‘We’re going to present the entire profile of Polish theatre. We’re a little scared, but Chinese audiences have already surprised and moved us several times.’ In an interview with Culture.pl, Marcin Jacoby and Agnieszka Walulik discuss their preparation for the biggest showcase of Polish theatre that China has ever seen.
From April 2016, Polish directors such as Krystian Lupa, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Grzegorz Jarzyna and Paweł Passini, will present their domestically and internationally appreciated plays on the most important stages of Tianjin, Beijing and Harbin. There will be productions full of festival-like momentum, performances of dance theatre, opera shows as well as intimate documentaries. In an interview with Culture.pl's Anna Legierska, Marcin Jacoby and Agnieszka Walulik of Project Asia talk about China’s growing interest in Polish theatre, Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve in Chinese, and the history of Polish-Chinese cultural relations.
Anna Legierska: How did you manage to persuade the Chinese about Polish theatre?
Marcin Jacoby: Krystian Lupa did it. Weve attempted venturing into the Chinese theatre sector several times and every time we had the impression that there was no space for Polish theatre there. Many Chinese still understand theatre as a form of art which should be engaged with social issues, which should help in understanding everyday reality, in creating a constructive image of the world and the place of the individual within society. When the directors of these Chinese national theatres saw Polish productions for the first time, they said that this was some kind of misunderstanding for which there was no place in healthy, cheerful and happy Chinese society (laughs).
So we dropped the idea to promote Polish theatre in China for a couple of years, but in the meantime some important perspective-changing things had happened: the staging of Polish plays in Hong Kong. In 2012, Grzegorz Jarzyna showed his production of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis and a year later Krystian Lupa's Persona: Marilyn was invited to a festival in Hong Kong. Thus, the chain reaction began. Fundamental for the breakthrough was a collaboration with the director of the newly-created Tianjin Grand Theatre, who invited Lupa with his Persona: Marilyn to continental China for the first time, while at the same time providing the play with very good promotion and media coverage. For the Tianjin audience, everything was new: the language of theatre, the approach towards acting, the director's role, the set design. Krystian Lupa became a star in China, journalists queued for interviews while audiences wanted autographs, and many reviews were published. It was an immense success! We are trying to keep that pace, not to slow down, not to waste this potential.
And to expand the audience, Lupa's production of Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters went on tour to Tianjin and Beijing, on its way sparking the biggest discussion on culture and the role of theatre that China has seen in many years. How does one explain that?
Agnieszka Walulik: Woodcutters had a significant impacted on the Chinese cultural and intellectual elites. Krystian Lupa said something that the Chinese themselves would have never been allowed to say.
MJ: He raised questions about the relationship between the authorities and the artist, and between the artist and their career. This found a very fertile ground in China. The discussion is still open, just a few days ago, one theatre critic sent me another article published in a Chinese cultural magazine. We wanted Woodcutters to really resonate in China, so we spent multiple weeks poring over the translation. Chinese audiences read the text very attentively, catching nuances in translation, small changes in dialogue, taking notes, listening, watching, comparing and later asking detailed questions about the play's technical level, deconstructing the entire theatre machinery as well as its worldview and philosophy.
MJ: They were interested in the actor training, the role of the director, but also in the ways in which the relations between authorities and culture in Poland develop, how we perceive the artists, what is their status, whether business supports artistic initiatives.
AW: The problem is that China has lacked good theatre journalism, and we actually entered it at the moment the review genre came into development. We are collaborating with several journalists who now specialise in Polish theatre. They are very inquisitive, very detailed. They are listening with the utmost attention to what Polish artists have to say.
MJ: The image of Polish theatre as something unique, interesting, rich in content and original was also emphasised by the Song of Goat Theatre and their staging of Portraits of the Cherry Orchard in Wuzhen in 2015. There is actually a lot of focus on form in China, but content is lacking. The scripts are poor, and there’s ubiquitous convention. In July and August 2015, Michał Zadara went to China with his production of Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve, which showed that theatre can be very traditional visually, yet at the same time unrestrained and energetic.
Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve is a rather surprising choice. What's even more surprising is that the play was first translated as early as 1968. Do we know more about the history of Mickiewicz's play in China?
MJ: It's an interesting story. After the historic staging of Forefathers' Eve by Kazimierz Dejmek, an event which sparked student protests in March 1968, the Chinese decided to see for themselves what this subversive play, which managed to incite so much buzz in Eastern Europe, is actually about. So, they ordered a Chinese scholar of Polish studies to translate fragments of Forefathers' Eve for the internal purposes of the Communist party! Translated by her, 1976 saw Part III of Forefather's Eve as the first publication of European literary work after the Cultural Revolution in China. A full translation of Forefathers' Eve in Chinese was published only recently to coincide with Michał Zadara's production – it was an initiative of the Polish Institute in Beijing. The fact that the text was available in China before, that it was representative for Polish theatre as well as theatrically interesting, surely influenced our Chinese partners in their decision to invite this particular production.
