Theatre After #MeToo: Sexual Abuse and Institutional Change in Poland

 

Agnieszka Jakimiak
Royal Holloway, University of London

In the Polish language, an open secret is called ‘a Pulcinella’s mystery’ (tajemnica poliszynela). Although the meaning of this commonly used expression is exactly the same as that of an open secret, the background of the Polish phrase is more sophisticated: Pulcinella is a vicious character from commedia dell’arte – he lacks dignity, takes care only of himself, preserves his high esteem and cockiness. His main objective is to disguise his goals, either by playing a fool or by pretending to have a higher competence than he actually possesses. Pulcinella’s attitude resonates in the Polish phrase – despite the fact that few people use it knowing its etymology, the sinister aura lingers in it. Rarely does anyone use it without thinking of wickedness accompanying a certain secret. Pulcinella’s mystery usually refers to commonly known cases of misbehaviour or misconduct which prevail in the shadow because it remains in someone’s interest to keep them that way. Such meaning of the phrase resonates with the ongoing history of sexual harassment in theatre institutions in Poland, where preserving a structure that protects sexual predators in theatre, avoiding shedding light on cases of misconduct, allowing a set of practices which are harmful for people who lack power or position to come forward have constructed an institutional organism that relies on Pulcinella’s mystery. Many cultural workers have been aware of malevolence present in certain institutions, but their individual acts of pushback were either easy to block by powerful venues or lacked enough evidence to enable action on a wider scale. Their testimonies and experiences would keep ending up in a jar full of Pulcinella’s mysteries reflecting the darker side of theatre work. Nevertheless, in 2019 something started to change rapidly.

On the 6th of November 2019 a group of female employees from Bagatela Theatre in Cracow, Poland, came forward with a public statement in which they accused the director of the theatre, Jacek Schoen, of years of mobbing, sexual harassment, and misconduct. It was not the first time when they spoke out; a couple of weeks earlier they made a formal complaint to the President of Cracow, Jacek Majchrowski, hoping that his office would take action. Contrary to their expectations, Majchrowski has not only ignored their appeal, but he also disclosed the names of the employees to the manager of the Bagatela Theatre thus betraying their trust.

Bagatela Theatre is an institution which relies on comedy repertoire and specializes in farces, such as Ray Cooney’s Mayday, Paul Pörtner’s Shear Madness, Michele Riml’s Sex Laundry and contemporary American classics, such as Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite being a public institution financed by the city, it sustains its commercial profile. Among critics and audiences it has rarely been perceived as a progressive theatre, with a high awareness of working conditions or a strong political agenda. Although the discussion about preventing sexual harassment and violence in Polish theatre institutions has started a while ago, and in 2019 it was widely present in theatrical discourse (for instance, theatre journal Didaskalia published a series of texts about accusations against Jan Fabre; theatre magazine Dialog repeatedly took position concerning the cases of sexual harassment), it was mainly expected to occur in those theatres and theatre academies that are characterized by their political engagement and a social awareness. Bagatela Theatre was certainly not among the openly leftist and political artistic venues in the country. The statement coming from the employees was therefore an eye opener. It proved that the #MeToo movement has achieved certain goals, as it encouraged women, who previously were not at the center of discussions concerning misconduct and harassment in Polish theatres, to speak out and to oppose toxic and harmful institutional practices.

After the public statement from the employees of Bagatela Theatre, president Majchrowski expressed his support and solidarity with the whistleblowers and finally undertook action against the director of the theatre. Schoen took a leave of absence and his duties were taken over by his associate, Renata Derejczyk, while the prosecutor started investigating the case. Majchrowski declared that he would accept a letter of resignation from Schoen, but the director of Bagatela Theatre was not willing to immediately vacate his post. After the 7th of January 2020 his lack of readiness to leave the office became of little importance, as he was confronted with charges and the procedure of removing him from the office was initiated by the City Council. Currently Bagatela Theatre is waiting for the results of the open call for the position of artistic director.

The case of Bagatela Theatre employees is part of a wider context. On one hand, it obviously has a strong connection with the ongoing process of revealing cases of sexual misconduct on a global scale, which began with actresses coming forward with testimonies against Harvey Weinstein. On the other hand, it is strictly linked with the demand for introducing transparency in theatre institutions all around Europe, which has been formulated by artistic unions and organizations in the past years. In Poland this movement has become active especially in Warsaw, where in October 2019 the conference ‘Change Now! What Have We Been Silent About at Drama Schools’ took place. It was organized by the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw and came out as a result of an ongoing process of reshaping the institutional structure of the Academy, which was connected to another scandal: in 2018 a group of students complained about threats, manipulations and physical and social abuse from one of their lecturers.1 Former students and current employees of the Academy decided that it was high time to take the broken system in their own hands and suggested a plan of restructuring the flawed organism of institutional relationships. Although these attempts have been made in the past by individuals affiliated with the Academy, the problem was rooted much deeper than one person’s capacities could reach.

