written by Marta Kowerko-Urbańczyk
Relationships are an important area of contemporary psychological research. They’ve become one of the main topics when thinking about parenting, while concepts such as attachment parenting and theory, non-violent communication, polyvagal theory, and psychological resilience have gained extreme popularity in the last decade. In Poland, they have gained prominence thanks to numerous translations issued by publishing houses specializing in childhood and psychological issues, as well as books by Polish psychologists: Agnieszka Stein, Małgorzata Musiał, Małgorzata Stańczyk and others. Increasingly more attention is being paid to the fact that relationships which we build from early childhood affect the quality of our later life. Not fully realised earlier, the categories of violence and oppression, which sometimes line even the closest relationships, have also become visible and debated.
In the following text, I analyse the events of the 23. Children’s Art Biennale from the perspective of a family, and in particular the bonds between its members, wondering how art talks about or tries to shape them. I discuss the relationship between a child/adolescent protagonist and their parent through three selected theatrical examples that allow us to formulate diagnoses given by theatre to families. Then, I show two workshop approaches to creative actions that deepen family relationships and are oriented towards a specific artistic outcome.
Cinderella. Encounter as Oppression
The story of Cinderella is so well known that the fairy tale has lived to see over a thousand versions of the original text. According to Bruno Bettelheim, it is a story about a girl being humiliated. In the well-known fairy tale narrative, the orphaned girl and her father enter a new family, where the central figure is the evil stepmother, who humiliates Cinderella every step of the way, but still cannot stand in the way of the girl’s happiness. In the modernized adaptation by the French playwright Jöel Pommerat, which served as the basis for the play directed by Anna Smolar at the National Stary Theatre in Kraków, humiliation has a very contemporary form of the pressure to reach the ideal beauty standards, which women are placed under and which they also exert on each other. This is the case with the stepmother (played by Małgorzata Gałkowska) who is obsessed with the pursuit of beauty and develops an unhealthy attitude to her body. Not only does she believe that appearance is the greatest investment a “modern woman” can make, but she is also stuck in a narcissistic belief that she’s the most beautiful and all eyes are always on her. She indulges herself in beauty treatments, constantly demands compliments and recognition for looking as young as her daughters. The girls nod in agreement, positioned as less attractive, not parting with their phones, ready to alter their bodies according to the latest trends (in this interpretation, while getting ready for the ball, they make their ears too big, which, as the narrator says, is fashionable this season). When Kosia, the titular Cinderella (Jaśmina Polak) appears, they show that they feel perfectly comfortable in the hierarchical structure of violence and domination; they humiliate their adoptive sister at every turn. The oppression of the stepmother and her daughters does not affect Kosia mainly because the girl is overcome by her unresolved grief, and physical appearance is not important to her at this stage. All this happens with the complete absence of the father who, overwhelmed by the violence unfolding before his eyes and at the same time convinced that he should “move on” with his life, gives up and just nervously smokes cigarettes in the girl’s room.
On the level that interests me, this is a story about a failed patchwork, that is, a reconstructed family that does not work. As a result, psychological violence takes place between its members (and especially its female members). Most tensions occur in female relationships – the characters use their psychological advantage to humiliate those who are weaker than them. The play calls out stereotypically understood femininity and helplessness of adults, while children turn out to be wiser. Much is happening at the level of the text, with issues constantly recurring in nervous repetitions. But there is just as much going on at the level of the body – in numerous, very poignant body language, bravely performed by the actresses (apart from Kosia and the stepmother, these are also the sisters, Marta Ścisłowicz and Małgorzata Gorol) and Bartosz Bielenia (who plays not only the prince but also the fairy). As long as the stepmother sees herself as young and beautiful, she walks straight. Her demise literally brings her down to earth; she is protected by her daughters, whom she has infected with her abusive communication. They, in turn, as teenagers immersed in the world of social media, walk across the stage like models, masking their insecurities with sassiness and exploding sexuality. Kosia’s body reacts somatically to the death of her mother, which she hasn’t dealt with yet, so she scratches herself compulsively.
We are watching an adaptation of a fairy tale, in the last scene the characters dance to the rhythm of Kosia’s steps. But is a happy ending possible? On the level of the vicious circle of female (self) violence that has been set to motion – not really. Although Kosia’s father and the stepmother part ways, which brings partial relief, the awareness of toxic female relationships and oppressive cultural stereotypes remains in the theatrical space. And so does the accusation against adults, immature for their parental roles – Kosia’s father, who disappears, the king, who lies, and the stepmother, who – in her narcissism – ultimately needs help herself.
Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter. Encounter as Growing up to Become a Parent
Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter directed by Anna Ilczuk from the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw is an adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s novel published in 1981. It is a story about initiation, about growing up to the beat of nature, and about family relations. During a storm in the castle belonging to the robber named Mattis (Mateusz Łasowski), his and Lovis’s (Aleksandra Bożek) daughter Ronja (Klara Bielawka) is born, immediately winning his fatherly heart. As the girl grows up, she gradually becomes independent, getting to know the forest around the castle, which is full of fantastic creatures, on her own. There she meets Birk (Andrzej Kłak), the son of Mattis’ fiercest enemy, Borka, and his wife Undis. The two children go on adventures together and form a brother-sister pact that goes unnoticed by their parents.
Just as in the book, in the stage adaptation, Ronja and Birk build a world together based on violent opposition to the adult world, not intending to follow their parents’ ways in the future. They act according to their own rules, represented on the theatrical stage by sign language, which the children use to communicate intuitively, and which distinguishes them from the adult world. In a challenging moment, they stick up for each other, defying their parents’ will, to the despair of Mattis, who renounces his daughter. When Ronja decides to leave home and live with Birk in the Bear Cave, Mattis, hurt and rejected, remains silent. Ultimately, however, his love for Ronja becomes an impulse for his change – he is able to take back his cruel words, asking her to return home, and even accepts his daughter’s friendship with Birk.
The character of Mattis – both in the original novel and on stage – is complex, heterogeneous: violent and tender, a little funny when he flexes his muscles, and a little touching when he repeatedly, not entirely consciously, shows his sensitivity. This is also the feather he is: he would like to be menacing, but at the same time we see him in scenes full of care, in which he reveals how tender he actually is – when he hesitates to let his daughter leave or when he calls her in his sleep, even though when he is awake he does not say her name.
The father grows up to fatherhood, the signals of this journey are scattered around the play quite consistently: there is joy and genuine concern at the birth of his daughter, there is confronting of his own limitations, including cognitive ones, there is coming to realise that his way does not have to be good for Ronja. And at the same time Ronja can always count on her mother, Lovis, with whom she has a stable, safe bond. Aleksandra Bożek plays a dual maternal role – up close as Lovis, in a tender relationship with Ronja, and from afar, in a sometimes irritatingly mocking portrayal of Undis, Birk’s mother. And although it is difficult to agree with the director’s decision, and not be annoyed by the stereotypical simplification resulting from, this dual portrayal shows a certain diagnosis of motherhood, an observation of how different mothers can be, depending on what perspective one chooses to look at them.
Ultimately, Ronja’s finale is an inverted, non-literal plot scheme of Romeo and Juliet – the two feuding families are reconciled, though not without slapstick arguments over leadership. Although the stage adaptation reduces the dark element of the literary original a bit and abandons several important scenes, it leaves the (adult) viewer with a reflection on what would happen if children were allowed to live their own lives, if they could let go of the pressure of rigid social roles, and if parents did not impose their own expectations on them.
The Wall with a View*. Incompatibility and Passing
While the two previous performances invited by the Children’s Art Centre explored the relationship between daughters and their parents in quite universal contexts, Robert Jarosz’s The Wall with a View, directed by Konrad Dworakowski, was inspired by the current situation of the pandemic, and the fact that a lot of us had to be closed in one space with the rest of our families. The play won an award in the competition for a project of an artistic event for children prepared by the Coincidentia Group from Białystok. The main character (Paweł Chomczyk) lives with his mother (Dagmara Sowa), and their relationship – although not the main axis of the plot – is an important aspect of the story. We observe a boy in the process of growing up, involved in several parallel relationships – with his master, mother and friend – in which his personal path leads from loneliness and insecurity to self-awareness and the ability to interact with other people.
