As he moves his glance suspended somewhere among the smoke swirling from his e-cigarette, I think that everything about Krzysztof Warlikowski seems like a mix between complex and paradoxical. A remarkable representative of European theatre, courageously approaching acute topics and breaking taboos. An artist exploring his own identity and historical past in co‑participation with the audience. A provocateur who stupefies by dissecting a dark side of human condition, the monstrosity and existential impasse. He does not fit into clichés and any attempt to describe the cosmopolite Polish director who founded Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr falls short.
From the summer gazebo, from where he takes our call, it’s hard for me to fully distinguish his face. There’s either too much light or too many shadows. And when I do catch a clear picture, I’m amazed by the amount of things an image can give away, as if it were a map or a Rorschach test. He’s wearing a T-shirt and a relaxed-fit striped shirt on top, exuding a charismatic youthfulness that blends harmoniously with deep wrinkles. His piercing eyes seem to borrow the turbulent flow of his childhood river, Oder, crossing the multi-ethnic and culturally diverse town of Szczecin where he grew up in a family made up of a Polish father and a Jewish mother. The features of his face convey warmth as well as the typical Eastern roughness, while his gestures are intrinsically bohemian, aristocratic. He speaks English with a French accent, reminding of the impact of French culture and how the 15 years he spent in France influenced the future theatre director’s path.
Krzysztof Warlikowski tells me that the pandemic has taught him about “loss”, having a fresher and finer sense of “enjoying the small things differently”. In Salzburg, where he arrived recently, the first project he would work on after a few months’ forced break is an opera show – Elektra (presented as part of the centenary edition of the Salzburg Festival). It is ironic that, in the current situation, the opera he normally perceives as prison becomes a liberating space. Yet, in the middle of the night when he needs a panacea to calm an asthma crisis or the thoughts racing through his mind, he will always find it in theatre. He is among the few people who do not use the phrase “theatre is my home” as a matter of speech.
For nearly 30 years, like a ravenous experimenter, Krzysztof Warlikowski has delved into texts (from William Shakespeare and Greek classics, to Hanoch Levin, Marcel Proust, Sarah Kane, Hanna Krall, Franz Kafka, Bernard-Marie Koltès or J. M. Coetzee) and cut, built, juxtaposed and connected collages into narrative hybrids. He has turned and translated them into troubling syncretic constructions, directing both actors, and the audience to an inner space of self‑confrontations. The stage and the images projected live act as mirrors in which the creator doesn’t leave the spectators alone, but sits face to face with them in this essential uncomfortable reflection.
Before the show We are leaving, recently streamed by Nowy Teatr, you addressed an absent audience by saying that “an empty room is a tragic view”. What motivated this very touching, symbolic gesture?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: We were forced to close our theatre, despite being in the middle of a working process and of rehearsals for our new project, “Odyssey. A Story for Hollywood”, which was cancelled. We adapted two texts – The Odyssey by Homer and a novel by Hanna Krall (n.a. Chasing the King of Hearts). We weren’t doing anything, weren’t working at all, everything had stopped. So we looked for a way to close this season and decided to organize an unusual event – a live stream, something that we hadn’t done before. We chose to perform in front of an audience that we couldn’t see instead of a hall full of people wearing masks (which would have been impossible anyway).
We are thus talking about a live transmission of a living show, not one that was previously recorded, right?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: Yes, it was all live. We wanted to end the season with an unusual gesture, with this transmission conveying our current voice. We wanted to have at least this moment. We had three wonderful days together: two rehearsal days and the third day, the day of the show.
This was therefore the way you chose to bring a little grain of hope to your audience during this period. Despite it being a dark comedy (with touches in the style of Roy Andersson’s cinematography), the end seems optimistic, with all the actors holding hands and eating ice-cream…
Krzysztof Warlikowski: It’s true. This show premiered two years ago, when we already had a new government. The situation was rather complicated. Everybody said they wanted to leave the country. So we sent the same message through the show We Are Leaving. We started from a play by Hanoch Levin – Suitcase Packers, a comedy with eight funerals, in which we built an anecdotal character: an American vlogger who visits Poland searching for her Jewish origins. We changed the original text quite a lot, thus ending up with a much more political version than Levin had probably intended. But here we are, in a time when even funerals have become political. Perhaps had we had time to perform The Odyssey, it would have become a symbol again, but unfortunately we didn’t. We’re not back yet (laughs).
