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How to present truth through theatrical falsehood? (eng)

A conversation with Małgorzata Warsicka

From the very beginning of our work, we had many discussions with other creatives, especially with choreographer Anna Godowska, set designer Agata Skwarczyńska, and costume designer Edyta Jermacz, on how to present truth through theatrical illusion, something that is inherently false. Especially while dealing with honest, intimate stories that touch the core of the female soul. We contemplated how to structure the dramaturgy of the play without turning it into a spectacle vying for the audience's attention.

Jan Gruca talks with Małgorzata Warsicka, a Polish theatre director, about her staging of „Der Krieg hat kein weiblisches Gesicht" (eng. "The Unwomanly Face of War"), which premiered in Theater Freiburg in March 2023.

Jan Gruca: Let's start from the very beginning – what is the story behind your decision to direct a performance based on Svetlana Alexievich's book? Was it your choice?

Małgorzata Warsicka - In general, theatres in Germany have a different play selection process than in Poland. The artistic directors know which titles or authors they want to stage in the upcoming season. So the process takes place through dialogue: the artistic director makes a suggestion to the director, and then they either accept it or propose their own titles, which the artistic director considers with the entire team of employed dramaturges. This stage of exchanging ideas sometimes takes a very long time, but the decision is made collectively. In this case, because it was already my second play in this theatre, the situation was a bit different because they knew what they could expect from me, and I myself knew what I could afford to do.
Initially, the Theater Freiburg suggested to me the novel "Revolution" - it's a political fiction by Belarusian writer Viktor Martinovich, dealing with Russian power and political influences of the mafia in the 1980s. Since it was a time when the war in Ukraine had just broken out, talking about politics through fiction, in my opinion, was out of the question. I proposed Svetlana Alexievich's report "The Unwomanly Face of War," which I wanted to combine with Euripides' "Iphigenia in Aulis." The artistic director agreed to this, being very curious about how this play would resonate in Germany, given that Alexievich's text is about Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian women fighting side by side against Germans during World War II.

Was this the first theatre adaptation of this text in the history of German theatre?

- No, it had already been staged before in one of the theatres in Berlin. However, I would like to emphasise that in our version, Alexievich's text is just one part of the performance. In addition to "The Unwomanly Face of War," we also have excerpts from Euripides' "Iphigenia in Aulis" in the play, a tragedy that had interested me for a long time. The motif of a woman sacrificing herself for a higher good resonated with the heroines of the Belarusian author's work. However, at a certain stage of our work, we came to the conclusion that since we are talking about women in the times of war, we cannot ignore the events of the present day. So, we started looking online for sources with testimonies from women currently fighting in Ukraine, as there are as many as fifty thousand women in the Ukrainian army. This way, our "The Unwomanly Face of War" consists of three intertwining narratives.

Was the decision to stage a text by a Belarusian author, describing not only Ukrainians but also Russians, in times when Russia is the aggressor, met with any controversy? Did you wonder how it might be received?

- Certainly, we did, but primarily our interest was in the condition of women in war, regardless of whether it was World War II, the Trojan War, or Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The political aspects of these wars were, for us, in the background, because we focused on the motivations of individuals who decide to go to war. Considering that this play was being created in Germany, it was particularly interesting for me; one must know that Germans mostly consider themselves pacifists, who – even if a war broke out today – wouldn't see reasons for their participation in it. As a result, our initial adaptation, prepared at this stage with Zuzanna Bojda, was incomprehensible for the team, precisely because the actresses couldn't understand why Russian women chose to participate in the fight. Only then we started to look for the broader contexts and reasons that guided Alexievich's heroines. I also understand, however, the objections of the cast; I myself, before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, thought I would be the first person to leave the country in the event of war. However, my reaction turned out to be completely the opposite.
Another situation where I noticed the difference in our perceptions was the first read-through. I brought the finished adaptation, and at the very beginning, I told the actresses that if needed, if the material was too difficult, we could take a break. I think I said it out of courtesy, but I didn't expect we would actually have to use it. It turned out that due to the emotional intensity, the harshness, and the intimacy of these accounts, we had to stop this rehearsal twice. We, Poles, are accustomed to literature of this kind; we study it in schools. In Germany, it's entirely different.

