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Dorota Semenowicz: The Malta Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Apparently, for humans turning thirty marks the first time of looking back and reflecting on life. Let us begin our anniversary recap with some positive sides. What do you find to be the Malta Festival’s greatest success?

Michał Merczyński: I would rather use the term “value”. I believe the festival’s value is the artistic aspect of the projects we have presented. This is a common denominator for all thirty editions held to date, including the one that took place during the pandemic. Of course the value manifested itself via different theatrical tongues, and later through music and dance. We have always wanted to show not only projects that were artistically significant but we also wanted to open up new windows for perceiving art. In fact, the Malta Festival was the very first festival in Poland to go out of the festival box, so to speak. We started out as a theatre festival showcasing primarily outdoor theatre and later added music and concerts (some people questioned the presence of music at a theatre festival), the opera and various dance projects to our program. Today, the Malta Festival is a multi-disciplinary festival, although the theatre has always been its fundamental element. Many festivals both in Europe and in the world function in the same way – they may showcase different art forms but always have a core program rooted in a given field. The contextuality of cultural life is characteristic of our times. When we produced an opera based on The Magic Mountain, we invited e.g. outstanding Polish writers to debate on their reception of Mann’s work and we screened the film adaptations of his novels – we contextualise situations that are significant in a given year. This helps us broaden our artistic offering and it highlights what we want to talk about with our artists and audiences. Ever since the second edition, the Malta Festival has been presenting not only ready-made projects but has been co-authoring events as well. This also contributes to the festival’s value.

The other tremendous value of the Malta Festival is its audience. Every year in the past, we had 90,000 people participate in festival events. This figure rarely changed even though the festival itself evolved over the years. Even this year, despite all the COVID-19-relared restrictions, our audiences were there for us. Some 22,000 people attended our events, whether in their home districts where we presented selected theatrical performances or in the Wilczak meadow where we held a mini version of the festival. Over 60,000 people watched our events online.

Would you say that the Malta Festival has a faithful audience?

There is a group of people who follow our work closely and it includes representatives of the theatre milieu and experts. Our international program was quite a unique venture for Poland. I would say these people are a dedicated audience, but it is not large. On the other hand, we have random audiences, namely people who simply come across our events. They become the audience without planning to as the Malta Festival is held in urban space, in different parts of the city. The Generator Malta is not fenced off and admission to most of the events held there is free. All you have to do is stop walking and have a look inside. There is also our Poznań-based audience who await the festival each year. In the 1990s, the festival permitted Poznanians to be together after the then recently ended communist regime. The festival was an “explosion of theatricality” – in 1993, Julek Tyszka in his famous article Szkoła bycia razem (The School of Being Together) coined the term and wrote about the phenomenon of the thousands-strong crowds that would flock to Malta Lake or the Old Market Square to watch performances by Teatr Ósmego Dnia, Pippo Delbono and other artists. Of course, we now have new generations of ardent Malta Festival fans and the people from my generation do not participate in it as much as before. They also sometimes carry in them a nostalgia for the 1990s and endorse the sentimental opinion that this was a wonderful period but it came to an end.

Are they “miffed” with the Malta Festival?

I suppose some of them might be. However, the audiences we had in the 1990s widely highly diverse. Today, some of them attend various cultural events. They simply do not have to wait for artists to come to Poznań. Given their age and the open borders, if they have the means they can travel abroad to see a play or a concert. There is also another group of people who do not attend the Malta Festival events claiming: “The festival is no longer what is used to be”. I always quote something I heard from one such person. When I asked her whether she had gone to the theatre recently, she said she had not. “What do you enjoy most?”, I then asked to which she replied: “I like watching good films on Netflix”. I am not one to criticise anyone. It is natural to me that the core audience of the Malta Festival is around thirty years old. Attending a large festival requires a great deal of commitment and effort, you need to come up with a plan of what to see as many events overlap. The group that is most likely to make the effort are people just out of high school, university students and recent graduates. This is the age when you are most fascinated with things around you, when you want to consume as much culture as you can. However, this is also the most discerning audience as they are well aware that many different events, and the festival events are just some of them, are held at the same time in Poznań itself and across Poland.

