Grzegorz Jarzyna at LNDT: ‘We are lacking the exchange of emotions, the living contact'

Grzegorz Jarzyna, the Polish director renowned in Europe, started rehearsals at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. He is working on a play based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, which is scheduled to premiere at the New Hall of the LNDT in September this year. The cast includes Nelė Savičenko, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Martynas Nedzinskas, Gytis Ivanauskas, Rasa Samuolytė, Dainius Gavenonis, Kęstutis Cicėnas, and Oneida Kunsunga.


The Lithuanian theatre community remembers you not only from the plays on the stage of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre – Aleksander Fredro's The Magnetism of the Heart and Count Myshkin based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, which were part of the New Drama Action programme in 2000 and 2001. Today, Polish theatre is no less interesting to our critics than it was before the restoration of independence: to the best of their abilities, everybody tries to keep up with the situation in the neighbourhood, so it’s only natural that many people are interested in your work. It’s exciting that you have taken on a production at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. What do you know about Lithuania so far?


I don’t think I know Lithuania well. I am always learning and discovering new things. The first time I heard about Lithuania was at school when we were studying the history of Poland. The next step was meeting Oskaras Koršunovas in Avignon when we were young. Then I came to Vilnius with the productions you’ve mentioned. And then I felt that Lithuanian and Polish audiences were very similar: their response is very similar. The next step was meeting Jan Dravnel from Lithuania, who is currently acting in our theatre, TR Warszawa (he is in Republic, a production at the LNDT – D. Š.). I’ve also seen several productions by Eimuntas Nekrošius here in Lithuania and abroad, and a lot of performances by Oskaras Koršunovas. I saw Rasa Samuolytė, Dainius Gavenonis, and Gytis Ivanauskas in these productions, and I am delighted I can work with them now. A director has a totally different relation: at first you see someone on stage, you start imagining this character or other, even if it has little to do with that person. Nonetheless, as a spectator I imagine what they could be. That’s why I'm very happy to meet them in my new job: to get to know them, talk to them, and work with them. During all this time, I've been to Lithuania several times as a tourist, mostly in Vilnius, once in Kaunas. I’ve been observing Vilnius for about twenty years now, and I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s a constantly changing city. As for urban development, it reminds me of a mix of Cracow and Warsaw.


How did you come up with the idea of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)? Is it largely due to the fact that this is the year of the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth? Why is this work relevant today?

 It was Marius Ivaškevičius who told me that Lem’s anniversary would be celebrated. I received the offer to direct a play in Vilnius about a year ago. In Poland, the first lockdown had just ended. During the lockdown, I started thinking, and two associations came to my mind: the first was the film Dogtooth (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; 2009), and the second, Lem’s Solaris (1961). Both works captivated me because their protagonists were forcibly isolated and were trying to access some of their subconscious registers. One could say that for me the world turned upside down during the lockdown. However, my choice fell on Lem because, first of all, I have been Lem’s fan since my young years. Solaris has been haunting me for several years, but it always seemed that it wasn’t the right time, that it wasn’t even theatrical material, too abstract, too science fiction. I wasn’t sure if it could be staged at all. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1978) stuck very deeply in my mind from a young age, and I was also his fan. I re-read Solaris and watched the two films based on the novel: the aforementioned one by Tarkovsky and by Steven Soderbergh (2002). And then I felt so very Polish... Then I thought that these two film adaptations were very much at odds with my own interpretation. I have always respected Tarkovsky and always will, and yet his work seems to me a little outdated. As for Soderbergh, I think, he completely missed the mark. What I adore in this film is its music. It was this film that made me a fan of the composer Cliff Martinez. I remember once I went to Los Angeles just because I really wanted to meet him and talk to him. Then we met in Cracow. I got to know him and realised that only someone like him could compose music. Upon knowing him, his music and personality were in total synchrony. I remember often turning off the lights at home, listening to the soundtrack, and imagining that it was some sort of a space trip. I think that the vibrations of this music and the sounds of the cymbals captured perfectly the energy of the book. Along Lem’s novel, Tarkovsky and Martinez’s music for Soderbergh’s Solaris are for me like the cornerstones of history, culture, and of the evolution of our performance.

