Theatre and film actress. Born in Gowidlino in the Kashubia region on 10 October 1961.
She graduated from the Acting School at the Teatr Wybrzeże in Gdańsk in 1984. She debuted in minor stage roles in 1982. She appeared at the Teatr Wybrzeże and the Teatr Współczesny in Szczecin, joining the latter theatre in 1984, upon graduation. With this company, run by her teacher from the Gdańsk school, Ryszard Major, she spent the next four years. She was immediately cast in two major parts, Abigail in The Crucible by Arthur Miller directed by Janina Dowlasz (1984) and Paulina in Tadeusz Różewicz's Białe małżeństwo / The White Marriage directed by Ryszard Major (1984). For her performance in The White Marriage, she received her first professional award, at the Northern Poland Theatre Festival in Toruń (1985). In 1985 she was Zofia Plejtus in Witkacy's Matka / The Mother, also directed by Major, and two years later in another production by the same director, Witold Gombrowicz's Opętani / Possessed, she was Maja Ochołowska. These were parts which won her further awards at the Northern Poland Theatre Festival in Toruń.
Lyricism, Wildness, Modesty
These successes on provincial stages did not go unnoticed. In 1988 she transferred to Poznań's Teatr Nowy which was managed by Izabella Cywińska.
"She's my favourite actress. Before she came to my theatre, I had awarded her prizes many times at festivals", Cywińska said. "... Danuta's acting consists in a mystery that is never fully revealed. Also, working with an actress who is modest, hard-working, clever, and keeps developing, is a pleasure." ("Rzeczpospolita", 1-7 November 2001)
Stenka continued appearing at the Teatr Nowy until 1991. She had the opportunity to work with interesting directors and develop a diversity of roles. For Izabella Cywińska, she played Elmire in Molière's Tartuffe (1988), she was Duda's Wife in Wiesław Myśliwski's Drzewo / The Tree directed by Krzysztof Nazar (1989), Janusz Nyczak cast her as Zofia in Aleksander Fredro's Damy i huzary / Ladies and Hussars (1990), while Andrzej Maleszka gave her the part of Hania in his own play Maszyna zmian / Transforming Machine (1990). Her last performance in Poznań was the part of Anabella in Sławomir Mrożek's Portret / The Portrait directed by Eugeniusz Korin (1990). Her work for the Teatr Nowy brought her more acting awards, at the Opole Theatre Confrontations and the Kalisz Theatre Meetings.
She moved to Warsaw in 1991 and joined the Teatr Dramatyczny. That year, she appeared in two productions - Święty Franciszek i wilk z Gubbio albo kotlety świętego Franciszka / St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio or, Brother Francis' Lamb Chops, a musical show based on Stefan Themerson, directed by Jarosław Ostaszkiewicz, and Ovid's Metamorphoses directed by Michael Hackett. She played her first major part at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, a production by then debuting director Paweł Wodziński (1992). Stenka lent Maria, the protagonist's partner, a more lyrical than fierce personality. In her approach, the girl was another victim of the reality presented by the author, not a woman who contributed to Woyzeck's tragedy. Stenka showed a completely different image in The Sorceries of Sin (1995). In this production by Tadeusz Słobodzianek based on Calderon, she became the embodiment of Sin/Circe."... she has in her the element of love and allows emotions to play out on stage", wrote Roman Pawłowski. "In the finale, on the empty stage, she cries with teeth clenched, the tears trickling down her cheeks with her make-up." ("Gazeta Wyborcza" 1995, No. 102)
In Sophocles' Electra (1997) directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who extracted the modern-day aspect of the ancient tragedy, her title role was similarly ardent though built using different means of expression. The production's designers sought ancient sources of conflict in the war raging in the Balkans in the 1990s. Electra was thus primarily a contemporary character. Stenka did not allow her heroine to "suffer beautifully", but spasmodically and excruciatingly cried out her pain."Her southern looks, low and slightly rough voice, powerful figure as well as her strong personality made one see Danuta Stenka as the ideal Electra. She largely fulfilled those expectations", wrote Rafał Węgrzyniak. "Sometimes she becomes uncontrollably expressive, playing too emotionally without attention to purity of expression. Stenka's Electra, desperate and ruthless, for whom helplessness is the greatest humiliation, draws strength from obsessive hatred." ("Odra" 1997, No. 5)