You said that the Malta Festival audience is mostly thirtyish. However, some of the festival events may not suit their tastes, like the Krystyna Janda play presented this year. We have events in our program that a highly criticised by this particular age group and even…

…contested? You mentioned Krystyna Janda. Because of COVID-19, this year’s festival was completely different than previous editions. I really wanted to invite Krystyna Janda’s performance of Shirly Valentine because the other plays we showed as part of the Malta mobile stage were less mainstream. Shirley Valentine is an example of top-notch popular theatre, it is a well-written play performed by one of the most outstanding Polish actresses. You know well that in the spring our programming plans collapsed. On 3 March, we hosted Pierre Berthelot of the Générik Vapeur company who were supposed to open this year’s edition with a huge outdoor performance. Ten days later the country was locked down and we found ourselves in a completely different world. We changed the concept of how the Malta Festival would be held this year four times. You must remember all those zoom meetings we held to talk about what we would do and how we would accomplish this. Eventually, our accountant Kasia said that life was being lived in balconies and we should consider doing something that could be watched from those balconies instead of focusing our attention on Liberty Square only. This hint transformed into the idea to reach out to people living in apartment block estates, to audiences with different tastes. Shirley Valentine by Janda was a proposition for everyone, even though this kind of theatre is rarely showcased at the festival. We also presented Turnus mija, a ja niczyja (The Stay is Almost Over and I Still Have Not Found My Beau) by Cezary Tomaszewski and Piosenki na koniec świata (Songs for the End of the World) by Maciej Podstawny. For the festival opening we were intentionally looking for a popular play starring one or two actors as we could not be sure what would happen, whether we would be able to invite a live audience at all, and if could, then how many people would be allowed to watch a show. Eventually, the sanitary regime permitted us to set up seats for 150 viewers. Some people would sit on the grass but the lion’s share of our audience were watching the plays from the comfort of their balconies which transformed into theatre boxes. People drank wine, beer, and tea, picked their noses and watched the plays.

I gave the example of Krystyna Janda’s performance but there are more events that are unlike those we would normally hold for our main audience.

Yes, there are more such events. I have the impression that given our strong artistic and social program as part of Generator Malta project curated by Joanna Pańczak, we are not sufficiently catering to the needs of our oldest audiences. We will have to do something about it next year. The Malta Festival should reach other people as well. Since we have a great extended program for children and teenagers, which is actually created partly in collaboration with high schoolers, why not search for touchpoints with our senior citizens who are becoming a more and more populous social group these days?

And a group that keeps returning to the Malta Festival. There are events where I see the same faces every year.

That’s right, they often come to the events held in Liberty Square and this year they were there in the districts we visited. Anyway, most of our audience are around thirty years old. We are aware of this but we do not address our message to only one age or social group.

A lot has been said about the innovativeness of the Malta Festival. Today, blending different art forms at a festival is not a novelty. You said yourself that many festivals in Europe venture into new areas while keeping its core program in one field. What makes the Malta Festival stand out from other festivals these days?

The Malta Festival keeps changing but we are not fetishizing its shifting format. It results from a need we as the organisers have as the world around us is changing as well. The last turning point for the festival was the Idioms concept coined by Kasia Tórz, who had been the programmer of the festival for many years. This was when we began designing the international program around a core idea and we would invite an artist from the world of theatre or performative arts to curate the section. We would come up with a prevailing theme and wondered who might find it interesting, and the artist we selected then filtered the theme through his or her sensitivity and proposed artists who manifested a similar artistic sensitivity. At the beginning, there was quite a large group of people who contested this approach. Later, people began to appreciate it, though. It was definitely a very novel way to program a festival, without an Artistic Director, around a core theme. This was acknowledged by the award we received from EFFE i.e. Europe for Festivals, Festivals for Europe, awarded together with the EFA or the European Festival Association. The Malta Festival won the award in the first edition of the competition. It was one of 12 festivals in Europe to receive the award and the two-year title.

