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Stella Baker

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Stella Baker (born July 22, 1966 in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire) is a British playwright and theatre director.

Being a transgendered female, she is the first British playwright who started her career as a male (formerly known as Mark Bates) and continues her career as a female. She is known for her work in comedy and also for her work in drama.

She started writing in 1989, and events which happened around this time in Europe led to her fascination with Eastern Europe. She visited the Soviet Union during its fall but finally settled in Poland in 1993. In 1994 whilst working as a lecturer at Poznan University she established The Poznan Fringe Theatre Company, working to introduce the concept of fringe theatre to Polish theatre. Her first play No Place Like Home did not attract much attention when it was staged in February 1995, but she immediately won critical acclaim with the staging of her comedy entitled Peanuts, about the revaluation of the Polish zloty and the country’s transition from communism to the current political system. In 1996 she staged another comedy entitled The Visit From Strangers about two Martians who came to Earth but failed to find any sign of intelligent life. Between 1997 and 1999 she turned her attention to drama staging At The Bus Stop and One Saturday in 1998 with repeat performances of Peanuts throughout from 1996 to 1999.

In 1997 she was commissioned to write a film script for the Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski, a project which never took off because Kieslowski died near the start of the project.

From the very start she established her own style of working in Polish theatre. Her one act plays were almost always staged in two language versions, both in Polish and English, and in 1998 she abandoned the stage and working in theatre in favour of staging her plays in pubs, clubs, cultural centres and art galleries. This started a trend among smaller theatres in Poland, who also began staging performances in English (as well as Polish) and also performing at venues outside theatres. At the International MALTA Festival of Theatre in Poznan in 2000 her performance of One Saturday staged in a pub attracted an audience of nearly six hundred people, and the Polish national newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza started to suggest that she was the future of Polish theatre.

In 2001 she left Poznan for Warsaw, staging what is seen as one of the finest ever comedies in Polish theatre The Scottish Patient (English version titled The Italian Patient) a comedy about health service reforms. This play ran for a whole season to packed audiences, being extremely popular among Warsaw teenagers, and is still remembered by many of Warsaw’s theatergoers even today. Her most controversial work was staged at the Metro Theatre in Warsaw in 2003, including dramas such as Rejected about the sexual harassment of women at work, a newer version of One Saturday, which focused on domestic violence. Both productions divided Warsaw theatergoers and a planned production of Sunday - about the splitting up of two homosexual priests, caused such an outcry that the production had to be abandoned and she lost her position at the theatre.

She is known as being a specialist in writing dialogues, and in a review on Rejected the critics at Gazeta Wyborcza wrote that the play “featured dialogues never heard before on a Polish stage”. But not even a revamped version of Peanuts, which was retitled Cabbages and transformed into a comedy about the introduction of the Euro saved her from a period in the theatrical wilderness where nobody in Polish theatre wanted to work with her. She also had gender issues and shunned media attention and publicity as she was still publicly male, but living privately as a woman.

During her time in Warsaw theatre she wrote new plays, including The Condemned about a love triangle between a Wehrmacht soldier, a Jewish woman and a Polish woman working for the resistance in 1944 Warsaw, Payday which is a comedy about reality TV, and she combined versions of Rejected and One Saturday into a new drama called Once. She also moved to a smaller Polish town, Zywiec and started a new theatre, staging Cabbages. This production of the play, which is seen as her most popular play, caused Gazeta Wyborcza to write that she succeeded in introducing fringe theatre to Poland and through this achieved something that Jerzy Grotowski failed to do, which was find a new direction in theatre.

She is arguably the most unusual and extraordinary English language playwright and stage director in modern theatre, who since the start of her career in theatre has consistently and very successfully managed to establish her own unique place in theatre, mainly because she refuses herself to fit in with any other area of theatre other than her own. Her plays to date have never been published, she has never been accepted by professional theatre, and for years has caused problems for various newspaper critics and people in theatre who have struggled to find any appropriate definition for her own unique brand of theatre.

