Young, Polish, Naive - Malina Prześluga (Poland)
Reprinted, with permission, from Teatr Lalek magazine, nr 4/110/2012
Since for some time I seem to be functioning in the media vocabulary as a “young Polish playwright”, and since in a few months, which I plan to enjoy without undue reflection, I shall be thirty, I aim to write from the vantage point of a young playwright who has been familiar with the topic only for several years. This is a highly convenient perspective – the young are quite easily forgiven. On the other hand, it is challenging since youth is not always treated seriously. Well aware of this polarisation, I wish to take part in a discussion that has been going on for years.
I almost forgot – the adjective “young” is accompanied by “Polish”. For the purposes of this text I would like to contest that description and try (totally at odds with the Polish habit) not to complain about the presence of contemporary dramaturgy and the state of puppet theatre in general.
The main reason for my attitude lies in the fact that I believe that things are going well! More precisely – better than in the past. Needless to say, I shall write from my viewpoint because it is the one I know best. A year ago I heard: “Brilliant text, really, a pity that no theatre will play it.” The text is about death seen from the perspective of a pair of well-used slippers. Not the death of a squirrel or a hamster, but that of a child.
A year ago no one was even interested in the play but this month alone I had three telephone calls about staging it at public theatres tackling you-know-what, fearing you-know-what, and dependent on you-know-who. The latter three burdens comprise a topic-boomerang of every discussion that starts promisingly with artistic assets and the importance of the subject matter and then descends to the level of complaints about finances and the system. Once the boomerang makes a circle and touches upon money, the unpreparedness of teachers, and the Little Red Riding Hood surefire hits, as well as excuses mentioning the theatre director's term in office as much too short to conduct a true revolution – I stop listening. The reason? I hear an identical echo resounding all around.
Meanwhile, I am of the opinion that a revolution is going on. Why? If only because here I am, writing. I and other playwrights writing here and now have something to say. Our texts do not land at the bottom of our desk drawers, and even if they do they still have an increasingly large chance to emerge from them. True, this is a mere drop in the ocean of productions, but drop by drop… By taking small steps and arm in arm with the young generation of Polish directors we cause turmoil in the theatre by steering all those cute little red riding hoods, thumbelinas and pusses 'n boots towards a cosy junk room. Some more effort, further debates, a few years of instinctive complaints and we shall find ourselves in the land of happy playwrights. (Obviously, it is not my intention to kill off all those riding hoods, thumbelinas and pussycats, as you shall see slightly later on in this text).
In order for this turnover to take place everyone must attain certitude. Not necessarily as part of an opposition, since the latter tends to result in barren discussions. I have in mind a consistent striving towards joint targets. Theatre education, meetings with teachers, Summer in the Theatre, restructuring the Office for the Organisation of Spectacles, a residency programme for authors and (careful – an obscene word ahead!) advertising and public relations – all this is slowly happening and taking first steps in the manner of the youngest spectator who, well prepared, will grow up to become conscious and assertive. (Only ten years the very concept was an abstraction, and now, just look around!) This is the way I see it in a youthful, non-Polish and probably naive manner. Sounds somewhat like socialist propaganda, but then there is so little joyous propaganda in the discussion about the theatre!
There is yet another issue to be tackled, at least in the opinion of a young and naive author. I have in mind our complexes. “Wow, super! Spectacles for children to be shown at a festival for adults!” “Look! A show for adolescents won a prize at an all-theatrical review!” “A puppeteer has actually been NOTICED!” Naturally I exaggerate, but this is the way I see the prevailing situation. All those cries of joy just because “our theatre is becoming acclaimed on the national stage”. Admittedly, I was as happy as a child when Paweł Aigner staged my Arabela at the Wybrzeże Theatre. The media were full of declarations that this was the first spectacle intended for children for Lord know how many years, an important step forward, an example of an apt policy pursued by the theatre company oriented towards concrete market demands.
Is there any reason for all this excitement? After all, such a situation might soon become universal even if only because dramaturgy addressed to children is not restricted to the puppet theatre just as the latter does not stage spectacles intended exclusively for children. Quite possibly, in a short while the repertoire of each significant dramatic theatre will contain productions for children simply because, as I have mentioned, the number of contemporary plays for children is growing. A play is a play (be it a dazzling one about bumble bees or an embarrassingly poor one about Auschwitz) just like a member of the audience remains a spectator (aged eight or eighty and both fond of cheerful songs), a thespian is an actor (one is better as Macbeth and another – as a Muppet), and a theatre is a theatre. As far as I am concerned the borderline between that which is “infantile” and “grown-up” in public theatres could simply vanish.