Solaris is relevant because what was described at that time is happening right now. This means that if we want to move forward and see the post-pandemic present, we need to go back to our subconscious and to our past and resolve those problems before moving on. I’m saying this not only in the context of my personal development, but also of the development of humanity as a whole.


This is the second time artificial intelligence has attracted you. (AI was used in the production of 2020: The Tempest based on William Shakespeare’s drama.) What led you to this turn in your work?

 First of all, I think that today, artificial intelligence is just a tool in our lives. I don’t overestimate its existence and I don’t think it’s going to change our lives in a crazy way. I’m convinced it will accelerate the technological development of the world. Today, it is hard to imagine functioning without artificial intelligence. I turn on my phone and there is also this artificial intelligence that tells me how to get from A to B. I’m writing an email and it’s correcting my mistakes. It’s correcting those words of mine that I made up and which it doesn’t even know. It means AI is learning new words. It’s funny that it has issues with feminine endings. When I write ‘directress’, it always corrects it into ‘director’. So I understand there’s room for improvement. That’s really funny. It’s human mentality.

As for 2020: The Tempest, this artificial intelligence has much in common with Prospero himself and with his vision of the world. It seems to me that after five hundred years, the end of anthropocentrism has arrived. In geology, we say that a new epoch is dawning when significant changes are taking place in the history of the development of the earth, but in human history, we have come to the point where the human is no longer the measure of everything. The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last work, was written in the spirit ‘The human is the measure of all things’. It is in this same spirit that Prospero’s last monologue was written. On the one hand, he apologises for the mistakes he might have made, but, on the other, he says he has tried to do only good and that he has dedicated his whole life to people. But if we look at it from the current perspective, there is still some haughtiness in that monologue, some inflated self-confidence that the human can do anything. The first part of the performance was based on Shakespeare and the second was our imagination of what would happen next. Prospero created artificial intelligence in this performance. And even when Prospero leaves after the first part, that artificial intelligence, like his echo, is still functioning, even though it is no longer needed because the whole world is disintegrating.


How did you manage to select the actors with such precision for the upcoming performance in Vilnius? It would seem you’ve known them for a very long time. Was it intuition or do you have a special method?

 I’ve seen these actors in other productions where they acted differently from how it’s done in my theatre. I thought: if the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre is inviting me, and there is a lockdown, and all the relationships between people are collapsing, it would be good for this play to be born from the actors of that theatre. I had a very precise and clear idea of what I imagined the characters to be; I knew exactly what they had to be. Moreover, I trusted the suggestions of the coordinators of the LNDT. I thought that if these particular actors were suggested, there were professional grounds for it. In fact, it only took me one casting meeting to get an intuitive feeling of who would be good to work with and who I could feel the pleasure of working with. I am also surprised that I hit it so well, as if I knew them well. Actually, I didn’t have a clue about their lives. I think the answer to this question is good preparation plus intuition.


Although you have rewritten the main male role in the novel and given it to a woman, with excellent reasoning of such a choice, I think this is also largely because you are a great expert on female roles. Female roles are very interesting in all of your productions. It is not such a frequent case, primarily because the male beginning dominates entire dramaturgy. On the other hand, only few are successful in revealing the world of women. What led to this choice?

 I can’t say that I’m succeeding in revealing the world of women. I am trying various ways. I perceive my anima (Lat., ‘soul’ – D. Š.) and my soft resources. To me, female sensitivity is as close as male sensitivity. In Europe, the fight for women’s equal rights has been going on for a dozen years now, and I strongly support this movement. I think it shows a big change in public awareness. I have always supported women’s equality in art. Women are very often the heroes in my performances. I remember when I was working on The Magnetism of the Heart under the pseudonym of Sylwia Torsh, I realised that the woman’s world has more to say about love and feelings than the man’s. Meanwhile, the new production offers the opportunity to do it the other way round, because in Lem’s work all characters are men. Kris Kelvin is the main character, of course, and everything is told from his perspective. That’s why I thought that a little Copernican twist like this would be quite appropriate, so there is a mature woman instead of the male protagonist. This woman is not an object of desire: this is a woman with a lot of experience and wisdom. It slightly inverts the masculine order of the work and, in a way, reflects our times.