The report by Alexievich has a quite specific structure, as its first part serves as an introduction, describing the process of its creation. In this section, the author discusses her motivations and outlines how she sought out these women, detailing the nature of these conversations and how they contributed to the whole. In the subsequent parts, we encounter an extensive collection of stories from women who fought on the Eastern Front after the Third Reich's attack on the Soviet Union. These accounts encompass the experiences of soldiers, liaisons, partisans, pilots, and many others. How did you interpret this structure of the book? Did you incorporate the introduction into the show?

- Initially, Zuzanna and I contemplated introducing a narrator as one of the characters, but we eventually abandoned this idea. The book is written as a choir of women, as polyphony, which holds great importance for me both linguistically and structurally, because I often seek out such texts. Due to the unique structure of these numerous stories, the text reads like a vast impressionistic painting, where all the small dots merge in the viewer's eye and only from a distance do they form a broader landscape of this nightmare.
What profoundly impressed me, however, was the way these stories were narrated. "The Unwomanly Face of War" is written with immense tenderness and love for humanity, with profound respect and unimaginable empathy. Alexievich should receive at least two more Nobel Prizes for this book, because she has done an incredible job not only from a literary perspective; she collected these stories over many years because, as she emphasised, not all women were willing to talk to her immediately; some only re-established contact with her after several years. She carried this emotional burden, lived with these women, and provided them with the space to, even if only to a small extent, heal this topic within themselves through conversation.

Could you elaborate on the form of this play? How did you translate the polyphony of this production onto the theatrical stage?

- Our play features four actresses and a percussionist. The actresses on stage embody everything: they narrate the story, provide commentary, play various roles, interchange between them, and also sing. We extensively utilise the white voice, which is not widely known to the German audiences. For context, it's worth mentioning that Germans are somewhat disconnected from their folk roots; while we have a cultural influence from Slavic folk elements, they are hesitant to explore their musical culture beyond Wagner. In our performance, we incorporated folk songs from the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands.

Let's pause for a moment on this topic. Did the German actresses have any familiarity with this style of singing?

- No, Paulina Miu-Zielińska conducted workshops with the actresses, teaching them this vocal technique through her own method. I must admit, observing this process was fascinating. Everyone involved in the rehearsals, including assistants and the set designer, participated in the workshops if they were interested. Paulina also translated several Slavic folk songs into German and English and composed one original piece.
There is a significant amount of live music in our production: the women's songs, the percussion that constantly accompanies the dialogues, and some musical improvisation. Alexievich writes extensively about music in her book: in one of the final chapters, you can read about a moment when the war ended and one of the heroines suddenly heard music after a very long time. Only then did it truly dawn on her that it was indeed over.

And why did you specifically choose the white voice? Was it solely because it's present in Slavic songs?

- In my perception, the white voice possesses a strange, primal power that allows one to delve deep into the feminine world. This music creates a community, which is fundamental in this text. Our intention was also to tell these stories in order to, in a sense, 'embrace' them, to endow them with empathy, and music was one of the means to achieve this.

How did it feel to work on a text that suddenly became so relevant again? Do you even feel in Germany that there is a war in Ukraine?