AW: And the decision was made immediately! The Chinese saw Forefathers' Eve during one of the studio visits and they said ‘We're taking it!’ It must be acknowledged here that the Polski Theatre in Wrocław organised that meeting very well, even Chinese captions were prepared. And later, the Chinese partners also ensured that the audience understood the context and was familiar with the history of the work as well as its significance for Polish theatre. The conference was combined with the promotion of the Chinese translation of Forefathers' Eve. Obviously, everyone was impressed by Bartosz Porczyk's spectacular role as Gustaw in Part III of the play.
And thus, from a single production staged all over mainland China, we have progressed to a Polish theatre season in China, starting this April.
MJ: We're going to present the entire profile of Polish theatre: Warlikowski's (A)pollonia, Lupa's rendition of Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz, produced by the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, Paweł Passini's The Hideout, and the biographical Album: Karl Höcker – a play directed by American Paul Bargetto, inspired by the recent discovery in the United States of an album of photographs that belonged to SS officer Karl Höcker, one of the commanders of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
There will be also Jan Klata's An Enemy of the People [based on Henrik Ibsen's play], and we are midst talks about Łukasz Twarkowski's production of Stanisław Wyspiański's Akropolis and Klata's take on King Lear. We will conclude with Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger. I was actually surprised with this momentum and I tried to temper the enthusiasm of our Chinese partners. Due to budget constraints, I proposed two or three plays, but in Kraków they said ‘We'll take everything!’ Most of the plays oscillate around topics of war, occupation and the Holocaust. It wasn't a deliberate programme choice, it is just how popular those topics are among Polish artists. We are curious how the Chinese audience, which has also had traumatic experiences from World War II, will relate to them.
There is also Marius von Mayenburg 's Martyr, directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, a play about the sources of religious fanaticism. Is it interesting from the point of view of the Chinese audience?
MJ: In China, there is a problem with Uyghur terrorists who are Muslims. There are some tensions on both the religious level and the level of the complicated history of the People's Republic of China, so I'm sure the audience will be able to relate to this. At the same time, in Chinese theatre there is no mention of religion at all, it is almost a taboo topic. Tackling it with such consideration as Jarzyna did, in a way that doesn't force any specific answers, can be very interesting.
AW: Martyr is also a story about youthful idealism which gradually and unnoticeably turns into extremism. Our Chinese partners considered it to be a topic with huge potential.
Similar to the political heat of Ibsen's Enemy of the People, directed by Klata.
MJ: It's an interesting story. For several years, we've had good a relationship with the Chinese theatre director Meng Jinghui, organiser of the Beijing Fringe Festival, who has recently become the artistic director of the big international Wuzhen Festival. He came to Poland knowing very well what he was looking for – an intimate production with a strong message, a lot of dynamism and emotional intensity. He saw An Enemy of the People and then we scheduled a meeting with Jan Klata. It will be his debut in the People's Republic of China.
AW: Before us lies the biggest test – the literarily-challenging (A)pollonia and the difficult Woodcutters and Heldenplatz. We are a little scared, but more than once have the Chinese audiences surprised and moved us, for example with their emotional reception towards the productions by the Song of Goat Theatre in Wuzhen, reactions I followed on Chinese social media channels.
MJ: Chinese audiences value sincerity. They are still an elite, a narrow group, the target that we are most interested in. They are interested in culture, they want something more, they are looking for content and values. And they are finding it in Polish theatre. Obviously, we cannot speak about the mass interest in Polish theatre, it's only a fraction of Chinese society. Yet it is a fraction most important for us, which writes texts and discusses cultural developments. There's a lot changing in China thanks to us and our theatre.
Besides Beijing and Tianjin, Polish plays will also be staged in Harbin…
It's a city in northern China, which until the 1950s had a substantial Polish community. They were descendants of Polish engineers and builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway as well as descendants of Siberian exiles from Tsarist Russia. At one point, the Polish community numbered a couple of thousand people. This part of Polish-Chinese history was almost forgotten, it is only recently that it has been revived. Thus, the return of Polish theatre to Harbin has an interesting symbolic value, and we hope it will bring back the memory of our compatriots who once lived in this city.
Interviewed by Anna Legierska, translated by OK, 21 March 2016