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Reading of the screenplay, Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia, organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury, Summer 2014
Volume 4

Performing Protest/Protesting Performance: Golgota Picnic in Warsaw

In August 2014, during the Malta Festival in Poznań, Poland, one of the major European festivals of world theatre, the performance of Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia (a festival curator) was cancelled due to the protests of right-wing Catholic groups all over Poland. The protests started about two months before the festival and were grounded on the premises that the performance had a strongly sacrilegious message. In fact, at the moment of the performance cancellation no Polish audiences had seen the play and few knew the text. In a letter to the Poznań City Council, the director of the Malta Festival, Michał Merczyński stated that those who actually saw the play stressed it “had no anti-Christian character” but rather” embraces many phenomena such as consumerism, hedonism, and ethical indifference.” This cancellation created a wave of spontaneous anti-protests (by the intellectual and generally open-minded Poles) and readings of Garcia’s play were organized all over Poland. What follows is an account of a reading of the screenplay organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw at Plac Defilad on June 27, 2014.

No one seemed to know exactly when the protest or “manifestation,” as the Poles call it, was to begin, so I arrived very early and waited on the steps of the Palace of Science & Culture. This Socialist Realist skyscraper, erected in the very center of Warsaw as a “gift” from Stalin to the people of the city, contains several theaters, exhibition halls, cafes, and shops. After the fall of communism in Poland, there were calls for its destruction, but although currently surrounded and nearly dominated by glass and steel structures, each with their own shopping mall celebrating capitalist excess, the “Palace” remains, more or less fulfilling its original function. All sorts of performances are regularly staged and films screened. What’s more, the observation deck is popular among tourists and residents alike.

Sitting on the steps overlooking the Plac Defilad, so named for the military parades organized by the communist authorities, which is now a parking lot that slopes down toward Marszałkowska Street with its huge shopping mall, Centrum, originally built under the communists, I was able to watch the audio technicians leisurely setting up their equipment and the stagehands arranging chairs. There seemed to be a few others like me, waiting to see what would happen and when. At one point several police vans arrived, the ones with the riot screens above the windshields, which signaled to me that something was about to happen.

The audience began to arrive, soon filling the chairs in front of the “stage,” which was really a long table made of thick wooden planks and supported by heavy black steel legs. But I believe the “stage” for these performances was much larger than the platform on which the actors sat. The real stage was the Plac Defilad with the Palace of Culture as backdrop and the audience, in fact, the entire city of Warsaw. The actors reading the script faced outward toward the city, with their backs to the Palace of Culture: to their right, Teatr Dramatyczny, to their left, Teatr Studio. This is the center, in many ways, of theatrical culture in Warsaw today as it was during communist times. So it is very significant, given the special place theatre holds in Polish society, that this reading should take place here.

The protestors, I counted about 40 of them (mostly middle-aged men and women dressed in subdued colors) assembled at the edge of parking lot below the stage under the banner of The Rosary Crusade for the Fatherland. There appeared their gray-bearded leader, wearing a long white robe and an oversized crucifix, who conferred with some of the police officers. He may have been a priest or a brother. Soon, a young woman from the stage crew put up white and red plastic tape around the seating area. More police arrived, dressed in all black uniforms, some wearing shin guards and equipped with truncheons. A few other large men, some in dark suits, one in army camouflage, eventually took up positions between the stage and the barricades behind which the protestors would eventually stand. They seemed a bit sinister, but later I realized they must have been private security guards hired to protect the actors from the protestors, if necessary. Then the be-robed fellow and his followers, now numbering around 60, I would say, were led by police officers around the audience and the stage to the steps of the Palace of Culture where they stood looking down upon both the stage and the audience. Some sang hymns and a few carried signs in Polish and one or two in English, like “Christendom means civilization” and something about art and barbarism. One of their posters had a rosary tracing the map of Poland and the English words “zero tolerance.” The stage was being set for the performances to begin.

Reading of the screenplay, Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia, organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury, Summer 2014.

