On the eve of her play The Mother An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue, part of BMW Tate Live at Tate Modern, Paulina Olowska talks to Agnieszka Gratza about performance, realism and the Tate Collection
What drew you to Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) initially?
Witkacy is a name that haunts you, where I come from. As a teenager, I found his novels unsettling. I remember my uncle telling me that Witkacy painted and made drawings under the influence of drugs. He operated a portrait painting firm where he would sign his works with the names of the drugs he had taken and charge his clients accordingly. Witkacy was a pioneer in this domain, before American artists started experimenting with drugs. To me, he has the appeal of an all-round artist: a playwright, painter, photographer, writer and philosopher with an interest in spirituality. For some time now, I’ve been investigating outsider figures who lived in remote places which, in Witkacy’s case, was Zakopane in the Tatra mountains in the south of Poland.
And how did you become interested in Witkacy’s 1924 play The Mother?
While going through the archives of my local puppet theatre in Rabka Zdrój, a small spa town between Kraków and Zakopane, I came across a magazine called Teatr. One of the covers was astonishing. It had a black-and-white picture of a woman with black paint under her eyes who was holding in her arms an old bald man in fetal position. I found out this was the actress Ewa Lassek in director Jerzy Jarocki’s 1976 restaging of The Mother made for television. At the time I was working on an exhibition for Simon Lee Gallery titled Mother 200, and this struck me as an incredible pietà figure.
The play’s subtitle is ‘An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue’? What makes it ‘unsavoury’?
‘Unsavoury’ is a very Witkacian word. It has aristocratic overtones and there’s a touch of the grotesque about it. That’s what makes it relevant today. We may no longer get high on morphine and alcohol, like the characters in Witkacy’s play, but there are other kinds of drugs. Love is a drug; emotions are a drug; you could say that capitalism is a concept drug.
Initially you were going to build a wooden hut visitors could walk through in the Turbine Hall. Why did you decide to set it amid the Tate collections in the ‘Realisms’ room?
The Zakopane-style hut theatre, as I envisaged it, would have evoked Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, which is right next to the Tate, on a smaller scale, more like a circus. But then I started looking at paintings in the Tate collection and realized it would be more interesting to look at paintings while seeing a play. The ‘Realisms’ room with its unusual combination of imaginary landscapes and portraits, of interior and exterior views, had something of a stage about it. Why not treat it as a stage then, I thought, and the paintings as if they were the interior of a wooden Zakopane-style house? Witkacy and his father Stanisław Witkiewicz – one of the champions of the Zakopane style – were collecting art, though not of the highest quality.
How will you transform the room into a stage set?
The Tate collection is my stage. The actors will play on this stage amid the paintings. But I’m also making a new background for the original paintings. The walls will be covered with a hand-painted, trompe l’oeil wallpaper that mimics the interior of a wooden hut in Witkacy’s time. It’s meant to evoke the idea of domesticity and the room where the drama unfolds in The Mother. There will be two chairs, a table, a wardrobe, following Witkacy’s directions.
Could you talk about the posters you’re creating for the play?
I’m painting them as a collage, inspired by the Russian Revolutionary Posters room. The collage will reference posters from various productions of The Mother. They will function as the back wall in a theatre foyer and signal that it’s a play. I like to use the word ‘play’, rather than ‘performance’, even though I’m part of the BMW Tate Live series. It’s such a beautiful word. It means ‘to play’, which is the basis for education. I’d like it to bring a certain lightness, an element of warmth and playfulness to the play. Theatre can be such a loaded word. The same goes for contemporary art.
How did you find the actors who portray the two leads: the mother and the son?
The play is full of long dialogues and we thought it would be too demanding for non-professionals, so we decided to cast. In the actor specifications, I made it clear that gender, race and age are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. If someone feels the role of the Mother, I would happily recruit them. So for the titular role I chose David Gant whereas Leon is played by Valerie Cutko. Both auditioned for the part of the Mother. Both embodied the spirit of Witkacy – theatricality, madness, a certain flamboyance, fun.
Did you design the costumes they will wear yourself? What sort of ‘look’ are you after?
The costumes designed by Krystyna Zachwatowicz, Andrzej Wajda’s wife and collaborator, were a big influence on me. She created extraordinary costumes for Jarocki’s restaging of The Mother. I’m very fortunate to be working with friends like Milovan Farronato, Kola Sliwinska and my uncle Kacper Olowski, who interpret the minor characters in the play. They already have an incredible appearance and I will work with that.
Will you be part of the performance yourself?
I see myself as a souffleur. Aside from designing the costumes, creating the stage set and directing the play, I’ll play the violin. At least that’s the plan. In classical theatre, the piano or some other instrument is there to help one focus on the play. The violin, which you often hear in Zakopane, will mark the rhythm and signal when something is ending or beginning. So I’ll also be conducting.
Have you ever directed a play before?
Never a play as such, though I have directed performances involving posing, such as Bahaus Yoga 2001, Salon de l’indépendent 2001 and Alphabet 2012.
One of my collaborations with Lucy McKenzie, Nova Popularna at the National Artist Club Gallery in Warsaw, was a bar and an art salon doubling as a three-dimensional painting, where we staged concerts in a range of musical styles during a month in 2003. The Mother is akin to that experiment. It’s an experiment to use paintings as a stage set and props; to mix professional and lay actors chosen from among friends and prior collaborators; to work with a play that’s part of theatre repertoire and attempt to make it feel new and relevant.
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BMW Tate Live is a major partnership between Tate and BMW which focuses on performance and interdisciplinary art in the gallery and online and is curated by Catherine Wood, and Capucine Perrot.
BMW Tate Live: Paulina Olowska is curated by Catherine Wood and Juliette Rizzi, and produced by Judith Bowdler.
Commissioned and produced as part of Corpus, network for performance practice. Corpus is Bulegoa z/b (Bilbao), CAC Vilnius, KW(Berlin), If I Can’t Dance (Amsterdam), Playground & M, Leuven), and Tate Modern (London; as part of BMW Tate Live).