Małgorzata Szczęśniak studied at the Faculty of Philosophy and Psychology at the Jagiellonian University, where she received a doctorate on the creative process. At that time she was also enrolled in the Stage Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where she studied between 1981-1984. She works primarily with Krzysztof Warlikowski. Together they have put on many performances both on Polish stages and abroad. Their collaboration started at the School of Theatre in Kraków, where they staged their degree performances.
Their subsequent productions of plays by Shakespeare and classical Greek authors were highly successful. Szczęśniak designed scenography for The Merchant of Venice at the Wilam Horzyca Theatre in Toruń (1994) Winter’s Tale at the Nowy Theatre in Poznań (1997), The Taming of the Shrew at the Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw (1997), Pericles at the Piccolo Teatro di Milano (1998), Tempest at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart (2000), Hamlet (1999) and Tempest (2003) at the Rozmaitości Theatre in Warsaw, A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Théâtre National in Nice (2003) and Macbeth at the Schauspielhaus in Hanover (2004), Electra by Sophocles in Dramatyczny Theatre (1997), Bacchae by Euripides at the Rozmaitości Theatre (2001).
Szczęśniak has also collaborated on variety of projects with other directors including Marek Fiedor , Grzegorz Jarzyna, Maja Kleczewska, Izabela Cywińska, and Ewa Wycichowska.
Szczęśniak draws inspiration from the theatre of Tadeusz Kantor, Konrad Swinarski, and Jerzy Grotowski. In the field of visual arts, she holds a fascination with conceptual art and constructivism, in particular the work of Alina Szapocznikow, Maria Jarema, Katarzyna Kozyra, Mirosław Bałka, and Christian Boltanski, but also with photojournalism, especially the work of Diane Arbus. She praises films by Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jim Jarmusch. In her work she uses such materials as glass and Plexiglas.
At some point, the classic materials seem artificially imitative. I think that there was a need to reach for materials that give other possibilities, materials which introduce air, transparency, reflection – glass, mirrors, Plexiglas. These are more aesthetic materials and they bring order. Artificially imitative decoration reminds me of something old, crumbling. This Polish school of coating decoration and costume with patina... I wanted to introduce a new order, a new aesthetics. I was largely influenced by contemporary art, installations by Christian Boltanski, Mirosław Bałka who use clean clear materials: copper, glass. I have an urge to create in theatre an aesthetic world, a cleansed site.
During the process of designing Szczęśniak ponders on external reality which becomes an impulse for creation of a particular scenography. Thus, the Balkan Wars echoed in Electra, the titular element was replaced with a plane crash in The Tempest, contemporaneity was mixed with antique motifs in Bacchae, and the characters in Hamlet wore contemporary costumes with discernible traces of Renaissance courtliness. Moreover, most of Shakespeare’s plays staged by Warlikowski and Szczęśniak have played out in today’s reality and attire. Sometimes, they used the latter to highlight the sexual identity of characters, but above all the costume served as means to anchor a play in the modern world.
Szczęśniak advocates clear, explicit, minimalist, and above all, visually meaningful stage design. She repeatedly asserts that theatre is a cosmos that needs to be reinvented time and again, and that ideally scenography should only combine items that are absolutely necessary and significant.
In spite of appearances, theatre is not artificial. Stage designer, director and composer have to create a space that seems a natural environment, a place for people to live. As on an alien planet.
– says Szczęśniak.
Szczęśniak, whose work is an integral part of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s vision, usually designs a very homogeneous space avoiding decorative baroque-like excess by employing the simplest means. She admits that she seeks to arrive at a 'white box' following the concept of Peter Brook. She had, moreover, an opportunity to observe the way of working of Chloe Obolensky-Brook's production designer. Szczęśniak often rips and strips the stage, as it was the case in Hamlet, where the platform for actors was set in the middle of a completely arbitrary space, or skillfully divided into sites for acting as in 4.48 Psychosis, where the almost clinically sterile stage was divided by a transparent wall. She aims at visual composition of space that is far from literalness and remains open and undefined.
The designer has also worked in musical theatre. She created the stage design for productions staged by Krzysztof Warlikowski at the Grand Theatre - National Opera ‒ The Music Programme by Roxana Panufnik (2000), Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi (2000), The Ignoramus and the Madman by Paweł Mykietyn (2001), Krzysztof Penderecki's Ubu Rex (2003) and Wozzeck by Alban Berg (2006). Warlikowski and Szczęśniak have also worked for major European opera houses. In the Paris Opéra Garnier they staged Iphigenia at Tauris by Christoph Willibald Gluck (2006), Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich (2007), and Medea by Luigi Cherubini at the Théâtre La Monnaie in Brussels (2008). In the Paris Opéra Bastille they staged Makropulos Case by Leoš Janáček (2007), Wagner's Parsifal (2007) and King Roger by Karol Szymanowski (2009).
Szczęśniak participated in the Prague Quadrennial of Stage Design in 1990, and four years later showed her work at the Exhibition of Young Stage Designers in Katowice. In 2007, her stage design projects for Dybbuk and Ubu Rex represented Poland at the Prague Quadrennial. In 2008, she had a solo exhibition in the cultural center La Bellone in Brussels. In 2011, as a special guest, she presented a paper 'What is set design?' at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space
In July 2013, an architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska organized an exhibition titled Appearing and Vanishing: The Archeology of Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s Stage Design at the Nowy Theatre in Warsaw which was a collage of fragments of works by the renowned stage designer. The same year she was appointed a full-time stage designer at the Nowy Theatre.
In 2015 Szczęśniak was granted the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta awarded by the President of the Republic of Poland for "her outstanding merits in her artistic activities, for achievements in promoting the Polish culture".
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2005; update: July 2013 - LS, ed. GS, July 2015; ND, November 2016.