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An actor must be true to his dream

Krystian Lupa is interviewed by the editors JP2Love

Krystian Lupa – Polish stage director. During his studies, he had an occasion to work with Konrad Swinarski who, along with Tadeusz Kantor, greatly influenced his works. He’s the author of such plays like ‘Kalkwerk’, ‘Sleepwalkers’ and the yet-unfinished triptych ‘Persona' whose first part was about Marilyn Monroe and the second about Simone Weil. His last work – ‘City of Dream’ has been very well received during the French Festival d’Automne. In 2000 he was awarded with the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class and nine years later he received the prestigious European Theatre Prize.

In an interview with ‘Teatr’, Ivan Vyrypayev expressed an opinion that theatre had become a product due to civilizational changes and that its current role was to address the needs of the spectator-customer. Do you consider it a natural evolution of the theatre or should we perceive it as a devaluation of certain values?

Krystian Lupa: At first it would be necessary to decide whether he’s telling the truth or is just coquetting. I have an impression that his theatrical activity somehow contradicts what he said. I don’t know the context though, perhaps it was irony… Anyway – what he does is considered as a strictly artistic proposition. I wouldn’t like to engage in a debate on the extent to which a work of art becomes a product, how significant it is for the circulation of money and what is its position in the philosophy of purchase and sale because it’s very easy to come to some premature conclusions. I’d say that artistic communication, what we in general call ‘art’, is no product despite being treated as such – you definitely can’t say that purchasing of works of art is something new.  The real question is – what do words like ‘product’ or ‘product’s sale’ mean and what’s the difference between art and, let’s say, a brand new car or a dictaphone. The very presence of money shouldn’t be considered as the determining factor here. If we want to search for art and its hallmark, we should firstly focus on the origin – why at all is a work of art created? If artist makes it because he wants to sell something, then indeed it’s a product. However, he can also be driven by an urge to discover something or express it if he needs it for the sake of his relation with the world or his individuation process. Secondly, the recipient of a work of art – who might be reading a book, watching a spectacle or a new film – doesn’t want to acquire anything new to his apartment, buy another gadget or bolster up his prestige and well-being, which is related to the security of his property. He wants the opposite – he wants to undermine something, feel disquietude. He wants to break the existing order, which might be excessive or false. In this situation we’re facing completely different criteria. I don’t know what was Vyrypayev’s attitude towards the protest of theatre people, whose main idea was that theatre wasn’t a product and the spectator wasn’t a customer. This problem may be examined from different points of view, and some hasty assumptions, which are bound to appear in such cases, could be called into question. Protests always have something in common with posters – some simplifications ought to be made in order to put the matter brutally. There is also always somebody who isn’t content with this kind of approach and will criticize the words used.

The argument above seems to be fulfilling Witkacy’s prophecies who claimed that we would become a primitive society deprived of metaphysics. Was he wrong?

Lupa: He was and he wasn’t. I once tried to argue with his ideas when I was making the ‘Anonymous Work’. He distinguished three basic carriers of the metaphysical unrest: religion, philosophy and art. Each of them faced in its own way the mystery of being human, which he regarded as the fact that human is the only being of this world that is aware of its own death, which implies a certain absurd in our participation in the world, reality or community. He aimed to prove in his works that this mystery can’t be examined by philosophy, which eventually committed suicide, having realized its futility and the impossibility of solving its main problems. Religion, on the other hand, bit its own head when it had been proven that it was human who created God, not the opposite. Therefore, art stands alone at the battlefield in this catastrophic vision, which makes it go insane and the insanity slowly becomes unbearable for human. Eventually art will leave human individuals and float away into oblivion, leaving behind a society incapable of experiencing metaphysics. Witkacy had, of course, his reasons to claim so – he lived in times of a crisis of individuality, many episodes of his life were coming to an end. It is well known what he witnessed in Russia and these experiences left an indelible mark on his psyche. Besides, he had contact with the most extreme individuals of his era. It was all full of contradictions and it’s difficult to imagine that a personality such as Witkacy might have generated a different worldview. During my polemic against the ‘Anonymous Work’ I mentioned his error of perspective – being accustomed to specified manifestations of metaphysical feelings, he couldn’t notice its variations. Even if he did though, he perceived them as chaos. Furthermore, when we take a look at the modern world, we can’t say that metaphysical feelings have disappeared. They might be mere shadows of their former selves though and a great deal of manifestations, which we consider as cultural, may have be shunned by Witkacy. Nonetheless, these are still manifestations whose source lies within metaphysics. All this anarchy and barbarization of human individuals – what we might regard as pathologic – could be attributed to these feelings. I was back then a worshiper of Jung’s concept of platonic months. He talked about the point when the archetypes and symbols would change, about the death of the old god and the birth of a new deity. It appealed greatly to my imagination, also on the grounds of New Age ideas, which were followed in Poland by some hermetic groups. Currently, however, it all blended and lost its distinctive traits. I think I’d rather not engage now in a discussion between Witkacy’s catastrophism and Jung-inspired New Age ideas.

