Paratheatre: What is Beyond Theatre?

Interview with Paul Allain

Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Kent, Canterbury. Since collaborating with the Gardzienice Theatre Association from 1989 to 1993 he has gone on to write extensively about the theatre. He has published several edited collections on Grotowski as part of the British Grotowski project.

Paul’s films about physical acting for Methuen Drama Bloomsbury will be published at Drama Online in Spring 2018 as Physical Actor Training – an online A-Z.  Draft films are currently available at the Digital Performer website.


Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • artistic intentions
  • theatrical purpose
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What is paratheatre?

PA: Para means beyond; it is theatrical but was not using the same forms. It was beyond theatre.

PC: Why did Grotowski make the shift away from productions to paratheatre?

PA: After Apocalypsis cum Figuris he said,

Some words are dead, even though we are still using them. Among such words are show, theater, audience, etc. But what is alive? Adventure and meeting.

Grotowski, J. (1973) Holiday: The Day That Is Holy. TDR, 17(2) p113–35.

For him this new language meant paratheatre, which is all about active culture. He believed everyone has innate creativity: rather than just watching other people acting; rather than reading books that other people have written; rather than watching other people on stage and films, we can all be active creators. Thousands of people participated in this programme of ‘active culture’ as it was also called. We might call them workshops but these were very different, very intensive workshops. No one was allowed to observe, they all had to participate. It was a completely different direction.

PC: It seems quite abrupt. What made him shift direction so drastically?

PA: He looked back at his work and felt that he had manipulated spectators, forcing particular psychological situations. He had set up these configurations where he asked them to imagine they were witnesses or be present in a concentration camp, watching people die. He felt uncomfortable with such manipulation of the form and the theatre. Instead he wanted to go back to questions about the human spirit: What is human nature? What is creativity? It was interesting because a lot of people were taking work into communities then: Eugenio Barba with Odin Teatret started doing ‘barters’ in the 1970s and the Living Theatre had come to Europe. These companies were similarly going beyond theatre.

PC: What kind of activities did paratheatre include?

PA: It was a very wide programme of activities: Ludwik Flaszen led text and voice workshops, Zygmunt Molik did voice therapy sessions and acting workshops. Cynkutis led what we would call ‘acting classes’. There was environmental work, there was the mountain project, there was Vigils, Beehives, all these participatory activities where no one was allowed to observe. Everyone had to participate fully on the same terms. It was an investigative process, very exploratory; there were structures, but usually the structure was never explained. For example, in a Beehive, you can imagine this sense of people working through the night, in a swarm of activity, led and directed by the Laboratory team but open for people to propose things as well, open to things emerging.

PC: How would such an open exploration begin?

PA: Ludwik Flaszen would begin his Meditations Aloud with silence. He’d force people to be in that silent space. It would reveal all these behavioural ticks and traits: there was the awkwardness of silence, and people wanted to fill the space and do things or thought that it was perhaps a prompt to do something. The Laboratory members were applying some of the skills of the training but in a much broader way.

Full interview here:


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