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For this Polish group, the virtual world’s also a stage

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on June 20, 2020 Published on June 18, 2020

Popular choice: Tree of Death evoked a warm response from the audience when it was performed at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala in January   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Teatr Pijana Sypialnia is adapting to the new normal in creative ways

*The Polish group reached out to the virtual space and learned new techniques

*They’ve released two singles for their upcoming album

*The Moth, their Polish short with English subtitles, is now available on YouTube

In January, members of Polish theatre group Teatr Pijana Sypialnia were in Thrissur, Kerala, reminiscing about their journey — jamming on the rooftop of a beachside hostel in Chennai and the thrill of performing for a live audience back home in Warsaw. They had presented their play Tree of Death — an ode to nostalgia and melancholy — at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala. The performance, executed through folklore, songs and dark humour, evoked a warm response from the audience.

Cut to June. The pandemic and the ensuing chaos have turned the world upside down. The mood is bleak in the theatre world with productions on hold, rehearsals wrapped up and the future of the form itself a subject of heated discussion. The Polish troupe comprising actors, singers and dancers, however, has decided to face adversity head on. They began by reaching out to the virtual space, learning new techniques and adapting to the new normal in creative ways. “With all the venues and rehearsal spaces closed, we cannot meet and work like we used to. Some projects are ongoing, others have been suspended or cancelled. We still want to work creatively and remain connected with our audience. So, we turned to alternatives: Rehearsing online and creating for the internet,” says Jan Bogdaniuk, an actor and vocalist with the troupe, on email.

The new situation has pushed the boundaries of their imagination, prompting the artistes to curate interactions with theatre directors, organise poetry sessions and experiment with live music. “We’ve released two singles for our upcoming album ‘Psalmy’ (‘Psalms’), recorded several pieces of music from our shows, and put out a rap song as part of the #hot16challenge2, an effort for struggling healthcare staff,” adds Bogdaniuk.

The Moth, their Polish short with English subtitles, which follows a girl on a solitary car journey, is now available on YouTube. “We do everything ourselves: From writing scripts, to directing, shooting and acting, to editing and sound mixing. We’re planning to produce and release more of these ‘lockdown shorts’ throughout the year. Since the lockdown began, we’ve published over 30 pieces of visual art and music, and there are more to come. Our motto is ‘get closer to the people,’” Bogdaniuk says.

The members of the troupe keep in touch through online chats, says Stanislaw Dembski, director of Tree of Death. He is one of the founding members of the group and has been teaching theatre for decades now. The troupe is engaged in online music rehearsals and is working on their next premiere, Poper by Hanoch Levin. “I don’t believe in virtual theatre, and I can’t do it,” Dembski says. There is no replacement, he adds, for physical theatre. “Nothing can replace the true actor-audience connection and a face-to-face conversation. Rehearsals via the internet are just a substitute, and, we hope, a temporary solution. Our troupe is almost like a family, it’s a group of close friends crazy about theatre. We’re working on two new plays, creating new original scripts and discussing roles. This work sparks our optimism.”

With the arts not quite a priority in these testing times, the artistes expect the crisis to hit them particularly hard. “Performing arts such as drama, by their very nature, require a personal connection. Until we reinstate this physical connection, we can’t really speak of making theatre,” Bogdaniuk says. But it’s not all gloom either. “There’s a glimmer of hope though. The new anti-pandemic regulations will likely favour open-air performances — the kind Pijana Sypialnia has been mastering since its beginnings.”

Dembski points out that since the troupe perform mostly in summer, in the open air, opportunities will come their way. “People crave being together and experiencing art collectively. They will put up with having to keep the distance of 1.5 m from each other,” Dembski observes.

Teatr Pijana Sypialnia is one of the largest independent groups in Poland and has taken part in prestigious festivals across the country and won many awards. They usually perform with live music and a conductor, who is also the composer. They also collaborate with a dance company and have their own orchestra featuring young musicians.

The troupe was formed seven years ago, drawing theatre aficionados from diverse disciplines such as archaeology and journalism, who had come together for an actor’s studio conducted by Dembski. The chemistry among them was instant and they decided to come together as a troupe. “Dembski finds a way to reach out to every person even while working in a group. Each of us brings something different to the table,” Bogdaniuk says. Differences of opinion are bound to emerge when 50-odd members work together, but they are handled with sensitivity. “The key is empathy for everything you are doing, towards your partner when performing, and an open-mindedness. When someone brings something up, we say, ‘Okay, let’s try it out.’ We never shun fresh ideas,” Bogdaniuk says.

They wouldn’t trade the joy of rehearsals, jamming and live audience interaction for anything. As actors, they are using this time to hone their creative skills. “I’ve started learning to play the ukulele,” Bogdaniuk says. The troupe members meet at least once a week on group chat to brainstorm, plan the next steps and to simply hang out. “This is a difficult time, and a lot will probably change, but not our friendship and passion for theatre,” hopes Bogdaniuk.

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

Published on June 18, 2020
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