However, the Malta Festival had been implementing innovative solutions even before that. As we were preparing for the third edition we had to come up with a programming approach because everyone wanted to perform at the festival and we had no means for showing everything. We had a look at how some French festivals solved this problem and we divided the Malta Festival into the main program to which we invited a dozen or so theatre companies, and the Poznań at Malta section as Poznań-based theatre companies wanted to perform at the festival as the festival audiences came from beyond the city and even beyond Poland. There was also a third section, the largest of all three, namely the Malta Off program. As part of the latter section we presented diverse shows, small and large, from jugglers to a mime whom Janek Czapliński beautifully wrote about in his article celebrating our 30th anniversary, to performances by e.g. Komuna Otwock, representing socially-engaged theatre speaking a completely different theatrical tongue. In fact, Komuna Otwock won our Offeusz award which included a grant to produce a show that would have its premiere at the Malta Festival. This kind of programming approach was novel at the time in Poland.

The need for new solutions crops up once in a while because styles change, as does the language of theatre and so do we – the audience. I am part of the audience myself. Of course, I am the Festival Director but my sensitivity is that of a theatre goer – I am guided in my work by my emotions to a great extent so that I feel good as a viewer. My late Culture Studies professor Krystyna Zamiara, who taught a class on the theory and reception of a work of art, talked to us about different complex perception theories for the entire academic year. During the final class, she told us: “Today, I would like to tell you one thing. In fact, there is only one criterion for the evaluation of an artistic work. Either it sends shivers down your spine, or it does not”. So the shivers are a must for me to put an item on the Malta Festival program. Sometimes, the shivers I feel are not felt by someone else, but being responsible for the program I have the privilege of taking this risk. Of course, the program is not made up of my personal choices only. You know very well that we work as a team. There is a whole programming department and not an Artistic Director who acts as a demiurge and comes up with ideas that have to be brought to life without asking questions. Designing our program is a working process that is executed through endless conversations and debates. I find this to be an immense advantage, since today – let me make a reference to Bauman – in the fluid world of different aesthetic styles and artistic orders nobody can say that he is fully competent. We need to look for people who have a certain kind of sensitivity and insight into different artistic realms.

Shivers may go or not go down the spine depending on the individual but also on the time in history. What moved us 30 years ago, may not move us today. The myth of the great 1990s astonishes me. Today, the Malta Festival is offering many musical and theatre events for the young and old, the entire program in Liberty Square is open to the general public of all ages. Should we recreate the festival as it had been 30 years ago? What would it look like?

We could illustrate this interview with two photographs: in the 1990s the performances at Malta Lake were watched from the perspective of sitting on a meadow on the hill. Today, the site is developed with concrete stands. These are two completely different worlds.

Three years ago, Kasia Tórz and I were sitting in Meskalina club at some party after a performance. Some of the other people present had no idea we were working for the Malta Festival. A young man, a photographer, who had just got a job in Warsaw started telling us how wonderful the festival had been in the 1990s, how communal and engaging it was. I asked him how old he was and he replied he was twenty. “How can you remember the Malta Festival in the 1990s?”, I asked surprised. “Well, I don’t, but everyone says so and my parents say so”. This is how this myth has survived, this is how it spreads. We will never have good enough arguments to dispel with the myth as it is governed by altogether different laws.

I agree, but I partly understand it. This year, we are working on a multimedia portal presenting the history of the Malta Festival. I am now perusing different archival materials and reminisce about the emotions that we felt years ago. Let me put it this way – there is no going back to what happened in the 1990s as time can only go forward. However, I would like for the sense of communal experience, the universality of the Malta Festival to return to some extent. It is very difficult because we have never been more divided as a society, we live in different worlds which antagonize each other or are being antagonized. I must say that although I am not a huge fan of the Polish public television service, when we began talking about our archives I was met with full understanding and there is a willingness for collaboration. It turns out that the Malta Festival may bring at least such a tiny bit of understanding. But this understanding has to be linked with an agreement regarding the program. I do not know whether this is possible.