- Not as much as in our country. For Germans, it's a fairly distant topic because it's not happening so close to them. The discussion about the war in Germany is more on an intellectual level than on an emotional level, as it often occurs in Poland. So, one could say that the perspectives are drastically different.
On the other hand, the work was challenging for several reasons. Let's start with the fact that in Poland we have to read different literature in high schools, and the Second World War is presented to us differently. In Germany, history is generally approached more intellectually; it's discussed, particularly through contextual lenses. Germans are also a bit more emotionally reserved than us. And here comes Alexievich and her book, which taps into very intimate emotions. Looking at the audience's reactions to this play, you can see that Alexievich really hits them where it hurts – perhaps this topic is something that needs to be said out loud again in Germany.
Moreover, it was very difficult to imagine these stories, to understand how it happened, how these women could go through these tragedies and function in the post-war reality. Throughout the process of creating the play, we had trouble conducting these rehearsals in full. This was because we worked a lot with a visualization technique: the actresses were tasked with imagining these stories, trying to go through them in their minds, immerse themselves even a little in that darkness. We were very cautious here, but the emotional potential often became too overwhelming, not only for them but also for me. I would like to add that working in Freiburg is wonderful; it's done very professionally, and every rehearsal is taken extremely seriously.
Even during the premiere, we had a situation where one actress interrupted her monologue because she couldn't finish it. She said, 'F*ck it, I need to drink some water,' then left the stage, had some water, returned, and when she found the appropriate place in the narrative of the performance, she continued the monologue where she left off. We were prepared for such situations. Feeling the weight of this material during rehearsals, we designed the play in such a way that these kinds of situations were possible to carry out without damaging the dramaturgy of the play. Fortunately, apart from that one incident, we didn't have any more such situations, because, of course, all the actresses were extremely professional. However, I have to admit that it was a difficult task for all of us. And this just proves how unimaginably difficult it must have been for Svetlana Alexievich when she collected these stories and, of course, for all the women who experienced these things personally. The amount of pain simply defies belief.

Was Alexievich present at the premiere?

- She wasn't because she doesn't speak German. We wrote her an email after the premiere, and maybe we can convince her to come. We'll see.

In what language did you work on this play?

- I don't know German, so during rehearsals, we communicated in English. The script, on the other hand, had a German translation on one side and the Polish on the other.

Was this somewhat challenging for you?

- No, in Germany, the theatre environment is international, so a lot of work is done in English. In the case of this performance, we naturally focused on prose, so it wasn't a problem at all. It was a bit more challenging with my previous play, "Elektra," which is written in verse, making the translation differences much more significant.

So, were there any significant differences in the translations of Alexievich's report?

- In the German translation, there was no mention of Jews, and Alexievich included them in some of the stories. Not many, but still there were there. For example, the story about a Wehrmacht soldier playing with a Jewish boy like a dog, throwing a stick to him, was completely cut in the German version. Similarly, the chapter about a young couple committing suicide in the ghetto was not there either. I didn't want to give up these stories, so I reincluded them.

Could it be that the German edition has been censored?

- We emailed the publisher to find out why this had happened. It could had been that the German version had been translated from another language, where these stories had been already cut. Nevertheless, we didn't receive a response.

Quite a surprising situation.

- Especially considering the fact that there wasn't too much focus on antisemitism, and Alexievich didn't focus on it because she was only interested in the human soul and its condition, as she emphasised several times at the very beginning of the book.

How did you approach the spiritual theme to ensure it resonated on stage?

- The theme from "Iphigenia" was introduced, among other reasons, to discuss collective unconsciousness and the myths upon which we build our European culture. Here – following Alexievich – I wanted to engage in a dialogue with this myth, challenge it, and question whether there is indeed a positive purpose behind it.

How did the stories from Ukraine resonate with all of this?

- They resonated in a very pessimistic way because when we moved on to the reports from Ukraine in the final part of our work, it turned out that they didn't differ at all from the stories in Alexievich's book or the themes from Iphigenia. Only the realities and political contexts changed; the rest remained the same. It was perhaps the most shocking moment in the rehearsing process.

The specificity of this performance surely lies in the fact it was a piece of verbatim theatre. I'm curious about your approach because, on one hand, you were touching real stories, and on the other, you were utilizing the theatrical medium, which is primarily based on illusion.

