Grotowski

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.

email: P.A.Allain@kent.ac.uk


Part 1: Discovering Grotowski and Pushing Yourself

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

  • theatrical purpose

PC: What led you to the work of Jerzy Grotowski?

PA: When I was at secondary school in the late seventies we went down to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and had a whole weekend doing Grotowski-based training with RAT Theatre; very rigorous, very demanding. We saw them perform on the Friday night. I had no idea what to expect and these guys were basically whipping and beating each other. I later found out that these actors did this thing where they didn’t decide who was going to be the one whipping or who was going to be the one being whipped until just before the performance. RAT Theatre had taken the Grotowski thing in a way he wouldn’t really have liked.

PC: Did you study Grotowski when you went on to university?

PA: Absolutely. When I went to Exeter University in the mid-eighties my lecturers had been inspired by Grotowski in the seventies; people had gone over to Poland and returned and put it into practice. Exeter was a very practical course and our first project was working ten to ten every day, six days a week with someone who had worked with Grotowski. My friend and I used to look at Towards a Poor Theatre and impersonate it; he looked a bit like Ryszard Cieślak, so I used to pretend to be Grotowski. I got really into pushing myself, acrobatics etc.

PC: When did you formally start to write about Grotowski?

PA: I did a PhD on Gardzienice, another Polish theatre company. Their director, Włodzimierz Staniewski, had worked with Grotowski in the seventies. The only way I was allowed to research them was to actually be there training. It was later that I came back to Grotowski, to see what was behind the work I had been doing. I did the British Grotowski Project between 2006 and 2009. I saw that there was then very limited access to audio/visual material about Grotowski. I knew it existed but most of it was in Polish and quite difficult to get hold of. I wanted to spread the word a bit and make stuff available.

PC:  What was the main way of accessing Grotowski’s work before that project?

PA: Most people accessed Grotowski through Towards a Poor Theatre. It was really influential in the late sixties and seventies after it came out in 1968 but there are lots of issues with it. It is badly translated; it calls Grotowski a ‘producer’, never a director and there are lots of other aspects of it that are not accurate. It only covers the Theatre of Productions but that is only one period of Grotowski’s work. Paratheatre, Theatre of Sources, Objective Drama and Art as Vehicle are the others.

Part 2: Grotowski’s Reply to Stanislavski

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

  • innovations
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • use of theatrical conventions
  • influence
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What were his early influences?

PA: There are lots of routes into Grotowski’s work. One is his connection with Stanislavski. In 1955, he was studying at GITIS in Moscow, one of the main Russian drama schools. Grotowski worked with Yuri Zavadsky, who had come out of the Stanislavskian tradition. People often see Stanislavski and Grotowski as being opposed; that is a real mistake. Grotowski wrote this text, Reply to Stanislavski in 1983 in Polish. It was only published in English in 2008 in The Drama Review. He explains how he’d been influenced by Stanislavski after studying him in Moscow and how he was carrying on the work ‘On Physical Actions’ that Stanislavski had left unfinished when he died.

Many people have difficulties distinguishing technique from aesthetics. So then: I consider Stanislavsky’s method one of the greatest stimuli for the European theatre, especially in actor education; at the same time I feel distant from his aesthetics. Stanislavsky’s aesthetics were a product of his times, his country, and his person. We are all a product of the meeting of our tradition with our needs. These are things that one cannot transplant from one place to another without falling into clichés, into stereotypes, into something that is already dead the moment we call it into existence. It is the same for Stanislavsky as for us, and for anybody else.

Grotowski, J., & Salata, K. (2008). Reply to Stanislavsky. TDR (1988-), 52(2), p.31.

His interest in Stanislavski was underpinned by the phrase ‘I don’t believe you’ which they both used. Grotowski’s is actually quite a Stanislavskian psychophysical technique but much more movement orientated.

PC: Can you pinpoint where Grotowski’s aesthetics differ?

PA: Grotowski wasn’t starting from interpreting or staging plays, he wasn’t working with characters; he was working with roles.

PC: What is the difference between Stanislavski working on characters and Grotowski working on roles?

