Polish director Michał Borczuch talks to Karolina Bugajak about his production of The Argonauts based on the book by Maggie Nelson, putting queer stories on stage and the differences between the Polish and Slovenian theatre scenes.
Karolina Bugajak: Why did you choose Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? What did you find so moving about this book?
Michał Borczuch: The topic of this book fits into the interests which I have had for the last few years. Two years ago I made a play An Apartment on Uranus based on Paul B. Preciado’s essays. I read The Argonauts around the same time as working on the play in Warsaw and decided that I should do something with it. Then the idea came up to do it here and to expand the book with local research about what LGBTQ+ families are like here, how they deal with problems, how they live.
KB: It’s not an easy text to stage. How did you and Tomasz Śpiewak translate it into theatrical language?
MB: The idea from the beginning was that we want to work not just on the author’s text, but also on the research conducted by the actors for the show. Especially on the interviews they did with Slovenian LGBTQ+ families. We later selected themes in the book that we thought were interesting and that we could juxtapose with the interviews in a good way to build a broader context. We did not set out to do an exact adaptation of the book. Rather, we needed to combine what Maggie Nelson and the way she looks at the formation of her family, how she defines it, where she sees problems, and how she questions things we are used to, with the Slovenian community. The book functions very fragmentarily in this performance. The form of the book, which is a collage and has various styles, helped us create a whole with the things we received here in Slovenia.
KB: How did you work on the queer subject in an environment that is so different from your home country? Slovenia is much more tolerant.
MB: I was surprised that we encountered a kind of conservatism though. Even among the LGBTQ+ families we interviewed. You could sense a kind of striving for comfort, for calm – there is definitely less activism here, which in Poland is much more popular and advanced. We watched a documentary about queer Slovenia, and the movement of sexual minorities in the 80s, during the time of Yugoslavia, and it turned out that back then it was much more progressive in thinking – and, above all, in activism – than it is now. It was a very interesting discovery to me…, that in a country where all rights are respected, i.e. gay marriage being legal (which is still not the case in Poland and it is unknown when it will be), there is no developed queer scene. Or if there is, it is more niche now than before. The people which our actors talked to value privacy and functioning in certain bubbles more than openly showing their identity on the street or in public spaces.
KB: Did you have any problems doing the interviews?
MB: No, definitely not. People we met with were eager to talk. Of course, the interviews are made anonymous for the purposes of the show and to preserve their privacy, but the interviewees were willing to enter into dialogue with the actors. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the space in Slovenia to talk about it.
KB: In Poland it has been written that auto-theatre and the theatre of personal perspectives can be a helpful strategy for telling the stories of non-heteronormative people. You reach for one of these methods yourself. What is so effective about it?
MB: Auto-theatre can be very useful when it comes to creating performances addressing queer topics. In this part of Europe, where discussions on these topics are still difficult, representation of minorities in theatre, in art in general, is needed. Private narratives bring something completely different, because they present diverse and subjective perspectives, which makes much more sense than creating art about gays, lesbians, or trans individuals. Often, the latter narratives follow the trend (especially in Poland) on this topic, resulting in less cognitive material that doesn’t delve deeper into the issue in a progressive and empathetic way. The lack of personal narratives in theatre often results in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes. Personal stories have a very subjective and unpredictable course that can impact the audience on various levels and provoke reflection and empathy.
KB: One of your shows The Frogs, a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes, has been called the first camp performance to be produced in a public theatre in Poland. Camp is an exaggerated, heightened aesthetic, that is also often linked with queerness. Do you consider this aesthetic useful for telling queer stories? Will spectators see it in The Argonauts?
MB: Sure, there is something of camp is in the performance, but Camp, following Susan Sontag’s definition, is something that cannot be intentionally prepared; it’s elusive, so it’s hard for me to say. I do wonder though if camp helps to show queer stories in theatre? It seems to me that it depends on who is representing them and, above all, who the audience is. The context is also important, and whether camp is something natural in the group for whom the performance would be made or by whom it would be made, or whether it is something added from the outside. It seems to me that it depends on the situation, because sometimes without camp you can reach a bourgeois audience that is unprepared to receive this kind of exaggerated aesthetic.
