“Catherine the Great” you staged in Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce has become a box-office hit. The scene when the tsarina walks among the audience with her breasts covered only with a miniature theatre curtain arouses intense emotions. The reactions of the members of the audience who are encouraged, or sometimes made, to open the curtains and touch her naked breasts constitute theatre per se.

Wiktor Rubin: It was my idea, but obviously we needed Marta Ścisłowicz’s consent as she plays the role of the tsarina. The career of the empress parallels the career of an actress. The central theme of the performance is a body: like an actress’s body, the tsarina’s body does not belong to her, or does not entirely belong to her, but is public and political. Catherine moved the borders of the social role and social behaviour and we wanted to reflect that in the acting.

Jolanta Janiczak: In fact, our experiment with borders and liminality between the stage and the audience in the “The Orgy” performed by Teatr Wybrzeże (Wybrzeże Theatre) in Gdańsk is much bolder. The actors mix with the audience, create a space and context for the audience’s acting, and test the borders. Dorota Androsz, one of the actresses, has happened to undress spectators and pile them one upon another; one person was locked in a cubicle and watched the entire performance through a small opening. No one expresses outrage; on the contrary, people actually open up. They express their opinions, emotions, and abandon the role of the passive viewer. Many people come to see the performance multiple times. I have the impression that they come not only to see it but also to feel it in their bodies.

Maybe audiences consist of unfulfilled actors?

W.R.: Maybe, but one not only participates in those performances but also observes the behaviour of others, watches their reactions, or maybe looks at and measures their own reactions. That’s the idea behind the breast scene – people are embarrassed because their wife or partner is sitting next to them and they do not know how to react: to touch or not to touch? At the back of their head they also have feminism, dignity of women, and sexual harassment.

J.J.: This scene comments upon the social roles of men and women, and on the ambivalence about the sense of power. In the performance, Catherine’s body becomes an object, adopting the role imposed by the culture of the tsarina’s time. You may touch that body, but the fact the body’s owner makes you touch it raises questions: who is in power? who gains more satisfaction from the touch? who enjoys whose embarrassment?

The characters in your performances are men and women who violate the norms imposed on them by the culture. Is it gender(ed) theatre?

W.R.: Gender is a construct, which just like a nation, has undergone many changes in different historical and political contexts; it has been mythologised, ideologised, and ritualised. It has become one of the games we play and participate in as people and societies. People are afraid of gender because they fear lack of clear, simple divisions that allow them to control one another.

How does one come up with the idea of a performance about Catherine the Great?

J.J.: We were on our way from Fanaberie Festival in Wałbrzych with Tomek Nosiński, who later played the role of Stanisław August. The travel was long so we tried to kill the time with games such as: “Who would you like to play, Tomek? Would you play a horse?” Tomek, delighted, answered that he would and he spent the rest of the time practicing nickering. Stereotypically, this led us to Catherine the Great… A few days later we shared the idea with the director of the theatre in Kielce. We had already staged a performance about Joan the Mad, the Queen of Castile from the 16th century there and the director liked the new idea immediately. I have noticed certain regularity: if the theme catches on when it’s still barely an idea, it provokes interesting discussions that may result in a very interesting performance. The issue of Towiański and his followers (Tovianists) caught on immediately so I hope that the new performance in the Old Theatre in Cracow will be an important and strong event.

W.R.: We are into Walter Benjamin’s perspective which treats the past as a tool for describing the present. The past is the ruins of great buildings, bits of information and fragments of text that do not form a coherent narration, and conformity craves coherence in order to control the past. Therefore, we grab tradition form conformity and try to extract identity from the disrupted and singular opposing great stories.

J.J.: There is a great story, by Stefan Themerson I guess, about a dictator from an island who was supposed to be hanged, but somebody else was hanged instead by mistake. The dictator is on a boat beaming with happiness and suddenly the guide asks him a question: “Are you aware that, historically, you’re dead?” “Historically, I am alive,” argues the dictator. “Not quite,” continues the guide. “The fact is that you are alive physically. Historically, you’re dead. Physical truths are results of certain events that have occurred. Historical truths are completely the opposite – they are created because of certain events from the future.

Is your theatre interviews with the people who experienced their historical death?