That same year she appeared in further major parts at the Teatr Dramatyczny. She was Ranevskaya in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard directed by Leonid Hejfec, and Katherine in Warlikowski's production of The Taming of the Shrew. The timeless marital conflict of Shakespeare's comedy was turned here into a bitter tale of male chauvinism, of subjugating other people through sex."Danuta Stenka plays a woman aware of these mechanisms. Kate wants to have her own conquests but loses in the clash with Petruchio. She turns from an old maid into a trained pet ...", wrote Roman Pawłowski. "Stenka delivers the final soliloquy about a wife's duties to her husband from the proscenium, directly to the audience. She speaks through tears. This soliloquy usually triggers peals of laughter. At the Dramatyczny, it is heard out in tense silence." ("Gazeta Wyborcza" 1998, No. 6)
In the 1990s she also started working with the Television Theatre. She debuted in Władysław Terlecki's Cyklop / Cyclops directed by Izabella Cywińska (1990). In Tomasz Zygadło's version of The Secret Rapture based on David Hare, she played Katherine (1991). This was followed by such parts as the title Nora from the play by Henrik Ibsen directed by Cywińska (1994), Anna in Chekhov's Ivanov directed by Jan Englert (1996), the main character in Augustin E. Scribe and Ernest Legouvé's play Adrianne Lecouvreur directed by Mariusz Treliński (1997), and Mrs. Rollison in Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefathers' Eve adapted for the Television Theatre by Jan Englert in 1997. She also played Lady Milford in Intrigue and Love by Friedrich Schiller directed by Maciej Prus (2004). She also played Ksawera Dybel in Mistrz (The Master) by Krzysztof Rutkowski, a play narrating the story of the relationship between Adam Mickiewicz and the singer Ksawera Deybel (1997, dir. Agnieszka Lipiec-Wróblewska). She added excellent female roles to her contemporary repertoire, including the main roles of: Marina in The Servants and the Snow by Iris Murdoch (1999, dir. Krzysztof Lang), Wrage in Top Dogs by Urs Widmer (1999, dir. Filip Zylber), the Woman in The Soap Opera by György Spiró (2000, dir. by Ryszard Bugajski), and Teresa in Złodziejki Chleba (The Bread Thieves) by Ewa Lachnit (2002, dir. Natalia Koryncka-Gruz).
On the TV and Film Set
Stenka's film debut came when she was already a well-known theatre actress. In 1996 Krzysztof Lang cast her in the leading female part in Prowokator / Provocateur, a costume drama set in the early years of the 20th century against the background of gripping political events. She was also Lukera in Łagodna / A Gentle Woman based on Fiodor Dostoyevsky and directed by Mariusz Treliński (1995). Two years later, television started broadcasting Izabella Cywińska's much-publicized and controversial series Boża podszewka / God's Lining based on the book by Teresa Lubkiewicz-Urbanowicz, a saga about the Jurewicz family from the eastern Polish borderland, in which Stenka played the main heroine's mother, Maria Jurewicz."Playing Maria was the first time I crossed the boundary of my age. It turned out that waiting on the other side was an extraordinary world, rich, mysterious, and much more interesting than the one I knew", Stenka recalled. "The outer shell may not be interesting, but neither is it important. In this situation the possibilities for delving into the inner richness, the inner beauty, are much greater." ("Życie Warszawy" 1998, No. 2)
Stenka's huge popularity was consolidated by her appearances in TV series - the third season of the crime series Ekstradycja / Extradition directed by Wojciech Wójcik (1998), Zaginiona / Declared Missing (2003), and Boża podszewka II / God's Lining II (2005). The actress also featured in the Polish cinematic super-production Quo Vadis based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz (2001). The following year she was George Sand in Jerzy Antczak's film Chopin, pragnienie miłości / Chopin: Desire for Love. This wasn't the first time she had played the great composer's lover. In 1995, she was George Sand in Janusz Krasiński's Kochankowie z klasztoru Valdemosa / The Lovers from the Valdemosa Monastery, a production made for the Television Theatre by Andrzej Konic. She was dubbed the Polish Bridget Jones for her role in the screen adaptation of Katarzyna Grochola's best-selling novel Nigdy w życiu! / Never Again! directed by Ryszard Zatorski (2004). Stenka was excellent in the role of Róża, the general’s wife, in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007). She also appeared in comedies, including Lejdis (2008) and The Perfect Guy for My Girlfriend (2009) directed by Tomasz Konecki, and Jeszcze Raz (One More Time, 2008) by Mariusz Malec. In recent years she has mostly played small yet interesting roles, including in Baby Blues by Katarzyna Rosłaniec (2012), Chemo by Bartosz Prokopowicz (2015) and the hit film Planet Single by Mitja Okorn (2016). She also appeared in Listy do M. 3 (Letters to M. part 3) (2017), The Art of Love: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka (2017), Planpet Single 2 (2018), and Werewolf (2018).