During this time, the mother lives next door, in a parallel, unknown world that only occasionally comes into contact with the teenager’s life. Symbolically, she is not in the portraits that Kuba draws because, according to his words, she is in the kitchen or in front of the television. When she does appear and opens her mouth, she is full of complaints and habitual commands: “air the room, clean, eat and sleep, go outside, move around a bit, take the bike out.” And although you can see true concern in these words, it is largely hidden under communicative habits, probably caused her continuous daily chores. The family scenes show a complete misunderstanding of the son’s world. His mother gives him an old phone and unfashionable clothes, becoming a figure of the past, ridiculous in her archaic nature. But accidentally – while grumbling and complaining – she gives him ideas that become fuel for Kuba, an inspiration to action.
Mother and son communicate in separate, incompatible languages, having routine conversations that reveal the fact that their relationship is based on a system of punishments and rewards. In this way, the play’s creators tell a story of the gap between the adult and child worlds. The mother is only the background of the child’s growing-up process, a stage on his way to independence. We watch her only from a distance, guessing that behind her actions there is a concern that she cannot express better. The attempts she makes are not successful, but the viewer will not see any reflection in her that would lead to successful communication. The creators’ attention stays with the teenager, and manifests itself in attempts to understand his perspective. This is also how the play was created, during workshops focused at observing the struggles of young people and the ways in which they define the loneliness they feel.
“The spectator knows more than we do,” says Konrad Dworakowski, the play’s director, in an interview with Joanna Żygowska about the creative process. “We tried not to impose anything, and instead to look at reality in a simpler way, more arranged in its surprise at the world of young people.”
The diagnoses made by the theatrical plays of the 23. Children’s Art Biennale are not optimistic. There are many threats to family relationships. Some of them are very tangible, such as contemporary culture that objectifies female bodies, or loneliness in front of monitor screens, while others are more hidden – the hierarchical family structures in which the parent is always right and does not check on the children, sometimes doesn’t even know them or leaves them alone to deal with traumas beyond their capabilities. The contemporised adaptation of Cinderella is one example of such issues, presenting a toxic family environment. There are several reasons for abuse: the obsessive cult of the body makes youth and physical beauty perceived as the greatest value, and the mother/stepmother, unwilling to accept the passing of time and the (potential or actual) loss of physical appeal, becomes abusive towards her daughters and stepdaughter. The whole hierarchical arrangement of this family encourages aggression: the mother with her unshakeable self-esteem in the centre, below her daughters (who are both victims and aggressors), and, finally, Kosia. The father is absent, withdrawn. In fact, he doesn’t exist.
A contemporary diagnosis of relationship problems is provided by The Wall with a View, presenting the parent-child relationship as divided into two separate worlds that never really meet, though they function side by side. Their encounters resemble a confrontation rather than an actual close relationship – the characters speak incompatible languages and cannot get along in a schematic conversation.
While Cinderella and The Wall with a View maintain an accusing tone toward adults, the vision of family in Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter brings some comfort. As the main adult character, Mattis is quite nuanced – he has visible flaws and subtly sketched strengths, and, above all, he goes through a dynamic process stemming from his choleric disposition. Cinderella’s stepmother loses herself in her race against time to remain beautiful and attractive, she keeps humiliating Kosia and her own daughters. The mother from The Wall with a View, repeating her habitual complaints, simply can’t hear her own child. Mattis, on the other hand, abruptly rejects the relationship with his daughter, but then tries to make amends. In this way, Ronja becomes a story about leaving and coming back together, about growing into parenthood as a process in which mistakes are made but can be fixed or reversed.
In what follows, I consider what role art for children can play in improving the quality of relationships. During the 23. Biennale, there were several ideas for creative actions that focused on strengthening family bonds. The examples I have chosen, however, do not form an exhaustive list. They do not even concern the same recipients (the protagonists of the plays discussed above are older children or teenagers, the participants of the following creative actions are often families with very young children), but they are present and significant.
Contact Families Show, or Well-Being
The formula of the idea by Anna Wańtuch is simple: families with small children spend several weeks to prepare a virtual event which they later present online and invite non-viewers to participate. From the viewer’s perspective, it goes like this: you watch a meeting in the Zoom virtual space, during which family teams perform drawn tasks and exercises, among which physical activities and working with objects at hand play the major part. The families wear names invented by themselves, they know the terms of the games and, in the process of preparation, they invent their own. Invited into this world, the online viewer watches democratically ordered Zoom tiles presenting different families on a monitor screen, where the virtual community responds to metaphorically invented slogans.
