The Truth of the Trash: Video Aesthetics in the Performance of Screech (2010) by Videotheatre, by Aneta Mancewicz
|About author link
|Just as avant-garde turns into orthodoxy and iconoclasts into icons, so do many experimental collectives become contemporary classics. This may mark the end of their exploration—several radical performance groups from the 1970s and 80s have either dispersed or grown into mainstream companies, both institutionally and aesthetically. There are, however, others that have remained on the margins, continuing to push the boundaries of contemporary performance and challenge audience expectations. Such is the case of Videotheatre (Videoteatr), which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary at the Theatre Institute in Warsaw with a premiere performance of The Screech (Zgrzyt) on June 10, 2010.
Videotheatre debuted in 1985 at the Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw with the performance of Act-tress (Akt-orka). The show underwent several revisions and variations, culminating in 1999 with the production of Act-resses (Akt-orki). The subsequent productions were conceived and staged in the Szuster Palace, a neo-Renaissance, neo-Gothic building located in the park of Mokotów, a residential district of Warsaw. On a small stage with a maximum audience of forty-four, Videotheatre has produced several shows, such as Operation Alcestis (Operacja Alkestis), KaBaKai/RE-animations (KaBaKai/RE-animacje), A Novel for Hollywood (Powieść dla Hollywoodu), and Hamlet from Gliwice. A Rehearsal (Hamlet gliwicki. Próba).1
Videotheatre was born out of an experience of death. In 1982, Helmut Kajzar, a playwright and director with a thriving international career, died of cancer at the age of forty-one. In the process of coming to terms with his loss, Jolanta Lothe, his actress wife, and Piotr Lachmann, a Polish-German translator and Kajzar’s close friend, began to reinterpret his work on stage, leading to the creation of Videotheatre. Lothe embarked on the project as a renowned theatre and film actress, celebrated for her work with Polish experimental theatre directors (Józef Szajna, Helmut Kajzar, Adam Hanuszkiewicz), but also known for her memorable creations in television series, such as Doktor Ewa on Channel 2 of Polish television. Lachmann is recognized both in Poland and Germany as a poet, translator, and essayist (e.g. Vorbereitung zur Dichterlesung. Ein polemisches Lesebuch, or Wywołane z pamięci). His work is deeply influenced by the Polish and German literary tradition, philosophical and dramatic writings, and twentieth century history.
In Videotheatre productions, Lothe and Lachmann reinterpret the sense of the vulnerability and transience of human life which permeates Kajzar’s dramatic and stage work, and which manifested itself so brutally in his illness and death. “For Kajzar, the theatre itself is suspended in the state of moritorum [‘in the process of dying’],” Katarzyna Kwapisz observes;2 later, she asserts that “the world of Kajzar’s drama is the world of masks and metamorphoses but also of the terror of physicality itself, a fear that translates into a desire to resist biological constraint.”3 In an attempt to keep death at bay and revive the ritual character of theatre art, Kajzar constructed plays from everyday gestures and situations, from layers of experience which combine multiple psychological perspectives and temporal frameworks.
Dissecting reality, identity, and time, Kajzar might have been inspired by aspects of innovative Polish plays which he staged in Poland and abroad: the polyphonous characters of Tadeusz Różewicz and grotesque types created by Witold Gombrowicz. Kajzar’s experiments have also been compared to the stage exploration of his contemporary, Jerzy Grotowski, yet with the emphasis on the originality of the two practitioners, since each of them conducted independent investigations of a ritual dimension of the theatre experience.4 During his short, highly successful career, Kajzar collaborated with theatres in Wrocław and Warsaw, worked on the development of radio plays in Poland, and directed and taught in Germany and Sweden. His plays were published as Sztuki i eseje and Sztuki teatralne 1972–1982, while many of his theoretical writings were published posthumously as Nie drukowane.
