”, a reaction to the gap between responsibility and powerlessness, an acknowledgement of the seriousness of present-day social problems, is being dealt with by contemporary auto-theatre, one of the possible, and also the most personal, answers to recent crises.
“Auto-theatre” is theatre whose authors speak from the stage in their own names, from the self about the self, referring to their own experiences, studying personal limitations, revealing weaknesses, exploring situations in their works, defining and questioning their identities, revealing the back-stage processes, interpersonal relations, economic conditions and ideological unrest in theatre itself. Auto-theatre is not necessarily a theatrical convention, but rather a formula for creating contact with audiences based on a new set of rules – honesty, the revealing of actual experiences, speaking for the self, taking responsibility for one’s own words, testing democratic procedures. Auto-theatre is a rather desperate attempt at establishing the points of reference in theatre itself, within companies or between the stage and audience, where one can still influence something rather than – as has been the case until now – in the outside world, in social interactions or in historical discourse, where it would seem we have lost the power of influence for good. It is thus also an attempt to once more develop communication which has been interrupted in theatre as a result of excessively hermetic artistic explorations, and in the public sphere – as a result of radical political divisions and the polarisation of world views, making discussion impossible.
In writing about this, I have to straight away note that I am not neutral in respect of engagement, which strips this text of objective character, having been written in the spirit of participatory observation.
The reality facing socially engaged theatre in Poland today is especially complex. On the one hand, for the past few years it has tried, with more or less success, to find a new formula for itself, faced with the way in which the language of theatrical criticism has become exhausted and trivialised, having thoroughly dissected the specifics of Polish symbol and identity in the previous decade, ploughing through historical narrations and adding value to emancipatory discourses. On the other hand, it is the very achievements of critical theatre which today cause a range of ills, or at least questions about the effectiveness and durability of changes which it has introduced… about the outcome of using conflict as an operating method… about shared responsibility for social divisions, seeing as it has failed to convince and talk many into taking its diagnoses seriously, drawing the appropriate conclusions. It is depressing to now think that the scale of the work carried out by theatre on history and identity is going to waste in the face of political counteroffensive, leading us to conclude that we will have to work our way through all the same old lessons again. But let’s leave that for now, because it seems what really matters today is the question of real and drastic social polarisation, of camps forming and becoming established in a giant stand-off of values which no one wants to back down from.
Therefore, the question as to how we can save ourselves from this deadly conflict, from falling into the abyss of mutual hate and disdain, from violence which is now moving from theory to practice? There is no issue in Poland of today which is more important than how we can stop this from happening – by creating the conditions for dialogue, by looking for opportunities for elementary understanding, through alternative points of view, through the creation of local empathetic and communicative communities. Theatre, with its imperative of engagement, has much to do here. Auto-theatre is one, though not the only, option available to us. During the last few theatrical seasons, at least two clear programmes for the theatre in the public sphere have been conceived.
Recently, Maciej Nowak introduced the idea of a new public theatre, having reviewed the legacy of critical theatre, one which he actively promoted himself – his proposal allows us to overcome powerlessness and the prevailing communicative deadlock. Nowak admits (though perhaps not fully convincingly) that for all the achievements of critical theatre, it has failed to achieve one aim – reach new audiences: “We tripped up, focusing mostly on a directorial form of theatre, perhaps even partly over-artistic, one which did not care to connect with the public.”1 Nowak wants to build common understanding by utilising the resources of popular theatre, which is “kind to the viewer in trying to overcome all forms of exclusion: generational, social, physical, opinion-led and class-based […], one which in unison with audiences and involvement from local activists seeks a new form of community shaped out of diversity. A theatre of socially-minded individualism.” And, importantly, “a theatre in which it is important that the form we communicate in is clear, along with a valid presentation of reality.” Regardless of what this might mean in practice, a declaration of accessibility and concern for commonality of various subjects – is a declaration which is political par excellence.