Talking of the government of Lithuania, I know that many people in Poland like it a lot. Not only it is liberal, but there are many women in it. It’s a progressive example to us. 


The beginning of the rehearsals is most interesting: everything is calculated and planned as precisely as possible, and at the same time you are working in a kind of an intuitive way when the actors’ actions and thoughts turn into inspirations for new texts. It may even remind us of Jerzy Grotowski’s laboratory principle, when the actor creates not a character, but themself, in order to involve the spectator in the finale.


I like to prepare for rehearsals with accuracy, thoroughly, and hard. It gives me confidence. And I madly adore my first encounter with the actors. By that time I already have the whole picture of the performance, the first rehearsals start, and after two or three rehearsals, when I tell them what performance I am going to do and how I imagine it, it’s very inspiring to hear what the actors and the other creators think of it. Depending on that, I like to intuitively change and rearrange the original script.

My first trips to Asia followed Grotowski’s footsteps. I studied his method very closely and in great detail. I spent a lot of time in distant cultures: in the mountains of New Guinea, where people used to live in caves and where they still live in primitive conditions. I examined their rituals and finally realised that my approach was different from Grotowski’s. I have no doubt that a lot has changed in the twenty years of my travels. I think it’s impossible to replicate that kind of ritual on stage, because a certain untruth, a certain contradiction is programmed into it. The meaning of this ritual cannot be replicated on stage. You can create your own ritual, and that is what theatre is for me. And this ritual does not develop in the form. Grotowski created it in energy. Yet I think that this energy can only radiate between people, only between actors. If energy is not created between them (and it is suggested that the actors themselves are radiating this magic energy), I won’t believe the experience of theatre, the ritual of theatre. For me, this is a very important difference compared to Grotowski. I think that theatre can exist exclusively through the people who watch it.

Grotowski maintained that there’s a third eye: some sort of providence or absolute that watches these performers and doesn’t need the spectator. He even said that the camera performs the function of that third eye. I totally reject these views of his. I don’t believe that someone is watching our performances from some sort of cosmos. While the camera, to me, is a murderer of the real, clean, and pure theatrical experience. To me, theatre happens somewhere in the middle, between actors and the audience, when these two energies collide.

You provoke situations and wonderful dialogues are born. The actors seem to become the second authors of texts. Do you apply this principle in working with other productions?

Yes, I always work this way. I don’t know whether it’s a method, but this is how it has worked out in the long term. And probably it yields results when the team can feel safe. Especially when I am working abroad and I don’t know the people well, then I try to accurately follow my method even harder. I have a certain initial script, either one that I myself made up or one discussed with the playwright. And during the first rehearsals I try to somehow map out the journey: what will happen from the first rehearsal up to the premiere. Even if I don’t know everything precisely, I plan it in stages, like on a real map during a journey.

I love travelling, and the same is true in theatre. I choose the route I will take, and the better I am prepared for the journey – I know what I will eat, where I will stop for the night, and what places I will visit – the more I can afford to stray from the plan. For when I go to one place, I get new information very quickly and it can lead me to some other place I never imagined. I followed this same method when I was 25, when I used to organise tours from Poland to Asia and Central America. Back then, you had to know each step, what things cost, and how it would work out. And I would tell people what they would see in those places. But I would always tell them what they could see according to the plan and reminded them of the other option, that of going against the plan and seeing something different. And very often they took advantage of that alternative way. That’s how I would drag them to, for example, royal dances in Jakarta, traditional Hawaiian dances, or trance dances on the island of Bali. I always offered surprises to people, something they didn’t expect. It’s the same in these rehearsals: it’s not just that I’m the one who starts the engine; I think I also have to get something from the actors in order to feel the creative adventure. In my case, everything follows a precise and specific plan drawn in advance. The more precisely I have arranged it, the more I know that I can stray away from that plan because I have imagination and I feel it is right. When I feel lost, I can always go back to the plan and consult it. It’s good, but something can always be even better. I can always take a step back and see what the original plan was. All the detailed notes, they are very important. Because if I were led by intuition and my imagination alone, it would transpire that I am fascinated by my idea yet I totally lose the contact with the audience. Then the performance would become too hermetic.