PA: Grotowski says the role should be like a ‘scalpel’ for opening up the person, the actor. It is really about using theatre as a way of revealing the person not the person identifying with the character.

PC: Is there an example that can illustrate that difference?

PA: When Cieślak played the role of the Constant Prince in the eponymous play it is all based on his memories of the first time he fell in love with a girl as a teenager. He and Grotowski spent nine months reconstructing the score, the inner life, of this awakening feeling. They reconstructed these feelings of passion, of erotic desire, of prohibition as a young Catholic boy where feeling these things was sinful. The narrative is of the Constant Prince being tortured by the Moors: a horrible story, based on the Calderón de la Barca play. The torture ends with the Prince’s death, because he doesn’t give in: he’s constant. We see that story but, without knowing it, we experience this whole other life intuitively. It was a physical realisation of what Stanislavski called the ‘inner life’. Grotowski combined the musicality and plasticity of Meyerhold with a Stanislavskian psychological process. It was never about true to life character, it was about revealing something of the actor.

Part 3: Grotowski Burning at the Stake After Artaud

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

  • artistic intentions
  • innovations
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: What was the relationship between Grotowski’s performance work and Artaud’s ideas?

PA: The relationship with Artaud is explained very clearly in Towards a Poor Theatre in the chapter titled ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself. In this, he says that his engagement with Artaud came later than one might expect. He developed his practice and his ideas of theatre and then discovered the connection and closeness to Artaud’s ideas. He didn’t look at Artaud and think “I could put that into practice.” Artaud has incredible ideas about total theatre: people on revolving chairs, using all the mise-en-scène and including cinema, sound; but it is quite hard to enact. You see the same words, the ‘total’ theatre of Artaud and the ‘total’ act of Grotowski; but they are completely different. Grotowski is about paring away scenography, lighting, sound – of course, the actors are still lit but it’s never decorative, it is totally functional. It’s about getting a really simple mise-en-scène which he adapted for every production to focus on the actor. That’s what is at the core of it for Grotowski: the actor/spectator relationship, whereas Artaud was really about total theatre, in a much more filmic way, the montage of all these elements that would somehow take over the audience.

PC: Would you say there was a closeness in their intensity, even though Artaud’s ideas were never fully realised?

PA: Yes, I think there is a similar interest in rigour. How, through theatre, you can create an impact that changes the spectator. Artaud wanted it to be like the plague where this psychic contamination spreads out from the theatre event and changes society somehow, ‘heart and soul’. Through your nervous response to this extraordinary, frightening, sensational experience you’re changed and society is improved. Grotowski wanted that as well but through very different means. Both Artaud and Grotowski wanted to push limits: how far can you go? It is not about the entertainment industry, it’s not about pleasing the audience. Grotowski is quite critical in his language talking about the Courtesan actor who’s selling themselves for the price of an expensive ticket. The actor should rather be giving themselves to the audience. I think that has connections with Artaud’s view of this actor opening him/herself up. Grotowski cites Artaud’s image of “the actor should be like the martyr burning at the stake, still signalling through the flames.” I always find that a very potent idea; even when you’re burning up, you’re still trying to communicate through the flames as you die, like Joan of Arc. It is a powerful metaphor that captures the rigor, that extremity of what they’re both trying to do. The cruelty that I think Artaud talks about is a cruelty to yourself; Grotowski is interested in the actor penetrating their own existence, in questioning themselves to a deep level: What happens if I go on stage in front of people? Why should I have the privilege of doing that? If I do, how do I get over the desire to entertain; the desire to please; the desire to be successful? Instead you work in a ‘via negativa‘ way, stripped back, not resisting things.

PC: How would you explain via negativa?

PA: It is quite difficult to explain the via negativa but he talks about removing psychophysical blocks, making impulses actions. Stanislavski did acrobatics with his actors and Stanislavski thought, “If you can overcome your fear of doing a leap or a roll, how much easier is it then to overcome a difficult role or a difficult bit of text.” It gets you over that sense of fear and it makes you freer. Grotowski is the same: he is finding that freedom of action, of not hesitating, of turning impulse into action and stopping that self-judgmental voice in the head that’s always saying, “Am I good enough?” Instead, you really commit to something, like the idea of the gift, you give yourself totally: the ‘holy actor’; it’s an act of submission. However, if it’s too vain, if it’s too egotistical, then it becomes an imposition.

