Theatre in a quiet place can make a big noise

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Poland’s Teatr Węgajty, whose founders cite Emerson and Whitman as influences, blends tradition and experimentation to address social issues in a rural, grassroots setting.

The small village of Węgajty, hidden amongst the forests of Poland's Lake District, unknown to anyone who does not deliberately seek it out, is home to one of that culturally rich country's most socially engaged experimental theatre companies.

Experimental theatre? In the middle of cow country? For Wacław and Erdmute Sobaszek, co-founders of the Teatr Węgajty Fieldwork Project, there is no better setting.

"This is a collective effort," explains Wacław. "What makes us different from other theatre companies is that instead of putting on a show for people, we work with people. The whole community gets involved."

Teatr Węgajty came into being in 1982 when Waclaw and Erdmute (or Wacek and Mutka, as they are more familiarly known) were a young married couple living in the northern city of Olsztyn and running a small theatre company. The early 80s were a time of great excitement in Poland as the democratic Solidarity movement began to challenge the communist state.

However, this resistance was brought to a sudden halt on Dec. 13, 1981, when martial law was declared. Those directly involved in the Solidarity movement were imprisoned; journalists, teachers and artists were suppressed. "With martial law, we were thrown out of our building. We had no place to go, but we were able to move to the country, and the people here were eager to support us and collaborate with us," Wacek explains.

In the country, Wacek and Mute had the freedom to develop their fledgling project. "It was a paradoxical, surreal time in many respects. For example, prices were low, but in the store there was nothing to buy. We were inspired by Emerson and Walt Whitman to make our own way. There were other young people who joined us, who also wanted to create art in response to the mess our country was in," Wacek says.

He adds that from the start, one of the Teatr Węgajty's main goals was the restoration but also the redefinition of tradition. On the one hand, the group aimed to promote cultural traditions that had been suppressed by the communist state. However, they recognized the need to view these traditions from a multicultural perspective. An example of this exploration can be seen in the group's interest in masks, props which figure centrally in their work.

"Masks constitute a very open art form that lets us change our identity in a very radical way. We traveled to Macedonia and saw a carnival that was like an ocean of masks -- everyone had a new identity. All over Europe there are thousand-year traditions of masked theatre. We studied the history of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte and learned about how the tradition of masked theatre made its way into Poland through the Czech Republic," Wacek explains.

In its early years, Teatr Węgajty focused largely on dramatic adaptations of Polish literary classics, like Adam Mickiewicz's Forefather's Eve. While the group has continued to look to these classics for inspiration, they have also learned from the many people who have walked up the dirt road that leads to the theatre doors.

They have collaborated recently with residents of a local nursing home, incorporating their stories into theatre and engaging with them as actors. They also have reached out to diverse communities from around Europe and beyond.

"From the beginning we wanted our theatre to be open to many different people and different theatrical forms. In recent years it has been more global; people from Africa, Asia and all over the world have come to our small village to take part in our annual festival."

Węgajty's annual international theatre festival, which began as a collaborative project with German artists in 2003, is an eclectic week-long event held every July filled with workshops, presentations and performances by professional theatre groups from all over Poland and beyond as well as various social projects. Recent festivals have included dance performances by refugees from Chechnya residing in Poland, a one-man adaptation of Don Quixote, hip-hop shows put on by young correctional facility inmates, and an adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of Daphne, performed by women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence.

"Our goal is to help these women to see themselves not as ‘victims of violence' but as ‘free individuals deciding their own fate," says Dagna Ślepowronska, artistic director of the Women's Rights Centre, a Warsaw-based NGO that has recently begun employing theatre as a means to helping women and raising public awareness of domestic and sexual violence.

In December 2009 they performed a piece in Brussels at the European Parliament as part of a public hearing for a new EU directive on violence against women; however, Węgajty remains one of their favourite theatrical homes.

"The magic of theatre is that it works in metaphors; instead of focusing on the past, we focus on what we can do now -- singing, acting, working, living," Ślepowronska adds. "We just want to help these women to feel like human beings again... Some of them at the beginning of the program spoke so quietly that you couldn't even hear them. Our goal here is for their voices to be heard."

However, the Women's Rights Centre is not the only company that deals with gender issues. The 2010 festival, which took place from July 25-31, featured a play created and performed by an Olsztyn-based group called Biały Teatr (White Theatre) which was inspired by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

"A lot of our actors have recently become mothers; some were pregnant at the time of production, and one was a man whose wife was pregnant" says artistic director Janina Tomaszewska.

"Here in Poland, women must fight for gender equality; also, when they are pregnant they are not treated respectfully by the medical establishment; they are treated like material objects rather than subjects, as are their children. We felt that it was worth discussing this theme, and Atwood's novel provided an excellent frame of reference."

Incorporating the actors' personal stories as well as poetic fragments into the performance, Biały Teatr's play reveals the underlying realism of Atwood's dystopian novel, in which society is ruled by a chauvinistic, racist regime following a military coup. "To me, the plot of this novel makes a lot of sense; there is a definite danger that something like this really could happen," Tomaszewska says.

Another central theme of this year's festival was the environment, as Teatr Węgajty's own performance, "Roots and Shoots," featured a satire of the Copenhagen conference on climate change and a dramatization of the changed way of life on earth due to the scarcity of water which will pose major problems in the near future.

Like so many of this group's performances, "Roots and Shoots" is based on tradition -- in this case, the old Slavic custom of door-to-door holiday caroling, and involves the audience directly in the process. However, as critic Agnieszka Kozłowska-Piasta points out, "The actors draw energy from the audience, engage in a dialogue, and invite them to share in a collective process... Teatr Węgajty isn't out to reconstruct the past, but rather it engages in a creative process that allows us to be understood by all the people whom we encounter, young and old."

Unlike most commercial theatre companies, where actors and directors compete for opportunities and recognition, Teatr Węgajty focuses on finding a way to include all the talents and resources which its participants offer. This includes the help of community members who cook meals for festival participants and hang photographs from telephone poles for outdoor art exhibitions.

"We have many challenges here," says Wacek. "Rural areas have their own social problems -- alcoholism, depression. It can be hard to get local children involved with our work. Also, there is always the issue of funding and sponsorship."

Indeed, a good part of Teatr Węgajty's work involves the search for funding, but thus far, they have managed.

"Even when it gets difficult, we never forget our mission," Wacek says. "We're idealistic Don Quixotes constantly pursuing our dream."

Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature.

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