Such a journey, such a working principle is not only interesting and new for the actors of our theatre, but it also prompts a question whether such a method will not create an associative work distant from Solaris. Lem was very protective of the integrity of his work, after all. Andrei Tarkovsky had to deal with various taboos for as many as five years. The script was rejected not only by Mosfilm, but also by Lem. Even after the premiere, Lem did not like some of Tarkovsky's independent decisions in Solaris.

A very long time has passed since the original Solaris was written (1961). Lem is extremely relevant in many aspects. For me personally, he is one of the writers who created superb literature. It is highly original; Lem’s idea of those avatars, those creatures is extremely suggestive, it resonates strongly when thinking about the evolution of the human as a psychological personality, and is very relevant. As a creator and an artist, I, too, find it difficult to write a script that would accurately follow the original. I think that the popularity of Solaris the novel depends on the way it’s interpreted, on the country, time, and place. Andrei Tarkovsky made Solaris in Russia, and he did it in his own time, with a certain Russian soul and Russian sensitivity. Steven Soderbergh made his film in America; it was based on the viewpoint of American culture and the audiences enjoyed it. These two screen adaptations consolidated Lem’s position in world literature considerably. And if our performance lives up to expectations, it will also enhance the understanding of this book. We decided in advance not to use any other texts. There’s Lem and his Solaris. No other works. There’s Tomasz Śpiewak, who creates the texts, and there’s me, who writes the script. That’s the three of us. We are not looking for anything else. This is our tribute to the book and to Lem himself.

You graduated in philosophy, theology, and directing. What made you choose theatre?

 I realised that working with people, that is, the exchange of ideas, is wildly important in my life. The possibility to establish something like a mini-family, a mini-community, a mini-commune for a certain period of time, where emotions, experiences, and intuition can be exchanged – that’s something that fascinates me, and I think that’s why I’m creating theatre. 


Your past is extremely interesting and you’ve been drawing from it a lot. What are you drawing from today, what inspires you?

 Yes, working in a theatre in Warsaw, let alone running a theatre, is utterly exhausting, indeed. Now it seems to me that I’m getting and taking much more from the people I work with. I tell creators more about my work and receive much from them myself.


The first rehearsals revealed your special, I would say, unique approach not only to the directing profession, but to the purpose of art in general. All this inspires the actors a lot. Could you briefly describe the importance of theatre's mission, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic?

 This form of art, theatre, is a missionary art. If anyone wants to create theatre, it seems to me that from the very beginning it means they have chosen the missionary path. I think that each director, actor, anyone who works in the theatre, wants to convey certain values to the audience. How they will do it, what emotions they will trigger, and what story they will tell – all that is about revealing values. Trivially put, you could say that theatre shows or wants to show the audience how to live. We are telling stories about life and about ourselves in order to reconstruct those situations while sitting in a comfortable armchair and to explain them to ourselves.

That’s how I see theatre: it is a kind of service, a mission to people. I am also involved in my own performances, and I am a spectator of my own performances and those by others. Like others, I contemplate my life while watching them. When a performance has been in the repertoire for over ten years, I think about what I was when I was creating it and what I am now. This experience helps to understand the future. As for the context of the pandemic, we are totally depressed, we are very much lacking direct contact, a simple look into each other’s eyes, an exchange of emotions and energy. We talked a lot via all those zooms, we called each other a lot, we texted and emailed. But we are sorely lacking the living contact, the living exchange, person to person. And this is a strong reason for our depressive breakdowns.