Part 4: Grotowski’s Significant Productions

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

  • theatrical style
  • innovations
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

Images of productions can be found at grotowski.net

PC: How long was Grotowski working as a director?

PA: He wasn’t a director in the traditional way that we would understand someone who just produces a repertoire of work. That was a period of fifteen years: from studying in Moscow, then traditional drama school in Kraków and then setting up the Theatre of Thirteen Rows in 1959. He created his very last performance in 1969. It is a very short period of making theatre performances but they astounded the world and completely transformed our understanding of what theatre can do.

PC:  What was the sequence of the most significant productions?

PA: It was The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Akropolis, The Constant Prince and then Apocalypsis cum Figuris.

PC: Was Dr Faustus the only text he worked with?

PA: No, all his other performances were based on classical texts but not just classical as in our canon in Britain, Western Europe or America. They were based on Polish and in one case a Spanish classic. This is something people mistake about him; they think that he was devising and creating these texts, but in fact they were mostly well known and classic Polish dramas. Some of them were fragmentary poetic dramas.

PC: Why was Dr Faustus significant?

PA: In 1962, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe was reframed as the last supper where the audience are invited to see Faustus in his last hour before he gets taken away by Mephistopheles. Dr Faustus pushed the actors’ work a long way. It launched Grotowski on the world stage because it was the piece that Eugenio Barba saw and took visitors and producers to see at an International Theatre Festival. The actor/spectator relationship in the space was crucial as it was in all his productions. In Dr Faustus the spectators sat at a table with the action happening on this table at chin height, right in front of their faces. Rather than looking at the back of someone’s head, as you would do in a proscenium arch theatre, you were looking at another spectator also experiencing the same things. This very much amplified the experience.

PC: What about Akropolis?

PA: It was made in the same year as Dr Faustus, 1962 and there is the film record of it, even though it is not a very good rendition. It is more of an ensemble piece based on the classic play by Stanisław Wyspiański. This play was originally set in Wawel Cathedral, Kraków, which is the national cathedral where these dead kings and queens lie in state. Grotowski relocated it to Auschwitz. It was a very important production for addressing the Holocaust, being set in Kraków, thirty miles away from Auschwitz itself, just seventeen years after it was liberated. They developed this whole mise-en-scène where the concentration camp was built around and above the spectators during the course of the performance. They were surrounded by the action and at the start of the play they were told, “You are the living and we are the dead.” The spectator was positioned as a witness again.

PC: You touched on The Constant Prince earlier. Why was that a significant production?

PA: The Constant Prince followed in 1965 and is seen as the production where Grotowski’s acting techniques got taken to the highest level. It was Cieślak’s total act as the Constant Prince, this gift of himself: the holy actor. Critics couldn’t articulate their experience easily but they talked about Cieślak’s illumination. The extraordinary nature of what he did comes across even in a grainy film, shot with one camera. It is a bad rendition but the embodied sense of what it might have been like to be a spectator there comes through. For this production, the spectators were positioned above the stage, watching this actor enacting this repetitive ritual of torture, being asked to give in and yet not giving in, delivering this poetic response about why he would not do so, why he is constant. The high position of the spectators meant they are put in this awkward place: if they sit back in their chair they can’t see the action so they have to lean forwards to observe someone’s suffering. They are put into this position of being a willing voyeur in someone else’s suffering.

Full version available here

PC: What about his final production?

PA: Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1969) was his last performance which he carried on presenting until 1979. It stands out for many reasons. It overlapped with the paratheatre phase. People would often come to the performances, stay behind afterwards and talk, then get invited to participate in paratheatre. It was devised, as we’d call it today; they took texts from T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil, from The Bible. The production was heading away from theatrical structures. The first version was in costumes, then Grotowski said, “No, wear your daily clothes.” Initially there were benches for the audience, then they removed them. It was performed in an empty room, getting back to that simplicity of just people in a space. The distinction between the spectator and the actor was being blurred. That interaction, that encounter was then extended into paratheatre, where there were no spectators, no observers, just actors.