- From the very beginning of our work, we had many discussions with other creatives, especially with choreographer Anna Godowska, set designer Agata Skwarczyńska, and costume designer Edyta Jermacz, on how to present truth through theatrical illusion, something that is inherently false. Especially when dealing with honest, intimate stories that touch the core of the female soul. We contemplated how to structure the dramaturgy of the play without turning it into a spectacle vying for the audience's attention. It's obvious that in theatre, tricks are employed to catch the viewer's attention. We had various ideas, but ultimately, we opted for great restraint and minimalism in narrating the story. In our show, the actresses create a choral performance, narrating together, introducing different perspectives and points of view, sometimes within the same stories.
Music based on vibrations, Slavic chants, and the set design played a significant role in the dramaturgy-building process. Agata Skwarczyńska created a space on the border between the stage and the art gallery, whose primary task was to bring these stories to the forefront and create conditions for telling them as close to the audience as possible.

Did you have concerns that the public nature of a theatrical event would strip away the intimacy, which undoubtedly is the strength of Alexievich's text?

- At every rehearsal. In theatre, the boundary between falsehood and truth can be easily crossed inadvertently. Many decisions were made democratically, based on the actresses' feelings. I always asked them to signal to me whenever they internally felt something was even remotely unbelievable. Then, we pondered where this came from and solved the problem. German dramaturge Laura Ellersdorfer played a significant role in this process, as did the only man in our creative team, German assistant Josha Zmarzlik, who incidentally had Polish roots. Both ensured we didn't escape into the world of theatrical fiction.

So, could you say that for this play, you used different means of expression than you usually do?

- Regarding the means, definitely yes, because I like operating within the 'magic' of theatre and its conventions. Here, despite the music still occupying a crucial place, these means were reduced in favour of the story's transparency. We didn't want to forcibly amplify it or turn it into a spectacle. As for the democratic approach, I use it a lot because I am open to suggestions from everyone involved in rehearsals. We are all artists, creating something together.

Lastly, I would like to ask, what did working on this show leave you with?

- Primarily, it made me ponder the impact all of this has on our reality. This arose from the thought: 'Yes, we're telling the viewer stories they likely didn't know before; yes, we're bringing closer the experiences of ordinary women who have undergone unimaginable things and would remain anonymous to the world if not for Alexievich's book; yes, we're doing everything to preserve the authenticity of these testimonies. But what does it matter, when all of this continues to happen, if not in Ukraine, then in Gaza, if not there, then in other places Western media doesn't even report on?' People, just like you and me, do this to each other all the time. I constantly wonder if there's any purpose in such theatre, if it changes something in the audience when they experience these stories with us, and whether it truly stays with them in the long run. This, of course, is a broader question: does theatre, in general, have the power to change anything? And should it even set such a task for itself?
How this relates to the audience – I don't know. I can only speak for myself and I will say that working on "The Unwomanly Face of War" has profoundly changed me, both professionally and personally.
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Małgorzata Warsicka – a Polish theatre director. She graduated in directing from Stanisław Wyspiański National Academy of Theatre Arts in Kraków, and in Architecture and Urban Planning at the Cracow University of Technology. She received numerous awards, including the Best Directorial Debut Award at the Toruń „First Contact" festival for the play "Jakobi and Leidental" by H. Levin produced by the Ludwik Solski Theatre in Tarnów; Grand Prix at the 44th National Theatrical Confrontations in Opole for the play "Beniowski. A Ballad without a Hero" produced by the New Theatre in Poznań; Directing Award for "The Neverending Story" by A. Pałyga produced by the W. Horzyca Theatre in Toruń at the 22nd National Competition for the Presentation of Polish Contemporary Art; the Audience's Award at the 20th Festival INTERPRETATIONS for "The Master and Margarita" by M. Bulgakov produced by the Polish Theatre in Bielsko-Biała. She has collaborated with theatres in Warsaw, Gdynia, Kraków, Toruń, Olsztyn, Łódź, Tarnów, Bydgoszcz, Bielsko-Biała and in Freiburg.
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Polish version

Jan Gruca
Dziennik Teatralny Glasgow
11 listopada 2023
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Utalentowani jak Nardelli
Sekcja Krytyków Teatralnych ZASP
red.: Anita Nowak, Krystyna Piaseczna, Piotr Rudzki

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