I was certain that this part of my life had already been closed, that I had managed to cope with it at all levels, to turn the page, forget, and begin a new chapter.
I’ve always told myself that if I had to go through all of this once more, I would without hesitation repeat this “schooling” of mine. Yes, collaboration with the Centre for Theatre Practices “Gardzienice” (Centrum Praktyk Teatralnych “Gardzienice”) was beyond doubt my “theatrical college”, which allowed me to gain unique acting experience, take part in legendary performances, meet, get to know, and cooperate with numerous eminent theoreticians and practitioners of global theatre, as well as to participate in, and later organise, artist expeditions.
Yet in the last days — in part because, in the public sphere [of Ukraine], there has emerged a discussion on ethics in art, on abuse of power, on violence as the price you pay for an opportunity to “serve the high art”, my doubts have risen to the extent that I made the decision to open once more the door to this dark part of my life.
Doing this isn’t only for a therapeutic effect, but also because I’ve begun to see very clearly and come to realise my personal responsibility. Because violence still exists — in different theatres, in different parts of the world, and as long as we keep silent about it, we give our permission for the persisting mutilation of souls and human lots.
The art of theatre, like presumably any art, demands extreme emotional focus and internal tension. The process of rehearsing is often an assemblage of powerful elements, and energy, in combination with a special openness, limpidity, an unveiling of the body and emotion, and thereby — vulnerability. It’s precisely because of the possibility to experience such intensity in work that I had once chosen this profession, and I know that the real actor-artist must know the ways of immersing in these elements and coming back alive.
I know that creative explorations often ignite emotional disputes, confrontations, heated debates, and I can’t stop reiterating that until we argue about the piece we’re working on — everything is OK. They are vital facets of the creative process. But this is precisely why it’s so important to work in a secure space, one built on mutual trust, attentiveness and respect, and to steadily keep operative the “antennas” we have for detecting any manipulation, intrigue, caprices of hubris, misuses of a position of power, sexism, or any other manifestation of psychical or physical violence, that might have sneaked into our work.
I’ll begin from what’s the farthest.
A few months ago I received an open letter from an actress friend. She depicted in it the situation when her theatre company’s long-planned guest shows in Japan had almost got cancelled — only because the main organiser, a legend of Japanese theatre, Tadashi Suzuki, had learnt that some actress had dared to plan bringing along her new-born, still breast-fed child. And thus, we learn that this celebrated reformer of global theatre doesn’t accept infants on the territory of his centre.
And then, suddenly, all these projects came to my mind, where the presence of kids in rehearsals was undesired, which by definition excluded their mothers from work. Indeed, male-parents did enjoy certain privileges in such cases. I recalled the hysterical exclamations of a male actor who, during a rehearsal for one of our shows, “simply couldn’t concentrate”, since what bothered him was the presence of a three-year-old daughter of an actress who was a single mother…
And I summoned up all the other anecdotes and tragic situations from many different theatres, all the talks about planning or forbidding pregnancy, which had at times resulted in the mother-actress “losing her moment”, which she could no longer regain.
I was once at a meeting with an actor casted by the legendary Polish director, Tadeusz Kantor. He was speaking about the working methods of Kantor, every now and then embellishing his talk with a new “tasty” anecdote from the life of the theatre and about the relations between the acting crew and the director. While listening to it, I promised myself that I would never “wash my dirty linen” in public like that, whenever I would be speaking about my experience working in the theatre of Gardzienice. It was a pain to see how an actor, teaching workshops in accordance with Kantor’s method, at the same time evidently couldn’t manage his deep traumas caused by work with this ingenious Polish director-reformer. And it was until very recently that I had kept this “promise of silence” made to myself.
A few years ago, during the time of my therapy and struggle with depression, I suddenly realised that it isn’t something about “washing one’s dirty linen” and doubted-quality anecdotes. It’s something about the violence which, “in the normal world”, carries a penalty. It’s something about the manipulation. It’s something about appropriating others’ creative ideas and misusing one’s position. It’s something about the psychological dependence on “the master”, “the teacher”, the boss, the superior. No, I’m not speaking about male directors only, such “gurus” happen to be women too.
It’s something about the economic dependence on one’s employer. And last — it’s something about the threat to one’s health: in my case, about the long-lasting use of violence applied by the director and the head of the theatre of Gardzienice. It drove me as far as to attempt suicide. But that was the turning point. Only then I found the strength to leave this theatre.
I had a lot of luck, because exactly in this darkest period I could start to assist in the rehearsals of the ingenious Polish actor and artist Jan Peszek. Jan destroyed all these “truths” I had been fed through ten years of brainwashing. I had been told that, allegedly, “it is only in pain that one can create” and that “only physical and mental pain is a guarantee of true and high art”…
And it was Jan Peszek, and priorly the actress from Lviv, Lidia Danylchuk, who stressed how important it is to draw a line. There, in the theatre, with the use of acting or performative techniques, I can immerse in different mental states and roles: the tragic ones, the obnoxious, the noir, the funny. But here — once the rehearsal or performance is over — I get out of the hall, get out of the role, close the door, carry not these emotions and energy into my own life, into my family, into my private sphere. And the true artistic act need not be a result of psychological rape, but solely a result of the skill, technique and talent of an actor or an actress, of a performer-creator.
