EDUCULT Talks: with Agnieszka and Maciej Salamon
The Poland-born actor couple Agnieszka and Maciej Salamon have been living in Vienna for 18 years – with a few interruptions. EDUCULT spoke with them about their history, their lives in Vienna, the Polish and Viennese acting scenes and what the current political changes in Poland and Austria mean for them personally.
EDUCULT: Where do you come from artistically and how were you trained?
Maciej Salamon: I was born in Poland, then grew up in Germany from the age of 12. I come from a family of artists. I went to school in Germany, after the Abitur I studied physics. But that was nothing for me, I broke it off and came to acting. After being unsuccessful with the acting school entrance examinations, I was immediately accepted by a music school in Poland. During my training I changed to the Stella Academy in Hamburg. After graduating there I played in musicals for twelve years. There you have eight shows a week, always the same, but at some point you feel like you are in a rut. Then our child was born and we realized that it couldn’t go on like this. With a child you can’t change your place of residence every year. Our life together was anchored in Vienna, because I had my first big engagements at the Vereinigte Bühnen, for two years “Jekyll & Hyde” and for one year “Barbarella”. We spent three years in Vienna. Agnieszka started to make her contacts at that time. We always had a connection to Vienna and a place to live in Vienna. That’s why we came back here and had to change some things in our lives. At the moment as an artist I don’t do as much as I used to. Musicals only if I can do them here or shorter guest performances abroad. Last year I performed at the Dance of the Vampires for half a year. That was an 8 year break. I go to auditions when there’s something here, but I can’t afford to go to Germany for a year. I try to work as often as I can when something comes up. Otherwise I am officially more a craftsman than an artist because I do a lot of voice over recordings. I consider it to be artistic work, but formally it would be called a craft.
Is that sychronisation too?
Maciej Salamon: Actually, not so much. For synchronisation there are two or three centres where you can do that in the German-speaking world. That’s more in Berlin, maybe Cologne, Hamburg, Munich. There is hardly any dubbing in Vienna.
Then what kind of voice overs are those?
Maciej Salamon: Everything from (at best) advertising or computer games to safety instructions for construction workers. In the EU, you need an incredible amount of multilingual recordings in all kinds of sectors. I record German and Polish, partly also English. About image films, announcement loops for companies, such stories. We often do that together, because Agnieszka is also a voice over actor. The “day job” is voice recording, then some movies / TV series come and if I’m lucky, like last year, I can do something locally as a musical actor, it’s great. Occasionally I was also in the free scene, but that’s rare.
Agnieszka Salamon: I was born in Poland. My parents were both actors. I grew up with my grandparents in a relatively small town in the middle of Poland. After graduating from high school, I studied Polish linguistics for a year. Actually, I had always wanted to become an actress and I attended a private acting school for one year. In this school we got to know each other during a preparatory course for the entrance exams for the state schools. In Krakow it was one of our first private acting lessons. After one year at the private school I was accepted at a state acting school in Breslau. This was an offshoot of the Krakow Drama School, Puppetry Department. After my training as an actress and puppeteer I worked for one year in Poland at a state puppet theatre. In Austria there are actually no such theatres. Maciek then got a job at the Vereinigte Bühnen Wien. I didn’t have a good job in Poland, nothing that interested me. So we decided that I would move from Poland to Vienna with him.
When did you go to Vienna for the first time?
Agnieszka Salamon: 2001. Poland was not yet in the EU at that time.
Maciej Salamon: I had a permanent residence permit in Germany, as I had had a permanent residence there since my childhood. In Austria it was also no problem because of my work at the Vereinigte Bühnen.
Agnieszka Salamon: That wasn’t the case with me. Technically, I had to leave after three months. But I got a job at the Marionette Theatre Schönbrunn Palace, not a permanent position, it was a kind of training. They applied for a visa for me. It took quite a long time. I worked there a lot and was in training. After half a year I got the visa. I think after two years Poland joined the EU.
How did you come across that? How did you find the position at the puppet theatre?
Agnieszka Salamon: That was total luck. Maciek played “Sweeney Todd” in Vienna when I was still a student and I visited him. At that time I did not speak German. We just went for a walk in Schönbrunn and there was the puppet theatre. Then we went inside, Maciek got into conversation with the directors of the theatre. They said that you could train with them, you can also do small jobs, they were open to all possibilities. It was just that, just that short conversation. They let us watch a performance for free. It was the Magic Flute, really beautiful, very classic. A kind of marionette game, which is very connected to the Austrian area. It has to do with Maria Theresa and the Austrian court. That was my way to an Austrian residence permit. Then I had to learn German and see what I could do.