Reading of the screenplay, Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia, organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury, Summer 2014

All the chairs for the audience were filled, and many more people stood both in and outside of the red tape. They were mostly ordinary working people, on their way home from a day at the office, perhaps. Others seemed to be creative types, dressed in a casually fashionable or anti-fashionable way, with plenty of tattoos, beards, and unusual hairstyles. Some ate their dinner from plastic cartons (it was nearly 8 pm by then), others chatted, met friends, read books or newspapers. There was the sense of busy people taking time from their lives to do something extraordinarily important, yet the atmosphere was light and joyful. They knew they were doing something righteous but were neither solemn nor self-satisfied about it.

Under a banner of the Atheists Alliance, about a dozen people wearing light blue kerchiefs marched around and then through the audience, garnering applause before sitting cross-legged on the ground in the front. A bearded young man held up a placard that read: “Crusaders: Be Merciful,” which got a laugh from the crowd.

The protestors kept singing hymns, but I noticed most of the young people didn’t know the words. Several had portable loudspeakers mounted on backpacks and chanted the rosary into their microphones. At this rather placid moment, when the protestors sang and chanted on one side of the metal barricade and the audience chatted amicably on the other, a man wearing a red vest and a flat-brimmed black Spanish style hat walked through the audience to the barricade and tried to talk to the bearded leader. He didn’t seem to be successful. Suddenly one of the young men in a suit surged forward from the protestors, grabbed the black hat and sent it flying like a Frisbee into the audience. The man in the red vest endured this violation implacably and kept trying to talk to the man in the robe, but was ignored.

Then suddenly the actors appeared, all wearing black jackets and holding scripts in their hands. They promptly grabbed chairs from behind the platform and with great energy and determination lifted them onto the stage, climbed up and sat down amidst loud applause from the audience. This signaled the protestors to begin in earnest, disrupting the reading by blowing into noisemakers, shouting or praying into their loudspeakers, and using some sort of shrill electronic noise-making device. Some of them continued to finger their rosaries and one older woman wearing a babushka, who I recognized had come early like me, raised her arms and eyes to heaven in a broad gesture and made a slow sign of the cross.

Unfazed by the uproar behind them, the actors kept reading their lines from the scripts they had brought. Suddenly another suited young man jumped onstage and thrust a battery-powered noisemaker up to the microphone of one of the actors for a few seconds, but the bodyguards quickly removed him and no one was hurt. The reading continued unabated and, despite the noise, their words could be clearly heard, and in fact were broadcast out into the entire city of Warsaw.

But of course, this was more than just a reading. It was a powerful statement against censorship. Thus even though the full performance of the play was prevented in Poznań by the local authorities under pressure from same group who came to Plac Defilad, in Warsaw it reached the entire city. Besides the readings, the entire script was also printed in Gazeta Wyborcza, a prominent national newspaper, and thus the play became known to many more people. Although both the audience and the protestors were bent on cancelling each other out, they actually caused each other’s participation in the “camaraderie of performance.”

While watching the entire event, I could not help thinking that there were really three performances going on that night. The protesters enacted their arrogant, indignant piety, attempting to override the reading. The occasional act of more aggressive disrespect and violence, such as taking off someone’s hat, or leaping onto the stage to make noise, provided moments of heightened drama, often sending a frisson of anticipation through the entire crowd on both sides of the barricade. There was, for a few moments, the real possibility of a violent reaction from one side or the other. Such anticipations were short-lived, however, as the well-behaved audience did not react to the various provocations. The protestors were acting out their ideology by appropriating, with some exceptions, the ancient, easily recognizable rituals and traditions of the Catholic Church.

This led me to think that the more formal performance, the reading itself, served as more of a catalyst for the other two surrounding it. They actually triggered each other’s performance. After all, it was the banning of the play in Poznań that led to the reading in Warsaw (as a protest against the banning and censorship) that led to the right-wing protest (counter protest) and ensured a large audience eager to demonstrate their support for open dialogue and contempt for censorship. All three performances were connected in a causal loop.