An alternative proposal was put forward and introduced in practice two seasons ago by Paweł Wodziński and Bartek Frąckowiak from the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz. Declaring an attachment to thinking about theatre as a “democratic institution, open to all and open for all”, creating the facility for audiences to take part in debates and “exchange ideas as equal partners”2, they went on to propose something akin to an escape into the future. It is meant to be about freeing ourselves from stale debates about the identities we have been burdened with until now, by taking Polish theatre towards a more noticeably global thematic; by moving away from emancipatory discourses favoured by the cultured Left in favour of a broad debate about democracy and by settling old disputes about symbolic forms of expression and thinking about the possibilities of utopian social, economic and political solutions instead. The programme delivered by Wodziński and Frąckowiak – politically explicit – has global and universal aspirations, which could mean a communicative challenge for the public, but at the same time releases it from an ideological impasse in which all arguments have already been used and rejected. By moving the debate from old trenches to new, unexplored ground offers the chance to see things from a perspective which allows communication to take place, in spite of all the warning voices predicting the inevitability of fratricidal conflict.
Thirdly – alongside the ideas of popular theatre presented by Maciej Nowak and the political concepts formulated by Wodziński/Frąckowiak – a clearly defined proposal for a new theatrical language of today, and at the same time a sign leading towards an exit from our communicative and social crisis, is auto-theatre. It hasn’t thus far had its own programmed interpretation, which should not surprise us, seeing as it is by definition AUTO, and therefore every show in this genre, every one of its authors speaks in a unique voice. Importantly, auto-theatre is a formula which can function within any theatrical model and its programme framework. And this is indeed what is happening. Auto-theatrical performances, or those with auto-theatrical elements, have appeared at the Jewish Theatre, as well as Polish Theatres in Bydgoszcz and Poznan, at Komuna Warszawa and TR Warszawa, at the Stary Theatre and Theatre 21.
It was the actors of Theatre 21 who helped formulate, with shameless simplicity, the nature of auto-theatre: “In our theatre, the actors talk about themselves”; the idea of auto-theatre: “Why do people need theatre? In order to be more open to others”; and the principle of auto-theatre: “The actor sees the audience, and the audience sees the actor.”3 These three elements guarantee that the ideas which emerge from political, economic and social contexts are not introduced in terms of an ideological contest, but a real experience: that democracy or its absence are not abstractions, but practice; that theatre can be a place for developing real identities, rather than taking on and observing those others.
In a range of their shows – The Ship of Love, Falls, Clowns (2013-2015), the actors of Theatre 21 insightfully criticise the systems which affect their lives and work on stage, in the context of social realities, economic rules and familial institutions. Much like the actors of Jewish Theatre in Jewish Actors (2015), who by dealing with the issue of their own professional lives honestly reveal the tangled webs which led them to said theatre, the nature of their jobs, their dissatisfactions and stigmata which come with it. In the show A Question of Technique (2015), staged at the Old Theatre, the stage becomes home to backstage workers, revealing their identities and the inner workings of the professions. The show performed by actual technical staff allows us to see how “unfavoured” groups are treated within theatrical frameworks and study more closely theatrical hierarchies, decided by audience numbers. The topic of hierarchies adds an extra level of complexity to the TR Warszawa show Ewelina’s Crying (2015), where the focal point is hierarchies dictated by the media, and where actors question their own identities which are only superficially familiar, because they are indeed the creations of the fantasies and aspirations of the audience itself.
In all these shows, a key question is that of establishing communication on an elementary level of honesty which demands the engagement of the personal “I”, even if constructed, as long as it stresses its own individual identity. All these shows require not only the receiving strategies already developed by theatres, but more those belonging to interpersonal relations – sympathy, empathy, respect and curiosity. Simple human reactions. “Openness to other people” must happen without paternalism and in democratic fashion.
Auto-theatre engages in the subject of power relations within the theatrical world, its economic and team dynamics. This is true of the Bydgoszcz show Take It or Make It (2016), where the wholly democratised creative process is exposed and analysed, something which began happening many weeks before the premiere. At the start of rehearsals, each actor was given the chance to choose their own character and develop their own segment of the show, although when the company began playing together it turned out that the decisions taken by some made it impossible for others to perform. Thus the show, as an attempt to negotiate the rules of sharing a stage, was condemned to failure. This doesn’t provide a particularly good prognosis for further attempts at using theatre to resolve interpersonal conflicts, though at the same time it is a rather excellent example of a show which highlights the shortcomings of democratic modes of working.