Sometimes, nevertheless, it’s hard to recognise where lies the boundary of a director’s artistic freedom, and where of an actor’s or an actress’ “self-sacrifice in the name of an artistic act”. Especially when you are twenty, when your personality is still developing. When it’s so easy to believe that you “were torn out from hell”, that “they made the world open up to you”. That you were let in to “join the trainee body”. That this is the ONLY chance you have, and unless you accept the trespasses on your personal space and “full personal commitment”, and shall you renounce or “betray” this way of working, there will be nothing left for you but “selling yourself” in all the other projects. Because, obviously, only this sole theatre concerns itself with “creation”. All the other ones are mere money-makers preying on unfeignedly-commercial, nothing-but-entertaining, attention-unworthy productions…
And this is all accompanied by a worldwide approval, by an ovation of theatre practitioners, critics, theoreticians, and audiences. As well as by the eyes of your colleagues, silently turning away. Colleagues, each of whom is trying to cope with their own emotional and financial dependence. That is, with their own commitment.
I remember when once, during a private conversation with the eminent director, Katie Mitchell, I heard the words: “Someone doesn’t just discover the world for you. This someone preys on your talent!”
I joined the “Gardzienice” theatre when I was nineteen. Its director became my teacher and my master. I believed in every single word he said, while he artfully played with quotes from Jung and Plato, explaining why, during a rehearsal, he could let himself drive another young actress into an epileptic seizure.
My case could easily be described in textbooks as an example of psycho-physical subordination: a portrait of the director-master hung on my room’s wall, and I religiously noted every point he made during the rehearsals. I took it as gospel that it was me who his muse and inspiration was, when I was recounting to him my dreams about the imaginary shows, whose key ideas he would later utilise in the next rehearsal.
I took sedatives every day, in order to fall asleep, and I took weight loss supplements, in order to avoid cynical comments, but regardless I ended screaming out of debasement, when during the rehearsals, in the presence of my colleagues, and sometimes even of invited guests, I had to listen to harsh critiques, the details of which included, how execrable my body and my voice are, and how depraved of talent I am. And how I “stole from my colleagues” by not leaving time to work with them. Once, while working on a show, I failed to withstand the magnitude of the psychological pressure and public debasement, this “method of work with an actor” regularly put to use by the director, and indeed lost my temper — and it was in that very moment that the satisfied director exclaimed that such energy was exactly what he wanted to see. So that the very next day he could exclude me from the ongoing rehearsals, threaten not to sign and not to prolong my contract, and to take my “role” away and give it to another actress. Giving her a hint to copy in minutest detail the image I had created and the vocal score I had composed.
Another “method” the director put to use was isolation. Once they shut me in a room for a couple of days — I was given a strict ban on stepping outside. It happened during a few-days-long international festival — celebrating the 25th anniversary of the theatre, when “Gardzienice” hosted guests from all around the world. This way I was to “save my energetic freshness” for each evening’s show.
Maybe it’s the right place to stop, rather than to go on to describe how we were ironing the shirts (we, for it’s not only me, as similar practices were experienced by several others, women in the majority), how we were doing the shopping, how were cooking the meals, giving massages, replacing chauffeurs, in a word — “serving the master” on all levels. And the carte of our service included experiencing physical violence. In a certain situation, the head director physically abused me in a moment of rage, and then shut me up in his room for a couple of days, so that no one could see my bruises and learn what had happened.
When being introduced, I was presented as a “star”, a role model, “the face of our theatre”. One day they would show me off, only to degrade me the next, and to prophesise that someday I will “betray” the profession.
Yes, I did accept all of that and naïvely believed that it was the inevitable price that every actor and actress must pay for belonging to “the chosen ones’ family”. But this naïvety of mine wasn’t something uncommon. Today, when I work with twenty-year-old actors and actresses myself, I know how easy it is to manipulate the open-mindedness of young people, how easily one can fool and exploit them.
In the “Gardzienice” theatre the boundary became more and more blurred, while on its place an emotional and financial subordination emerged. All of my colleagues, even the elderly ones, quietly accepted the system created by the director, which allowed him to regard the misuse of power and violence “a method of work” with impunity, and to avoid responsibility. What’s more, I feel outraged whenever experienced and acclaimed theoreticians and critics turn a blind eye and keep quiet: they saw clearly the exploitation of defenceless young people, and they kept applauding the theatre and the director. Contrary to the unexperienced twenty-year-old actors and actresses, those often two-times-older gentlemen and gentlewomen had all the resources and tools to give a fair mark from ethics to such “practices” and “methods”.
I managed to bust out, to leave. It took me years to free myself from nightmares and from an inferiority complex. It got me to live through depression. My blood boils in an instant whenever my directing colleagues call me “Marianka”, “little girl”, or “birdie” (and they are honestly surprised when I reproach them) because I know where such “innocent” familiarity can lead.
It seems to me that in the “Gardzienice” theatre we had all become victims of the traditional “master-and-servant” structure, where the “master” may allow himself to overstep all boundaries, disposing himself of dignity, and losing any sense of the student’s subjecthood. The example of “Gardzienice” is merely one among many, as there exist numerous other places where this destructive mechanism is still at work.
I know it with all certainty that there is a different way. When I work with young actors and actresses, I can’t stress it enough that an actor is not someone who is there to complete tasks. He or she is someone who co-creates. And that it’s laboursome and tough work that requires self-discipline, ceaseless explorations and development. And that we all bear responsibility for our work and for the techniques we put to use.
Once I left “Gardzienice”, I discovered for myself an infinite number of ways to do meaningful and valuable work. I discovered that one can create their very own projects, that it’s possible to reconcile creative work and family, motherhood, fatherhood. That genius projects can materialise without violence. Without debasement. Without instrumentalisation. Without breaching the boundaries.
P.S. I would like to express my gratitude for the help and support of Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska, Kateryna Nemyra, Joanna Wichowska, and Andre Erlen.
Translation (approved by the Author): Franciszek Bryk