by Tina Peric*
In 1999, almost forty years after the first experiments of Jerzy Grotowski, in the heart of the Laboratory Theatre’s space, a new movement of performance research was about to emerge. Jarosław Fret, the future director of the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław (Poland), and Kamila Klamut were set in motion towards the East, to the origins of Christian polyphonic singing. A few years later, in the course of research based in Armenia and Georgia, the ensemble was born. It was named after zar, traditional funeral singing still practised in a forgotten language in Svanetia and based on local scales that have nothing to do with the western system of equal temperament.
Teatr Zar stood in front of a remarkably challenging task: to perform zar in an authentic manner. Its members went through an extensive and committed process of preparation in order to tune the ear and the body. Since then, Teatr Zar has become internationally acknowledged and prized as one of the most original and significant exponents of the contemporary theatre. They produced not more than six performances (including the interdisciplinary project Armine, Sister), all results of long and dedicated ensemble research.
With Kamila Klamut, one of the pillars of Teatr Zar, and Ewa Pasikowska, a former long-standing member of Zar, we talked about their creative process in Zar, their sources of inspiration, but also about their personal doubts and transgressions as performers.
First of all, what is the relation between Teatr Zar and what we call Grotowski’s tradition?
Kamila Klamut (KK): I wanted to underline that we are the generation “D”—“D” like “documentation.” We have never seen Grotowski’s work from his so-called theatrical period in the 1960s in a live performance. However, around twenty years ago, we saw Action, the last opus of Grotowski, created together with Thomas Richards in Pontedera (Italy), in the period of Art as a Vehicle. But we are deeply inspired by Grotowski. We all believe in human energy on stage as Grotowski did. He decided to change the relationship between the spectator and the performers, to focus on human energy. This is what fascinates us, although we explore a different language.
I also must underline that we are not the successors of Grotowski, as Thomas Richards is. We are working in the historical Laboratory Theatre space, we are friends with Rena Mirecka, we worked with Zygmunt Molik, but we are not the successors, we have our own art. Our language of theatre is built out of music. Grotowski never used music in the way we did, although his actors were singing. What was really inspiring to us was his treatment of the sonosphere of the performance as music. For Grotowski, every sound had importance, everything creates common sonosphere.
He was using music more as a tool for a vertical transformation, especially in his paratheatrical phase?
Ewa Pasikowska (EP): There could be a parallel there, since Jarek calls our songs the songs of the spirit and our theatre—“theatre out of the spirit of music.” He chooses spiritual music, liturgical, religious songs and sources, where the concept of that vertical connection is present.
In which way do you usually start to work on the performance?
KK: Each of our performances is different. Jarek, first, chooses a subject. In the first performance, he proposed to us to turn towards the beginning of Christianity. So, in our first expedition, in 1999, we were travelling to Georgia, Armenia, Iran . . . Then, we wanted to go to Syria, but we had to come back, round the Black Sea, to Turkey and then Poland. We were really fascinated by the liturgical polyphonic singing, especially in Georgia. Armenian and Georgian churches are the first official Christian churches in the world, with a very old liturgical tradition. We took parts of the Gospels and we used them, but we did not stage any text, any drama. Our performances, generally, do not have a linear story. This performance is created around the history of Lazarus and his sisters. In another performance, Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, there are almost no words, only music and physical actions. We use there another branch of polyphonic singing, Corsican music, but not only that. Chechen, Bulgarian, Romanian songs and music of Erik Satie are also present.
What is the connection between the music and the text of Aglaja Veteranyi that you were inspired by in this performance?
EP: Normally, music does not have a function of creating the historical background of the performance; it creates its own dramaturgy. We are following more the energy of the songs, rather than their literal meaning or their country of context. In Caesarean Section, images, ideas appearing in the text of Veteranyi were the inspiration for the actions and main theme of the performance. In the same sense, song can become an action inspired by this sort of image. Music, in my opinion, when it accompanies the actions, is a way of responding, expressing the unsaid, but also navigating the characters—it speaks on a deeper, almost subconscious, level; it creates the context, but rather, the energetical and emotional one.
KK: Although, sometimes, the music can create historical context, as, for example, in Gospels of Childhood, but this is not the rule.
In your working process, do you sometimes investigate your personal themes and then put them in the context of a performance using montage, as in the famous example of Grotowski’s work on The Constant Prince with Cieślak?
EP: I do not think that Jarek would tell the actor: “explore part of your personal life” and then, only after that, put it in a context. I think that, first, there is a context and, then, if a personal theme appears, he would explore it.
KK: It is the actor’s work to find his/her way to connect to the material, and, somehow, it is always through your personal experience, your personal life, even if it is not visible outside . . .
If the material is too personal, how do you deal with it emotionally?
KK: Many times, it happens that, through art, you are burning your own feelings. The choice of a theme is never accidental; at least, for Jarek, it is not accidental. Working on a role is a process that can be liberatory . . .
EP: When you are performing something that is connected very personally to you, in a performative situation you are both yourself, but also not yourself. It allows you to have a distance, some sort of tension, to what you are really dealing with emotionally. For me, it is as if you were giving a shape to your experience, which, in a way, allows you then to leave it behind.
You have to have a strong personality to be able to do that?
KK: Here is my working principle: touch the borders, but do not cross the borders!
The moment when you broke glass at the beginning of the performance of Caesarean Section, which could have easily cut your bare feet, seemed to me a big crossing of the border, although in a different way?