It is also here worth noting that auto-theatre as a rule operates through the discourse of weakness and disaster. All we co do is hope that a theory will be found which will ensure that this particular discourse does indeed have power… This is connected with perhaps the most important aspect of auto-theatre – the ability to adopt a self-critical position. The Other Show (2016) at the Polish Theatre in Poznan literally applies the rule “the actor sees the audience and the audience sees the actor”, presenting the most typical behaviours shown by audiences and involving a range of tasks which viewers give the actors. And in using this format it actually fails – revealing its own inadequacy, embarrassing the self, involving imitation, copying and aping certainly, but not quite delivering emotional experiences. And so it asks the self: what on earth is the theatre for?
Finally, the key question: money. The economic conditions in which theatrical productions are delivered appears, for example, in the Bydgoszcz show Kantor Downtown (2015), where the actress reveals how much she earns each month and encourages the audience to do the same. In Mikrodziady (2016), staged as part of the Mikroteatr project delivered by Komuna Warszawa, the authors ask about the odds of creating theatre without money, without grants, without donations. Only it turns out that questions about the economy are in fact questions about how engaged the theatre is and about the character of social order, and so they quickly take on other shapes: “am I ready to have my own political views?”, “am I ready to kill?”, “am I ready to be rude to my community?”, “am I ready to shut myself off from others?”, “do I have to start getting used to things as they are?” The unstoppable series of questions, which actors spit out during the 16 minute-long Mikrodziady is that epic “Amateur Moment” when one has to turn the camera upon oneself.
The list of plays mentioned here will be featured during the 21th edition of the Theatre Confrontations Festival in Lublin. This is a well thought out programme, indicating auto-theatrical practices as a particularly inspiring critical trend, already present in last year’s festival programme, both in one-woman shows presented by American queer performers as part of the Decency Clause, as well as in Wojtek Ziemilski’s Pigmalion and the show Blind Poet by Needcompany, based on its actors’ personal life stories. In fact it is hard to imagine a better example, anything more inspiring and useful as a point of reference for auto-theatre than Ruff by Peggy Shaw, in which the performer presents her recovery from a stroke, revealing its true effects on stage, or Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! by Penny Arcade, who uses autobiographical stories to deal with the hollow category of decency.
Auto-theatre can of course come in many guises, from solo autobiographical shows to complex ensemble pieces, and yet it always focuses on at least one of two aspects – the dismantling of the theatrical medium to its base components and/or empowering those delivering the performance. The former is connected with a return to workshop exercises and elementary acting skills, questioning all conventions and crossing established lines of theatrical processes. The latter – personal responsibility, revealing the private, risking shame and even ridicule.
It is not by accident that many of the Polish plays listed above evolved laboriously, a process which often involved conflict, including protests and scandals within the theatrical environment. Wojtek Ziemilski’s show 6 Ways to Leave the Theatre, which studied and tried to convert the memories of the Stary Theatre actors and their technical awareness into social effectiveness, did not actually reach the stage. The idea of exploring identities is not enticing for everyone, the lack of a defined role removes the sense of safety, while some see the process of being asked direct questions as oppressive. Auto-theatre which emerges as part of repertory theatre often means a dramatic confrontation between two theatrical languages – the director, who wants honesty and the company, which wants parts to play. This is a unique social experiment – is it possible to combine two separate languages, to develop a shared value, and if so how? Will all of the participants in this process want to take on the responsibility of talking about real lives and do so in their own name?
What do they get in return? It seems that reward comes in the form of remarkable successes, evidenced by the prizes, rave reviews and applause from audiences received by all of the shows mentioned above. It is worth considering the reasons for this applause, because it is possible that it is a sort of “advance return” on a great and passionate need for honesty, for a shred of truth, for a personal voice which gives testimony to real experiences, failures and weaknesses, which will release empathetic tendencies, build trust and interpersonal relations, and eventually support critiques of the political and social systems around us. And, at the same time, shows us a way to escape the crisis.
In a time of post-truth, when facts can be perceived as unpatriotic and thus end up negated, when obvious lies are not condemned but assessed for how effectively they bring about change, to stand in front of an audience and offer it straightforward honesty can have therapeutic value. In the face of post-truth, when “a lot of talking rubbish” is evidently not a segment from the show Ewelina’s Crying, but an immanent aspect of ongoing political processes responsible for outcomes such as Brexit and Donald Trump – auto-theatre can offer a loud and clear catharsis.
1 In: “Dialog” 2016, no 6.
321 myśli o teatrze, ed. Justyna Lipko-Konieczna, Justyna Sobczyk, Fundacja Win-Win: Głogowo 2016.