Blind on stage: they played so beautifully that you could go crazy

They can't see, they are visually impaired and yet they dance the cancan on the theatre floor. - How do I feel on stage? Since I lost my sight very well, because without stage fright," laughs one of the actresses of the Integrative Blind Actor's Theatre.

From 7 January, the second season of the series 'Passionate', in which blind actors talk about themselves and their theatre, can be seen on TVP 2 every Saturday at 5.20 pm.

The car park in front of the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec has been busy since morning. Camper, buses, trailers, tables, chairs and benches set up. The electricity generator is humming steadily and people are hurriedly circulating between the dressing rooms, make-up or the film set. Something still needs to be ironed at the last minute, someone's hair styled or an eye painted. Make-up, and not only it, has a hard time coping with the heat pouring down from the sky in July.

The film crew set up in the courtyard of the abbey. Helena Suchan, an actress and moulding specialist with many years of professional experience, mother and grandmother, appears in front of the lens in her Krakow costume. She repeats the scene in which she walks along the wall several times. Behind her is a view of the Vistula. - I didn't have any say in this scene because it goes to the leads," she explains.

I bid her a moment of conversation. - 'And can I braill you first?' - she asks and moves her hands slowly over my face, touching my hair, checking its length. She watches me, but by touch, because Helena Suchan is a blind actress of the ITAN theatre (Inclusive Theatre of the Blind Actor).

And while the Tyniec Abbey has seen many other film crews, the ITAN team is different from all of them. Most of the cast are blind and visually impaired actors. Last year, they shot the second season of the series "The Passionists" here.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The script was written by life itself. The first season told the story of the theatre's actors, their struggle with disability, life's difficulties, work, achievements and commitment to ITAN theatre. - "In the second season, the stories of our actors intertwine, and the protagonist is the entire acting troupe, who struggle to get their own stage and have many adventures along the way," says Danuta Damek, producer, co-writer, but also an actress at the ITAN theatre.

Her life story was the basis for one of the episodes of the first season of 'The Passionate'. We meet her as an accountant who is experiencing problems with her eyesight - although she has undergone surgery, losses in her field of vision remain.

Why this scene?

Where did the theatre for the blind come from? It started more than 20 years ago in Krakow. Artur Dziurman, a theatre, film and dubbing actor, worked on creating an artistic centre, specifically a pub with a stage where plays could be performed and concerts organised. This is how the Molière Stage came into being in premises rented from the city at 4 Szewska Street. - I started this project with a disabled man, Wojtek Tatarczuk, who was in a wheelchair. He said it would be a stage for the disabled, the first disabled theatre in Poland. That was his idée fixe, not mine. When we started the renovation, Wojtek died. I was left alone with the work, with the bureaucracy, with the loan. I saw the renovation through to completion, opened the stage, got the business going. But I kept thinking: "Holy shit, why this stage? What are we going to do here?". Eventually, I came to the conclusion that we had to do as he wanted - integrate the disabled," says Artur Dziurman.

Someone suggested to him that it was a good idea to write a project and apply for funding for artistic activities. The first grant came from the European Social Fund and blind people were to be involved in the play. There were castings, a search for actors by the employment office, and finally, with the people selected for the project, workshops on diction or voice production began. It was necessary to make actors out of a group of people with different educational and professional backgrounds.
Artur Dziurman - ITAN theatre has become part of his life. Photo: Michał Leśniak/press materials ITAN
- We prepared Hans Christian Andersen's 'Wild Swans' and, to the great surprise of a large number of people, we performed it 60 times. I directed a performance in which I had 25 blind people on stage! They played so beautifully that you could go crazy," recalls Dziurman.

"To help the blind? Never in my life"

It did not end with one play. The next play was Karol Wojtyla's drama 'Brother of Our God'. - It was only then, after that play, that I understood that this was theatre! My theatre, the original theatre, different from other ones - it has different actors, a different perspective on the play, a different staging concept. It was absolutely not that I wanted to do something with blind people. I was a young man, drinking vodka, having fun. Where did I get the idea of helping the blind? Never in my life," says Dziurman.

ITAN Theatre has become part of his life. In 18 years, the company has created 11 productions and played them 1,300 times in many places in Poland. It has made a fictional film, a documentary and two thirteen-episode seasons of the series " The Passionate". There are 25 blind and visually impaired actors permanently working with the theatre - "blind horny people", as they say about themselves in the series.

- How do I feel on stage? Since I lost my sight it's very good, because I have no stage fright. I can't see anything, so I don't worry about anything, I do my job, I behave normally," laughs Helena Suchan. She doesn't describe herself as an actress. - I used to work at a mechanical engineering and chemical apparatus plant as a specialist mouldmaker. This is my profession, I loved it. And now there is acting, my hobby. It gives me power, in my situation it's an opportunity to go out to people," she says with energy.

