World-renowned Polish theatre Gardzienice comes to Palestine

In 1977, a Pole named Wlodzimierz Staniewski created Gardzienice, a Centre for Theatre Practices, in a Polish village of the same name. Forty-one years later, the artists from this world-renowned theatre have come to Palestine to share their knowledge and participate in a creative experience with Palestinians.

It all started with a proposal call issued by the European Union, Sandy Ola, the initiator and facilitator of the project, told Palestine Monitor. Originally from Poland, now working in Palestine, and an ex-student of Gardzienice, Ola immediately thought of the Centre for Theatre Practices as perfect for a cultural exchange project between a member state of the EU and Palestine.

Ola explained that as well as being an active theatre producing one thoroughly-researched play every two years, the second central pillar of Gardzienice’s work is the emphasis on teaching, on transmitting knowledge and techniques developed over the years. Given these two qualities I thought, well, they are perfect, because not only do they have excellent content but also they know how to give this content to others, Ola said.

An intensive workshop over the course of two weeks was the central part of this ‘Seeds of Expression’ project, funded by the European Union. Gardzienice actors shared knowledge and techniques with aspiring Palestinian artists. As an added bonus and under the artistic guidance of Staniewski, founder of Gardzienice, the Polish and Palestinian participants have put together a lively, entertaining performance � resulting from their work throughout the workshop � which premiered on March 15 at the Palestinian Circus School, in Birzeit.

Written by Stanislaw Wyspianski in 1901, the classic Polish drama The Wedding, is the textual framework of the performance. A marriage between a poet from the Krakow bourgeoisie and a peasant girl functions as the central storyline, leading to a wide variety of encounters ranging in tone from humorous to philosophical.

In the advertisement for the performance, the public is told: () the scenes will not present you with a story, tale, or a fable. Don’t search for them, leave the rationale behind, and behold powerful images, sounds, and visions bordering between the worldly and the spiritual. Such a description of the performance is adequate, as during the performance the audience is consistently stunned by the constant bursts of action.

The energy of the Polish and Palestinian artists is captivating and powerful. All twenty performers are dressed in colourful costumes and are always on stage, speaking and singing in Arabic, Polish and English. ‘Scenes from The Wedding’ (the title of the performance) combines Polish and Palestinian components to great effect: traditional folk Polish songs are played by Palestinian musicians, including an oud player. Musicality permeates all aspects of the performance and stays with the audience long after the end.

Ola told Palestine Monitor that at the level of cultural exchange, the experience has been very deep, enriching and powerful. It worked very well, she commented, and it’s a field I hope can be explored further in the future.

Alison Hodge, in an article for Contemporary Theatre Review, documents how in the 1970s and 1980s, Gardzienice’s work involved expeditions to remote enclaves where ethnic Roma, Belarusians and Ukrainians lived in the eastern regions of Poland. Hodge explains that the purpose of such work was to access ‘native’ cultures obscured by the Communist authorities which governed Poland at the time. The origins of Gardzienice’s work thus find a particular resonance in Palestine, where indigenous Palestinian culture has been consistently erased or appropriated by Israel since the beginning of the occupation.

Since the dissolution of the USSR and subsequent political, economic and cultural upheavals, Hodge writes that Gardzienice has delved deep into the earliest European myths, music and dance. In many ways, this could be seen as an appeal by Staniewski to our most fundamental sense of community in the face of what he sees as the ambiguities and fragmenting effects posed by postmodern and consumerist cultures, Hodge notes.

It is noteworthy that a theatre-group, whose work is anchored in such concerns, should come to fragmented Palestine. Indeed, the centrally important multicultural aspect of the performance seems to appeal to our common humanity. Our shared physical senses are stimulated, as the audience is engaged in a sensorial experience which moves beyond the barriers of language or culture-specificity.

On the theatre’s website, it states Gardzienice offers backbreaking work. Asked by Palestine Monitor if the project encountered any difficulties, Ola remarked some Palestinian students were taken aback by the intensity of the work demanded by Gardzienice theatre. However, she noted: the group that stayed with us until end did a really, really strong and great job, adjusting to this high-paced work rhythm.

The performance is currently touring in Nablus, Jenin and Jerusalem.