Part 5: Grotowski and Gurawski: Configuring the Space

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

  • theatrical style
  • innovations
  • 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: Why was the configuration of space and the actor/spectator relationship so crucial to his work?

PA: It is interesting that he worked with Jerzy Gurawski who was an architect and not a stage designer. They clearly thought about the whole room as an architectural space rather than as a space of viewing as you would in a proscenium arch or some traditional theatres. The acoustic dimensions were also important especially when working on the actor’s resonance and the musicality of the whole performance.

PC: What example do you think best illustrates their control of the acoustic space?

PA: The stamping boots of Akropolis: the actors dive into a seemingly impossible tiny box at the end of performance, they disappear and then we hear a voice saying, “All that remained was the smoke.” Then there was silence. Flaszen would say that he felt this performance was successful when the spectators didn’t clap.

PC: You choose to use spectator rather than audience: is that deliberate?

PA: Yes, it’s about an individual encounter. Grotowski, in Polish, talks about the spectator not the audience, so it is singular. It is never homogenous; it’s never the audience as a total body of people. It’s always about that one-to-one relationship. People accused his work of being elitist, because he wanted to keep the audiences small. I don’t think that’s elitist. I think it is just having a clear understanding of what the limits of your theatre are. He knew the best way of experiencing that event. That intimacy, that proximity was possible with only a few people. It is interesting to see the growth in popularity today of one-to-one performance, immersive and participatory theatre. Grotowski was doing that but within a much more theatrical set up, because it was still within a single unitary space of a building: a room, a studio, a gallery sometimes.

PC: Are there drawings of these different configurations?

PA: In Towards a Poor Theatre there are diagrams by Eugenio Barba: black boxes for the actors and white boxes for spectators. These show the shifting arrangement for every performance, moving away from that distant proscenium arch remoteness. They were immersing themselves in the group of spectators.

PC: What configurations stand out for you outside the significant productions we have discussed?

PA: In Kordian, the spectators were in a mental asylum, sitting on bunk beds with actors above them and around them. The actors were tied up in straightjackets right next to them as fellow inmates in the asylum. There is always this configuration as you say, which is a good word for it.

PC: Why did he finish the Theatre of Productions phase with such a stripped back performance like Apocalypsis cum Figuris?

PA: They wanted it to be left open, there wasn’t any attempt to configure the spectators. The production was a wild party where a simpleton is abused by those present. There wasn’t any projection onto the spectators of who they were, they were just people coming to this event as witnesses. I think he saw the limits of manipulation, the limits of the actor/spectator relationship. That is why he moved away from theatre productions.

Part 6: Grotowski Inspired Creativity and Outrage

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

  • artistic intentions
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • influence
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: How did spectators respond to Grotowski’s productions?

PA: A lot of people found it impenetrable and they found that kind of work too difficult; but it was work you had to go back to. It was not served up on a plate, it was difficult and dramaturgically complex. What the actors were doing is extraordinary. It is not something that you got in the first sitting. Grotowski was demanding something of the spectator just as he demanded of the actors; he demanded something of all his participants.

PC: Why did he make theatre productions then?

PA: It was a laboratory process, it wasn’t about making productions. Productions were the tool with which he investigated something. People measure it by the yardstick of theatre production and the people who funded him did as well. It was very hard for him to create an ensemble investigating something within the constraints given to him. Luckily his success and the relative security that gave him meant he could do that later on.

PC: Was it always successful with audiences?