Another piece of good news in this stream of observations: I talked about my texts with numerous Teachers, Mommies and Daddies. No one accused me of presenting strange and avant-garde topics. For those who deal with children on an everyday basis such protagonists as Pigeon Poop Andrew, Patrick's Hair or a Ladder in a Pair of Tights (to use examples from my plays) are not unusual. Today's children have the doubtful pleasure of watching the talking backsides of devils, yellow pseudoanimals coming out of a listening globe in order to wage a battle, or crazy birds shooting at green pigs wearing helmets.
Such examples can be multiplied. Only a theatre accustomed to dusty princesses or crumbling fairy godmothers treats such protagonists as curios. I hate hearing the same question asked over and over again – where did you get the idea of writing about such characters? After all, during the '80s I watched not only assorted little red riding hoods but also two silver hotdogs-experts on mathematics (called Sigma and Pi) and a loudmouth scruffy character living in a dustbin on Sesame Street; with stoic calmness I accepted the fact that a talking cat who makes all wishes come true is really a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. It is irrelevant who speaks to the child – it is what he says that is important.
In a comic strip Pigeon Poop talks about passing wind, but in the theatre it remembers that once it was actually a real pigeon soaring above the world and compelled to tackle the feeling of longing, all in earnest. I could have used a princess imprisoned in a castle but decided to turn her into an off-putting creature simply to add some dramaturgy. The kids are all too familiar with princesses who are now part of a scheme – a princess can be effortlessly drawn from memory, saved and kissed. Much too easy! A princess no longer inspires. Naturally, this is my private point of view. I do not call for a public execution of all princesses and their ilk but would like to treat the traditional, to coin a phrase, protagonists and those made of present-day material as equal without pondering; why? Will the young spectator get it?
The young spectator understands when his parents divorce, when the cat dies, when in a highly suspicious TV show someone shoots someone else and the victim is in pain. Why should all this not be granted an accessible, contemporary and relatively mild form and not tell about the world without seeking refuge behind a castle tower and a fairy shooting rainbows? Traditional literature and productions of equally traditional plays are, in my opinion, much easier and conservative. Obviously, sometimes it is necessary while dealing with a child to resort to a stereotype, some sort of a domesticated universe, in order to find a point of reference and to be able to explain certain mechanisms outright. But dramaturgy should not limit itself to such a procedure; after all, we have at our disposal a whole arsenal of important and topical traditional texts, praiseworthy stories that had not lost their value. There is no need to use force to open doors that are already ajar. Since Andersen and other similar authors still affect universal awareness it would be worthwhile to follow yet another path and show the world anew, avoiding an archetypisation of relations, anachronisms and clichés.
Apparently, the young generation of Polish parents is already aware of this, as evidenced by the growing popularity of contemporary children's literature, increasingly daring and closer to the fascinations, fears and dilemmas faced by the child every day. This attitude does not entail the traumatisation of reality, telling the child that the cat died, lies rotting in its grave and now you can bawl.
It is quite possible that I am spouting a lot of banalities in vain since everyone knows that this is not the point. Nonetheless, I see that the misunderstanding lies in questions about the protagonists, in doubts whether to speak about death directly (albeit tactfully), and in fears about staging plays untested by time.
Wait a moment – this stream of observations was supposed to have been heartening and here I am already starting to complain! The positive fact is the one with which I started – the Mommies, Daddies and Teachers with whom I talked accepted the proposed protagonists and themes as a norm.
My summary will assume the form of pure propaganda: there is no need to groan – no one said that things would be easy! Open letters, the struggle for residency, disputes about misfortune. If things were any different, I would be writing about tall drinks served with miniature palm tree decorations. I am not fond of the word: “artist” because it much too often acts as an indisputable argument, but being an artist means to struggle and scuffle, not necessarily in search for a comfortable life and employment. Perhaps once I have children of my own reality will verify my views, but for the time being the most important thing is to like what one is doing.
I like to write and I write what I see. If I were to see a princess I would certainly write about her – a princess using a white hanky to press an elevator button or running across a park resembling a minefield full of dog droppings. Fairy-tale magic happens anyhow and cannot be missing in stories written for children, but instead of a wand producing rainbows I take a stick, dip it in playground mud and wait for the result. Quite possibly, one day I shall change my bearings and begin writing about what I do not see. I do not want enclose myself within a single vantage point so as to avoid explaining why I opted for a new one. As my granny says – let's see which way the stick will flow.
One way or another, Polish dramaturgy is faring well, and if in a few years I change my opinion this will only mean that I have become an old, unfulfilled “artiste” not worth spoiling your mood.