Puzzles instead of puns

30 of December '22

Interview from A&B issue 7-8|2022

I talk with Cezary Tomaszewski - director, choreographer and performer - about non-theatrical space, music, stage design, the history of operetta and why everything sounds simple with Mozart.

Cezary Tomaszewski

Cezary TOMASZEWSKI - director and choreographer nominated for the Polityka's Passport. Creator, among others, of the author's version of Franz Lehár's operetta "The Merry Widow", cast by four Polish cleaners (best young director and best off-Broadway production of the year 2009 in Vienna), awarded by the prestigious magazines "Theater heute" and "Falter", and of Capella Cracoviensis' musical performances, including a staging of Monteverdi's madrigals "Bar.okowa feast" at a dairy bar in Krakow and Mendelssohn songs directed in the Wolski Forest "The Naturists." He has choreographed many productions in the dramatic theater, including "Wesele na podstawie Wesela" based on Stanisław Wyspiański at theKochanowski Theater in Opole, "Cezary Goes to War" from the Warsaw Commune, "Miracle of Me, or Krakowiacy i Górale", "Turnus mija, a ja niczyja, czyli operetta sanatoriumjna" from the Teatr im. Juliusz Słowacki Theater in Krakow took part in numerous festivals in Poland and around the world, winning prizes and awards.

Agata Schweiger
: You are an artist who quite often deals with the so-called classics, even those that are considered slightly crummy, such as "The Miracle, or Krakowiacy i Górale" or operetta music. However, you realize it in a very non-classical way. Can you tell us where your interest in musical or theatrical things from an older shelf comes from?

Cezary Tomaszewski: It seems very simple to me. It stems from a tremendous faith in and respect for artists of other eras, who were most often simply better than their contemporaries. Working with them requires patience, respect, thought procedures and traveling in directions often far from the first associations. Deciphering the contexts in which these works were created and worked in their optimal way. This is always a fascinating adventure for which there is no single recipe. When they were created, they were not classical, they were alive. I usually deal with pieces that had a gigantic career in the show business of the time. To restore their splendor, to discover the sources of their popularity or relevance, for example, "The Miracle of..." had great political significance, is a fascinating task that always excites me. Especially in opera, working with works from which you don't cut anything, you have to have very precise thinking. Working on Mozart, there is no possibility of rearranging and adjusting the material to suit what I like. Which is great, because this is working with outstanding partners. Going back to "classicism" and "The Miracle of Me...", in this production the set design, of course in a contemporary way, works with perspective, as in even 18th century theater. Using this perspective, in fact never used in the Slovak Theater, the scenery in some miraculous way begins to work with the architecture of the audience, which is unique and so strong that it is often even an obstacle to what is on stage. You always get the impression of something strange. Whereas here it has worked in the way people at the time seem to have thought, somehow organic with the space of the theater in which this show is staged.

„Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale”, Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego w Krakowie

"Miracle Meant, or Krakowiacy i Górale", Juliusz Słowacki Theater in Krakow

photo: Bartek Barczyk

: Where do you start thinking about a performance: text, music, movement, space? Where is the first impulse?

Cezary:It's hard to say. I have a brain that associates in all possible directions, and at the same time I live in the here and now. Consequently, the associations I have are related to the present, to what I am playing with, to what occupies me, and to the people I know. The more of these associations, the better. It seems that sometimes they are absolutely detached, idiotic. However, in my experience, even the most bizarre, eccentric associations land virtually all in the performances. They manage to organically connect and relate, or actually compose. The show clicks and becomes closed at the point where everything complicated, complex and perhaps a little strange starts to work in such a way that it looks simple. I'm talking about simplicity in the Mozartian sense. In Mozart, everything sounds simple. Of course it's very complicated, but it sounds simple. And simplicity understood in this way seems to me the ideal of art. Something that really allows any viewer to communicate and participate. Therefore, we are pursuing a formula of theater that allows you to think and ask questions more than it excludes.

: Is this the simplicity that led you, for example, to Gracjan ["Gracjan Pan. The Musical" a production by the Capitol Musical Theater in Wroclaw about Gracjan Roztocki - editor's note]?