KK: Yes, that is a good question. When we were working on Caesarean Section, during the first presentation, our director asked us to smash real glass onstage. Then, one of the performers used to sweep that broken glass into a long crack in the floor stretched across the stage, also filled with glass; but many pieces would still stay onstage. In the first few performances, we were all bleeding . . . Already from the beginning, I was asking our director: “Jarek, are you sure”? But he said “yes,” and, since we are also quite crazy people, we finally did it. We went through a few performances; we had to walk through the remains of glass. Ditte (Berkeley) was dancing on it and real blood was everywhere . . . Then, we came again to Jarek asking: “Are you really sure?” Not only was it not comfortable for us, but, most importantly, for the audience, too. Eventually, he realized that this border should not be crossed. After that, we used car glass, which breaks in a different way and does not create dangerously sharp pieces….
It seems that risk and transgression are inevitable ingredients of your work?
KK: Three years ago, I created my solo performance about the life and creativity of French sculptress Camille Claudel. And if you ask me today what I have in common with her, first of all, we both were born with one leg shorter, and, secondly, we both have the nature of a rebel. I will tell you about one incident which happened to me in The Gospels of Childhood. In the second half of the performance, there was a very important scene where two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, are in dialogue. For a long time, I worked with my partner, Ditte, on the scene, but Jarek was constantly unhappy with me. According to him, I could not find my connection to that scene. Almost on the day of the premiere, he decided that he was going to change the scene in a way that only Ditte would say her text . . . He basically threw me out of the scene. We started the performance, and I could feel how, half way through the piece, the rebel in me started waking up. I could not agree with him that one of the most important lines in this performance would not appear. When the moment of our common scene came, I just jumped into the scene. Thank God, Ditte is a responsive person. She immediately understood what was going on and we progressed with the scene as at rehearsals, to the surprise of the whole company and, first of all, of our director. I remember that, during the meeting, after the performance, Rena Mirecka was present and she thanked me for the words that came out of my mouth during that scene!
There is another story going around about your very courageous stepping over the border . . .
KK: Yes, in 2015, together with Zar, we went to Iran. Jarek chose the only performance of ours that could be performed there, Anhelli. We had to change a lot in the structure of the performance because of the regulations in Iran, which dictate that a man and a woman cannot have physical contact on stage. So, we had to change the structure of physical actions. But we also had to change my costume. In Iran, there is a rule for women to be completely covered. We performed twice. I do not know why the information that during the second performance we were going to have some very important guests did not reach me. Censors, Vice Minister of Culture and his entourage.
During the performance, my properly put on scarf, slowly, slowly, started dropping from my head. Finally, it fell down to the floor, and, then, the rebel in me appeared—I did not pick it up. From minute to minute, the electricity in the audience was growing, everybody was hoping that in the next minute I would find a way to pick it up, and, although I had that chance, I did not use it. Iranian officials saw my naked hair, which caused the understandable shock. If it was a performance with Iranian performers, it would have been stopped immediately.
How did the organizer react?
KK: During the performance, she received around thirty incoming calls and demands of immediate action. What should she have done? Enter the stage? So, she decided that she was not going to do it . . . As for me, I stepped outside the border and influenced the shape of the performance and the shape of the whole event. The officials were shocked, but, when I spoke to ordinary members of the audience, they were very happy. Iran is not a free country. For them, this situation was like a crumb of freedom that fell under their feet. Did I have the right to do that?
Do you question yourself a lot about your work?
EP: There is a moment when you feel that doubts are arising in your work, to the point that you feel completely unable to work; when you question absolutely everything: the quality of your work, the truth, the skills, your place in theatre, your ability to connect to the song or to perform music. I remember the moment in my work when I encountered these sorts of doubts, and I think it leads you to a very important place; it is like coming back to the zero point . . . You have a choice, something will break, or you willll have to leave it all.
When we were working on Caesarean Section, at some point, I did not know what I was doing. I was performing my habits, my ideas about the work . . . I felt I really needed space for myself to regroup. I started going to the rehearsal space with a harmonium, and, then, one song appeared. I tried to drop all my previous ideas and judgments, and, through singing that song, slowly, slowly, I understood that the singing was the way to speak; that, in the song, you can express what is true to you, as well as your doubts. The song was not a part of performance material; it was just a little exercise for me. I remember that, one night, when I stayed for a long time singing and struggling, when I left, around midnight, I found a note from my director, Jarek, on the door saying: “I want this!”
KK: Doubts are a part of an actor’s work—as much as his emotions and his awareness of his own body. Both director and the actor should be able to work with these doubts. There are also different kinds of doubts. Doubts arising from disagreement that lead to transgression, or doubts arising from uncertainty, insecurity, that are simply a natural part of the actor’s process. When you watch the performances of the Laboratory Theatre, you are touched by the enormous dedication of the actors of Grotowski. Did they not have doubts? I will never get to know that . . . Still, we know that their life was not always easy. When Grotowski decided to finish strictly theatrical activity and started the paratheatrical period of his work, one of his most important actors, Zygmunt Molik, could not find himself in his new reality at all. The process of him accepting the new situation was really long and, in the beginning, his role was to be a driver, who drove people form Wroclaw to Brezinka, the base of the Laboratory Theatre in a forest.
Now, we have a new government in Poland, and new ideas and attempts to introduce regulations concerning the actor’s profession appear, according to which an actor does not create, s/he recreates. For me, this is a degradation of the creative work of the actor. As if the achievements of the twentieth century and of the Laboratory Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and his actors were not important. Was Ryszard Cieślak creator or recreator?
TP: Thank you both.
*Tina Perić has an MA in Art theory, and a PhD in performance studies. She is an active researcher in performance theory and afree-lance critic for the Serbian daily newspaper Politika.