You know, travelers and nomads are said to rarely experience unhappiness, for breaking with one’s roots brings a feeling of freedom. Do you think this applies to you?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: Our ensemble only moved into a permanent space two years ago (in a building that was initially a garage and that we rebuilt ourselves). For ten years, we were always on the road, as we didn’t have a building. Today, we are all travelers, and this is a good point. It’s useful to be on the move, which didn’t happen in the pandemic. But with present technology, I am sure that this movement cannot be stopped.
I don’t think my view on theatre has changed because of the pandemic. The question now is how to reach the audience.
Today, when reality seems to beat any film or theatre script, being so dark and violent, what role do you think theatre should play? Where should it head to: to the past and the classics trying to make sense of this present suffering? Should it mirror the streets?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: In these three very drastic months, when nobody knew what was going to happen, I asked myself all sort of questions. Yet, the only impulse I had was to organise this live broadcast, performing a show with no audience. We wanted to send the message that “we were still here, we were ready, but we lacked our audience”. I don’t think we should be asking ourselves about the essence of theatre and looking back. Theatre will not change; theatre is what it is. We need theatre, regardless of what happens. I don’t think my view on theatre has changed because of the pandemic. The question now is how to reach the audience.
So, personally, you don’t feel the need to change the way you create theatre? For instance, by using new technologies more?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: I’ve always liked to experiment and combine various multimedia means. I’m constantly looking to get closer to other means of expression, too. I definitely take pleasure in working with them, integrating live projections in my shows, for instance. I want to trouble the spectator. I don’t want to give him a frontal vision… I don’t want to simplify things for my spectators.
In The French, which was streamed during this edition of FITSonline, you most certainly challenged the spectators through all those mosaics of meanings and…
Krzysztof Warlikowski: But The French was a disaster! As there’s no money left for the theatre, the Polish government being more interested in elections and others, we can’t always create high-quality work. In the past, theatre video recordings were handled by the Polish Television, but now it works for those in power and we are trying to fend for ourselves. The French was recorded with a team of amateurs who film weddings. Many of the essential moments were lost (projections, dance moments, live music were neglected…).
You’re referring exclusively to the video recording, right? Because, from an aesthetic and directing point of view, the result you’ve reached is very sophisticated and profound.
Krzysztof Warlikowski: Yes. I simply believe that it was not well served to the audience, so that they could understand it better. The French is a difficult performance and the material we’ve adapted is difficult too. Yet, these times have made me more aware of what we’re leaving behind. I’ve decided to pay more attention to our theatre archive and the quality of the recordings.
It seems like you chose a rather fragmented dramaturgy (especially over the last decade), emphasizing corporality, the intensity of the feelings brought to the stage by the actors. Was this a process you intended for or a natural change that happened in time?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: Starting with (A)pollonia, I have indeed worked only with new narratives in Nowy Theatre, i.e. collages based on adaptations of several texts. I believe that we need texts that we can understand. I set out to find that voice. Now, the Polish audience needs to talk. It’s no longer only about the play, but about having many different voices. Spectators must practice this speech themselves. Our society has been silent for too many years. The moment I walked in the theatre, I told myself we had to start talking. We need as many conversations as possible. I often refer to David Lynch, a very relevant figure, because since he emerged, we started to accept a fragmented narrative, the lack of answers and of clarity. Theatre must provoke and ask questions, but at the same time put the audience to work. I’m not there to give ready-made answers, I’m not there to tell them stories and be clear. My role is to provoke the audience, to sow some impulses, manipulate their attention…
I know you are fascinated by memory as collective manifestation, as this is a recurring motif in all your creations. But looking at memory as self-narrative, as a result of multiple edits and rewriting, how much have you relied on theatre to write your self-narrative, and synergistically how has theatre helped you in this self-exploration to better understand your own identity?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: To me, theatre has always been an instrument of knowledge. Through my theatrical activity, I discover, analyse, ask questions; and without memory, there is nothing. On the other hand, I am Polish and Polish people are haunted by their memories. Memories hunch us and as an artist you can’t ignore this burden. But you can try and rethink that historical burden, find positive aspects, give a useful role to the past… When I arrived in Warsaw, I had to find my identity in a city built on all those ruins and on all those dead people. The city’s architecture symbolically reconstructs its past identity, as Warsaw was completely wiped out by the War. I understood this was a specific place and I had to pay attention to what it told me. That’s how memory became relevant. I became aware that everything I touch is connected with death. We Are Leaving is an eight-funeral comedy; The French talks about the end of Europe as we know it; another show is called The End (pol. Koniec)… All my creations have an apocalyptic view, everything is somehow “crépusculaire”… dark.
