In 2012—2013, the young Polish director Michał Borczuch was protégé to legendary Patrice Chéreau in the Rolex Arts Initiative. Patrice Chéreau died in October 2013, just after the end of the mentoring year. Here Borczuch reflects on the time he spent with the French director.
Rolex Arts Initiative: In the spring of 2013, Patrice Chéreau’s last year, you and he were working together on the production of Richard Strauss's opera Elektra to be premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France that July. How did the production go?
Michał Borczuch: We were in Aix for most of June and July. In the first part of the rehearsals there, we had time to talk about the production and about what was happening in the rehearsal process, but later it was absolutely impossible. He was so inside the production and there were so many things going on. But, for me, it was very good to find this position where I was simply watching and understanding the problems he was trying to solve.
Chéreau must by then have been very ill.
Was that obvious?
It wasn't so obvious for me. We spent a few evenings together and he was looking very good. He had a lot of energy, and I could see this energy in the rehearsals. I knew he was seriously ill, and he talked about another medical examination he had to have, but he concealed exactly how ill he was.
He died just before the event in Venice that marked the formal end of the cycle of the Rolex Arts Initiative.
That must have been very hard for you.
I was absolutely shocked and it was hard to find the best way of dealing with it. But in Venice I spoke to his assistant, who had worked with him for eight years, and he told me he had sensed from the way Chéreau was working on Elektra that this would be his final statement, and Chéreau knew that too.
What were your observations about the way he approached rehearsals?
His work was always so precise. He knew exactly what he wanted from the text, from the scene, from the actors. The approach was very different from mine. I work mostly with improvisation. I feel I have to know something, about one scene for instance, but I also need a lot of space in my imagination to be open to everything that will happen during the rehearsal process. I don't want to say that he was closed to this experience, but he was very prepared and he knew exactly what sort of movements and gestures actors should make on stage.
What was the main legacy of your work with Chéreau?
It taught me to concentrate more on the text. He was always talking about telling a story. When I was listening to this, I said: “OK, I understand what you are talking about, but I feel something absolutely different.” But then his words started growing in my mind, and suddenly when I was talking with myself I realized the connection between what he said and my way of working, and in my productions since then I have combined the two methods. There is still no clear plot, but I am exploring new ways of telling a story. In that way, I feel I have been inspired by the time I spent with Chéreau.
You must feel privileged to have spent the last few months of Chéreau's life with him.
Of course. I understand it was a privilege. But I still don't know exactly what it meant. For me it's impossible to forget him, and I remember him from a lot of different moments and situations. I think the mentorship is growing – like a plant. I still feel in touch with his ideas and derive inspiration from them. It is still impossible for me to say what I learned from Chéreau, but that doesn't matter because I feel his presence in that moment of my life was very important and is still important. I don't want to think it's working from above in some mystical way; I want to think in a more psychoanalytical way, that it's working inside me.
What direction is your work now taking?
I am developing two new operas with Polish composers, to be premiered at the Warsaw Opera House in May; working on a production of Goethe's Faust for a theatre in Bydgoszcz in March; and putting together a film with the working title In the Daylight, which I hope to finish in 2016. I have had support from the media department of Krakow University but I will need to find some more money to complete the film.
Like Chéreau, you work in all three media – theatre, film and opera – and, again like him, you seem to place personal freedoms, artistic freedoms, above considerations of career. Is that how you see it?
In Poland, I am still in the mainstream, but not in the “main” mainstream. I never do things because I have to do them; I do them because I want to do them, and the projects I choose are all very different. I had always wanted to work in film as well as theatre, so working in both is not really – as some might see it – a question of taking up the torch after Chéreau's death. But spending time with him and talking about film did make me more determined to do my own film, and the range of work I'm doing now and all these new experiences make me feel stronger.