That was a good opportunity because German was not so important.
Agnieszka Salamon: I didn’t need German to play at all. They were recordings of the Magic Flute. It was irrelevant there. For learning and communicating I had to study it.
When you came here, you had to find a job. It was similar for you when it was over at the Vereinigten Bühnen.
Maciej Salamon: Yeah. That’s normal. It wasn’t my first job ever, it was my first long-term job. It worked for two years. I was there for two seasons and then I worked in the interim at the Bregenz Festival, then immediately back at “Barbarella”. The twelve years I’ve been performing in musicals I’ve been very lucky. Basically, I had no free time. We once had two or three months where I had nothing, but always knew what was next. Not everyone has this luxury. On the other hand, I almost always had to follow the jobs and move. After Barbarella there was a point where it was not clear how we would continue. The next job I got was in Füssen, then Cologne, Zurich and so on …
So what’s it like not to go down that road anymore? Your son was born. Were you already established in the scene?
Maciej Salamon: It was very difficult. We took a bit of a chance. That was only possible because the German-speaking countries – especially Germany and Austria – have a good social system and the opportunity to catch you when you are unemployed or looking for work. It was a trial period, it was certainly not stress-free.
Agnieszka Salamon: We have two pairs of shoes. The way Maciek worked in musicals is not comparable to the free theatre scene in Austria. The musical scene is more international, actually includes all three countries. Like at the theater, there are stages – there are people who play smaller and smaller roles and those who are stars. Maciek has always played smaller to middle roles and has mostly been employed as an understudy for several roles. So certainly not a “star”. My professional field was totally different. I started making contacts in Vienna when I was halfway proficient in the language. It was very difficult and laborious.
How was it difficult?
Agnieszka Salamon: Because I didn’t study here. I think that makes a lot of difference. Language is one thing, but in the meantime I know that there are many people who don’t speak perfect German, but because they did their training here, they had contacts right from the start, knew people, were somehow immediately known. In the beginning, I wasn’t known to anyone as an artist and actress. I couldn’t do puppet theatre in the same form as in Poland, besides marionette theatre. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. Certainly not exclusively. It is still difficult. The way I speak German – I have heard everything from: “Oh my God, you hardly have an accent” to “Oh my God, you have such a heavy accent”.
From the artistic world?
Agnieszka Salamon: Yes, there are those who think that it doesn’t matter if you speak with an accent and those who think that there is no point contacting them for an audition.
Where do you get the feeling the accent doesn’t work?
Agnieszka Salamon: You can’t predict that. It is on an individual basis.
Are there really places or theatres where you go and must speak in the German high-stage language?
Agnieszka Salamon: 80%.
Maciej Salamon: Of course this is true for almost all established stages.
Agnieszka Salamon: It’s not like that now anyway. In the free scene it is almost irrelevant. In the normal city theatre stage it is quite rare that one has a chance with an accent. I tried to get two or three auditions for state theatres and was never invited. It can be for different reasons. In any case, it is very difficult to get opportunities to perform.
You are mainly on the move in the free scene – how do you perceive the scene, how does the scene receive you? Is there a community in which you can feel yourself?
Agnieszka Salamon: Yeah, but I’d rather say that I’ m on the edge myself. I already belong to it, I now know many people. But through our shared life story, because we were always travelling together, I was very often not there. Out of the 20 years I certainly missed at least seven to eight in Vienna. Until the moment when I got pregnant, I was doing relatively well. I had years where I took part in three theatre or performance productions. Then I was away for three years because of the child and it was very difficult to get back in. The generations have changed. For some in the independent scene, I’m just too old. If I had stayed in Vienna all the time, I could imagine that my position in the independent scene would now be a different one. But I don’t know.
Maciej Salamon: One has to also say that the free scene is partly influenced by whatever is a hot topic at the moment. The last years the refugee topic is very big and therefore a lot goes in this direction. Although we have a migrant background, we are now EU citizens. Although the political situation in Poland is problematic – it is clearly worse than what we have here – it is a shade of the same thing. The people who came to power here in Austria are very similar to those who are in power in Poland, a different hue of the same political direction. So you can hardly bring anything with you that you do not know here anyway.