The most important “performance,” in my mind however, was that of the audience. These people were playing the role of modern, cultured intellectuals if you will, there to listen to the reading, to see the protest and perform their own anti-protest. An affirmation, really, that not everyone in Poland is so intolerant. And indeed, the audience was actually performing tolerance. As in a classic, Brechtian Lehrstuck, this group of open-minded, progressive, liberal, freedom and art-loving people, young and old, rich and poor, Catholic and atheist and everything in between, made a quiet and powerful statement by their presence and behavior. And quiet they were, for the most part, respectful and friendly toward the protestors, even after the noise making began. There were no angry shouts, no criticism of the protestors as far as I could tell. Thus they demonstrated the best of the liberal, open-minded virtues of a mature democracy and a civilized city (freedom of speech, discussion and debate, tolerance of the views of others), standing up firmly and with understated conviction for the values that define democracy and civilization itself—ironic in light of the anachronistic and reductionist “zero tolerance” protest signs. The other side showed what they were about too: violence, ignorance, the closing of debate and discussion, and of course, their bullying behavior only demonstrated their own insecurity.

Reading of the screenplay, Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia, organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury, Summer 2014

Reading of the screenplay, Golgota Picnic, by Rodrigo Garcia, organized by the Studio Theatre with actors from TR Warszawa and Tomasz Karolak in Warsaw, Pałac Kultury, Summer 2014

The total effect of all three performances created a particular sort of “street theatre,” blurring the boundaries between actors/performers and audience/protesters. Everybody acted on the big stage—Plac Defilad and the city of Warsaw—which has had many such protest/performance events inscribed in its history. In recent times, among the most famous were the events from 1968 prompted by the production of Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, or the protest actions after the death of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński around the flower-cross at the Krakowskie Przedmieście during the Solidarity era. Most recently, such protest actions were performed in front of the Presidential Palace after the Smoleńsk plane crash in 2010. In every case, the “street theatre” was re-playing pagan and religious rituals deeply embedded in Polish culture and theatre, and, in a fairly democratic way, merged all acting/protesting groups in one performance space.

It must be said, though, that during the Golgota Picnic protest the performance of the tolerant audience seemed rather dull. It lacked the drama of the great confrontations of extremes, of black and white issues. It produced no violence. Nor did it have the support of powerful institutions. Tolerance, after all, is pretty boring. E.M. Forster called it “a very dull virtue.” Tolerance does not make exciting theatre, for sure, but it makes life bearable in our overheated planet (Forster again).


Chris Rzonca teaches writing at New York University and has published on Chinese philosophy. His photographs have been featured in Kwartalnik Artystyczny (Poland). His interest in Polish theatre and its relation to the post-communist public sphere stems from his study of early 20th century China.


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European Stages, vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 2015)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elizabeth Hickman, Managing Editor

Bhargav Rani, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams

Christopher Balme

Maria Delgado

Allen Kuharsky

Jennifer Parker-Starbuck

Magda Romańska

Laurence Senelick

Daniele Vianello

Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Report from Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  2. Performing Protest/Protesting Performance: Golgota Picnic in Warsaw by Chris Rzonca
  3. A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican by Marvin Carlson
  4. Grief, Family, Politics, but no Passion: Ivo van Hove’s Antigone by Erik Abbott
  5. Not Not I: Undoing Representation with Dead Centre’s Lippy by Daniel Sack
  6. In the Name of Our Peasants: History and Identity in Ukrainian and Polish Contemporary Theatre by Oksana Dudko
  7. Performances at a Symposium: “Theatre as a Laboratory for Community Interaction” at Odin Teatret, Holstebro, Denmark, May, 2014 by Seth Baumrin
  8. Songs of Lear by the Polish Song of the Goat Theatre by Lauren Dubowski
  9. Silence, Shakespeare and the Art of Taking Sides, Report from Barcelona by Maria M. Delgado
  10. Little Theatres and Small Casts: Madrid Stage in October 2014 by Phyllis Zatlin
  11. Gobrowicz’s and Ronconi’s Pornography without Scandal by Daniele Vianello
  12. Majster a Margaréta in Teatro Tatro, Slovakia by Miroslav Ballay
  13. Remnants of the Welfare State: A Community of Humans and Other Animals on the Main Stage of the Finnish National Theatre by Outi Lahtinen
  14. Mnouchkine’s Macbeth at the Cartoucherie by Marvin Carlson
  15. Awantura Warszawska and History in the Making: Michał Zadara’s Docudrama, Warsaw Uprising Museum, August, 2011 by Krystyna Illakowicz and Chris Rzonca

www.EuropeanStages.org

europeanstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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