When she started out on the Molière Stage and took part in acting training, she could still see a little. Ten years ago, her retina detached and, despite treatment, today she has darkness in front of her eyes. She clouds up at these memories, but quickly chases the negative thoughts away. - I'm independent, I can manage. My son and grandchildren live in Warsaw, but they watch my performances and are proud of their grandmother. And I'm not bored in Krakow. Not only do I play, but I also go to the University of the Third Age, and in our housing estate we have the PAL (Programme of Local Activity), so I'm also active there," says Helena Suchan.

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From Tyniec, the team moves to Dębnicki Park in Krakow. Aneta Skrzypek is getting ready for her shot. A young girl with a wave of intense red hair plays a scene in which she rushes to a meeting. She runs into the park through the gate and with a quick step, which the cameraman records, she crosses a shady alley. She walks confidently, without hesitation. She moves without a white cane because she can see out of one eye. She covers the other with a flesh-coloured patch, almost invisible from a distance.

She lost her eye in an accident when she was six years old. She was kicked by a horse in a stable. You can get to know her story in one of the episodes of the first season of 'The Passionate'. In it, we see how difficult it is for her to decide to use an eye epiprosthesis. She prefers the 'pirate' and even designs them for other one-eyed people. Aneta has come a long way to self-acceptance. Today, she teaches this art to others - she has published the book 'One-eyed Warrior', organises workshops, meetings. At the same time, she is fulfilling her dreams - such as that of a driving licence and her own car.

Where did the idea for the theatre come from? - In 2019, I read an announcement on Facebook that the Blind Actor's Theatre was doing a casting call. I thought this could be a new adventure. I came along. I have always liked theatre, I used to perform in school and kindergarten. I'm not afraid of either the stage or the camera," says Aneta Skrzypek. - The series we are making is a good way of showing others the world of blind and partially sighted people - that they pursue their passions, have families and jobs. We want to convince people that they really don't need to be afraid of us. Blindness or visual impairment are not contagious, and unfortunately we are sometimes treated by others as if they are," she adds.

From Szewska Street to the church basement

"'The Passionate' is also a story about the fact that although integration of people with disabilities is one of the key words nowadays, in practice this integration has to be constantly fought for." ITAN Theatre has been operating without a location for 14 years. The city increased the rent for the premises on Szewska Street, where the Molière Stage was located, so much that the cost of rent proved insurmountable. Blind actors had to leave the stage.
They have found a temporary haven in the basement of the St Stanisław Kostka church in the Dębniki district of Krakow. They rehearse there, they have set up a stage there, they store equipment, costumes and scenography. Not having their own theatre, they accept invitations from all over Poland. At the same time, they knock on various doors, visit decision-makers, ask for their own place and for the status of a cultural institution, which would give them the possibility of public funding and the creation of several full-time jobs.

"For the time being, it is me and Danuta who do everything ourselves: from organisation and PR to fundraising, driving and mop. On electricity, trains and hotels we spend private money more than once," admits Artur Dziurman. But Danuta Damek adds that they take the actors seriously. 'We make sure that they get royalties for each performance, that we provide them with travel to the show, accommodation,' she says.

The theatre does have an officially rented building - a former coach house on the grounds of the Józef Babiński Clinical Hospital in Kraków. However, the building was abandoned years ago and is therefore devastated. Simple adaptation to the needs of the theatre is not enough. What is needed is a complete overhaul and rebuilding. "We have planned a theatre hall with about 100 seats and a larger outdoor stage in the garden, as well as guest rooms for actors coming from outside Krakow. And actors from places such as Krzeszowice, Wadowice and Szczawnica work with us," says Danuta Damek.

ITAN already has the development conditions, the design, the building permit. The issue comes down to finances, as this is a multi-million zloty investment. - We tried to obtain support from the Norwegian Funds, we worked on the application for a long time. Unfortunately, we did not manage to obtain money for the renovation," says Danuta Damek. "And we need this place very much. I feel responsible for my colleagues. We made them actors, they feel like actors. We can't tell them now that it's over, we're disbanding. We want to give them work. If we had a theatre, they would have permanent jobs. They would come to work that they love. We also want to educate the staff so that someone will keep this theatre going. There is no other madman like Arthur who would work with blind people.

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Artur Dziurman admits that more than once decision-makers congratulate him on the achievements of ITAN theatre, praise the artistic level and that's where it ends. "And we are really doing something that nobody in Poland is doing. There is no such integration anywhere. With us, blind actors play with professionals on one stage," he says.