KB: This year’s programme of the Mladinsko Theatre is particularly focused on marginalised people. There are hardly any such theatres in Poland. And when there were attempts to create such a theatre, the lack of work ethic and intra-institutional didn’t allow it. Do you see differences between Poland and Slovenia when it comes to this issue?
MB: It’s a very broad topic. The issue of work ethics in Poland is not only talked about, but there are also places where this ethics is actually implemented. Attention is paid to a certain type of work hygiene, as well as the recognition of problems such as overworking, overproduction, and violent behaviours. It also moves the conversation on how to talk about certain sensitive topics in the institution. Here I feel that this is actually written in the programme, but on a production level it is a standard institution. There is still a division between male actors and male technical theatre crew. Machismo is very much visible here, which is already changing in large cities in Poland, though certainly not everywhere – there are places in Poland, in provincial towns, where this is still acute. One example that surprised us was the experience of a set designer who is a woman. Often her orders were not followed and only after asking me, the director, was the task carried out. Such an approach is slowly ceasing to exist in Polish theatres because it is known that everyone is responsible for something different, and regardless of whether it’s a female set designer or a male director, it gets implemented.
KB: Polish director Weronika Szczawińska, who also worked in Mladinsko, mentioned the differences in the experience of working with actors in Poland and Slovenia. She said that Slovenian actors are in a better situation, they are not so overworked. Do you have that feeling after working with them?
MB: I don’t feel that way. It’s difficult for me to compare these two situations for a key reason – we work here in English, and there is a lack of directness in language communication, which places this work on a different level than the work I do in Poland. So, I don’t feel such a difference here.
KB: Do you feel any differences on a production level between Poland and Slovenia except for the ones you mentioned?
MB: No. I don’t. I also have experience of working in theatres in Germany and there you can really feel the differences because the system of work is completely different. The theatres there function like big production houses, but here in terms of systems and production of work it’s very similar to Poland.
KB: Let’s move on to the Slovenian issue. There are many questions in the description of the play about the situation in Slovenia, its openness and tolerance.
MB: This resulted from interviews conducted with actors but also from conversations with the actors themselves. Perhaps this changes generationally, because the interviews were conducted with individuals over 40. Maybe they have different experiences and are at a different stage in life, looking at it entirely differently, while the younger ones still look at it with hope. Generally, I have encountered opinions that tolerance here in Slovenia, in Ljubljana, exists, but it has quite specific limits. In essence, the people the actors talked to would prefer to be perceived as normative individuals. I emphasize this because in Warsaw, where certain bubbles exist as well, there is a movement that does not support adaptation to the situation and sees it as a way to improve the situation for queer individuals. In Poland, there is more of a struggle to preserve distinctiveness and emphasize that distinctiveness, creating their own communities that celebrate that uniqueness.
KB: What would you like the Slovenian audience to take away from your performance?
MB: I would like this performance to prompt reflection on the norms that prevail here; to what extent these norms are exclusionary and what they stem from. Do they arise from capitalism? Because, unlike Poland, there doesn’t seem to be such a significant religiosity here. What causes gay and queer couples to prefer staying indoors, in their homes, rather than participating in parades? It could be a national trait, but it concerns me, because such secrecy could pose a threat in times when radical, nationalist movements in Europe are emerging – that’s something we had the opportunity to experience in Poland over the last eight years. When one remains silent and secretive, the other side may get loud and attack the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. In the context of the performance – we would like to draw attention to the fact that in such comfort and tranquillity, there is a certain sense of danger.
For tickets and more information, visit: Mladinsko.com
Karolina Bugajak is a theater critic from Poland, currently living in Ljubljana. She studied culture and contemporary art at the University of Lodz. The title of her master's thesis was "Theatricality and Exaggeration. Camp aesthetics as a strategy for creating new identities in the plays of Grzegorz Jaremko". Her main theatrical interests include topics such as institutional criticism, the representation of marginalized groups in plays, and most recently the theater of the former Yugoslav states.