In this case, if metaphysics is still alive, is it possible to create such a theatre that would refer to its religious roots and would be able to rebuild the sphere of sacrum and restore the sense of community in a spectacle?

Lupa: Absolutely. If Witkacy has already popped by, he won’t go away that easily… I’d like to mention his perception of the 19th century theatre, which had become then a sort of social ceremony whose sole purpose was to tell another gossip. Witkacy regarded it as a betrayal of its origins. Theatre renounced its quasi-religious character. Kantor, influenced by Witkiewicz, strived for this ideal of ritual theatre what he expressed in his manifesto of Theatre of Death. The main idea was catharsis, a community experience achievable only through a ritual, which is a basic need of the individual. Fusion with the community for the sake of a greater feeling gives a new dose of faith, a greater possibility of existence of ‘I’ and it could be considered as constant feeding. We can’t throw an enormous theatrical ritual and be satisfied ‘till the very end – we have to behave like a body, which is hungry from time to time and has to experience a kind of potential change in charge and discharge. Yet, there is, of course, the question who regards it as a charge and who sees it as a discharge, although I think that discussing this issue would be simply splitting hairs. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about our need of ritual… we might then, of course, ask if the need to listen to a new song – which is, after all, a small piece of art – or to watch a new movie is the same thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s rather meaningless to differentiate these matters. I’d like to come back to Kantor now – he said once that the most incredible thing about such a ritual is the different status of the human on stage. He or she appears as something strange, sometimes terrifying. Kantor wanted these individuals to have such non-human characteristics. He liked the metaphor according to which actor is essentially a dead body, like the ones displayed during fairground shows, which suddenly rises to fulfill the order of the mesmerizer.

Sounds like ‘Doctor Caligari’.

Lupa: Exactly, like Cesare from ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’. This is the moment of the greatest shock and thanks to this every spectator will never forget this show. There is though a bit of 19th century sham here – I mean the need to mix rationalism, which people absorbed back then in almost absurd amounts, with irrationalism, which manifested as a faith in spiritist séances, reincarnation and so on. 19th century man lived in two worlds that he combined in some miraculous way. We bear now the afterimage of this mindset, yet I think that the younger generation functions differently. It’s not that the youngsters scorn metaphysical feelings – they just aren’t capable anymore to find those figures, known to 19th century art and imagination, interesting.

Kantor was mentioned, while I’d like to ask about other Polish theatre innovator, namely about Grotowski and his ‘Laboratory’ – what’s your attitude towards his vision of theatre, where actors reach psychophysical barriers of the organism and almost literally sacrifice themselves on stage. Is it an appropriate idea for a theatre?