Kajzar’s most inventive and recognizable contribution to theatre theory and practice was the concept of “Teatr Metacodzienny” (Kwapisz translates it as “the Theatre of Meta-everydayness”), which he described in his Manifesto of 1977. In this poetic, autobiographical piece, Kajzar advocates for a theatre which breaks with classical unities in the process of combining theatre with everyday practices, memories, and dreams. This type of theatre calls for collaboration between actors and audience members, each bringing his or her own experiences to create a communion of disparate worldviews, which occurs within a unique, unrepeatable here and now of performance as an event.
Although Kajzar’s work as a theatre director only partly resonates with his manifesto, his dramas show the influence of the “theatre of meta-everydayness” to a much greater extent.5 Lachmann and Lothe find his dramatic output particularly stimulating in their theatre practice. Videotheatre relies on Kajzar’s work as a playwright rather than a director, and the company’s creators insist on the originality of their staging; their extensive, innovative use of technology testifies to the highly individual character of their work. Selecting and combining fragments of Kajzar’s plays, the two artists create a new type of theatre, which results from ingenious and highly innovative blends of live and mediated action.
In combining dramatic texts with video images, Lochmann and Lothe are chiefly interested in the exploration of multiple temporal perspectives, as well as in the break with the psychological realism of a character. Both these features are central to Kajzar’s manifesto, and they are reflected in his plays. For instance, in Star (Gwiazda), which became the basis of The Act-tress, Kajzar portrays a female performer who tries new roles and new identities as if they were different dresses. The actress never establishes a stable self, leaving the task of reconstruction and speculation to the audience. In the Videotheatre adaptation of this play, Lothe performs a highly collaged version of Kajzar’s texts against several television screens, which show her different clones (old and young, beautiful and ugly, multiplied and transformed) in dialogue with each other. The screens in this performance become not only reflections of a single character, or possibly of multiple personae, but they also function as “mirrors of another time,” since they allow for the dissolution of the boundaries between past, present, and future—a universal theatre experience, which Kajzar postulated in his Manifesto.
In the productions of Videotheatre, the idea of “mirrors of another time” refers to the expansion of the theatrical hic et nunc, in an attempt to devise alternative forms of experiencing temporality on stage. Lothe and Lachmann have translated Kajzar’s preoccupations with the body, ageing, and death into intricate interactions between live performers and video projections. They have introduced an elaborate set of television monitors, video cameras, projectors, cables, and consoles, which dominate the stage. The extent and the complexity of the technological apparatus has grown over the years, opening new possibilities for the artists to explore the interface between performance and media. Advancements in digital technologies have granted Lothe and Lachmann multiple ways of registering, modifying, and projecting images. This, in turn, has contributed to complex temporal and spatial perspectives in Videotheatre’s shows.
With technology, the artists blur the boundary between the onstage and onscreen presence of the actors. In the course of every performance, technological devices are operated by a video jockey, an onstage figure who transmits images and music, enforcing the relationship between live and mediated performance, as well as between actors and viewers. In Videotheatre productions this role is played by Lachmann, who records live action and projects it onto multiple screens, mixing and altering images and sounds. He also imposes projections on the actors, blurring the boundary between their onstage and onscreen appearance. Furthermore, in some Videotheatre performances (e.g. Hamlet from Gliwice), the viewers entering the performing space are recorded and projected on screens located on the stage. Thus, their arrival marks the beginning of the play and constitutes a part of its performance.
The anxiety about the passing of time and the desire to capture ephemeral sensations or to retrieve them by means of performance has been central to the plays of Kajzar and the theatre work of Lachmann and Lothe. Videotheatre productions have continued to reflect upon the relationship between media, memory, and mourning. Parallel to the exploration of video imagery, the artists have turned to a variety of theatre traditions and textual sources. The company’s scenarios incorporate masterpieces from the Western canon: Sophocles’s Antigone (in The Act-ress), Euripides’s Alcestis (in Operation Alcestis), or Shakespeare’s Hamlet (in Hamlet from Gliwice). Videotheatre has also been inspired by the Asian stage tradition, for example a Noh play, Aoi no Ue (Lady Aoi) by the Japanese playwright Zeami Motokiyo (in The Actresses), as well as by non-dramatic texts, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead of the Nurse Kai (in KaBaKai/RE-animations), or by Hanna Krall’s journalistic account, A Novel for Hollywood (in the performance of the same title).