Agnieszka Salamon: I’ve mostly been cast as a foreigner. On the one hand, it’s okay because I can’t pretend to be a native Austrian because I have an accent. But it’s an extremely difficult thing, it’s a balancing act between telling a story and being used for a story.
Has anything changed since 2001? Back then was the first time the black-blue party was in power, now again. Was it different from what we experience socially now?
Maciej Salamon: Yeah, definitely. Back then, when the black-blue came for the first time, it was a giant thing. The entire EU has been put at odds. At the moment it is (unfortunately) almost the norm. It occurs everywhere. Basically everybody knows that this leads to nothing good and can go downstream. People do everything but what they put on their election posters. I have the feeling that the social situation is getting more difficult – as I said earlier: we had an opportunity for assistance after we had our child. When one now hears that emergency assistance is to be abolished – there are very broad sections of the population, there are also an insanely large number of artists who suddenly face existential problems. Not just migrants, but just as many Austrians. I don’t know how this will affect us. I hope it won’t. I’ve had a few film projects recently. It’s not a lot of work in terms of time, but you don’t earn bad money with films. If I have, as I have recently, a film with 10 shooting days, then we have ground under our feet for half a year. But when things get worse, you stand there and wonder what you’re doing now. Stability has not been created in this industry. That has nothing to do with the fact that we are migrants, because it affects our Austrian colleagues just as much as it affects us. As EU citizens, we are on an equal footing with our Austrian counterparts. Everything that concerns us now affects Austrians as well. The whole cultural world, except the people who are lucky and frequently shoot, or are permanently employed at a big theatre. At smaller municipal theatres, people also get meagre wages. It is going in a direction that will be very scary at some point.
You wouldn’t say that you experience the climate here as migrants?
Maciej Salamon: No, not exactly. We are moving in a bubble. All the people we work with and our friends are people who think like us.
Agnieszka Salamon: At first glance, we do not differ from Austrians* at all. At the very beginning of my stay here I felt more little things, because I spoke only poor or little German. Then I often thought, what is it now? But that was also rare.
Maciej Salamon: You speak more Austrian now than I do. You are culturally more integrated.
Agnieszka Salamon: I can increasingly cope with such situations with an Austrian diatribe and I just don’t look like someone who doesn’t come from here.
Maciej Salamon: People always think I’m a German.
Agnieszka Salamon: In the free scene I am a Polish actress. I am never seen as an Austrian actress with a Polish background.
Why is it that you are not seen as an Austrian with a Polish background?
Agnieszka Salamon: That is a good question.
Maciej Salamon: It’s the language.
Agnieszka Salamon: I rather ask myself – why can’t I play a Polish doctor who works in Austria? If so, then I am a nurse, a nurse or a cleaning lady. And then only as a supporting role. An absurd thing I once heard: “Magda does it already” is a series about a Polish nurse for the elderly, played by an Austrian who plays this role with a Polish accent that is mocked. She can’t even pronounce her Polish name properly. That’s racist. No one had the idea of casting Polish women for the leading role, but they took a German-speaking actress and specially trained her to make a joke out of it.
Maciej Salamon: This is the problem with commercial media. They serve a certain target group who have certain stereotypes and prejudices that they want to have served. You could get upset about this. But on the other hand, that’s what keeps bringing us work. I also usually play either Poles or other Eastern Europeans. It’s a niche.
Agnieszka Salamon: We live off that cliché, too.
Maciej Salamon: It’s about the things that are offered to you. If you have the label Foreigners, there are only certain role partitions. The thinking is narrow. In the end it’s the construction worker or the criminal. If you are lucky, the priest.
Agnieszka Salamon: It’s totally exciting. A colleague of mine – young, a Syrian refugee, an actor – is put even more into drawers than we are… He attended an acting school and does this work very well. The question now is whether he – because he is 20 years younger than us – can perhaps break through the clichés.
Because maybe society will change after all.
Agnieszka Salamon: I hope so.
Do you have contact with Polish theatremakers? What about the development in Poland?
Maciej Salamon: It must be said that the cultural scene in Poland is for the most part extremely opposed to the current political climate. One can partly think back to the 80s, when the cultural scene also fought against the totalitarian system. The artists were on the front lines, fighting against the regime and the system and doing something. Today the issues are a bit different, it’s a lot about women’s rights, LGBT freedom, separation of state and church, but the feeling of resistance against some kind of regime is becoming more and more similar.
