Justyna Sobczyk is a director, pedagogue, and founder of Teatr 21, the only Polish theatre group gathering artists who have Down syndrome or autism. She received the Kamyk – the Konstanty Puzyna Prize, awarded for combining unique creativity with social engagement.
Director, pedagogue, founder of Teatr 21
Sobczyk was born in 1977. She graduated in Special Education from Mikołaj Kopernik University in Toruń, Theatre Studies at the Warsaw Theatre Academy, and Theatre Education at Universität der Künste in Berlin. She has received scholarships form Gemeinschaft für Wissenschaft und Kultur in Mittel- und Osteuropa, Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), and the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. During her studies, she acted in the alternative theatre group Wiczy in Toruń. This is how Justyna Sobczyk remembers that experience in an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza:
For me as an actress this definitely was a period of entering a new and unknown field. I discovered that it is cool to make theatre with friends and that it feels nice when spectators stay for a cup of tea after a show to keep talking with us. I felt that theatre can also be a space of encounter. Thanks to the Wiczy theatre, my time of studies was exciting, productive, and filled with travels. I didn’t need anything else then, I wasn’t interested in going out to town. I felt that theatre granted me the most intense experiences.
For over ten years, she has been working in special education at the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw. Together with Zofia Dworakowska, she manages the post-graduate course in Theatre Education at the University of Warsaw, founded as a collaboration between the Institute of Polish Culture and Theatre Institute. She is a co-founder of the Association of Theatre Pedagogues and director of plays for children, such as: Teatralny Plac Zabaw Jana Dormana (Jan Dorman’s Theatrical Playground) and Ojczyzna (Fatherland) at the Polski Theatre in Poznań.
In interviews, she highlights that a theatre pedagogue's job consists in opening up subjects, people, and patterns through the language of theatre. Sobczyk said:
Vibrant Voices: Polish Theatre’s Journey to the Early 21st Century
In professional theatre, theatre educators open shows, designing workshops to go with them, they encourage dialogue with the theatre audience. They base their activities on the idea of dialogue, democracy, and are inspired by diversity, they don’t rely on acting skills, which is why they help the audience grow in size.
In 2005, she started running Teatr 21, which features actors with Down syndrome and autism. It is the only theatre of this kind in Poland, performing not only on Polish, but also on international stages. They have appeared in, among others, Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute, which is also the theatre’s headquarters. The group has also performed at the Brave Festival in Wrocław, Malta in Poznań, All About Freedom in Gdańsk, as well as Normal Festival in Prague, Menteatral in Neratov, and No Limits in Berlin.
She stresses that from the very start she has aimed at leading a professional theatre group, rather than theatre therapy. She explains the process of preparing performances on teatralny.pl:
Each adventure is different. The constant factor in each play is the fact that we don’t work off a script. We only used one in the case of the two shows for children, but they still included a lot of things that didn’t exist in the text. The rest of shows are simply improvisations, based on searching, and, of course, getting lost. But we always get lost together, as a team, together with the dramaturgist, the choreographer, the musician, the scenographer, the video maker, and so on. […] Three quarters of our work is work in progress, only a small fragment of which is eventually extracted. Sometimes I wonder if we could cheat somehow, whether our actions aren’t pointless, because all those explorations are very uneconomic. Sometimes I am under the impression that we have walked the entire Alps, and we suddenly find something and begin to wonder if we could have gotten there straight away.
In 2016, Justyna Sobczyk received the Kamyk – the Konstanty Puzyna Prize, for her theatre and educational activities, which combine art and life, and marry unique creativity with social engagement.
The Nineties in Polish Exploratory Theatre
In 2017 Sobczyk directed Szewcy (editor's translation: The Shoemakers) by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy). The performance premiered in Stary Theatre in Kraków. Alongside Stary Theatre's actors performed Paweł Kudasiewicz and Ireneusz Buchin de Divan (associated with Teatr Trochę Inny, a Kraków-based institution who is constituted by artists with disabilities) and Anna Komorek, an actress who has Down syndrome. As Sobczyk said about the work:
In Poland the presence of persons with disabilities in theatre as such determines that it is supposed to be therapeutical art. However, we're not people who do therapy – we make theatre. Our objective is not therapy (who would it be for?), but the willingness to show an encounter between the disabled with the able-bodied.
In November 2018 Superspektakl had its premiere in Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw. It was co-created by Powszechny Theatre and Teatr 21. Sobczyk directed it together with Jakub Skrzywanek. Stars of both institutions performed alongside each other. As Marcelina Obarska wrote for Culture.pl:
Superspektakl, even though at first it seems to be an energetic story about superheroes and their powers, turns out to be a perverse work about uncertainty, fear and searching for safety. In a dynamic, and sometimes even roaring form the artists left space for fragility and weakness.
In March 2018 the performance Wróg – instrukcja obsługi (The Enemy. A Manual) premiered in Zagłębie Theatre in Sosnowiec, directed to audiences over the age of ten. In the months preceding the premiere, the Zagłębie Theatre ran Laboratorium wroga (The Enemy's Laboratory) – schoolchildren participated in workshops regarding the figure of 'an enemy' and all the assumptions connected to it. The effects of their work – alongside the book The Enemy by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch – became the basis for the dramatic text of the performance. As Justyna Sobczyk has mentioned in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, the aim of the performance was didactic:
To disarm an enemy! The enemy is a figure that is created collectively, in a group, in the face of fear. Society is intimidated and fears that someone is going to take its identity away. It is unable to alleviate hostility. It creates an enemy through language that is full of aggression. I strongly disapprove of such an approach and I wish children would not take it as a model. If they, as I hope, see the mechanism of creating hostility, they won't repeat it in the future and will not be easily manipulated.
In September 2018 Centrum Sztuki Włączającej: Downtown (The Centre for Inclusive Art: Downtown), an initiative of Teatr 21 created with the aid of Biennale Warszawa, came into life. Its main objective was to increase the presence of people with disabilities in art and culture. During the first season the Centre ran lectures, workshops and meetings; the audiences could also watch some works of Teatr 21. Unfortunately, Downtown was not granted funds for the next season.
In December 2018 Teatr 21 presented the performance Rewolucja, której nie było (A Revolution That Was Not There) in Soho Theatre. The work was inspired by the forty-day-long protest of people with disabilities and their carers. They occupied the Polish parliament in April and May 2018, demanding decent living conditions and financial support. As Sobczyk said, this could not have been left without a commentary. The creators of the performance used banners, letters and postcards that were written during the protest.
Teatr 21 has also started its own publishing series. The first book released is Odzyskiwanie obecności. Niepełnosprawność w teatrze i performansie (Regaining Presence. Disability in theatre and performance), a volume that comprises foreign theoretical texts and commentaries on how to adjust these to the Polish context.
Downtown Collection – Oiko Petersen
zbigniew raszewski theatre institute
Sources: Gazeta Wyborcza, Teatr21, Theatre Institute, transl. AM, update and translation NS (April 2019)