Julia Holewinska. Photo by Tomasz Szerszen
Three female playwrights, two from Poland and one from Great Britain, were invited to take part in this year’s Stückemarkt (play festival) at Theatertreffen, a welcome international, and feminine, breath of fresh air in the still male-dominated German theater festival.
In advance of their plays’ readings this week, we speed-dated them to give you an impression of what to expect.
This dramaturg and writer combines the revolution in Poland in the 1980s and contemporary gender theory in Foreign Bodies, garnering her the Gdynia Drama Award, Poland’s most prestigious prize for plays.
Why did you decide to enter the Stückemarkt?
In my opinion German theater is one of the most important on the European theatre map. I also thought that the play’s subjects – fighting with communism and sex change could be interesting for A German audience. Poles and Germans have similar historical experiences.
Your play deals with Poland in the 1980s, how does your country serve
as inspiration for your work?
The history of my country is quite tragic – the partitioning of Poland in which it disappeared from the map of Europe for over 120 years, WWII, the communist dictatorship, many of the uprisings... I live in Warsaw – a city that was completely destroyed during the War. In Poland when we talk about time we use "Before the War" or "After the War”. For the writer this experience is extremely valuable. I frequently refer to Polish history in my plays. In Foreign Bodies I write about the time of Solidarity, in Bubble Revolution I write about the time of transformation and early capitalism in the 1990s. History is very inspiring.
You also use a male and female chorus, almost in the way the Ancient Greek writers did. What purpose does the chorus serve?
The chorus has multiple functions. At first, it is a formal strategy – a deconstruction of the traditional structure of drama. One of the play’s subjects is community and disintegration of community. The chorus makes this community, but also breaks it down: commenting, mocking, parodying...The division into male and female chorus is also not accidental. We live in a world where most people believe in binary gender. This division has been challenged by philosophers, and gender-studies professors of course, as well as by life itself. Therefore the choruses speak the last sentence of my play together, without distinction between men and women.
How would you like to see theatre in Poland change?
I would like for my government to finally come to believe that Poland has one of the best theatres in the world. Directors like Warlikowski, Lupa, Jarzyna and a lot of interesting young theatre makers are a reason for pride. Poland is not a very beautiful country, we don’t have great football players, the weather is rather weak, but we have this great theatre, great contemporary culture, with which we can "conquer the world". I hope that my government will finally understand this and, instead of closing theatres at the time of the EuroCup, start to respect and properly support us.
Foreign Bodies, May 11, 21:00, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.
Beginning her theatre career as a lowly set designer’s assistant, the Warsaw-born author (who has now been translated into over 12 languages) brings a darkly comic look to the topic of immigration in her work Caliban’s Death.
Your characters come from Haiti and not Haiti, Somalia and not
Somalia, there and here... what is the significance of these places for
you and for the work?
It is a simple distinction: the division into the western world and the others – “others” meaning “not ours”, “from somewhere else”, distant. It is all about emphasizing “the other” as a figure symbolizing difference.
Why do you reference Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest?
Caliban is a wild, deformed, brutal, terrifying entity, something between a human and an animal. When Prospero comes to the island, he colonizes it violently, murders Caliban’s ancestors and imprisons Caliban himself, teaching him the language so that he could understand “new master’s” orders. This Shakespearian motif matches my play perfectly, as it is all about modern colonialism happening on the territory of politics and culture here. Caliban is the other in my text, the excluded one, the socially marginalized one, the one on the peripheries.
Is it strange to hear your words translated into German?
It is not my first text translated into German, but I am really happy about it. However, there’s still some fear that surfaces in me about whether the translation is accurate and carries the spirit of the play. In the case of Caliban’s Death, the translator was Andreas Volk, who I know and respect and trust a lot. Unfortunately, a close and good relationship with the translator is not always possible and that opens up a space for mistakes and misunderstandings.
What are you looking forward to most at the Theatertreffen and in Berlin?
I will certainly focus on Stückemarkt competition. I also hope I’m going to have enough time to see the Biennale prepared this year by a Pole – Artur Żmijewski (see our interview with the Biennale curator).
Caliban’s Death, May 14, 18:00, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.
The British playwright's work has garnered rave reviews in Scotland for its ability to seduce the audience and leave an unforgettable impression. Skåne is her incisive study of the fallout of an affair. Now she’s based in London and working with Swedish artists on I dispense, divide, assign, keep, hold, an installation that explores various attempts to model humanity’s economic behaviour.
Why did you decide to order the events of the play going back in time?
If you play the play forwards then it becomes about plot and events, it's about these things that happen. But if you go backwards, then you're looking at the ironies of what they say to each other. You have a fight on one day, but then you play the conversation they'd had previously and then you review what you know that they've said to each other. So it's about the way the mind processes what it knows. I didn't want to write a “plotty” play; I just wanted to look very carefully at what these people were saying to each other, and what they were doing while saying these things to each other. I could get that kind of scrutiny by going backwards.
Do you call yourself a writer or a theater maker?
I used to just call myself a theater maker but then it seemed to be the economical choice to call myself a playwright. My background is more devised theatre. I started making work as a writer/director but then the level of exploration I wanted to have with writing … I thought it could be better worked out between me and the computer. At the same time it's easier to pay me to write a piece than to pay the much larger amount to develop a piece with a company, at least in this country. So I found myself as a writer.
What's inspiring you right now?
I'm reading a lot, and going to music gigs. I stopped going to the theater for a while, because I used to lecture and teach and I would go twice a week and I used to see a lot of shit. Then I figured out that it cost £3 to buy a copy of the play and I could sit down at home with a glass of wine and work out whether I should see this on stage or not.
What's it like to have your work translated into German?
I don't speak German but I have a friend who does and he tells me if something doesn't translate. I try to see where there's extra words in a sentence or an extra clause and if I can work out what it's for, what it's doing. English is a very baggy language, and I enjoy that ambiguity. I'm not sure German is so baggy. So it's been interesting to try to navigate things that I didn't have to think about before. Like the use of you. Suddenly I have to make a decision: Who is that you?
Skåne, May 10, 21:00, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.