Lupa: At first, I’d like to stress that Grotowski didn’t consider his ‘Laboratory’ merely as theatre – for him it was a place of internal development and the realization of his ideas would very often take extreme forms. I think that we all believed firmly back then in sense and necessity of this kind of activity – it’s meaningless to be human without it. One could live one’s whole life without ever leaving the infancy stage – as in Jung’s individuation theory – and remain a fossilized child, i.e. an individual who hasn’t recognized the deeper levels of his subconscious, which constitute the self. Grotowski was, as we know, fascinated by both the individuation theory and the Eastern philosophy. After all, people used to travel to India to experience spiritual change and to liberate themselves from the European spirituality. Although I do understand Grotowski’s intention, I’ve always remained suspicious towards him, mostly because he assumed very quickly the position of an illuminated man. And if I’m not entirely illuminated, I have to convince these people that I really am so… actually, why? We usually can’t answer this question, as it entails the most intimate temptations, of which we are ashamed, which we never confess, as they are tied with the strive of each individual for the spiritual victory. However, there is a question – are we the deceiving or the deceived? If I pass through stages of initiation that aren’t mine – I had to accept them from someone else – then I think that all spiritual oddities I witness are actually stages of illumination. We always mistake very easily the subjective for the objective. This is our common ailment and I think that, paradoxically, the more one is refined on one’s spiritual path, the easier it is make such a mistake. Perhaps the greatest masters have, in fact, mastered the art of mistaking the subjective for the objective and this is what their path consists of. As for Grotowski… well, I think that we’re still obliged in theatre to cross some boundaries. For the sake of what though? Let’s take, for instance, psychological acting, which is inherently in-depth. We can talk about revealing acting, when the actor doesn’t merely recreate the probability from TV series. This kind of mediocrity won’t give us anything more than a superficial contact with a gossip. Something is crossed when the actor discovers his role on a completely new level or when he discovers his true self while playing, which allows him to introduce something new. But to achieve this kind of engagement, you have to incredibly provoke yourself, lead to a situation where your life during the act of creation isn’t an ordinary life. The process of exploring the role isn’t like working at the assembly line, it’s an act of transgression, which is necessary for every work of art and depends on the goal we set. Depending on what we want to achieve – whether it’s a long jump, high jump or running, to name some tangible examples – we create an archetype of our dream. The question is, however, how demanding this dream is and what does it expect. It’s obvious that if we want to penetrate a mystery, it’s within us and it’s not solved – it constantly exploits and torments us, creating this archetype we strive for. We don’t want any compromise, which means that we won’t accept any superficial solutions. Actor is in a very difficult and unusual situation, which is why he needs the director who becomes an insatiable and tireless executor of this dream’s purity. Each actor – whether it’s during the rehearsal or the spectacle – enters a different state where he loses control over what he’s doing – as a result he can’t be sure if the final result was what he actually had dreamt about. He enters it totally – with his whole body and his ‘I’. As a result, he identifies so strongly with what he’s doing at this point, that it’s very easy for him to be self-content. This feeling of contentment is necessary – as an actor I have to be content to play. Otherwise, I can’t say that I’m liberated or inspired. Feelings like frustration or sense of defeat cannot function in actor’s psyche because they immediately isolate him. Actors have to produce a priori this contentment to play well, which they use later to assess the results. The opinion is of course very subjective and intentional. In this situation we need somebody who is dissatisfied and it’s good that such ritual of torment takes place between the director and the actor – it’s for the sake of the purity of the dream. I find that the dream hasn’t been fulfilled yet and that our is far from done.

When the actor is on stage, is there any place within him for the person he is?

Lupa: I believe that ‘actor’ is an incredible being as it is at the same time the material and the creator. Every other person who aims to fulfill an artistic dream, has to do it outside the body – in the form of words, sounds, images or installation, which I find very interesting by the way. Actor’s material is the actor himself. I always repeat that human belongs in its entirety to actor’s means of expression, which is absolutely fascinating for me. Actor enters an idea as 'someone else'. He has his own life, own history, own beliefs, habits, reflexes, phobias, secrets, sexuality… and it’s up to him how much he’s going to give. It’s rather surprising that we never ask a sculptor or a musician how much they put in their work ? it?s obvious that they give everything they have at the given moment. It’s actually another argument to the discussion if art is a product – it depends on how great the sacrifice is. This notion of ‘sacrifice’ is more less accurate but nonetheless some modifications need to be done. We can talk about sacrifice only when it’s the will and the dream of the individual. Still, there remains another question – does the artist give or take? We say ‘give’ when one actually doesn’t want to give. When you really give something, you also have to lose something. What kind of sacrifice is it to give and to experience the greatest happiness at the same time? Does an actor give or does he take? Who’s actually more satisfied – the actor or the spectators? Besides, whom do they see – the actor or the role? It’s not as easy as in the case of a classical artist who makes a visible distinction between himself and his work. Because of that, the contact with the author takes place through transference as Jung or Freud would’ve put it. There was a period in the history of theatre, which was especially popular in Poland, whose ideal was a distanced actor. This movement had various roots – Brecht was one of its proponents...Anyway, the actor was supposed to distinguish himself and the role, which he had to relate. To my mind, a true ritual, during which the actor makes the transgression, takes place only when the actor finds courage to behave like other artists and places his whole self in his work. It has nothing to do with demon-like possessions or psychosis – it’s a result of long-term strife for this unabated dream to reach the deepest corners of the psyche of the person the actor has to play, or of the deepest meaning of the situation, which takes place on stage. The main purpose is to generate ritual energy necessary for a true catharsis. 