Agnieszka Salamon: But there is also something in Poland that I haven’t really found in Austria, at least not in the independent scene: there are really politically right actors. There is a broad, big scene of people who totally identify with the values that are currently represented. But it’s not folksy or anything, it’ s people who believe in making fine art. Personally, I know quite a few of them. It’s more present in smaller cities than in big cultural centres.
Maciej Salamon: Poland has a different cultural history than Austria. In Poland, a divided country that was not on the map for two hundred years, there was a strong patriotic urge for culture. An anchor for a consciousness as a nation. Also in “high literature” and in theatre there is a lot that is very patriotic. Almost all classics from the time before the First World War revolve around the struggle for freedom. In this country it is less represented, because one would probably find it too nationalistic. In Poland this has been cultivated for decades. What’s bad is that it’s very easy to take something like this into extremes and basically turn it into fascist stories. Which is a perversion of the very idea of these works.
Agnieszka Salamon: Because I have been living in Austria for 20 years and have been abroad a lot, my perceptions change. I grew up in Poland until I was 27 years old and I identified myself with this national pride. When you are inside, you have no outward view. That’s completely changed for me through working with Austrian artists and international artists. When I come to Poland now and see the situation there, I get more and more of a shock. It doesn’t evolve forward, it evolves back again. They will soon be coming back to the 19th century. For many people, for example, there is genuine racial thinking. The social achievements in Europe today – e.g. not laughing at homosexuality or calling it something sick – are totally lost in Poland today. And there was already a phase in which it opened up.
Maciej Salamon: This is also shown on state television. You get the sheer horror. But then there is a very strong movement against it. And then things like this happen: two years ago, after the last election, there was a production of a classic by a great Polish national writer, which was very modern and anticlerical. The church was strongly criticized, and some of the images used were very strong. The reactions ranged from protests to the fact that a caustic liquid was sprayed in the theatre, for which employees then had to be taken to hospital. Or they tried to light smoke flares in the auditorium. Really aggressive behaviour.
Poland has a politically active scene. How is it in Austria? Do you notice it?
Maciej Salamon: Yes, we personally know people who are strongly committed. The project you are doing now is within the framework of a rather political event. Agnieszka will be staging a project as part of WienWoche in autumn.
Agnieszka Salamon: I think it’s a good thing we can do it here. Maybe you can get scared when Identitäre (conservative group) come an start singing. But I still have the impression that there are enough institutions here that support freedom of expression. There are enough newspapers and media. In Poland it is half-half because the state has been monopolized by a political party.
Maciej Salamon: But Austria and Vienna are two different entities. If you live in Vienna, you almost don’t realize that you live in a turquoise-blue country. Vienna is not turquoise-blue (conservative). If you take to the streets here and demonstrate, it’s something completely different than if you did it in Carinthia or wherever. You don’t have that in Poland. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Warsaw there are many groups that are extreme. They would be willing to go out and smash someone in the face on the street because they think they can be completely exempt from punishment. And partly they are. Every year on Polish National Day, Independence Day, there is a big demonstration in Warsaw. It used to be a very nice celebration of independence. In recent years, however, it has developed in such a way that people think: “It’s only Nazis now.” There are also people doing the Nazi salute perhaps no swastikas, but these Celtic crosses and so on – basically it’s about the same thing. It is absurd how it works. At the end of the Second World War there was the Warsaw Uprising where tens of thousands of people died fighting against the Nazis. But now there are young nationalists standing next to each other wearing a symbol of the insurrection fighters and these fascist symbols. That is a kind of schizophrenia. This is currently tolerated by the state. On state television one then says that they are all “patriots”.
A key question: What do you see in your futures?
Agnieszka Salamon: We want to stay in Austria and we hope that we can continue to do so. Neither of us has Austrian citizenship, nor do we need it. I am Polish and will remain so.
Maciej Salamon: Me too, as long as I can. I feel more like a European and citizenship is not so important for me. As long as Poland stays in the EU, at least.
Agnieszka Salamon: Our son is growing up here, has a Polish citizenship and speaks both languages. He will then decide for himself what he is – Austrian, Pole, or a bit of both. In the near future I would like to give a warning in the projects I am doing. I want to continue on my way here, which I am already doing, and at some point I will try to play the doctor and not the nurse or cleaning lady. Maybe I can do it, maybe not. I would also like to tell you about Poland. I still think the current political situation here is better than the Polish one. I am afraid, however, that things could get worse here.