Conference ‘Change now!’; photographer Marta Ankiersztejn

When the former deputy dean of the Academy, Marta Miłoszewska, decided to take action and create a shield that would guarantee that complaints made by students could reach the right person and give them protection, she faced the systemic obstacle that interfered with introducing a successful system of security. This obstacle was the lack of procedures. ‘For years, “the lack of procedures” has been a convenient excuse for not taking any action to improve the situation. People’s decency, and the belief that ‘decent people act decently,’ are not enough,’ she said during the conference.2 The complaint filed in 2018 has also not been the first one in the recent years – already in 2016, a group of students filed a similar complaint, but the case was closed by the Disciplinary Advocate. The feeling of operating with insufficient procedures, which results in engaging oneself with counterproductive solutions, became so omnipresent and alarming that Agata Adamiecka-Sitek (now in a newly established post of Student Rights Advocate at the Academy of Dramatic Art), Agata Koszulińska, Małgorzata Wdowik, and Weronika Szczawińska (former students of Directing Department of Academy of Dramatic Art), Marta Miłoszewska (former deputy dean of Academy), and Beata Szczucińska (the head of Academy’s administrative staff) and a group of other former students decided to fill in the blank spaces left by their predecessors in writing down the procedures. It has been widely acknowledged that a change within the relationships in theatre cannot be possible unless a revolutionary blast enters the academies – and maybe this is the moment when theatre schools in Poland start to reinvent themselves so that their mistakes will not be reproduced by next generations of lecturers and students, theatre practitioners and theoreticians, future directors, and upcoming actors.

Undeniably, the systemic solutions which begin their new life in Polish theatre institutions are also a result of wide-spread discussions and acts of courage that have dominated European theatre for the past couple of years. Some of these acts remain unnoticed, some of them are condemned by long-lasting and excruciating juridical procedures. However, if it were not for a group of former collaborators of Jan Fabre who decided to speak out against a narrative promoted by their former guru, we would not have been able to believe that single voices are capable of rewriting the manipulated story of theatre institutions and violence hidden in their corridors. Single voices sharing their anger, dissent, and indignation concerning unacceptable ways of working in theatres all over Europe have created a network of support and strength that enabled other people to express their objections and protest.

In 2019 together with performers Jaśmina Polak, Jan Sobolewski, set designer and dramaturg Mateusz Atman, and composer Kuba Ziołek, we produced a performance nosexnosolo deriving from the case of Troubleyn – Jan Fabre’s artistic company – and the open letter published by his former collaborators. In 2018 Fabre publicly expressed his concerns connected with #MeToo movement and underlined that sexual harassment has never been present in his company. Fabre claimed that investigating this matter within theatre companies may be dangerous ‘because the relationship, the secret bond between director/choreographer and actor/dancer…. you will in fact also destroy and harm it incredibly’.3 It was his assuming statement that prompted a group of his former associates to come forward with a detailed description of working relationships that Fabre himself introduced in Troubleyn and that were, according to the testimony of his collaborators, far from safe and respectful. They wrote: ‘Humiliation is daily bread in and around the rehearsal space of Troubleyn. Women’s bodies in particular are the target of painful, often bluntly sexist criticism – regardless of their actual physical condition’.4 One and a half year after their statement, Fabre is being invited to all major theatre festivals, such as ImPuls Tanz and Romaeuropa Festival, runs a course in Croatian Cultural Alliance, and he is supported by such stars of performance art as Marina Abramović. It seems that the impact of the open letter of his former employees has evaporated in theatre milieu and did not lead to any structural change.
Therefore, we decided to take a closer look at the language used to justify malevolent practice and investigate the process in which the counterarguments diminish the power of a testimony expressed by those who were hurt, offended, and betrayed by sexual harassment and mobbing. In nosexnosolo we illustrate two situations of misconduct in a series of repetitions: Jan Sobolewski and Jaśmina Polak are reenacting the moment when, according to the description delivered by former collaborators of Fabre, the company’s director was attacking one of the dancers because of her weight gain and the situation when he would invite the dancers for a nude photo shoot. The narrative varies according to the subject of the account, so that a wide set of examples of abusing power is presented. Repetition is a mechanism that characterizes a ‘Pulcinella’s mystery’ – an open secret stays alive because it is passed on, multiplied, reproduced, and still remains part of a non-official narrative. What would happen, if the European theatre network was in fact a platform for revealing open secrets? How could we reveal them so that they become a valid point of institutional reference?

