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//You Need to Jostle Your Way Through// – Mike Urbaniak talks with Marcin Liber, a stage director, about freedom in the contemporary Polish theatre

You Need to Jostle Your Way Through – Mike Urbaniak talks with Marcin Liber, a stage director, about freedom in the contemporary Polish theatre

Marcin Liber (b. 1970) – stage director and designer, script writer, actor. One of the founders of the independent Usta Usta Theatre in Poznań. As an actor, he worked at Teatr Biuro Podróży in Poznań. He also co-operated with the Theatre of the Eighth Day, the Polish Dance Theatre in Poznań, The Old Theatre In Kraków, the Szaniawski Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych, etc. He directed performances at the Warsaw Uprising Museum. His theatre play III Furie earned him the 2012 Konrad’s Laurel – one of the most important theatre awards in Poland.

MIKE URBANIAK: Is there freedom at The Old Theatre in Kraków?

MARCIN LIBER: Even a lot of freedom.

In June, you directed Michał Kmiecik’s play Być jak Steve Jobs [To Be Like Steve Jobs]. It’s your first job at the Old Theatre.

Executed in an atmosphere of overflowing freedom.

What does it mean?

You come there and you don’t have to lose your energy to convince people to your idea, because the team are ready for almost anything – they are professional, open-minded and have enormous experience. The actors are like children – completely in love with the theatre.


The team are well settled, self-confident, they have no hang-ups. The Old Theatre actors think that if a performance fails, it is the director’s fault. They do their absolute best. Interestingly enough, the older the actors, the more relaxed they get. I love working there.

The Old Theatre has recently been put into the hand of a very distinctive tandem, Klata/Majewski. Did the management give you absolute freedom?

Yes, but according to very clear rules that they set up. I really like that. They ask you to join the game and explain the rules right from the start. You can either accept them and start working or decline and leave.

What kind of rules do they propose?

For instance that you need to be very well prepared and have a final, edited text that you and your actors can work with. Maybe it’s just a trauma after working with other directors.

You work for theatres across the country. Have you ever had any problems with creative freedom?

It may be surprising but no, never. The procedure is actually quite routine: you come to the theatre, build a team and construct your world. The confrontation may or may not come at the first dress rehearsal, when the management come and present their remarks, bigger or smaller. Nobody has ever interfered with the substance of my performances, so to speak. I have never been told I couldn’t do something or that something does not conform to the theatre’s ideology. When we worked with Sylwia Chutnik, Małgosia Sikroska-Miszczuk and Magda Fertacz to prepare III Furie [III Furies] at The Helena Modrzejewska Theatre in Legnica, we were aware that we were doing something that Jacek Głomb, the managing director, may not necessarily appreciate, since he creates a different kind of theatre. And after the first dress rehearsal Jacek was very straightforward in saying that this was not his world, his aesthetics, but we could do whatever we wanted. And then he wrote his famous Manifest kontrrewolucyjny [A Counter-Revolutionary Manifesto], which had no space in it for III Furie, but as a managing director he respected that performance. This is why I appreciate him so much.

III Furie really created a sensation...

Also thanks to Jacek’s pro-liberty attitude – although he doesn’t agree with this kind of theatre, he really cared for this play, scheduled regular performances, sent it off to festivals. I think it is a very rare type of approach. I often have this feeling that I give something really nice to someone, and this someone (read: the management) doesn’t treat it too nicely.

Every now and then, we hear about censorship attempts in the theatre, although it doesn’t happen all that often. Do you think it’s a marginal problem?

I am lucky in that I work for theatres that don’t try to censor my work. They leave me a lot of leeway. Maybe I just subconsciously choose places that I know won’t try to cage me.

It’s just too beautiful a picture...

Well, OK, sometimes there are some ‘actors’ manifestos’. I had an art director at one of the theatres I worked with come to my premiere wearing a T-shirt with a big eagle on it, to demonstrate that he thought my production to be anti-Polish.

Do you sometimes feel like self-censoring?

Very often, although it’s more like a reflection on self-censoring. I wonder whether I am not going too far, whether I’ll be able to justify the actions I am putting in motion. I don’t think I can do whatever I want, although I do know that I can allow myself to do a lot.

Does this reflection result from your own impression that you may be going too far, or rather from the fear of how the audience may react?

Well, during rehearsals we most often joke about the audience that will come and ruin everything. My self-restraint stems from a certain sense of responsibility. I work at public institutions, using public money. It is my duty to reach out to people and tell them something in a sensible manner, not lose viewers. The latter is actually not that difficult, it can be done in no time.

Do you test your ideas to the very last moment, even at the third dress rehearsal?

Yes, very often, and the play may change drastically throughout these three performances. The reaction of the audience, contact with them, is also of major importance. But, you know, the theatre is all about endless tinkering. I introduce changes in my shows up to the fifth performance after the premiere, and sometimes also during relaunch rehearsals – because something that moved the audience three years ago may not be working so well today. Doing theatre is like working on a living organism.