Productions of her work have always been rare, even during her earlier career in Polish theatre, but all of her productions have in some way stood out for similar reasons, for her highly innovative work as a playwright and stage director, including her innovative use of space and original choice of venues and the large audiences the performances of her plays attract and also for the ability she shares with Bob Dylan to be able to manipulate public awareness to bring attention to her work.

It was her strong influence on Polish theatre at the turn of the century which has established her as a leading authority on the concept of modern fringe theatre particularly among the leading newspaper critics and a couple have even suggested that her influence on modern theatre may even be greater than that of Jerzy Grotowski. She is also an authority on cross-cultural theatre and through the combination of naturalistic theatre and different cultural influences and references probably more than most she has managed to show that theatre need not be high brow or part of 'high culture' but can be accessible and popular as other forms of culture. It is through her development of these characteristics that she has often been accused of being 'anti-theatre'.

Baker's influences are expressionist theatre and rather unusually naturalistic forms of both theatre and film which paradoxically places her work at variance with the postmodernist theatre movement and those inspired by the theories of Jerzy Grotowski but which reaffirm earlier forms of naturalistic theatre, particularly the kitchen sink drama and theatre of the absurd.

Her plays deal with social issues, particularly themes of tolerance, social injustice, prejudice, and the questioning of commonly held attitudes in modern society. They are characterized by simplicity of language and context, exploration of the nature of conflict, and exploration of the emotional and psychological relationships between performer and the audience. In most of her work there is little difference between the characters of her plays and the audience, and this has enabled Baker to find success in both areas of comedy and drama and which gives her work a universal appeal for its utter simplicity.

She has won critical acclaim as one of the finest writers of comedy in the English language. Her finest work is generally perceived to be her comedy 'Cabbages', which was originally staged under the title of 'Peanuts' as a satire on the economic reforms of Lech Walesa in Poland, but which in its later form under its newer title of 'Cabbages' is taken to be a satire on totalitarian forms of government. Similarly too 'The Scottish Patient', which is a satire on health care reforms set in a hospital also won her much critical acclaim. However through her work in drama Baker has shown an ability to touch on highly controversial subjects and through her work present such subjects to society as a challenge to society in general to confront and deal with such issues. Her play 'Rejected' touches upon the subject of sexual harassment of women in the workplace, her plays 'One Saturday' and 'Once' deal with domestic violence and the destruction of family values, and 'Sunday' with homophobia and intolerance.

The turning point in her career is generally perceived to be in 2005 when she wrote her first play in Polish entitled 'Smierc' (Death) in August of that year around the time Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans. It was witnessing such events which inspired her to modify her work and replace the anger of her previous work in drama with much more humanitarian qualities. She intended this play to be her first play to be presented and staged with as herself in her true female identity becoming also as the first ever Western playwright to become fully accepted into Polish theatre as a playwright in the Polish language, but she was prevented from doing this by social attitudes in a society dominated by the Catholic Church and this directly led to her downfall in Polish theatre.

She has since returned to the West and has successfully managed to reestablish herself as a female playwright and stage director who occupies a unique position on the edge of society and theatre and through this is working successfully to redefine the concept of modern fringe theatre through working with people at the lowest levels of society. She works exclusively with people who don't fit in with mainstream society, people such as the very poor, the homeless, the vulnerable, people with issues, victims of abuse and social injustice and through her work as a playwright and director she works to inspire confidence and hope in such people to enable them to rebuild their lives and better relationships with the rest of society and thus gives such people a platform from which they are able to express themselves and share their experiences and lives with others. Through such work Baker has established herself as a tireless and passionate social campaigner working on behalf of disadvantaged people to fight against modern social problems as poverty, social injustice, intolerance, hatred and crime.

Selected works Edit

  • Without Words (1991)
  • No Place Like Home (1994)
  • Peanuts (1995) - later retitled Cabbages in 2001
  • A Wedding of Characters (1996)
  • The Visit From Strangers (1996)
  • At The Bus Stop (1997)
  • One Saturday (1998)
  • The Scottish Patient (2000)
  • Rejected (2002)
  • Sunday 6.46am (2002)
  • The Condemned (2003)
  • Once (2004)
  • Smierc (Death) (2005)

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