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"I have to talk!" Interview with theater director Żenia Dawidenka

Theater is a language you use to convey an idea.

Чытаць па-беларуску

In December 2023, Gdańsk Shakespeare Theater premiered the play "Home Is 10 Hours Away" based on a piece by the Belarusian director Żenia Dawidenka. The play uncovers the hefty emotional baggage encumbering most Belarusians post-2020 through a story of three immigrant women and their chance encounter on the Polish seaside, shining a light on our collective trauma. We meet up with Żenia to discuss the play, her work as theater director and having to combine it with bartending as well as her music project called Open Focus.

<iframe width="100%" height="166" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" allow="autoplay" src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/1700774049&color=%23343c34&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true"></iframe><div style="font-size: 10px; color: #cccccc;line-break: anywhere;word-break: normal;overflow: hidden;white-space: nowrap;text-overflow: ellipsis; font-family: Interstate,Lucida Grande,Lucida Sans Unicode,Lucida Sans,Garuda,Verdana,Tahoma,sans-serif;font-weight: 100;"><a href="https://soundcloud.com/radioplato" title="Radio Plato" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">Radio Plato</a> · <a href="https://soundcloud.com/radioplato/radio-plato-editorial-podcast-115-w-zenia-dawidenka" title="Radio Plato - Editorial Podcast #115 w/ Żenia Dawidenka" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">Editorial Podcast #115 w/ Żenia Dawidenka</a></div><br><h1>Sand in the spotlights</h1>

Tell us about "Home Is 10 Hours Away". How did it come about?

– There is a theater company called Teatr Biez Nazvy here in Gdańsk. It was created by Ira Kupčanka back in Belarus, in Horadnia. She brought it over when she left the country. Now there are three actresses in the theater who put on plays for children and adults. Ira together with her colleague won a grant from Warsaw Theater Institute.

Right after coming here Ira had the idea to put on a play about the immigrant life. She wrote it and invited me as actor and director. I read it and it didn't do it for me. That was not the story I wanted to tell about immigrant life. So I proposed to rewrite it and rework the structure. The idea that I suggested was to tell a story through flashbacks. Also I wanted to add some humor and dialogues like the ones I would often overhear working at the bar or going out with friends. The ones where people discuss something totally awkward that makes everyone cringe at first, but then eventually there is nothing else you can do but just laugh about it. I wanted to show where the conflict lies in the immigration process, but also have a resolution and acceptance of my own immigration story and immigration in general. And to do that through three different but relatively simple stories.

How did you communicate with the Shakespeare Theater and convince them you needed so much sand?

– We did end up using over 200 kilos of sand on stage. Ira's initial idea was centered around the beach setting, and I also wanted to set the action on the Tri-City beaches. It's very symbolic to me, I put my roots down in Gdańsk, where I live now. And sand itself is a very symbolic element.


The wonderful people of the Shakespeare Theater immediately said that we would need more sand because it spreads around. I felt self-conscious to ask for more, but they assured me that it's my play and if that's what I needed, then we have to do it properly!

You had two shows on premiere night. Which of those do you think turned out better?

– It's hard to say, because I was also directing it. On the one hand, you stop rushing on the second show, there is still a lot of emotions and blockages the first time around. But on the other hand, you can relax too much on the second show and lose energy, so you have to get yourself together and reset. So I would say both show one and show two were good. There were minor technical things, but I'm sure I'm the only one who even noticed them.

<br><h2>Theatrical muscles</h2>

So, how long have you been doing theater?

– You know, that's actually a complicated question. I love theater and started going to see plays before I was three years old. I was so impressed with everything happening on stage from such an early age that I knew I had to get involved and figure out how it works.

I went to a theater school, then I got into college for stage direction, although only on my third attempt. During my third year of college I started doing my own projects: plays, readings, sketches. That was around 2015 – 2018.

Regarding this play, it's fair to call my full-fledged theater debut, the first play I both wrote and directed. It may not be outstanding, but that's up to the viewers to tell.

So where do you study to become a theater director, and what is that process like?

– I went to the Academy of Arts in Minsk. I had a very talented professor and mentor Vital Katavicki. He forced us to read a lot, taught us how to work with form, how meanings transform, how broad the range of theater tools is. He taught us how to work and how to stand your ground, how not to be afraid of being misunderstood, how to trust your intuitions.

Take for instance my love for using the shadows. He once showed us that shadow can work as pantomime and you can show almost anything using it. Now I use that in almost everything I do. It has come to the point that I should probably stop doing it so much because I'm not discovering other creative tools. But on the other hand, it is a form in itself and may be my signature thing.


Theater is a synthetic artform combining elements of all genres: art, music, costume – use what you will. It's this synthetic nature that makes it so versatile. To me theater is a language you use to convey an idea.

What is the day-to-day of a theater director like?