The proposed physical activities are not complicated – they are exercises, choreographies with children, consisting of rolling forward, carrying, lifting, or passing under each other, which, thanks to the intensity of contact, relieve tension and emotions. A lot is happening at once. It’s intense, though not necessarily fast: for the participants it is a game stretched over time, for the audience – a moment to realize what is actually happening. All this gives the impression of naturalness, lightness, as if the participants were communicating in a language unknown to the audience, which one would like to decode.
The preparation of the whole event is extremely important. The virtual playground, as one of the performing fathers called it, was created in the process of many online meetings: in the exercise part, in which children and parents participated, and in the conversations that parents, usually mothers, had with each other. Thus, in this performative action, one can see the process and the time behind it – to feel this comfortable, one needs the trust and joy coming from being together. In the home space, all the excitement of playing causes lot of noise and fun – it is allowed to be, to disappear, to turn the volume off or on, to exist to the extent that one is ready for.
The parents, who participated in the project together with their children, had to make time for this. Most likely, they take care of their relationships on a daily basis, finding time to play and hang out together. What emerges from the performance is an image of the family as a space of bonds realized in acting and experiencing. The family is open to experimentation, willing to play together, democratic, equal (recognizing the involvement of children and parents as equally important) and non-hierarchical – celebrating differences rather than shaping children to be like their parents. The fundament of its members’ contact with each other is tenderness, closeness, and intensity.
“You can do it by yourself, you don’t need a big gym to do it,” says one of the mothers to Justyna Czarnota in a festival conversation. And after a while she adds that this spontaneous acting together understood as openness, attentiveness and freedom gave her more than lectures and presentations on parenting.
The benefits that the Contact Families Show brings to relationships are enormous. Firstly, being in a close contact during the pandemic, which transfers from the screen to the viewer. In the second half of the show, the viewer is invited to perform together and can choose whether to join or stay on the sidelines. Secondly, capturing a generational shift in attitudes toward the body. The stepmother in Cinderella believed that the body had to be kept young by literally tailoring it to a certain canon of beauty. Here, all that is needed is a space for shared play that allows us to appreciate the qualities that come with the differences between children and adults: being heavier or lighter, bigger or smaller. Thirdly, the use of movement as a binding element in relationships. Movement was of course present in the program of the 23. Biennale, but the pandemic situation that kept us indoors has minimized its scope. Not only were we made to stay in front of our screens, even in offline situations we could not experience contact because of wearing masks or sitting in chairs far away from each other.
Many of these aspects involve appreciating parents as they are in the moment. This is not as obvious as it may seem. In his book Parenting through Play, Lawrence Cohen argues that whole generations of adults are uncomfortable with playing because their parents did not play with them. In a conversation with Justyna Czarnota, Anna Wańtuch mentioned problems with convincing adults that one can be an artist at any age. Behind these two contexts, there is a certain process that the participants of the project went through. Willingness, voluntariness and presence turned out to be enough to simultaneously show the quality of relations and achieve the intended artistic effect.
Films from the Pogranicze (eng. Borderlands) Centre in Sejny. Meeting as a Family Micro Story
One of the points of the Biennale programme was the screening of the film Opowieści z Mojego domu (eng. Tales from My House, dir. Daria Kopiec) – from the latest collection of stop-motion animations that have been made at the Pogranicze (eng. Borderlands) - of Arts, Cultures, Nations Centre in Sejny for 10 years. The presentation included several family memories made into a film and created as a result of joint, usually multigenerational work (in this particular selection, mainly mothers and grandmothers with their children and grandchildren). They included micro stories from everyday life (Aniela’s grandma’s reminiscences about herbs and forest clearings; Marysia’s mum’s reminiscence about fairy tales told by her grandmother), related to the holiday season (Hania’s mum’s reminiscence about the Easter game; Wanda’s grandma’s reminiscence about her wedding dowry), local multinational legacy (Helena’s grandma’s reminiscence about an icon and a mysterious light), as well as retrieving and reconstructing family memory (Igor’s mother’s [AK1] reminiscence about an old house, documents, and photographs). These are intimate images about the history of specific families, in which the viewers can easily find themselves by recalling their own family stories. The stories create a polyphonic journey into the history of the region, relations with neighbours and customs preserved in the memory of the oldest generations.