I believe that the Needcompany concert held in Liberty Square in 2018 came very close to such 1990s-like communal universal experience.

Yes, this is a good example.

The entire 2018 edition was actually very communal, as were all of the activities undertaken by Needcompany which curated the “Leap of Faith” Idiom that year. Everyone was enthused by the positive emotions, there was a palpable flow of energy. However, all this did not translate into positive reviews. To make matters worse, it was used as a charge against the festival – some found the edition to be too community-oriented and not critical enough.

You can never make everyone happy. The Malta Festival was always criticised. If criticism was not openly voiced it was unspoken – “Let them do whatever they want” seems to be the unspoken dismissing comments. The strong sense of community we talked about also existed at last year’s opening of the Malta Festival, namely during the performance by Transe Express. Actually, we presented this show for the first time in 1993, but it had the same incredible effect on people in 2019 as well. I have always believed and kept telling you, the programming department, that the opening and closing of the Malta Festival should be ludic in nature. On one hand, it is a nod towards our wider audiences and on the other, a statement of sorts made in the city centre to mark the beginning of the festival. The Transe Express performance had a thousands-strong audience who walked along the Św. Marcin street to the Mickiewicz Square which was the venue of the final concert and where drummers flew to the skies. Agnieszka Różyńska, a highly radical curator and our collaborator of many years, told me that there had never been such a strong opening in the history of the festival. And this was said by someone who has a completely different approach to the theatre. One young woman who came to the show with her young son told me: “Let us have more such performances, please. Just see how happy it made him” and pointed to her son who was visibly excited. It was an incredible experience for him. We will not set up a separate festival section for jugglers as this is not the point, but the Générik show we had to reschedule for next year will be another nod towards the older Malta Festival traditions. Of course, not everything can be recreated. I am not certain whether today a “theatre on fire” would…

…work? I think that the emotions you longed for while perusing the Malta Festival archives may be stirred up in different ways. The Needcompany concert is one way and Transe Express shows are another. We could also add to this the performances of Piosenki na koniec świata (Songs for the End of the World) presented this year in Wieniawski Square. In my opinion, the show worked very well, although it missed one aspect that cannot be recreated in Poznań – the concert line-up features songs from all the performances showed in the Dramatyczny Theatre in Wałbrzych in the 2016/2017 season. The show had to have a strong effect owing to context on the Wałbrzych audience as it sparked shared experiences that everyone could relate to and evoked a sense of community.

The concert was very well received in Poznań as well. It worked well in the context of the situation we have all found ourselves in – we do not know whether the end of the world has already taken place or whether it is still to come, perhaps COVID-19 is an omen of the end of the world. It probably is not, but this certainly is a borderline situation. For everyone. It was a really interesting offering for our audiences. It also resonated exceedingly well with the current social and political issues at play as the rainbow flag and the Belarussian flags moved everyone in the audience.

Speaking of COVID-19, what profits and losses will the pandemic bring in your opinion?

I am not one to see any advantages of COVID-19. Some say that because of the pandemic they finally had time to do this or that. That is not my view of the situation. I find the pandemic to have demolished a great deal for us.

For us as the festival or as a society?