A wide range of inspirations has influenced the diversity of acting techniques and design styles. KaBaKai, for instance, was based on the notion of theatre as an archeological exploration of multiple layers of experience; the production involved a sumptuous set and presented Lothe as a mummy, suspended not only between a body and an object, but also between life and death, and between the present and eternity. Apart from the symbolic use of props and images, the company’s productions have been filtered through Lachmann’s poetic sensibility and his fascination with semantic and phonetic aspects of language. The scripts which Lachmann contributed to Videotheatre productions over the years abound in wordplay and puns. These metaphorical, multilayered texts touch on themes from his biography and the history of the company, as well as on contemporary issues regarding media, society, history, and the economy.
The Screech, the latest production of Videotheatre, relies on video techniques and acting styles used in the earlier work of the company. As in other shows, the stage is occupied by several screens, cameras, cables, and a console; the set design resembles a rehearsal room. Apart from the technological apparatus, the plain table and the chairs at the center of the stage are the only set pieces. Konopka and Lothe enter in purple robes which give them a casual, intimate look. The performers use almost no props; when they throw empty beer cans on stage, the ascetic character of the space seems to be violated by signs of consumerist culture.
Lachmann’s poetic script is a debate about justice and compassion in a world of unequal distribution of goods. The argument is developed by a man and a woman (played by Zbigniew Konopka and Lothe) who represent contrasting approaches to economic inequality. He is an aggressive entrepreneur, troubled by the determination of the poor to survive despite hardship. She is his life companion, filled with empathy and admiration for the human instinct of self-preservation. The show could be interpreted as a morality play: the dialogue’s didactic frame becomes most evident when Konopka and Lothe hold a white trash bag on which Lachmann projects their faces. While the actors remain silent, the video pronounces their principal arguments. The scene creates an ironic effect of transcendence (the truth of trash), but it also creates psychological distance between performer and character.
Like all other Videotheater productions, The Screech mixes onstage and onscreen material as well as the presence and absence of performers. What distinguishes this production from other shows of Videotheatre, however, is the mixture of dream and reality and the extensive use of film quotations. The play opens with a sequence from Mullholand Drive, a trancelike, surrealist movie directed by David Lynch. The scene shows two men who are sitting in an American diner. “I had a dream about this place,” says one of them. The sentence (in Polish translation) is repeated by Konopka, as he comes onto the stage. He addresses Lothe, who is projected in real time on several screens, while she is lying on the bed upstage. During the performance the actors change places, both physically and between live and mediated performance while they are trying to determine whether what they are experiencing is dream or reality.
Discussing these questions, the actors appear live and mediated against film fragments that deal with the dissolution of borders between reality and dream. Most of the images parallel themes from the play. Several visual elements, however, contrast with the dialogue, creating the effect of a semantic clash. For example, images of Christ’s wounded body from Mel Gibson’s Passion or Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ are shown during Konopka’s contemptuous speech against the poor, whom he calls rats. The combination suggests a parallel between them, yet creates dissonance due not only to the contrast between Christian compassion and capitalist exploitation, but even more markedly, due to the discord between sacrum and profanum. The two spheres merge when Konopka takes blood from the image of Christ’s flogged body. This moment constitutes a profane version of transubstantiation, showing how a word turns into an image and how an image turns into a gesture in real life.