W.R.: It is definitely an attempt to find their addresses and establish contact. We are trying to do so even though we know that no one has the addresses.

Is that why you have tried to contact Tovianists?

J.J: I find trustworthy only those people and institutions that can admit their mistakes and are capable of self-criticism. Realising and naming one’s own vices and harmful habits provides an opportunity to grow and improve. I believe that people instinctively follow honesty. Antans Mockus, a former mayor of Bogota, is a good example. At the beginning of his campaign he admitted his past mistakes and faults. I am very curious why we try so desperately to whitewash the images of our patrons, “parens patriae” (parent of the nation) and prophets, even though we are all fallible. Through our performances we want to confront the flawed characters carrying difficult or embarrassing luggage, as well as the intricacies of Adam Mickiewicz and his companions – not the dead monuments that serve as objects of admiration and tools for ideological struggle. We do not want to make performances that would tell the audience what the world looks like, or that would simplify it in order to make the show attractive. We want our theatre to expand on life, not to explain it.

W.R.: Let us also look at the motivations behind the actions of Władysław Mickiewicz, Adam’s son, the first whitewashing biographer who bought out documents that might have blackened the name of his father in order to destroy them. Our job is like looking for pieces of the torn documents in the trash and partially burnt documents in the fireplace. We operate on the border between truth and fiction.

J.J.: We will present Władysław Mickiewicz as a conservative figure, and the person who shouted “Shame! Disgrace!” during the “To Damascus” performance directed by Jan Klata. We are trying to understand how a person whose world is very organized reacts to more and more information that undermines their coherent system and their habits. They do not have the tools, willingness or power to reassemble the image of the world over and over again. It drives them to despair or makes them react with anger. I am really interested in a conservatist’s despair and melancholy. I also find some deposits of conservatism in myself, I scrutinise them, look for their source and meaning. Maybe I am simply afraid that the old world, the world of my childhood happiness, is disappearing? Maybe others fear that to?

What did you discover while working on the play on the Towiański’s followers?

W.R.: That their project was designed to affect the world, even the entire universe. Ram Gerszon, one of the followers, a Jew converted by Mickiewicz, went to Vatican to convert the Pope to Tovianism. In the 19th century, the Polish emigrants were poor and humiliated and on the dole provided by the French government. The poverty, despair, inability to act on a massive scale gave rise to Messianism. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the fetish. For centuries, these fetishes have stimulated different powers in us, both good and bad, in crisis situations. We wanted to dismantle the ideologies that surrounded romanticism and reclaim it for ourselves. We wanted to see how romanticism remains part of us and how it is channelled out.

What can be reclaimed?

J.J.: Gustaw – Konrad (a character from “Forefathers’ Eve” by Adam Mickiewicz [translator’s note]) is like a character from Lynch’s “The Lost Highway”: a mysterious, puzzling person who changes his identity towards the middle of the text. The followers of Tovianism held services and then organized Dionysias. They confessed to one another, wept, experienced religious ecstasy, received sacraments from one another; they were led by Mickiewicz. They looked for prayer and a ritual filled with emotions. They believed that they could get in touch with the Absolute only through emotions. They tested the depth of prayer and ecstasy. They looked for the limits to their expression, maybe even for the limits to creation. It must have been incredible theatre; I am not sure to what extent we will be able to evoke it and show it in the Old Theatre in Cracow, but we will be trying to reach this romantic, sheer madness.

W.R.: Romanticism was also characterized by this enormous faith in man, in the power of imagination and resistance to nihilism; it was not only limited to the homeland

Why are you researching history and investigating biographies? You are not alone, since literature, theatre and the cinema are now imbued with the past. Aren’t contemporary topics of any interest to you?

J.J.: “Our” Towiański says that something completely new can be created only on a thoroughly cleansed stage. We are looking to the past in order to see the categories and values, to revise them and, through this revision, bring back to life or save those values that may encourage our development. I would like to say something about myself and my generation, here and now, without historical context, but I feel it is still to early, that I still have to understand some things in order not to create new myths but to attain a kind of – I do not know what to call it – conscious perception. At the same time I want to dream this childlike romantic dream that “People! Each of you could – though imprisoned and lone. With thought and faith topple and raise many a throne”

[translation by Piotr J. Malysz]