Interview with director Michał Zadara

Mężczyzna i kobieta patrzą na siebie.
Fot. Krzysztof Bieliński

One of Poland’s most important young theater directors, Michał Zadara, is staging Marek Hłasko’s novel All Backs Were Turned with a star cast: Edward Linde-Lubaszenko, Anna Cieślak, Barbara Wysocka, Arkadiusz Brykalski, Mateusz Janicki, Oskar Hamerski and Michał Kruk. The play, with English subtitles, will premiere at the Museum on July 18.

Anna Czerniawska: Why are you staging a novel written in 1963, talking about Israel at the beginning of the 1960s?

Michał Zadara: The action also takes place in 1961 in Israel. I want to tell the story of people who were then between two worlds: the new state of Israel and the old world of Europe, scarred by the Holocaust. The rules of the new society were not yet clearly defined: is Israel to be just another normal country or the perfect state, a utopia come true? Identity was an important issue for those living in Israel at the time – it was not pre-determined, they had to work it out for themselves. This situation sometimes led to extreme tensions between people.

A.Cz.: How does this relate to what we are seeing today – in Poland, Israel, around the world?

M.Z.: Those who were immigrants at the time – whether due to circumstances or of their own free will, or a combination of these two factors – constituted an exception in a settled, stable population, living in one place. Today, the tragedy of migrants is becoming commonplace; it touches nearly every country, even the smallest of cities. So something that was an atypical, limited problem in the 60s is now a universal one. I wanted to capture the essence of that problem just as it was only emerging, before it became an important – perhaps the most important – problem of modernity.

A.Cz.: It is not the first time that you have focused on Jewish history and literature in your work. Does Marek Hłasko’s novel contribute anything new to our reception of the postwar history of Jews?

M.Z.: There is a certain irony about the fact that I am staging a story by a non-Jew here at this museum. But I’ve thought about the name of this institution, the fact that it is about the history of Polish Jews, and Hłasko, a Polish author, tells an incredible Polish-Jewish story. A story with no equivalent in all of Polish-Jewish literature. Hłasko’s look at people in Israel, some years after the creation of the Jewish state, is a look full of sadness and humor, discerning people’s quest for happiness and at the same time their extreme solitude. There is also a certain continuity here: because after all, these are Singer’s heroes, but in another, Cold War setting. Torn from their lives in Poland and thrown right into the middle of the desert.

A.Cz.: You are working with a team of renowned actors, known beyond the theatrical milieu, including Edward Linde-Lubaszenko, a legendary actor known for several dozen films, composer Jan Duszyński, actress Barbara Wysocka – recipient of the “Polityka” Passport award, film operator Artur Sienicki, Anna Cieślak – an extremely popular actress. How do you manage to convince them to take part in your original, unusual projects?

M.Z.: It’s true, they don’t get to work in luxury conditions; there are always challenges to overcome. They know – and that is probably what keeps them – that each new project is a journey into the unknown and a discovery of a new level of meaning. We are capable of maintaining a high level of professionalism and seriousness – these are all people who take their work very seriously, are not cynical, and do what they do because they are interested in having a serious conversation with their audience about the topics we are addressing here. This concentration, intensity and seriousness in building a play are actually quite pleasant. We don’t want to focus attention on ourselves, but only on the subject of the performance, which has to be understandable, interesting and therefore pleasing to the audience. In fact, we are not too focused on ourselves, and that, perhaps, is what the originality of this particular cast consists in.

A.Cz.: What is Centrala, the group responsible for the production of All Backs Were Turned?

M.Z.: Centrala is a group of people creating plays that are innovative in every respect: from their esthetic appeal to the relationship with the audience and the way they are produced. Centrala grows out of the Foundation of Economy and Public Administration founded by Prof. Jerzy Hausner, so it is in itself a search for new ways of developing culture. We benefit from cooperation between various public institutions, whose resources can be pooled together to create these projects. In this case, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is hosting our rehearsals, while the Teatr Nowy in Łódź has provided access to their technical production studios and some of their actors. The play will perform at both institutions.

A.Cz.: How does it feel to be working at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews?

M.Z.: First of all, it’s great that there is yet another – after the Warsaw Rising Museum – institution in Warsaw that takes a comprehensive approach to culture, sees it as acting locally and globally, using various artistic means and channels. This is a modern, stimulating type of approach, which goes beyond displaying artifacts in glass cases. On the other hand, it’s a great building, with no equivalent in Warsaw, a building that in itself is a complicated work of art presenting the history of Jews in colors and shapes like no other Jewish museum in the world. The fact that we have such an innovative building in Warsaw is a great achievement of the teams that have worked to create this museum for several years.

A.Cz.: Is it true that many years ago you worked as a translator in this museum?

M.Z.: It’s true – before beginning my directing studies I was a translator and assistant at the museum office. There were only five people working there at the time. I translated texts, put together a presentation of the Museum that was shown to important guests, answered phone calls. We would invite guests and try to convince them to support the project. I am very proud that after many years the museum, which was then only a dream as well as a burning need, has finally come into existence. For me it is a sort of return home after ten years.

Interviewer: Anna Czerniawska
Play All Backs Were Turned
Text: Marek Hłasko

Directing and scenography: Michał Zadara
Music: Jan Duszyński
Film and lights: Artur Sienicki
Costumes: Arkadiusz Ślesiński

Premiere: July 18, 2013, Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Performances: July 19, 20, 26 and 27, 2013