nosexnosolo; photographer BTW Photographers Maziarz/Rajter

nosexnosolo; photographer BTW Photographers Maziarz/Rajter

I want to believe that the most crucial change that is happening in Polish theatre institutions concerns the awareness that political agenda needs to go together with a structural remodeling of conventional – and often harmful – relations in institutional organisms. As the case of accusations against Kevin Spacey in Old Vic, London, has proven, the response from theatre institutions to cases of misconduct may be connected with creating and sustaining a widespread network of support and raising awareness, such as introducing UK Theatre’s handbook – Encouraging Safer and More Supportive Practices in Theatre, and opening the Theatre Helpline5, thus changing the procedures that seemed impossible to change before. According to the study carried out by The Stage, one year after the #MeToo 84% of theatre institutions in the UK have upgraded, adjusted, or changed their procedures against harassment and misconduct.
Polish theatre institutions are starting to realise that their reputation depends directly on how their inner structure is organized and arranged. The first institution that decided to analyse and implement an alternative mode of internal distribution of power in Warsaw was Powszechny Theatre whose directors – Paweł Łysak and Paweł Sztarbowski – opened the impenetrable gates of a theatre institution to a group of three theatre researchers, curators, and theoreticians: Adamiecka-Sitek, Marta Keil, and Igor Stokfiszewski. In 2018 and 2019 the intermediators, as they themselves like to be called, conducted dozens of interviews with Powszechny’s employees and organized discussions with directors working in the theatre. Their main objective was to reshape Powszechny Theatre into a feminist cultural institution, where the principles of care and mutual respect remain the structural priority. The objectives of the program were inspired by the Code of Practice published by tranzit.cz in 20176, in which the authors are reclaiming feminist postulates and using them as tools to revolutionize institutional critique and systemic thinking. They underline the connection between social context and the structural organization of a public institution, the importance of diminishing barriers on an ideological and practical level, and they aim at practicing equality and care. Following the postulates of Feminist Art Institution, intermediators in Powszechny Theatre came up with contracts between the theatre management and their employees that are an outcome of mapping problems and difficulties encountered by both sides in the past. Forthcoming seasons are to show whether this newly implemented code fulfils its role; however, what is crucial for now is that at least one step has been taken to reveal a Pulcinella’s mystery.

During one of the meetings around the project ‘Agreement’ in Powszechny a group of theatre directors invited to contribute to the discussion, together with employees and employers from the theatre, were arguing about the need to come clean about the salaries and make them public. One of the most worn-out arguments was relying on the principle of maintaining transparency that was, supposedly, a universally positive assumption. At one point, Igor Stokfiszewski said: ‘It is not transparency itself that remains the target in this case – transparency is only a means to achieve other goals, such as reducing inequality.’ This approach should define our thinking about reshaping institutions in the era of #MeToo movement to allow for an intensified institutional critique and emancipatory gestures. Although institutional transparency, participation or critique might not always be enough, they still create a platform to accomplish a microsociety that is organized in such a way that guarantees safety, equality, and recognition for all of its members. This is how an open secret is transformed into common knowledge that serves everyone and enables avoiding past mistakes in the future.

Agnieszka Jakimiak (1987) is a PhD student at the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance at Royal Holloway, University of London. She works as a theatre director (nosexnosolo, 2019; Gala of ’68. Freedom is Luxury, 2018; Fear Eats the Soul, 2017), an essayist and a playwright, and she has been working as a dramaturg with Polish and international theatre directors, such as Oliver Frljić (The Curse, 2017; Un-divine Comedy. Remains, 2013), Anja Susa (Blood on the Cat’s Neck, 2015; The Republic, 2019) and Weronika Szczawińska. Her research focuses on traces of censorship and self-censorship in theatre and performing arts. Her current work combines self-referential analysis and institutional critique; it interrogates forms of power distribution and ways of challenging hegemonic practices in theatre.

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Notes:

  1. Witold Mrozek, Akademia Teatralna walczy z molestowaniem seksualnym i mobbingiem. Rektor Malajkat odsuwa wykładowcę i powołuje rzecznika, 2 October 2018, https://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/7,54420,23991434,akademia-teatralna-walczy-z-molestowaniem-seksualnym-i-mobbingiem.html. Accessed 4 January 2020.
  2. Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, Agata Koszulińska, Marta Miłoszewska, Beata Szczucińska, Weronika Szczawińska, Małgorzata Wdowik, Allies: How We Broke the Silence and Made Documents, www.polishtheatrejournal.com/index.php/ptj/article/view/201/958. Accessed 4 January 2020.
  3. Filip Feyten, Jan Fabre: ‘Bij ons in de compagnie, veertig jaar lang, is er nooit een probleem mee geweest. Jamais’, 12 June 2018, www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2018/06/27/jan-fabre-bij-ons-in-de-company-veertig-jaar-lang-is-er-noo/. Accessed 15 December 2019.
  4. (Former) employees and apprentices at Troubleyn, Open letter: #metoo and Troubleyn/Jan Fabre, 12 September 2018,
    www.rektoverso.be/artikel/open-letter-metoo-and-troubleynjan-fabre?fbclid=IwAR18hwKi0LAdWtz4aZXsX650ppbXeLnEdPJoVcdWmK-6HoaLnjyggXmSRSg. Accessed 15 December 2019.
  5. Amber Massie-Blomfield, A year on from #MeToo, how much has theatre really changed?, 15 October 2018,
    www.thestage.co.uk/features/2018/year-metoo-much-theatre-really-changed-harassment-theatre-industry/. Accessed 6 January 2020.
  6. Feminist (Art) Institution, Code of Practice, feministinstitution.cz/code-of-practice/. Accessed 10 December 2019.

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