Is the actor’s duty to tell a story or to talk with the spectator?

Lupa: I reckon that both possibilities are plausible. Let’s take, for instance, the famous concept of the fourth wall, according to which theatre recreates a certain reality more or less accurately, and the word, which has to be modified now – we can’t use the ideas of the 19th century because they don?t resonate anymore with our current perception of truth. Neither can they incite any experience within us, nor can they invite us to any spiritual participation. We have to search for new ways how to tell stories with an event or with human and verify if we’re actually telling a story and is storytelling a real image of reality. Naturally, it’s one of the most basic human skills – I took a part in an event and I’m telling about it now. Each time when we assume the position of the storyteller, we have an impression that what we’re actually debasing this occurrence and drifting away from the essence. Our story makes it somewhat poorer. I reckon that an example of such falsehood in storytelling is the chronology of the tale. Our fidelity to truth pushes us towards realism but when we reach its limits, we notice that the realism we created is worse than reality. We try to create reality’s doppelgänger but we always realize its infirmity, as we’re not able to notice and grasp the deepest and the most secret spheres of our reality and our fidelity to chronology turns out to be something mechanic, automatic. Reality happens differently according to our inner image. It doesn’t observe the rules of chronology perceived as something regular, uniform. There are some junctions, leaps and motives where time follows another pace. We feel attached to some elements of the reality and we perceive them differently than those, which are located outside our sphere of emotional choices. Kafka tried in his novels to show how the reality is viewed by the individual – he threw away this objectivizating filter we use when we want to be considered as serious people. When we talk about anything, we try to be as honest as possible but on the other hand we’re ashamed of something – of our intimate participation in this reality. We want to oust it or censure it. When you tell a story, you want to be smarter than you really are – this isn’t an act of recreation of a certain occurrence by an individual. It’s a test of wisdom and observation, which we have to pass, when we’re talking about our reality. 19th century directors preferred this attitude – they wanted to be viewed as sages in lieu of depicting a reality. We’re currently observing an ongoing change of the narrator that each artist has to choose in order to talk about a certain reality. To do it, each of us has to install a kind of inner narrator. Sages like Tolstoy – claiming divine maturity, responsibility, moralizing function and mission for himself – are less and less popular. We actually consider this type of attitude as a na?ve usurpation and have this need of exposing ourselves as narrators. If you want your relation with the recipient to be successful, you have to expose yourself as a narrator.

Right now I’d like to ask about something rather technical: how do you extract from actors what you want to achieve on stage?

Lupa: Well? It?s a partnership in actor?s intimate desires pointed at the character created within as well as a stubborn help in remaining faithful to them. Life has its own demands, there are also other roles to play meanwhile, which may devastate any given spectacle, because the most important factors slowly fade away. You can remember your text, the situation, the intonation, in other words – the music of your role. It’s dead, however, if you don’t possess its living image, an inner monologue. It’s not the monologue of your character, it’s your monologue and it has to have a life of its own, the authenticity of which I try to observe. When an actor plays, some ?strange events? take place... like this necessity to maintain the continuity of the role and to create an illusion of being its faithful incarnation. Regardless of his feelings at any given point or whether he feels the role or not through his inner monologue – the continuum still has to be conveyed. It’s natural: if I can’t find the truth within myself, I have to become a liar and lie to the spectator in order to finish the spectacle. Each actor has to be partly a liar. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to play not even a single role. He’d have to announce suddenly ‘No, stop, I just don’t feel it anymore’, which he can’t do. Yet, I think that he actually has the right to do so. There is nothing more humiliating and abominable than a total spiritual lie while acting. Something ought to be done with that to dispose of this lie, even if it requires to interrupt the play for a moment. I believe that actors have the right to say ‘No, wait, I have to focus, something’s odd with me.’. He can say it anytime he wants ‘I think I’ve gone insane’. Provoking such a shock gives miraculous effects – one immediately starts to think and is liberated from the formal slavery of his role. Whereas the question, what do I do… I repeatedly tell to my actors about these moments of truth and lie and I provoke them both during the preparation of a play and during the spectacle – that’s why I’m present at each staging.  I know that this mirror, constantly verifying partner, is indispensable for actors. An actor, when left alone, is obliged to console himself even after a really disappointing performance – the public was unfriendly or it simply was a disastrous day and you just have to drink to feel better and get rid of these negative feelings. These feelings, however, can’t be thrown away – I assume the role of a vampire who gathers all this negative energy and doesn’t let to forget about them.