PA: It is very hard to ascertain the audience response: a very small total number of people saw the work. One thing that does come across is that a lot of people who did see it were changed, they were touched. Even if they didn’t like it, they could see that he was trying to push theatre into a different possibility, extending Artaud’s work for example. If you look at The Grotowski Sourcebook, Eric Bentley is very critical about Grotowski, his ‘guruness’ and his claims about what he was trying to do. People from a more literary background didn’t always like his text work: it wasn’t for everyone. Lots of people, inevitably, were disgusted by it and thought it was blasphemous. The Primate of Poland tried to stop Apocalypsis cum Figuris being presented, because one of the actors masturbates into a loaf of bread; this is very blasphemous, partly as the piece was indirectly about Jesus. Despite these controversies, or maybe because of them, it became hugely popular, with, for example, people paying two hundred dollars to get tickets for the performances in New York. That’s not really the essence of what Grotowski was trying to do though. It is hard to talk universally about critical response: lots of people were against the work but it equally inspired people, particularly practitioners and theatre-makers.

Part 7: Grotowski’s Work with Text

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

  • theatrical style
  • innovations
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing

PC: How did Grotowski work with the actors to articulate the role? Jennifer Kumiega cites Raymonde Temkine’s description of the process of articulating a role.

Raymonde Temkine has described what she calls ‘articulation of the role’ in Grotowski’s productions as a three-part process: initial structuring, performed by Grotowski on an original text; a collective phase of elaboration, involving a great deal of spontaneous creative work; and finally the structured composition of the role into a ‘system of signs’.

Kumiega, J., The Theatre of Grotowski (Methuen, 1987)

What initial structuring did Grotowski do on the text?

PA: He had a very strong dramaturgical influence from Ludwik Flaszen, his collaborator, who had helped with adapting some of the texts. His relationship with text was very different from Stanislavski’s.

PC: Who is Ludwik Flaszen?

PA: Flaszen is a well known Polish critic who was a hugely respected national figure before he even worked with Grotowski. He had been quite critical of Grotowski’s student work when he had seen it in Kraków. Flaszen was offered a theatre in Opole: The Theatre of Thirteen Rows, a very small theatre. He invited Grotowski to run it with him. Even though he had questioned Grotowski’s work, he could see he had some potential. Ludwik Flaszen depicts himself as devil’s advocate to Grotowski’s work in his book Grotowski and Company. He was a principle figure in the founding of the company and actually took charge when Grotowski emigrated in 1982. His work has not been given enough recognition so it is important that Grotowski and Company came out. Flaszen, for example, coined the term ‘Poor Theatre’.

PC: How did he work with Grotowski on the structuring of the text?

PA: Sometimes they did a text in full but more often than not, as in The Constant Prince, they would remove certain characters, take out some scenes, simplify it for their small ensemble. It was a process of condensing and distillation. I think a lot of this work was done initially by Flaszen and then in consultation with Grotowski. It was very much a collaboration.

PC: People often see Grotowski as quite a domineering director.

PA: It is a common but false assumption that Grotowski was a director whose vision was total. Grotowski put out this statement which is at the beginning of Voices from Within where he wanted to correct this view:

“In our productions next to nothing is dictated by the director. His role in the preparatory stages is to stimulate the creative associations for which the impulse comes from the actors and to organize the final structure in which they assume a specific shape.”

I think people were sometimes using him as an excuse to themselves be a demagogic, auteur director in a way that he wasn’t. It is interesting when you read the interviews in Voices From Within with members of the company; they say he was very empathetic, he was very tough but they respected him and he gave them a lot of space.

PC: How did they go about finding texts?

PA: In the last piece, Apocalypsis cum Figuris, the actors were set tasks to go and find texts that suited the action they were developing. They would develop proposals, sort of propositions, small etudes. Grotowski would then look at them and say, “That works, I believe that. That doesn’t work, go and find that text.” He set them tasks, reading tasks to bring in material and then he would shape it. He’d construct the whole score, which was very difficult and not always a very happy process.

PC: How did he go about constructing the score with text?