In her TV and film roles, both as the domineering Maria in God's Lining and the romantic Judyta in Never Again!, Stenka managed to hit the right tone, which made audiences find her characters believable. She gained star status, becoming one of the most popular actresses of her generation. Commercial success never stopped her from accepting risky challenges in theatre, requiring artistic concentration. She continued her career as a great performer of dramatic roles, internally complex, ambiguous, created emotionally and expressively. In 2000 she was Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's tragedy directed by Waldemar Śmigasiewicz at the Teatr Bagatela in Kraków. Stenka formed a star duo here with Russian actor Aleksandr Domogarov - who played Bohun in Jerzy Hoffman's film Ogniem i mieczem / With Fire and Sword."You seldom see a production in which the Macbeths' love is so convincing, and the mutual 'sexual asphyxiation' so obvious", asserted Krzysztof Miklaszewski. "In such a 'beautiful relationship' sex is dominant, but in Macbeth you can also sense an amorous longing, and dreams of an eternal union of souls." ("Dziennik Polski", 11 November 2000)Stenka built her part, among other things, by modulating her voice in an unusual way, in an almost operatic convention. In other parts of the text she spoke in firm and cold tones, painting a portrait of a woman ruthless in her murderous logic.
In 2001 Stenka joined the Teatr Rozmaitości, and has been with the Teatr Narodowy since 2003. Working with Grzegorz Jarzyna, she appeared in Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov's Festen / The Celebration (2001). The following year she returned to the Teatr Dramatyczny to play Anna in Chekhov's Platonov directed by Paweł Miśkiewicz. In 2003, in a guest performance at Wrocław's Teatr Współczesny, she was the widow Bradshaw, the protagonist of Howard Barker's Victory directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, a play based on an episode in the history of 17th-century England. She very suggestively played the puritan woman as she managed to maintain her purity despite repeated harassment."... the actress brilliantly juxtaposes the physical composure, even monumentality of her body with fury and fears she doesn't want to pour out because a moral imperative based on the word of God, a sense of decency, or marital loyalty is greater than free will", wrote Leszek Pułka. "But when that free will pushes her to extraordinary behaviour when she wants to recover the desecrated body of her husband, she turns into a human animal. It's the only way to achieve her goal." ("Gazeta Wyborcza", 7 April 2003)This Wrocław appearance won the actress a Passport award from "Polityka" weekly.
In recent seasons Stenka returned to the Teatr Rozmaitości, to play Cica in Hanoch Levin's Krum directed by Warlikowski (2005), and Hekate in 2007: Macbeth based on Shakespeare and directed by Jarzyna (2005), among other roles. She also took part in international projects. In 2005 she appeared in Susan Sontag's Lady from the Sea based on Henrik Ibsen, a production prepared by the famous American artist Robert Wilson at the Teatr Dramatyczny. For Stenka, this meeting with Wilson's strongly formalized theatre, in which actors seem to be visual signs on a par with other elements of a performance, was a new experience. The contrast between the director's precise score and an actor's spontaneity brought a very intriguing result.
"Danuta Stenka as Ellida has created a great role, combining the precision and composure of a Noh actor with the psychological depth of Bergman's actresses (I refer to Harriet Anderson and Liv Ullmann)", was Jacek Dobrowolski's view. "From the first slow stroll along the seashore at the back of the stage, her silhouette against the illuminated background was riveting. She walked slowly, backwards, step by step, never lifting her feet off the stage, like Noh actors do. Her arms accompanied her steps, rising and falling in alternate movements reminiscent of tai-chi, creating a par excellence oneiric image. ... When I asked Wilson to assess her role, he said: 'She is brilliant! Extraordinary'. ... Stenka has created a great role, confirming what we have long known - that she is one of the best Polish dramatic actresses. Here is this outstanding tragic actress, and directors looking for someone to play Medea, Mary Stuart, or Lady Macbeth should not hesitate even for a moment." ("Odra" 2006, No. 6)
At the Teatr Narodowy in 2006, she was Elmire in Molière's Tartuffe or the Hypocrite directed by Frenchman Jacques Lassalle. Her most recent theatre role is the title Phèdre in the production by Maja Kleczewska based on the texts of Euripides, Seneca, Per Olov Enquist, and István Tasnádi (Teatr Narodowy, 2006).
“I need challenges”
This won’t be last meeting between Stenka and Kleczewska. In a discussion with Łukasz Maciejewski, the actress remembers working with one of the most charismatic Polish directors: “While working with Maya I get the impression that we are two instruments improvising. We know with what we have to play, what the theme is and that eventually, we have to produce music. Therefore we improvise, not knowing when there is a solo or who will play the next note. Work with Kleczewska isn’t about the ideal score, rather it’s about variations on a certain topic” – she says in her book Flirting with Life.