I became aware that everything I touch is connected with death. All my creations have an apocalyptic view.
With Nowy Teatr, you’ve gathered around you a small community, which you describe as family. But what do you think theatre should bring to a wider community? Should it be an agent of education? Should it start debates?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: Nowy Teatr has been created to take distance from the closed and formal, the monumental side of theatre, and to walk a different path, with a different aesthetic vision, a different kind of audience and sponsors. I wanted to build something closer to people and to eliminate all those rituals and codes. In the end, our entire life is a bunch of rules, rules, rules… I wanted to create a place where you don’t have to follow rules, where people could feel free. In this theatre, we stand at the same level as the audience (literally), there’s a direct connection. Sometimes, even for me, it’s intimidating to follow all the rules in more pretentious theatres, where I can only start a dialogue with the others after the lights are out and I’ve taken my seat. The way our theatre is constructed represents the way we are having the dialogue with the outside world. And of course, I wanted it to be a place of reflection, too, not just a mere performance venue. It’s a place for many important conversations with relevant people, with numerous events meant to encourage contemporary art (dance, music concerts, exhibitions, etc.).
We often talk about the responsibility of theatre to the audience; but what do you think should be the audience’s responsibility in relation to theatre?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: The audience has and will be very important to me. Everything I’ve ever built was done thinking about the audience. At the beginning of your theatrical adventure, you try to find an original language and many others, but for me it was very important to reach the audience, to be understood. At least, to offer a chance to be understood. What I ask from my audience is not easy at all. I ask for total engagement and active participation and a lot of brains constantly asking themselves what I’m talking about, what I mean to say. I only understood this when I was around 41; during standing ovations, I walked out on stage and understood we shared the same feeling, that they got me. I then felt I was on the right track. I thought it was impossible to be wrong… Spectators should be a milestone for all artists. As long as you are connected to your audience and don’t lose them, you can keep going. However, in each stage of your career, you must make sure not to abandon them. Sometimes, you can feel so. Yet, artists are part of the avant-garde. Perhaps what we are saying now may not make much sense, but it will through the years. It’s very important to be understood and to understand.
These months when we were confined to our homes, you turned to Marcel Proust once more, rereading “In Search of Lost Time”. This makes me ask what triggers the Proustian effect in your case? What is the madeleine that brings back to you those vivid, sweet memories of your past, your childhood?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: It’s a series of associations, probably built around certain images we all bear with us ever since childhood. And those moments in the past connect to more recent memories, outlining a series of associations; so, if by chance you encounter something that touches your heart, you’re taken back to the past, through all that host of associations… It all seems close, as it is built around one main element, i.e. your childhood house – home! It is the first memory in that series of associations, and everything develops around it.
And where is your “home” now?
Krzysztof Warlikowski: For me, my ensemble is my home. We are so different, so many generations – from 27 to 84 years of age. I am very lucky to have had these people show up on my path and for realising at some point how close we were. I have no other family, in the conventional sense, but I am surrounded by people who stay close to me, regardless of what happens. So, I can say the theatre is my home.
Your theatre ensemble is indeed so diverse, that it seems like a small-scale representation of society beyond the walls of the theatre, with various voices coming from outside.
Krzysztof Warlikowski: That’s what I wanted, to create a community. I’ll go back to We Are Leaving, because there are some disturbing scenes – photos of all the actors come and go on the screen. We invented funerary inscriptions and years of death. We imagined a future where we would all be dead. In The French, we are also attempting to reflect on the future, imagining a world where the characters are older. It’s that “time regained” (le temps retrouvé) that my ensemble brings me. We have many old artists. I wish I could stop the time for them, so they could stay. Recently, we thought about a project that we could one day bring to life, 20-30 year from now, i.e. an adaptation after Time Regained, the last volume of Proust’s novel, this time “for real” and not pretending that we are old. But how many of us would still be alive? Would I? Besides the age differences, our views, experiences and stories differ, too. This is such an enriching community, with generous, creative people, who have been through a lot. In Poland, things are not going great now either, that’s why all we can do is ask ourselves whether we want to leave silently to another country or stay here and try to fix as many things as possible. In the end, we all want to leave behind a better world.
English translation: Camelia Oană
Cover photo: Thierry Zoccolan/afp.com/