Does the audience surprise you often?

Oh, yes. In my performance Na Boga! [In God’s Name!] at the Drama Theatre in Wałbrzych there is a scene in which the Lucifer, played by Mirka Żak, approaches the audience and offers washing their feet. I wasn’t sure anyone would pluck up the courage, but they did. The audience surprises me all the time. Thank goodness.

Where do the limits of freedom lie in the theatre?

In my case, it is my conscience that tells me where to stop. I think that hurting someone is the limit. We are not allowed to hurt others. You may offend them, although not on purpose. This actually happens quite often – people come in and then leave. In our country, the easiest thing to do is accuse the theatre of offending religious feelings.

Has it happened to you often?

It is difficult to answer this question because I am not the one who defines the limits here. I have never tried to offend anyone, but some people did feel offended. I can’t do anything about it other than ask: why? I do have the impression that in Poland, religious feelings are used as a rod for bullying artists.

Despite that, the limits are still moving further and further, don’t you think?

Yes, and it is quite reassuring, although I think that the limits we are trying to push in the theatre today have already been pushed in other domains of art. When I want to place seven crosses on the stage, the management tells me that this is too many, and when I say that films have done more than that, they tell me that the theatre is not the cinema.

What does it mean?

Maybe the cinema is more like individual experience, while the theatre is perceived as a community of sorts? Maybe real time common experience leads to a greater need for safety? I don’t know. I wondered whether Na Boga!, where I reconstructed the performance of Femen in the Vatican, in which a half-naked woman was crucified, would be controversial. It wasn’t, because it served a purpose.

Do you ever allow yourself to settle your personal scores on the stage?

No, although sometimes it is tempting. However, artists in the theatre should talk about important, public matters. This is my principle and I stick to it.

In one of your interviews, you said: ‘In general, I am not fond of any government. If I am to spend public money, I want to do it to promote civic attitudes’.

A very nice quotation, I am not taking anything back. This is my duty as a stage director – to look at who we are, where we are, what mistakes we make. For me, it is the theatre’s basic function, although at the same time I am happy that this theatrical ocean is so vast that many different people, with different methods of work and different stories, may find space in its expanse. This gives the audience freedom of choice. They can choose the performance they want to see.

Does money affect artistic freedom?

Not so much in my life, probably because I sign my agreements at the last moment. And, to be serious, money does not affect freedom. It affects creativity. It is of course nice to have it, but for the most part, you need to manage on your own. In the Utwór o Matce i Ojczyźnie [The Story of Mother and Homeland], staged at the Contemporary Theatre in Szczecin, I had to record a choir singing because we didn’t have money to hire it for individual shows. It led to very interesting solutions and the entire stage became more intimate.

In the Polish theatre, the director is king. Freedom ends with his or her rulings. Are you a despot?

No, I try to talk with the team. When I made Być jak Steve Jobs at The Old Theatre, I talked a lot to Michał Kmiecik, the author of the play. I am interested in what others have to say. I’d say I am more of a leader of the pack. When needed, I remind the rest of the team that the theatre is fortunately not democratic, that the liberty is limited and someone has to make decisions. As it happens, this someone is me.

Kind of scary...

Really? It is just that you have to have someone who will say: enough. Otherwise there would be no performances whatsoever. I also think that a system in which the director is the ultimate decision maker helps other team members feel secure, which makes work easier.

Your work has earned you a lot of awards. Have they affected your freedom? Do you let yourself be seduced by the mainstream?

No, absolutely not. I am happy about the awards because they mean that I’m actually good, don’t they? In any case, the awards can open new doors.

And you can still get on with this shit.

Actually I’m not that sure that I am a director that ‘gets on with this shit’. Sometimes, when I watch my colleagues’ productions, I think that I am not hardcore enough. When I see my colleagues jostle their way through, I do the same. I perceive it as mutual expansion of the sphere of artistic freedom.

The new theatre is sometimes accused of treating freedom in an instrumental manner, of abusing it, because the only thing that counts is who fucks more with the audience.

I don’t see that and I’ll tell you that it has been a long time since something provoked me in the theatre. There is nothing shocking in the theatre for me, it is visual arts that constantly cross the line.

It’s true that in Poland, most huge scandals concerning the limits of freedom in art were caused by visual artists, such as Libera, Kozyra or Żmijewski. When you look at specific domains of art, where would you place the contemporary Polish theatre in this battle for liberty?

Right behind visual arts, which is not that bad. This second place is of course due to the numerous restrictions that apply to the theatre. We need to conclude a contract with the audience, we need to repeat it for a while, and then there is the inevitable dramatisation. But we do manage.

So it’s not that bad.

It is, unfortunately, getting worse. We are talking about the authors and the audience, when there are also the critics, people that describe everything that is going on in the theatre. I have a feeling that Polish criticism is becoming more and more conservative, that it caters to average tastes, which affect the theatre’s decision makers. I can make a statement show, but will theatres have enough courage to run it on their stages?