The images in the performance reflect on the idea of popular culture as a depository of meanings which can be recycled in new contexts. Such is the function of a short amateur film clip from the 2010 Polish Air Force Tu-154 crash which appears briefly and almost accidentally among images of Christ’s passion. The clip signals one of the most widely-discussed events in the Polish public life in the spring of 2010, which led to heated discussions about political consequences of the death of prominent politicians and the media’s responsibility in the face of the national tragedy.7 The visual and the verbal context in which the video appears, however, does not give the audience time to reflect on these issues. Instead, the decision to squeeze a blurred clip, lasting a few seconds, among a series of other images suggests an excess of information.
The notions of image recycling and information surplus complement the theme of consumerist culture, which is symbolized in the play by the empty beer cans. The cans are described in the dialogue as objects efficiently collected by the poor, who noisily crush them to the displeasure of the rich. They also appear on several screens, accompanied by the screeching sound of crushed metal. Later in the show they are thrown on stage as material evidence of mass consumption and the unequal distribution of resources. Lachmann does not resolve the conflict between the two radically different approaches to poverty. Nevertheless, in some shows he appears in the finale at the center of the stage to collect the cans, thus suggesting to the audience where his sympathies lie. In all the productions, however, towards the end of the play Konopka reads a quotation from Jonathan Littell’s World War II novel The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes, 2006), in which an unremorseful SS officer describes the Nazi massacres. The selected excerpt states that the killings in the East have enlightened us about the force of human solidarity, since all the Nazi soldiers must have recalled their beloved ones during the executions. The paradoxical nature of this quote stresses the contradiction in the statement of Konopka’s character, who claims that it is out of compassion for the poor that he wants to exterminate them.
Owing to the paradoxes contained in these claims, The Screech does not end with a clear ethical message. Although the recent production of Videotheatre may not have the historic complexity of some other shows of Lachmann and Lothe, such as A Novel for Hollywood or Hamlet from Gliwice, the play still testifies to the visual and linguistic mastery of the Warsaw artists. These two earlier productions portrayed the Second World War through authentic, individual stories; they also involved a more intricate play of temporal perspectives. Hamlet, for instance, was based on wartime memories of Lachmann himself, and the director’s presence on stage in the role of the VJ not only authenticated the story, but also added a touch of nostalgia to Konopka’s portrayal of Lachmann as a child. Furthermore, The Screech is less metatheatrical than earlier productions of the company, relying more on cinematic allusions than on theatre traditions or stage experiences of the artists. These changes, however, do not have to be viewed unfavorably, as they testify to the unceasing exploration of new ways of stage expression in the work of Lachmann and Lothe. Having accumulated twenty-five years of experience in producing video-based performances, the artists still seek to create works which are challenging in terms of images and ideas.
1. Videotheatre’s website, which documents twenty-five years of stage experimentation, technological innovation, and personal experiences, features short videos from selected productions, along with theatre reviews, critical assessments, and the program of the anniversary celebrations in the Theatre Institute. It can be viewed at http://videoteatrpoza.pl/.
2. Katarzyna Kwapisz, “‘Always in the Likeness’: The Virtual Presences of Helmut Kajzar’s Gwiazda in the Lothe Lachmann Theatre,” Modern Drama 48, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 530.
3. Ibid., 527.
4. Ibid.; Ewa Wąchocka, “Teatr Kajzara,” Dziennik Teatralny, accessed March 22, 2011, http://www.teatry.art.pl/portrety/kajzar_h/teatrk.htm.
5. Wąchocka, “Teatr Kajzara.”
6. Piotr Lachmann, Program: Hamlet gliwicki. Próba [Playbill: Hamlet from Gliwice. A Rehearsal], 2006.
7. The tragedy occurred near the Russian city of Smolensk and resulted in the death of ninety-six people on board, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski and his wife. The event has provoked a wide debate concerning the causes of the crash. Amateur clips from the place of the catastrophe have become popular, giving rise to further rumor and speculation.
“The Truth of the Trash: Video Aesthetics in the Performance of “The Screech” (2010) by Videotheatre,” ”Slavic and East European Performance,” vol. 31, no. 1., Spring 2011, New York, pp. 29-39.