Cezary:Maybe so... This is just a difficult challenge. Some people are scared or totally appalled by his character until now. The procedure of working on Gracjan took from the procedure of working on Mozart, getting to the essence of the creator, that is, his work, without judging, with the full humility of an anthropologist. Getting to the core of each artist's proposition is crucial.

: In 2015, in a conversation for dwutygodnik.com with Maria Magdalena Kozlowska, you said that in everything you work on, you look for a structure first. The kind of structure that works, as an opposition to the performance-dressing, for example, "Macbeth" in mafia styling. At what point in your work do you dress ideas in stage costume? In short, at what point, for example, did "Cracovians and Highlanders" fall into a visual convention between "Meeting the Ballad" and a 1990s movie or TV studio western town with elements of "Wheel of Fortune"?

Caesars:"A Miracle..." is a mythical theatrical script that actually never came out. This is very difficult material. I am much more sensitive to music than to the word, which usually bores me because it lies. I wouldn't normally re-arrange 18th century pieces, but in this case it seemed necessary. Many beautiful melodies through Stefani's classical arrangement completely lost their qualities. Six months before rehearsals in New York, I discovered queer country music artists. Our folk and country are very close to each other, so we followed this path, into a kind of queer association on the one hand, and western on the other, while combining them withculturally ingrained sexual projections onto highlanders, like the figure of Janosik in the TV series, a muscular beautiful man with long hair who loves to bathe in a stream. With this key we arrived at what we wanted our Mogiła to look like. We were also inspired by writers Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon, who tell their story of coming out of a small town. It turned out that people in small towns are addicted to "Wheel of Fortune." We got to know these communities, and the rest is a kind of associative play, so as to open up the meanings rather than dressing them up as this or that, escaping the obvious and the simple didacticism to which I am allergic. If I tautologically see on stage what is in the news, I get the impression of puns. And in this case I get material at which I have to mentally stimulate myself a bit and start putting together the puzzle I was watching myself. Then every answer is correct. The puzzle that will form in the mind of each viewer in the process tells a story about himself. Reading out tautologies and being happy that I won the puns is an option that offends me personally. And if it doesn't offend, because now I'm rarely offended, it's monstrously boring.

„Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale”, Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego w Krakowie

"Miracle of Me, or Krakowiacy i Górale", Juliusz Słowacki Theater in Krakow.

Photo: Bartek Barczyk

: You once said that you don't want to let the viewer fart in a stool. You push it out of its comfort zone by not following simple associations. How do you weave space into this? You work with set designers. How do you go from your initial thinking to a scenographic vision together? How much do you give free rein to your collaborators, and how much do you work together?

Cezary:This is a difficult question. I have a brain constructed by over-listening to music, and as a result I just think with music. And it is incredibly dense, taking place on several or even a dozen levels at once. Just as in a symphony I hear many things at the same time, so here I try to run the whole machine. I like theater as an eccentric machine with this idiotic pretending of everything and everywhere. As a result, I like to unleash the multifariousness of happening on stage. Not for cheap attraction, but precisely as a challenge to the eye. Set design can be a variety of things. It does not just have a decorative function, it organizes reality or tells about its character, the atmosphere of this world. Classically, we simply have a black space, four chairs and that's it. In "Caesar Goes to War" there is no scenery at all, just a bench and a piano. Everything happens through what the actors create. For each of the ventures, thinking about the scenery comes from something else. In "Tamara's Return" it was obvious that if we reconstruct a performance that took place in the space of the entire Studio Theater and try to represent on stage all the interiors that could be visited, this has the consequence of a certain visual rollercoaster. Unlike "Pharaoh," which is minimalist and creates itself more in the imagination of the audience. Sometimes the ideas come from me, sometimes from the people I work with. Sometimes together we try to find some kind of associative world in which it could happen.

„Cezary idzie na wojnę”, Komuna Warszawa

"Cezary goes to war", Komuna Warszawa

photo: Pat Mic

: Do you treat space purely in terms of use, or is it one of the characters in the performance for you?