There used to be discussions, and these deliberations are still going on, about the time when theatre will disappear. I think it’s impossible. Theatre is the form of art that will never disappear because a living individual is performing to another individual. It’s impossible to deprive the art of theatre of this experience. Even music, which is brilliant and we can’t imagine living without it, is composed, while in the theatre, there is a person who performs with their body, with their feelings, with their energy, and they give it away to people, and they accept it. An exchange takes place. That’s why I think that pandemic and post-pandemic theatre is very important both for us and for the audience, because that is our mission.


What do you appreciate most in the theatre people, the actors?

 I especially appreciate the sense of mission in them, that we are creating something not for an idea but for people. The sense of professionalism is also very important to me. I’m also interested in traits like emotionality, intuition, openness, flexibility, multidimensionality, originality, the fact that actors or other creators don’t repeat something, don’t follow someone, but they try to find something original, something new within themselves depending on our experiences, on our inner trials. I don’t want my performances to be repetitive; I want them to differ from one another. I remember, at a festival they asked me how to introduce me, because one performance is like this and another one is different. The styles of the performances differ, and the festival audience doesn’t like that. They asked me why I couldn’t find one style and polish it. For me, it’s very important to be different all the time, to show the maximum diversity of my faces, so that I am not bored at my own performances.


What guides you in your choice of artists and composers?

 It’s actually very simple: I just meet people, I get to know them, because it’s not only creativity – say, the originality of a composer's music – that is very important for me but also the personality, whether I feel a connection with them, whether we think alike. The contact with a co-creator is critical. I am very demanding, I expect a lot from everyone who works with me; I have lots of expectations. That’s why there must be a strong bond, a mutual understanding between us before we start work. I must be sure that one creator or the other wants to go on that journey, that adventure with me. Let’s say, we go to Cambodia with our backpacks instead of flying to Paris for a weekend. We need to agree in advance what our cooperation will look like. This is crucial.


Early in your theatrical career, you directed performances under different pseudonyms. Why did you need them and why are you not using them now?

 For a very long time I couldn’t understand why. I think it’s because I didn’t want to say ‘I am Grzegorz Jarzyna’ to be able to look for more names and more faces within myself. I found it more important to show one side of myself or another, the part of my personality that was different from the one before. That’s why I had this schizophrenic idea to change those names. I used to say to myself: this performance was directed by Horst d’Alberti, and that one by Brokenhorst. This immediately conveyed the character of a certain personality. For example, why was I Sylwia Torsh? On the one hand, it’s an anagram of my father’s surname, plus a female name. As you can see from those pseudonyms, initially I revolved around my father. It’s also deeply subconscious and intuitive, because I couldn’t decipher his secret and, at the same time, my own secret. It was only after his death that a lot of things fell into place for me, but that was also a very long process. And then I started using my own surname.


Did they know in Poland that you were you? You are one of the few directors with no conventional biography.

Yes, this is true. Even in Wikipedia the page isn’t neat. In the beginning, some people knew about those names and others didn’t. I remember when I was working on Count Myshkin, the Wyborcza newspaper announced a competition, ‘What will Grzegorz Jarzyna be called this time, what will his pseudonym be?’ There were questions about these pseudonyms on TV, too: ‘Which director created this or that play?’ Such was the game. And I decided it was more a story of the media than my own. A certain conjuncture started. Then I thought that maybe it was time to give up pseudonyms and use my real name and to reflect on why I so often avoided it. Later all that didn’t make sense any longer.


I would like to know what your theatre, TR Warszawa, is today. Do you protect its unique character, do you strive for it?

 For two or three years now, our theatre has been undergoing major changes related to new rules and new communication. The issue of contracts, for example: anyone can find out what my contract is, what contracts have been signed with other directors, actors, staff. Any theatre goer can read them, it’s not a secret. Another very important change is that we are trying to ‘flatten’ the whole structure. That is, we are creating an ahierarchical structure. We are talking about community governance where the community has to decide everything for itself. And this has been going on for the third year. It leads to numerous conflicts and misunderstandings in the company, because we have to draw the boundaries between that communist rule and the responsibility of each member of staff.


Thank you very much for an interesting conversation.