An Interview with Teatr 21’s Justyna Sobczyk
In our society, people with Down’s syndrome are ignored, as if they don’t exist. The Warsaw-based theatre Teatr 21, where the majority of actors are people with Down’s syndrome and autism, wants to change that. Mateusz Demski talks to the theatre’s founder, Justyna Sobczyk.
Mateusz Demski: “This is a historic moment,” you said when you received, together with Daniel Krajewski, the Polityka Passport Award for Teatr 21 (T21).
And what is more, I think it is a historic moment on many levels. For the first time in history, people with disabilities receive such a prestigious award. But apart from distinction and recognition, this award means so much more. It encourages us to look critically at art and social reality and reflect on how people with disabilities fit within it. Where are they if we cannot see them? I like to say that at T21 we are not interested in what theatre can do with people with disabilities, but what people with disabilities can contribute to this field. What kind of themes, what kind of presence, what kind of bodies. And what can they do with audience members who, after all, hold certain beliefs.
I think that the Polityka Passport award ceremony – during which Daniel, an actor with Down’s syndrome, went on stage, collected the award and stood, as an equal, alongside the host – allowed us to realize how strongly, over the years, we’ve stuck to certain stereotypes and ways of thinking. It gave us hope that we can break free from them.
You speak about hope. Meanwhile, kids in schools keep insulting each other by calling each other a mongoloid, an idiot, a moron. The level of public debate in Poland isn’t that great, either. People still believe Down’s syndrome to be a disease.
It’s a common mistake. Down’s syndrome is not a disease – it is a syndrome, something you have before you are even born. It means that you have an extra chromosome in all the cells in your body. You cannot catch it. And yet, when we put on shows in schools, parents sometimes ask if their children are safe. Even now, after the Polityka Passport, I saw headlines in newspapers stating that I received the award alongside people “affected” or “suffering” from Down’s syndrome. But our actors do not suffer from this at all. It would appear that we’ve gotten rid of terms such as ‘cripple’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘idiot’, but unfortunately our language is still full of words that strip people with disabilities of dignity.
The current season at T21 is entitled ‘No One Left Behind’. We are interested in biodiversity, the fact that people in society have multiple competences. Among us there are some who manage large companies, some who lead an independent life, but there are also those with disabilities who are denied the right to independence and adulthood in this country. At T21, we want to bring the perspective of this group – Poland’s largest minority – to light in order to demonstrate their potential and increase their presence in public life.
The state should of course create a system that would allow everyone, including people with disabilities, to lead an independent and dignified existence, and allow them to participate in social and cultural life. I do not see this in Poland just yet, the change is taking place slowly, and this is why we consider our work in the theatre as an initiative that supports social change.
Was that trip to Berlin a breakthrough for you?
I was lucky because it coincided with a wonderful, inspiring time for the German theatre scene: Frank Castorf, Christoph Schlingensief, Sasha Waltz, Thomas Ostermeier, the opportunity to watch performances and projects at the HAU (Hebbel am Ufer) theatre under the management of Matthias Lilienthal, the Rimini Protokoll group and other smaller collectives from the excellent school in Giessen that began to take over German theatre and introduce a new language into it.
But I think this process started much earlier. In fact, it started the day when I realized that theatre was the place for me. In high school, I found myself at the Toruń branch of the St. Brother Albert Foundation, where Andrzej Wojciechowski and a group of artists invited by him conducted occupational therapy workshops for people with disabilities. I had the impression that nobody there was judging anyone, there was no question of any norms, but you had the feeling that everyone’s uniqueness was respected. The motto was Don’t touch the artist’s hand and the artists were people with disabilities. This was addressed to us, to everyone who came there. Those were clearly established rules, quite opposed to rules that applied everywhere else. I liked that. I wanted to be there more than anywhere else! At university I chose to specialize in special education and I started to visit special schools as part of my classes.
During my studies, I also discovered the Therapy and Theatre festival in Łódź. There, I experienced many inspiring encounters and conversations with artists from all over the world. Their energy and directness had me enthralled. I started looking for that kind of energy in the world. But at the same time, I experienced several disgraceful, violent performances from Poland – realized under the guise of ‘loving thy neighbour’.