Both. As a festival we got the better of the pandemic but the entire culture sector, the events industry and all those areas involving meetings had come to a halt. It is Thursday today and we are sitting at the Nowy Theatre in Warsaw where a performance of a play by Oliver Frljić, the famous director who was the reason behind the withdrawal of a subsidy by the Culture Minister Gliński a few years ago, is scheduled for Sunday. Tickets are sold out and Karolina Ochab told me that she had no idea what she would do if the yellow zone restrictions were imposed in Warsaw, which require that only one fourth of seats are occupied in the audience. Such regulations may be passed overnight. I am not taking offence at the reality, I only call it the “plague” and the word “plague” is emotionally-charged for me as it perfectly reflects my attitude to the pandemic. This is how we called this year’s Malta Festival – not in the times of the pandemic, but in the times of the plague. It simply is a plague that demolishes our world. Are there any advantages to it? Jacek Dukaj said that COVID-19 transported us across the digital desert by 10 years forward. Remember when we held meetings via zoom in April? There are sectors which still work remotely. Home office type of work has its merits but it could be a nightmare just as well, especially if you have young kids who cannot attend kindergarten or school and both parents must work. A lot was said about how family ties were affected by the pandemic. There were also families who strengthened their bond owing to the necessity of being around each other 24/7. I would not like for the pandemic, or the plague as this is the word I prefer, to force us to build social relations. I see no positive sides to it. I am aware that there will be less funds allocated for the culture sector, although money is not everything; that there will be certain restrictions imposed; that I cannot be sure whether we will be able to show the projects we planned on presenting this year such as those by Générik Vapeur, Projekt Krynicki, the final concert in celebration of the 30th anniversary or a special project developed with the anniversary in mind that I mysteriously dubbed “The Cake”. COVID-19 is a modern curse that will demolish the world stage of theatre and performance art. We have yet to see how we will dig ourselves out of the ruins.

Can you think of any strategies to cope with the pandemic reality for the culture sector? Perhaps in the context of programming and international collaboration?

At the moment we are trying to resume our activities. We are hosting Frljić’s play from Stuttgart and are sitting in the audience with our faces covered with masks and our hands in disinfectant. No official guidelines were designed, no recommendations on how to function during the plague were released, also in the context of European Union grants. It all boils down to the restrictions, to the dos and don’ts. I do not see anyone offering any ideas on how to “circumvent” the pandemic.

The solutions will not arrive out of the blue.

You are right, we have to come up with them ourselves. The Malta Festival did arrive at a temporary solution for this year’s edition. We did not centre our festival activities around Liberty Square this past summer, we did not avail ourselves of the cultural infrastructure of the city of Poznań or theatre halls but opted for the outdoors instead, just like in the past, but bear in mind this is hardly a less costly option. We reached out to the local communities but in different ways than is usually the case with the Generator Malta program which collaborates with the artists and activists of Poznań each year. We held a re-granting procedure – we announced an open call competition and succeeded in executing a dozen or so quite interesting projects. In fact, some of them will have a follow-up as part of the Malta Festival. We held a micro festival in the Wilczak greenery when some of the restrictions were lifted. We managed to recreate the unique festival ambience there, for instance, there was a show for children that was attended by entire families, in the evening there was a performance, next a concert followed by a silent disco, there was also food and communal feasting. It makes me very happy that with the participation of the Malta Festival we managed to show Maja Kleczewska’s Hamlet. It is one of the most outstanding plays to be staged in the past season. It is a site-specific project each time adjusted to the surroundings, so it is not presented often. Offering our most immediate theatre community our assistance and our organisational financial and promotional capacity was a gesture of solidarity on our part.

Perhaps this solidarity is a profit of some kind?

It certainly is, but all this could have been achieved without the pandemic. The second wave of COVID-19 is approaching and we have no idea what will happen. I do not believe there will be a second lockdown. We simply cannot afford another one, both in economic terms and in the terms of our social and mental being. We have to help one another. These gestures of solidarity that we have witnessed in daily life and in the culture milieu are a fact. It is a value, but I would rather it was not the pandemic that instilled in us some kind of heightened empathy or mindfulness of the problems that we face. I wish it were something we could give and experience on a daily basis.

What opportunities in the context of international festival collaboration do you identify?