At the National Theatre, Stenka has played the role of Anna Pietrovna in Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, directed by Jan Englert (2008) and the role of a female philosopher (the patient who was meant to play Mr. de Sade but doesn’t) in Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, also directed by Kleczewska (2009). In 2012, she played the main part in Orestei, again directed by Kleczewska. Most recently, one could see her addressing the issues of guilt, responsibility and memory in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s play (A)pollonia based on, among others, texts by Euripides and Hanna Krall (2009, Nowy Theatre in Warsaw). In 2012 she played Katarzyna Medycejska in Queen Margot, directed by Grzegorz Wiśniewski. A year later, she starred in the controversial play Ice based on the story by Vladimir Sorokin and directed by one of the most important Russian artists of modern theatre: Konstantin Bogomolov.
Anna Legierska writes about the performance produced by Culture.pl
Danuta Stenka is one of the few connectors linking the most important names in modern theatre in Poland, notes Łukasz Maciejewski. She features in pieces by Jarzyna, Kleczewska and Warlikowski. She considers this a gift from fate:
“They are always looking, arguing and embarking on journeys that may fail, but they always have a goal. They don’t give any guarantees that the journey will be a success or that we will find the Holy Grail. But I trust them. I’ve always felt the need to experiment and to take risks, but at the same time, I’ve always feared the consequences. There is too much order these days, and not enough madness – that’s how I feel. And it tires me out, because at my age, my acting career begins to fade and yet I have so much more to express, I can still discover things within me, but I know that I will only achieve this if I take risks. I need challenges.”
Her latest is Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Second Woman, based on John Cassavetes film Opening Night, in which Stenka brilliantly and poignantly plays Victoria Gordon, an actress preparing to play the role of an elderly woman who cannot come to terms with the passage of time, alongside Adam Woronowicz, Roman Gancarczyk, David Gardner and Agnes Podsiadlik. Stenka herself has admitted that she has often found herself using her own words in the play: “Through the theatre, my character works on her role and breaks down the walls, the shell of the theatre, that she has placed on herself in everyday life. She cultivates the theatre in front of her, in front of the whole world. Through this role, she is reborn and leaves the theatre behind” – explains Stenka. On the way, the show's creators take the viewer on a journey behind the scenes of the theatre, intelligently and humorously commenting on the two year battle of TR Warszawa for the future of the scene.
The role in Franz Xaver Kroetz's Request Concert, directed by Yana Ross (2015) was a big challenge. Not only it's a one-woman-play - a form always difficult for the actor - but also the protagonist spends 70 minutes on stage without saying a word. Keeping the audience's attention is the responsibility of the actress, who is deprived of one of the most important forms of theatrical expression. The show is an hour of a middle-class woman, followed by a dramatic ending.
People say that a good picture means more than a thousand words. It's the same with a good theatrical image, especially if Danuta Stenka is one of its elements. Request Concert can be seen a story about what drives people to most dramatic decisions. It can also be a mirror which reflects our everyday rush, provokes to take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some questions. Questions about the cost of modern life, about the lost balance between work and private life, about isolation and loneliness, about a life that is carefully planned, but deprived of meaning, which passes, day by day - wrote Aneta Kyzioł ("Polityka", 27.01.2015).
Stenka's last performances up to date are protagonists of most famous Polish romantic dramas: mrs Rollinson in Mickiewicz's Dziady, directed by Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrošius (2016) and Archangel in a monumental mise en scene of Słowacki's Kordian, directed in National Theatre by Jan Englert (2016).
This Archangel doesn't feel too comfortable, because the director sees him as Satan's collaborator. And Satan says - with words from Goethe's Faust - 'Once I would have done all by myself, now I have to look for a partner in crime'. A game proposed by Satan begins, and they play with Poland - this infinite Polish cabaret. The Archangel joins the game, but he has his own set of rules - told Stenka Dorota Wyżyńska ("Gazeta Wyborcza" nr 53 - "Co Jest Grane", 04.03.2016).
At the end of 2016 Stenka played the titular role in Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Michał Zadara. As she told Łukasz Maciejewski in an interview:
Michał didn’t do any analytical rehearsals, we didn’t read the text sitting at the table or discuss the characters. Whereas I need conversation, he doesn’t like analysing. He constructs his world, searches for it and checks whether it works directly on stage. Thrown into specific situations, I was trying to find that woman inside myself. She is completely different to me. She makes decisions I would never make, sometimes she is pathetic, at times – incredible. I wouldn’t find common ground with her, yet she’s extremely close to me. Why? Because she’s built of me, my gestures, my voice…? I don’t know.
In 2018 The Wedding by Gombrowicz, directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius, premiered. Stenka played the Mother.