Cezary:It's hard to think about a performance without thinking about space. Each one proposes a different world, and therefore different scenic solutions. It can be building on stage, abstract or realistic. The stage itself is a space characterized by meaning, atmosphere, aesthetics and dynamics, so the term "empty stage" is misleading. Identical is the case when we leave the theater. The street in the case of street performances, the forest, the milk bar, even the sound sphere, our bodies, the constellations between them and the space can create what we call scenery. And then there are the lights. This is a separate, fascinating story, which I am rediscovering thanks to my collaboration with the master of lights Jedrzej Jêcikowski. Of course, strategies vary. My choreographic and musical experience makes me think spatially and simultaneously in several plans and dimensions. The performance is supposed to become a reality perfectly composed of many elements. Space is a very important actor of it.

: You very often work on classic box stages. Do you struggle with them or is it not a problem for you?

Cezary:I think boxiness is fascinating, not trivial. It functions differently with each subject. It seems to me that theater is a great struggle with limitations. What is hedged with a certain impossibility or difficulty is a source of endless creativity. I did my first theatrical performances with Capella Cracoviensis, which still doesn't have its own premises, so it was natural to discover the peculiarities of spaces that already exist, such as a milk bar, the Sokol Gymnastic Society Building or the Wolski Forest. Real interiors were becoming scenery. I don't see any special problem in this, just as I don't see a problem in going out of the black cube into all possible options when needed. It's just as attractive as watching a moving show composed in front of you that doesn't go beyond the screen where you're watching it.

: There were quite a few interesting projects with Capella, but two of them were special. Where did you get the idea for "The Naturists"?

Cezary:Which, à propos, will be reissued in July, an anniversary after ten years. Mendelssohn composed a cycle of four-voice a capella songs, which he called "Songs to be sung in the open air." An idealistic, romantic vision of friends making music in the open air singing these songs. They were probably never performed that way. They immediately fell into the niche choral repertoire performed in philharmonics. They were stripped of all the DNA and space in which they were supposed to serve. It seemed natural to me to perform them in nature. It was a kind of musical walk in the woods with theatrical or paratheatrical stations that revolved around the theme of the townspeople going to the woods. What is most important, and what was emphasized by everyone involved in the project, that such a phenomenal set like the Wolski Forest could not be created for any money. And such acoustics. The acoustics that the trees build is unbelievable. Even in the situation of being far away from the sound source, being lost in the forest is something totally unusual. I was surprised myself. Mendelssohn intuited something that we were actually able to realize much later. As a kind of extraordinary total musical experience, plant, atmospheric in the sense of mud, rain, which we did not miss along the way of exploiting this performance. It wasn't a vision, but a musicology, taken a little further. Letting a song into a reality that was planned was a composer's dream.

„Naturzyści”, Capella Cracoviensis, Las Wolski w Krakowie

"The Naturists," Capella Cracoviensis, Wolski Forest in Krakow.


: Weren't you afraid that the musical side of the performance would suffer?

Cezary:It seems to me that such fears stem from laziness, from habits. Anything is possible if you want and believe in what you are doing. We don't expect the overclocked sterility of recordings. What is not ideal is compensated by an experience impossible anywhere else. The singers of Capella Cracoviensis went all the way. It wasn't the singing itself that was the challenge, but the theater. Because he required them to make enormous sacrifices. They muddied themselves in wet grass and mud. That's why I talk about good partners. Mendelssohn is a great partner. When you work with him, you want to do something great, not mediocre.

: In "Naturists" you juxtaposed the forest with our idea of the forest, introducing a great deal of plastic, bags from Ikea... things that we middle-class people usually go on trips with. And on top of that it's so poor... Here someone drops something, there it gets caught....

Cezary:This is playing with the romantic myth of a trip to the woods. With all the city we drag with us to make us comfortable. Particularly the last sequence, "The Allotmentists," where people sit next to each other at a distance of three inches and everyone has his radio, his blanket, his sunscreen and tries to relax in nature. We are touching on a paradox, a happy idiocy: what it even means to be close to nature. For me, as a total bourgeois, going to the woods is always something extremely exotic. I don't know how to act, what to look at, whether to breathe or not to breathe. It's much more irrational than sitting in a theater, philharmonic or bar. And that's what the show was a bit about. On the one hand, it's a realization of Mendelssohn's premise, but on the other hand, singing philharmonic music in the woods is something totally exotic.

continued conversation on next page

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