Some Reflections on the Partnership Between CalArts Center  for New Performance and STUDIO teatrgaleria

Natalia Korczakowska

Chaotic times of economic and social turbulence are historically followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes from one side and avant-garde movements in the arts from other sides. When the propaganda of fear causes many to look for some form of guardianship, artists break established aesthetic canons to protect freedom of expression. Today, as politics interfere in our lives at a scale that would leave even George Orwell scratching his head, two unique avant-garde institutions from two continents have come together to support a common goal: the future of theater as a synthesis of the arts.

The cooperation between CalArts and STUDIO Teatrgaleria was initiated in 2017, when Travis Preston visited Warsaw on behalf of CNP, intrigued by the idea of accessing and revitalizing STUDIO’s avant-garde traditions, a process I have pursued as STUDIO’s Artistic Director since 2016. After Travis saw Berlin Alexanderplatz, the first performance I directed at STUDIO, we spoke about perspectives for the future. What follows is a brief assessment of our extraordinarily rich discussions along with my account of the CalArts/STUDIO exchanges that resulted in 2017–2019.

No Program but a Place
What is the future of theater in the time when crypto art sells for millions of dollars? Is there anything theater can offer to the generation of the Internet of Things? These are some of the questions we discussed with Travis during our first meeting in Warsaw, arranged by Joanna Klass, the great Polish theater producer and curator. One answer, we agreed, is that theater is no program but a place where people can meet face to face in an artificial world created by artists to reflect reality. I came to STUDIO with a precise program for three years. But after reviewing STUDIO’s archives and speaking with friends in Paris at the Sorbonne University, I decided to reject my own program and focus on building a place for artists to bring their own various ideas and beliefs. I realized that the world we live in today is deeply programmed by politicians, art curators, PR agents, algorithms, etc. I imagine STUDIO as a place where artists do not need to serve any vision other than their own. A place where they do not need to answer to any ideology. I think that this is the only real/possible opposition at the present time. It doesn’t mean that the theater directors who are invited to work at STUDIO don’t get feedback. But instead of asking them what their performance will be about, I ask them how they will make it. I withdraw from the field of meaning. Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – also known as Witkacy – wrote in the introduction to his Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf (1921) that complete freedom from any demands of real-life truth is “necessary for the potential growth of new dramatic forms.” In a time when theater is perceived as a sort of social activism, I do my best to make sure that we do not forget that art is about its form as well.

When I first came to CalArts in 2017 for research, I was awed not only by its location in a desert landscape but by its campus. If you would like to find out what the destination of an institution is, you can start by looking at its architecture. At CalArts, different art faculties are collected in one place at this school, with the Walt Disney Modular Theater at the center. One of the most unique theater spaces in the world, its architecture supports an unlimited range of stage and seating configurations. Here, musicians, visual artists, writers, dancers, actors, filmmakers, and theater directors meet every day and inspire each other’s work. You need only walk around the campus to find all the inspiration you need.

CalArts Festival at STUDIO teatrgaleria
In June 2018, CNP and STUDIO Teatrgaleria launched an interdisciplinary project combining theater, visual arts, and contemporary music, implemented in collaboration by CalArts and STUDIO artists. Curated by Travis, as CNP’s Artistic Director, this developmental residency was a creative response to the tradition and space of STUDIO. The results of this cooperation were presented on the STUDIO stages and at Plac Defilad as the CalArts Festival. The project and festival were organized also in cooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland. CNP brought an all-star team to STUDIO, made up of CalArts alumni, faculty, and current students. These artists included writer and performer Marissa Chibás, choreographer Jessica Emmanuel, filmmaker Janie Geiser, composer and sound artist Chris Kallmyer, filmmaker Lewis Klahr, performance artist Peter Mark, director Zoe Moore, writer and performer Daniel Passer, and video artist Keith Skretch. During the several days of the mini-festival—which presented nine original works developed while in residence, four community engagement workshops, and three short films—STUDIO teatrgaleria changed into a vast space of exhibition filled with the passion of American artists. Peter Mark’s deconstruction of Hamlet with original animations surprised the audience in the foyer—a unique space where Jerzy Grzegorzewski once presented his legendary experimental productions. Chris Kallmyer drove into the deep south of Poland to spend a week tracking down thousand-year-old Slavic rituals in the hollows beneath mountains and in the old forests of Upper Silesia. After returning to Warsaw with images, sketches, and hours of interviews, he set to work creating an installation and short performance with a team of producers, a costume designer, eight accordionists, and a horse. Later, a cowboy, as the symbol of the Solidarity Movement, rode the horse on the Stalinist plaza in front of the theater as a small crowd of artists and assorted Warsaw residents looked on.