ITAN has already played with, among others, Anna Seniuk, Anna Korcz, Adrianna Biedrzyńska, Aldona Jankowska, Justyna Sieńczyłło, Tadeusz Huk, Jacek Fedorowicz, Andrzej Zaborski and Maciej Damięcki.

"When we premiered Wojtyla's difficult morality play 'The Radiance of Fatherhood' in Myślenice, there were 500-600 people in the audience. We did a performance with very contemporary scenes. The action took place in a big city, among people living today. This morality play from the 1960s, after scraping off the Wojtyla philosophy, talks about really cool things - about the child, the mother, the father, the family. I could see that the audience was enthralled. "We understand what the show is about". - they said. It turned out that we are showing something that normal people understand and it's not disco polo, but something on a higher level," says Artur Dziurman.

Looking at ITAN actors performing on the theatre floor, in scenes involving a dozen people, where there is no lack of movement or dynamics, I wonder how a performance by blind actors is directed to avoid even collisions or falls on stage. - How did I know how to do it? I didn't know," says Artur Dziurman. "I used to describe everything to them: "Here, put your hand here, look here, it's so beautiful". That's how I started directing everyone.

He points out, however, that ITAN is not a place where someone pities the actors, strokes their heads or gives them preferential treatment. On set, I can hear the director praising, but he can also criticise if something is wrong, because, as he says, his actors "have to work, they have to fucking work".

– "I was a bit surprised to see on set that Artur, as director, would more than once berate the actors. I thought that I would give them gentle attention, but I don't think it's about being polite to them. They want to be treated normally," argues Andrzej Zaborski, an actor known to audiences from, among others, Jacek Bromski's films " In God's place behind the cooker ", " In God's garden ", " At God's doorstep ". He played in both seasons of " The Passionate." "For me, working with blind actors is a fantastic experience. They act normally, like professional actors. I think they must have some kind of sixth sense that, even though they can't see, allows them to move freely on set. I wonder how they do it? Maybe they sense their partner's body temperature, so they can judge distance, discern space," Zaborski wonders.

" Artur has simply found a way to direct us - the blind, the visually impaired. He has intuition, he is able to arrange the stage movement so cleverly that the spectator watching the performance will not easily guess who among us is blind, who is partially sighted and who sees well. Everything is well thought out, even before rehearsals begin Artur communicates it all to us, and we try to follow his instructions meticulously. We count the steps and know the scene to the last centimetre," explains ITAN actress Elżbieta Sielawa.
Actors after the performance of 'Alice in Wonderland'. Photo: Michał Łepecki/press material ITAN
We speak just after her shot, which is played on one of the streets leading to the church in Debniki, where the actors are rehearsing. Elisabeth Sielawa emphasises that they came onto the set after a long hiatus from performing due to the pandemic. "I miss meeting the audience. Showing on stage is already like a stimulant for me. It will be difficult for someone who has not experienced being on stage to understand. The desire to show off, to move to another reality, to another world is addictive. You miss it," says Elisabeth. "On stage I don't think about the problems of everyday life, about health problems. For me, theatre is rehabilitation, it keeps me upright. I'm a very visually impaired person, I also went through a heart attack. And two weeks after I had it I performed in a play. It was a lot of physical exertion, but thanks to the fact that being on stage requires total concentration, there's no room for thinking about any ailments, they stop bothering me much quicker. I can't imagine that theatre would be missing from my life".

Third season?

"Many people have already forgotten about the pandemic, but we in theatre have not. We are still seeing its effects. We get very few invitations to perform. During this long period of isolation, people have forgotten to leave home to go to the cinema or theatre. They find culture and entertainment on the internet. We are saddened by this, as we are there for the public," Danuta Damek emphasises.

However, she has the satisfaction of knowing that the ITAN team was able to come together on the set of the second season of "The Passionate". "Bringing this project to completion was not easy, especially pinning down the budget with prices constantly rising. It would not have been possible if it had not been for the support of our patron PKN ORLEN and a donor - the Fundacja ORLEN dla Pomorza (ORLEN for Pomerania Foundation), as well as funding from PFRON in the " Reaching for Success" competition and from the Małopolskie Voivodeship, and the support of the co-producer of " The Passionates", i.e. TVP," says the producer and co-writer.

Will there be a third season? Time will tell what script life will write, but the ITAN team is not short of ideas. What if it was a production about how they turn a dilapidated coach house into the finest theatre?

– Agnieszka Niewińska
-Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: They cannot see, they are visually impaired, and yet they dance the cancan on the theatre stage. Photo: Michal Lesniak/press material ITAN
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