If we took a speech by John Paul II and analyzed it the way we’d analyze an actor, what conclusions could be drawn?

Lupa: It’s widely known that Karol Wojtyła was an actor in Kotlarczyk’s theatre and that it was a great passion of his, which is also proven by the dramas he wrote. I think he was a conscious orator who also had, I’d say, an imagination proper to actors. When he was pondering the logic of his arguments, he’d often add, instinctively or consciously, a last word, a sustain, to put it in musical terms. I think it’s the same with the lawyers who consider their job as something artistic – they start a great adventure of defending another man, they penetrate deeply his arguments, bind themselves with them and create a new worldview. A person capable of voicing arguments as particles of an inner entirety existing deep within is called charismatic, which means that he or she doesn’t lose his accessories during the speech. People very often speak but the urge to achieve an oratorical success makes them lose the sense of balance. Actors, bad actors, tend to focus on phrases, which aren’t, I’d say, x-rayed enough. John Paul II, on the other hand, would do everything so that the substance of his speeches is well examined. He often had to bear an enormous burden on his shoulders… a great antroposopher, who claimed that he’d received this information from a very hermetic group of people, told me that at the beginning of his pontificate the Pope'd met with a group of 'enlightened' who'd revealed to him the secrets of dangers the world and church were facing as well as the necessity to take some radical measures, which he eventually didn't do. It took its toll as he was very quickly overwhelmed by the gravity of his responsibility and aged faster than his physical condition suggested. In spite of that, he declared such and no other direction of the development of the Catholic Church. Moreover, he contributed to the dismantling of the communist reality. I’d say that he undertook it in the same visionary way an actor explores his soul. He prepared meditatively before every problem he had to face in his speech until it was perfectly examined and knew how to profit from his inner content. His charisma manifested in what and how he spoke. I wish actors could develop and use their imagination just as Pope did.

Literature isn’t anymore the dominating element in the theatre and directors employ it now very freely. Meyerhold once said that to choose a play doesn’t mean to share playwright’s views, what’s your opinion on this matter?

Lupa: I couldn’t agree more. Works of art should, just like philosophical writings, incite us to discussion. The works that made the greatest impression on me were the ones I couldn’t agree with. We made for example a play about Simone Weil who greatly influenced me when I was young and with whom I just couldn’t stop arguing. I returned many times to this topic because I couldn’t handle it – when you discuss (what?)with somebody, you eventually feel contentment because you defeated your enemy and you’re free to go. There are, however, such enemies who won’t allow you to reach this point – you go to bed but can’t fall asleep, for this matter is still tormenting you and arguments you thought were knocked down, return even stronger. A literary work becomes a reason that creates a reality which exists within us independently. The life of characters, the life of thoughts – it all resides in the imagination of the director. I think that the greatest act of fidelity to a work of art, is the act of great honesty. Every opus provokes in the recipient-then-co-creator of a theatrical realization real life and it’s his duty to present it instead of ‘what should be shown’. I had this kind of experience with Bulgakov when I was reading ‘The Master and Margarita’ as a young man. I’ve always been greatly impressed by his energy and imagination, yet I always argued with him as I do with all relevant literary experiences – for example with Kafka. The reader of ‘The Process’ has to take issue with him, since he makes such an incredibly aggressive attack and leads, as a cunning neurasthenic, to a strange and twisted connection between the reader and the protagonist only to cut his throat when he finally identifies with K. I claim that it’s the reader who’s killed at the end of ‘The Process’. The same things with ‘Demons’ by Dostoyevsky – I can’t accept the way he annihilates and humiliates those who have hope. What he makes them experience is some kind of torture. If a spectator wants a faithful recreation of literature, then I don’t see any reason why an autonomic work of art should exist. It’s actually better to simply read the original work. Theatre has an unquestionable right to discuss with the literary original, it treats words only as a material. Let’s not forget that the words we speak are but a foam over the wild stream and the drama is nothing else than people having a dialogue. And people either talk rubbish or simply lie. Hence, the truth about the world and people should be sought in every reality, not in words, which are said on stage.

October 5, 2012
Photos: Judyta Papp


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