Adventures in language and identity – Rita

In our project to re-imagine the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen along contemporary themes we’ve been lucky in attracting some fantastic organisations as partners, but have also found amazing individuals to work with. We’re extremely excited to be working with actor Rita Suszek who will perform live as well as in recordings at our installation on Dec 21st.   Here she tells us a bit about herself and her approach to Snow Q:

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When I first saw the casting call for Snow Q, I had to pinch myself, it was so perfect. It included words such as “non-binary”, “poetry”, “fluent in both Polish and English” – terms that describe me as a person, but also pertain to my artistic career. I have lived in the UK for over 6 years now, and have all but given up on being cast in projects as an actor, largely because I don’t present like people’s idea of a Polish girl (slim, short, blonde, long-haired); I have been writing and performing my own work for some time now. To find a casting like that was a miracle; to get the part was a gift.

I have been learning English steadily since age 10, with first exposure to it from about age 5; it is my second language, second home. When I moved to the UK in 2012 I already spoke it fairly fluently and was starting to write in it. Even though my actual degree is in Polish Literature, the everyday usage has taken its toll: when I converse with family, I’ll suddenly realise I translated idiomatic English phrases or the very sentence structure into Polish. The concept of Polglish (or Ponglish, as Maria calls it) is something of an inside joke for me and my loved ones.

In many ways, I feel both Polish and not-Polish at the same time: Polish because I am an immigrant and won’t be shamed for that, political rhetoric be damned; because languages and writing have always been my home; because as a Literature graduate I have roots in the writing of Mickiewicz, Świrszczyńska and many others – Polish poets, novelists and playwrights that shepherded me through my childhood and adolescence. But my not-Polishness – living somewhere else; finding home in another language that at times allows me more breathing room; disagreeing strongly with Poland’s dominant rhetoric, conservative mindset and ruling political paradigm – is equally important to me. Gender identity, something very poignant in Snow Q, is also a concept I have given a lot of thought over the years – partially because growing up in Poland, I have found no way to simply… be. If I was indeed a girl, I was a “girl interrupted”, mostly by ubiquitous misogyny: something that to this day I work through, both privately and through my art.

Given all that, I have been really enjoying the experimentation with phrasing and alliteration in both languages that is the text of Snow Q. It feels like a secret code, tailored to a few, partially accessible to many. Being an immigrant, you are often expected to do all the work necessary to understand and be understood: learn the words and phrases, look up the cultural references, catch up on the backstory. Against this backdrop, Snow Q gives me a feeling of relief. There is a playfulness to dropping Polish words here and there, disrupting the fluency of the experience for the English speakers. Not to mention it connects both halves of my brain, that often, when left undisturbed, thinks in both languages at the same time – a patchwork-y mass of meaning, mess of words.

There is some magic that I feel coursing through the project as a whole; an extraneous meaning that is born out of connecting different art forms and people. If nothing else, there is nuance. We are bringing things that are cast as opposites or binaries (Polish and English; genders; ice cold, loving warmth – isolation and friendship) and creating a living, breathing portrayal that is multifaceted and full of depth. Taking on a story that everyone knows sometimes makes you realise that we don’t know it all that well; the tale of Snow Queen becomes a vehicle through which we can find ourselves again. In our troubled yet beautiful and fractured times, connection is the answer – and art is one way to find it.

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Photographs courtesy of Wendy Pye and Juwel Haque

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