The relational aspect of this project has several levels. First, the process began with teenagers from Sejny searching for a family story suitable for a film animation. Bożena Szroeder, the originator of the project, told Agnieszka Powierska about this first stage in the conversation after the screening: “Nothing happens quickly, and before you find the right story, you have to listen to a lot of them.” Younger and older generations continued working together. Under the guidance of artistic supervisors and directors, families searched for the right means of expression and gave form to the stories they found, which usually evoked intense emotions and strengthened family ties. What is more, cultural texts addressed to young audiences often present adults as not understanding young people and not having much to say to them, while here this perspective is reversed. Thus, it is not so much peer bonds that are shown as valuable (as was the case with The Wall with a View), but rather intergenerational family relations, which in the common, stereotypical understanding tend to be pushed to the margins. Also, there is this herstorical message, which – it should be added – resonates as a result of this particular, biennial selection, not necessarily through the intention of the authors of the entire collection. The stories presented during the 23. Biennale have been told by women and frequently they refer to women’s everyday life: collecting dowries and getting married, collecting herbs or listening to grandmothers’ tales. In this way, the so-far marginalized voices can be appreciated, which not only brings out the everyday bustle and perspective of women, putting them in the centre of the story, but also can be bond-building for the young female animation students (and also for the young female viewers, who might turn to the stories of their own ancestresses).
All that is needed is an interest in the subject, a willingness to dive deep into past events, past neighbourly relations, and to work together in an intergenerational and creative way. The participating families can be multi-generational, although this is not a prerequisite: the idea is not so much to recreate the wealth of relations within them, but rather to extract a story that is both personal and universal. The actions directed towards the past have a communal, consolidating character, they appreciate what’s local – the goal is not simply to be sentimental, or to restitute the past, but rather to appreciate the microhistory that not only tells about family relations, but allows seeing the individual in the network of family and neighbourhood ties.
The Pogranicze Centre has been operating for 30 years, consistently developing its own formula of intergenerational work. In addition to the animations described above, several of its previous collections deal with family relationships in a similar way: Kolekcja Filmowa Misteria Dzieciństwa (eng. Mysteries of Childhood Film Collection), Filmowa Kolekcja Pamiątki (eng. Memento Film Collection), and Rodzinne Skarby (eng. Family Treasures). A similar model of multigenerational work on heritage has been pursued in other Pogranicze programmes such as Makatkowa Sejneńszczyzna (an intergenerational weaving of traditional regional tapestries) and Kroniki Sejneńskie (eng. Sejny Chronicles) (a theatre performance prepared by several generations of young artists based on the stories told by inhabitants who remembered interwar Sejny).
The film collections are created under artistic supervision, they are not spontaneous creations of families. They constitute a creatively thought-through activity, but at the same time have the roughness of an amateur creation. All together they form a multiplicity of parallel and mutually illuminating educational programmes and artistic initiatives, the aim of which is to work with the local community on collective memory, considering the multinational structure of the town located on the Polish-Lithuanian border. From the perspective of a viewer from outside Sejny, one can assume that if the screening ends with an inspiration to make a similar film, to collect family stories or at least to visit older family members, then that is enough – the bonding effect will have been achieved.
Art for Children makes diagnoses and raises doubts about the quality of family relations, while creative actions suggest ideas for (authentic) encounters. These encounters are for families with young children, and sometimes they take place in specific conditions around specific topics. Each time, however, the encounter starts with an adult’s curiosity and readiness for a real contact with a child. The message of the contemporary family art is heterogeneous: on the one hand it critically presents the family, formulating pessimistic diagnoses, while on the other it suggests alternatives, multiplies inspirations, and invites a contact. Paraphrasing the title of one of the performances presented during the 23. Biennale, as long as we are having fun, as long as we are curious about each other, this encounter is possible. Where we freeze in ready-made phrases and habitual roles, we pass each other by.
* The text analyses the version of the play made in the form of a video recording, which premiered during the Festival.
 Intended for families with children aged 1.5 to 5. In practice, it involved a few month-old toddlers and children aged 6-10 years.
 L. Cohen, Rodzicielstwo przez zabawę (a translation of Parenting Through Play by A. Rogozińska, Warsaw 2012, p. 27.
 The programme has been running for 22 years. It has been carried out under Bożena Szroeder’s supervision by successive groups of young people
(mainly at high school age) working together for about five years. At the moment, the show is being performed by the fifth generation.
More at: https://bit.ly/3FGtuLc [accessed 18.09.2021].
Translation: Katarzyna Babicz