What was so despicable about them?
For example, the fact that the actors, people with disabilities, were made-up like clowns and danced to disco polo music [a genre of Polish-language pop dance music – ed. note]. But it was absolutely unacceptable in terms of content, too. The darkest image that always appears before my eyes was the performance of a theatre run by nuns. The action took place in Africa, actors with disabilities wore black tights over their heads and they played the natives. At one point, a missionary with a cross came on stage, and the actors began to walk around him on their knees. I was distraught. After the show, I wanted to run after these nuns and talk to them about it, but they immediately got on their tour bus and left. This event stuck with me so strongly that I was unable to write my MA thesis in theatre studies.
You decided to leave.
I couldn’t look at this kind of thing anymore, so I left. In Berlin, I continued my research. I wrote my MA thesis on the work of an actor with a disability. It was based on the case study of the RambaZamba Theater. I should mention that this wasn’t the only place of this kind in Berlin. There is also another strong stage there: the Theater Thikwa. Besides all that, Christoph Schlingensief was active at the time – a revolutionary artist who broke all conventions and together with the economically disadvantaged, refugees and people with disabilities, created incredible performances, very critical of the German reality. I think I happened upon the right time when a lot of groups and collectives appeared in Germany. They relied on the work of non-professional actors; their individual predispositions and the need to express themselves. And with all that, I returned to Warsaw.
You founded T21, whose actors (for 15 years now) are mainly people with Down’s syndrome and autism. What are the rehearsals like?
Our performances are the result of the work of the entire team of creators, artists and theatre researchers. Myself, Justyna Wielgus and Justyna Lipko-Konieczna form the core of the team. Wiktoria Siedlecka-Dorosz, Kuba Drzewiecki and Marceli Sulecki are also very close to these activities. All performances begin with a discussion. We toss around some issues that are important for our actors and in this way we design situations that allow for creative activities to take place. So there is no question of staging, the director does not distribute roles, we do not bring ready-made texts to rehearsals. The first part of the theatrical process is conversation and improvisation across many fields. The actors contribute intensely at this stage; they do not merely recreate scenes that we developed earlier.
Let’s take, for example, the play Clowns, or About a Family: Episode 3, where we touched upon the subject of supported living arrangements. We came up with the idea when some of our actors began to live in such apartments. Thanks to their experiences, acting improvisations, a careful and critical observation of the social situation, as well as the way we – people without disabilities – look at this issue, we created a performance that talks about the ways in which we create superficial inclusivity in Poland.
On stage, Barbara Lityńska delivers – as the president, with great difficulty – a bunch of difficult words and phrases: ‘participation’, ‘social inclusion’, ‘disadvantaged groups’. This shows how, as a society, we create an artificial language to describe the situation of people with disabilities. In another scene, a couple of actors with Down’s syndrome declare that they want a marital bed in their supported living flat. To which the president replies: “I hope that there won’t be any children […] may God save us from that.” This again expresses our superficial openness to people with Down’s syndrome.
Theatre educator. She graduated from Special Education Studies at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and Theatre Studies at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw. She completed postgraduate studies in theatre pedagogy at the Berlin University of the Arts. Scholarship holder of the GFPS (Gemeinschaft für Wissenschaft und Kultur in Mittel- und Osteuropa) and DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst). Founder of Teatr 21, a theatre group whose actors are mainly people with Down’s syndrome and autism. Winner of the 2021 Polityka Passport award.
Interviewer: Mateusz Demski, journalist, film critic
Translation into English: Joanna Figiel
This interview was originally published on 28 April 2021 by „Przekrój”.
„Przekrój” is part of PRZEKRÓJ Foundation, whose broad nonprofit mission is to spread the idea of a good and meaningful life. As Poland’s oldest society and culture magazine, “Przekrój” publishes high-quality journalism from Central and Eastern Europe, covering the fields of culture, society, wellbeing and ecology. “Przekrój” is available to read online in both English (https://przekroj.pl/en) and Polish (https://przekroj.pl/).