– Basically, theater director figures out how the play will look and sound together with the set designer and the composer. For instance, director may decide the genre is slapstick and we need a doll-house stage set. The set designer says ok and starts working on a doll-house set design. The composer gets the cues and imagines how to sound them out. At the same time, as rehearsals go on, actors learn their roles and of course they bring in their own ideas. Actors are people too, and they react to the roles they are given. Next is my favorite part. The conflict, figuring out the roles and stories. All that jazz. I love getting into it and playing around with stuff. Then it all starts coming together and working like a small organism. It's a process not dissimilar to painting or composing music. You have a draft, a skeletal structure. You start adding ideas to is. For instance, that there is sand and three suitcases. You give the actors these keywords and they start improvising, and you direct them from there. So this improv keeps developing into a scene. Then you add music. That's when rhythm comes in. Now you got some muscles on that skeleton.

<br><h2>The story of my life</h2>

Besides directing in a theater you also work in Mirzam Bar in Gdańsk. How did you end up there and what is your role there?

– Bartending. I wanted to work at a bar since I was in Minsk. I've been trying to get into Karma bar on Kalvaryjskaja Street. (Karma Bar founded in Minsk 2018. Later Karma Bars were also opened in Kyiv, Gdańsk, Warsaw by the members of the original team. Gdańsk "branch" was renamed to Mirzam in 2023 – editor's note.) I wanted to learn about the history and culture of alcohol, the history of cocktails and its place in culture at large. I know a lot about the history of theater but that's different.

Besides, I'm intrigued but the magic of combining different flavors. You can go to five different bars ordering the same cocktail and end up getting five completely different things. My taste buds have changed a lot: tasty things have become bland, sweet things have become even sweeter. It's a thing you can study your whole life and never get to the bottom of it. Of course, alcohol itself is controversial, but it's definitely part of our culture.

What is your least favorite order?

– When people don't know what they want. "Something not too sweet, not too sour, not bitter and no lemon..."

So, water...

– Exactly. It's like going to a grocery store and saying "Give me some food, I don't care what kind". Or "Hey, make me a beat, not sure what style". Something like that.

And what skills do you feel like working at a bar helps you develop?

– Social skills. I'm pretty bad at making acquaintances, small talk with new people. And the bar makes me learn all that, how to find common topics, how to shift the mood. The most important thing is to stay human. Somebody will need a water, a taxi, a talk, or a hug and a word of support. Awareness is another key thing. You have to keep up with the guests, the bar, the orders – keep it all in your head at once. It's like playing Dinner Dash. I can pretty much see those little faces start smiling.


And how does bartending influence your directing skills?

– I'm hearing more. I'm pretty good at that in general, but even more so when working at the bar.

<br><h2>Breaking bones</h2><iframe style="border-radius:12px" src="https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/6QVdGyJmyPw6WLJgRm86Dm?utm_source=generator&theme=0" width="100%" height="352" frameBorder="0" allowfullscreen="" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; fullscreen; picture-in-picture" loading="lazy"></iframe>

Back in the summer of 2023 you put in an album with Stas Chekh as Open Focus based on a theater play. Tells us more about it and how it came about.

– The play is called "Khrybiet" and is written by my favourite Belarusian playwright (name withheld for security reasons - editor's note.). To me, this is a play about searching for an answer to the question ‘Where did it all go wrong? How did people start living by hurting others?’ It's got everything I love. All the difficult questions. What is justice, what makes a hero, what is war and peace, what is right and wrong and what is will. What is nature and what makes a man. There's many layers to it, and I like it for its complexity.

When I first read it, I knew I want to make a musical play based on it with different styles of music for each part. Initially I planned to make it an audio-visual meditative performance that would immerse you into the beautifully written text. I love how it's written and that's why I decided to stick to the original, not translate it into Belarusian or Polish. We managed to complete first three parts while still in Minsk, and then after my immigration we worked on it remotely with Stas.

<br><h2>Summertime sadness</h2>

Together with your friend Saša Babkova you have started a summer camp for adults. What's it about and what does it involve.

– It all started the team of the three of us: myself, Saša Babkova and Uljana Dułkina who does the "Spieu Ziamli" workshop. Saša and Uljana once came up with a project back in Minsk and invited me to participate. We did two summer camps in Belarus and one here in Poland.

It was pure magic to give adults of all ages and professions an opportunity to get involved in creative activities and feel like a kid in summer camp again. When you're told the schedule for the day in the morning and by the end of it you have to, for example, submit the film you have made today.


We did all sorts of creative stuff there. I don't like to use the work "techniques". It's a fresh exhale through the forms that were new to some while familiar to others. We practice ugly drawing, we communicate using theater and cinema tools, play children's games, make performances within an hour, and so on and so forth.

We played Just Dance and had discos in the evenings, organized documentary screening nights and exhibitions, put on theater plays. I facilitated automatic writing workshops every morning. We discussed a lot of things and tried a lot of things.

We put it on hold for now, with all the immigrant business involving both time and money, that's too consuming right now to leave us enough energy for next season.

* * *

By the way, next dates of "Home Is 10 Hours Away" shows have been announced. February 15 and 17 in Shakespeare Theater in Gdańsk. Buy the tickets here!

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