The festival showed that the two institutions complement each other well. The experimental mission Travis pursues at CNP fit seamlessly into what I’ve been working on at STUDIO. When Walt Disney established CalArts in 1971, it was imagined as an all-inclusive community, where artists would look outside their own métiers and collaborate across conventional categories to conjure new expressions. By breaking through artificial barriers, this ongoing exchange of ideas and methods opens up fresh perspectives, sparks out-of-the-box innovation, and energizes the creative community as a whole. CalArts has always thrived on the diversity of its artists—representing not only multiple forms and styles, but also a horizon-expanding mix of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and voices. STUDIO’s similar identity began under the leadership of Józef Szajna, as of 1972. Both institutions are now celebrating five decades of existence.

Two-Headed Calf
I chose Witkacy’s play Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf for my project with CNP because the experience of endless and wild California nature is close to the experience of the tropical journey that Witkacy made with Bronisław Malinowski before writing the play. The plot unfolds as the journey of a neurotic boy, Patricianello, and his family from New Guinea through Sydney to the desert, which, read in a vicinity near to Death Valley, becomes something real, at your fingertips. Witkacy, raised in the Tatra Mountains of Eastern Europe, believed that nature could be a source of metaphysical experience, giving the contemporary individual a chance to protect their individuality from the soulless social machine of western civilization.

Patricianello’s journey involves the passage into the depths of oneself. The intense colors of tropical flowers, the black abyss of nighttime in the desert, and the heat of the red sun rising above it are the manifestations of this journey. Aldous Huxley’s iconic text The Doors of Perception (1954) describes the mind-opening experience of taking mescaline (extracted from desert cacti). Under mescaline’s influence, Huxley understood how limited and vulnerable the so-called “civilized” man is, for he is actually subservient to the rational, looking only ahead and deprived of the metaphysical dimension. Such a man becomes an automaton, a mode in a system. In confrontation with what is inexplicable, starting with his own existence, he is doomed to depression and defeat. Indifference is his illness. It is the Kala-Azar plague from Witkacy’s play that destroys Western civilization.

The Witkacy/Two Headed Calf performance had several versions. The first was a short theater etude showed at the Valencia campus as a result of my residency at CalArts in 2017. During two weeks of workshops I introduced Witkacy’s idea of “pure form” to a group of theater faculty and students. In 2018, I came back with STUDIO actors to open the second and full version of the show at the Modular Theater in the fall. In September 2018, we performed a version at STUDIO Teatrgaleria, and then another at REDCAT in November 2018. The show changed through those two years of looking for and processing the representation of the desert.

The greatest challenge for our creative team was finding a way to represent nature onstage, and our strategy evolved over two years of creative development. First of all: the desert, with its mysterious atmosphere and spiritual dimension. The desert was not brought to the stage by an imitation of its shapes made out of some fake sand. Instead, we used a combination of golden lighting, the sounds of the wind captured by Chris Kallmeyer, and the emptiness of the theater stage exposed by the installation of abstract doors. The actors performed a state of mind. The desert onstage was the lack of action. The naked presence of time passing painfully slowly while waiting for the merciless sun to climb into boundless space.

The desert is the awareness we have gained by watching wildfires in California and all over the world. As one of Witkacy’s characters puts it in the play: “There will be nothing but the salt lakes, and the red of the earth, desiccated and laden with gold. And the sun will burn so hot that our tongues will turn black and parched and we’ll howl for a single drop of water. Will we be able to stand the fact that life’s worth no more than a glass of iced lemonade?”

The Doors of Perception
Art used to be about transgression. Throughout the decades it was created to fill a gap in our identity as human beings. To address our existential fears. To connect us with our emotional life and wildest subconscious. To open our imagination and break our rational belief. To question our social rules. Actors used to be the outsiders of society and not to be buried at the cemetery because they were suicides who performed against a political correctness. The theater used to be a ritual to open the doors of our perception. STUDIO Teatrgaleria and CalArts were both founded as creative venues hosting innovative experiments produced by artists representing a range of disciplines. In line with their avant-garde traditions, they offer space for free expression, where different disciplines of art intersect and interact—theater, visual arts, music, and film.

It makes me so proud that the starting point of our partnership has been in questioning the future of artistic theater and, more precisely, the ways it can justify its existence in present-day social, economic, and political environments. The collaboration of the CNP and STUDIO Teatrgaleria, initiated by Joanna Klass and produced in cooperation with Adam Mickiewicz Institute, has been an opportunity to refer to their mutually open artistic traditions, avant-garde sensitivities, and artistic legacies, which come together in the present after years of independent development.



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