This area is highly problematic because certain communication channels enabling different co-productions were shut down. First of all, the budgets shrank, for reasons other than just COVID-19 as well. Secondly, projects such as the Malta Festival’s House on Fire that the European Union had been promoting to date came to an end. The House on Fire was both a community of ideas and, in practical terms, an international production house. Our conclusions were not approved by the Commission in the third edition, which somewhat blocked our operations. I think that we will have to approach this issue from a different perspective and look for a reliable partner in Poland and invite artists from beyond our country. I am in the course of talks regarding such a potential project. We want to bring to life such a joint international production within Poland.

What about performances from abroad? We do not have receiving theatres in Poland, foreign shows are rarely presented. One of the merits of the Malta Festival was its international program which shaped its identity for many years.

We want to continue this tradition. We finished the Idioms project but we are not giving up on showcasing international theatre altogether. We have been considering introducing a section that would present portraits of interesting contemporary theatre makers. The project envisages showing plays, holding workshops, publishing books and screening past performances. This is the plan for the next few years. I can tell you that we are already talking to Milo Rau about the 2021 edition of the festival. This is all I can say as I do not know how we will do money-wise. Please note that the Malta Festival is not a local government-funded culture institution but a foundation which collects money for the festival. These funds will always be lower than the money granted to institutions funded by the local governments or other official institutions. I am saying this just for the sake of a reminder and not to complain. The Malta Festival has always enjoyed the highest subsidy in Poznań and the entire region.

Alas, smaller and smaller every year…

Less funds are being allocated to the culture sector year on year so, naturally, the subsidy awarded to the Malta Festival is shrinking. I find it to be a never-ending problem of the non-governmental or third sector. If we compare the funds that cities or the public sector in general are spending on institutions of culture with the funds spent on the third sector, the latter is always at a disadvantage, some 30 to 70 per cent. If cuts are made, they are made to the part of grants allocated for the ever-growing group of NGOs. In Poznań, the number of grants went up, but so did the number of applications and the number of institutions and foundations operating in the territory of Poznań. In my opinion, this kind of creativity, characteristic of the third sector, has always been underestimated. If I were the Minister of Culture I would draft a law or issue recommendations – as it is up to the local governments to allocate funds – that would favour the third sector. Non-governmental organisations are the most creative in the culture sector and they are the ones always looking for new means of artistic expressions and options.

We are ending the interview with a pessimistic note: the second wave of COVID-19 that is approaching will demolish the world of culture, the situation is unforeseeable, it is difficult to make plans, and there will not be enough funds for projects. Also, you will not become the Minister of Culture, at least not within the next three years, and the existing Minister is not only not interested in looking for new options but is also blocking the third sector. This is a paradox as he had been working in the third sector in the past.

He was the founder of the largest association of Polish associations and foundations Klon/Jawor. Currently, he founded an institution called the National Freedom Institute whose role is to serve as an umbrella over the third sector, which is a paradox since the core foundation of the third sector is precisely that it does not follow any top-down regulations and is a fluid and flexible space.

My last question is what do you wish the Malta Festival for the next ten years?

Above all, I wish it becomes communal in the new sense. I am not saying I miss its 1990s community-oriented character but I realised that the art of being together should return to the Malta Festival in a more universal way, not only for those who love Needcompany but also for those who love Transe Express. The presence of the former does not preclude the presence of the latter and vice versa. I do not yet know how this can be done. The worst thing that can happen is for us to adopt some strict action plan. There is a need for flexibility and perhaps we should set our minds on a prevailing goal that we want to accomplish. Time will tell how it will be done. I would also like for us to go through with the La Fabrika, a project modelled on the La Fabrica in Avignon, that we have been talking about for at least eight years now. It seems that the project will actually come to life and it will be based in the premises of the Old Slaughterhouse. The Malta Festival would be the operator of the theatre hall set up there. It would be a major revolution for both the cultural infrastructure of Poznań and for us as a foundation. I would also like to see the Malta Festival to have the same kind of energy for looking for after its innovative program and for its audiences. These are the two vectors that make us want to work on the festival over and over again.

Warsaw, 1 October 2020