PA: Grotowski worked with opposition in a Stanislavskian way: if you wanted to find someone’s greed, look for their generosity; don’t play greed in general. In The Constant Prince, the physical action is of someone being tortured, but what did Cieślak work on with Grotowski? His feelings of love, sweet delight and ecstasy; completely contrasting emotions. The idea of apotheosis [meaning: a perfect example of its type] and derision comes up a lot in Grotowski’s work: you set something up and then you bring it down. Nothing is sacred. These holy cows can be suddenly destroyed in a moment; he constructed an oppositional dialectic: for Cieślak in The Constant Prince it is between torture and ecstasy. They were always trying to find texts which go against the action, which worked as a layer. They were building a montage if you like. The actors were responsible for finding those because it was coming out of their process of work and their investigation. It wasn’t predetermined.

PC: Why was that not a happy process?

PA: It was a research process, you don’t always know what you’re getting, you need to reach the bottom to then break through. He asked his actors to go through the clichés, go through exhaustion because only then do you find something of value. That need for exhaustion can be seen as being masochistic. However, it can take a certain level of exhaustion to find something new and fresh, to pull on resources that you didn’t know you had. In sports and adventure we hear that idea all the time, but you don’t think of it in relation to theatre. Taking people with you, as Grotowski did, letting them know it’s okay to be lost is very hard. There were times when they struggled, they lost their direction but then they had a breakthrough. Grotowski had that ability to be patient and accept moments of failure, of doubt, but then pick people up and take them with him.

Part 8: Grotowski’s Communication with Spectators

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

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • influence
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: Were there stories that Grotowski returned to that fit his way of constructing productions?

PA: The story of Jesus and his disciples was a reference point throughout Grotowski’s work. He was very inspired by Ernest Renan’s book The Life of Jesus, as an archetypal figure that we associate with – a person who goes out on a limb, one who’s followed but who is then betrayed.

PC: Can you explain what you mean by archetypes and why they were important?

PA: The idea of archetype is important because it is not stereotype, it is not character, it’s what we can readily associate with. It was Jung’s idea. We recognize the martyr figure in The Constant Prince and Dr Faustus. We recognize the mother taking the Constant Prince in her arms like the image of the Pietà. We can understand these archetypal figures even beyond language, which is probably why his theatre was internationally so successful.

PC: That links back to what Raymonde Temkine said about the “structured composition of the role into a ‘system of signs'”.

PA: Yes, I’ve heard people talking about ‘signs’ quite a lot. It fits in with a semiotic understanding of theatre [a focus on the meaning of the images created] at that time but it is a bit limiting. For me, the embodied experience is so much more important; there is this montage of images, of signs, of symbols, of archetypes but at the same time we are experiencing that work very viscerally. If you try and read Grotowski’s work in a purely semiotic way, you’re only getting a very small part of the story.

PC:  Does that visceral experience, the sense of truth, come out of the physical repetition, the exhaustion, the score of signs? For example, was the pain that they were trying to present of Auschwitz in Akropolis somehow captured through the physical intensity of the performance?

PA: Peter Brook’s introduction to the film of Akropolis is very interesting. He says that it is not a documentary or a recreation of Auschwitz; he feels it’s like black magic happening in front of the you: the spirit of it or the rhythm, the sounds, the energy, the fear is conjured up before you. He says that this is what is distinctive about the theatre. It can do that because it is not referring to the past, quoting the people who were there, it’s in the here and now and you are a witness to it. He feels that this is what Grotowski has done so brilliantly in that performance: he’s somehow brought some essence of it to life.

PC: How did he get to that essence of life?

PA: Grotowski understood that it isn’t about shaping a dance or external pattern, it is actually about letting the actors find their innermost feelings. Not just splurging those out in a very indulgent way, but really precisely shaping them. It was a rigorous exploration of their innermost feelings.

Part 9: Acting for Grotowski: What is it to be Human?

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

  • theatrical style
  • theatrical purpose
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What was acting to Grotowski?

PA: Grotowski thought acting isn’t about going to drama school and learning a set of skills; instead it should be about learning who you are; being yourself and then bringing that to the task. In some ways we hear about that in drama schools: in the first year you get broken down. But it is much more subtle than that: it’s not about breaking down and rebuilding, it is really just a process of investigation: what is it to be human?

PC: Did he often begin the investigation one-to-one with the principal actor?

PA: Grotowski always worked with a significant other (whether it was Zbigniew Cynkutis in Dr Faustus or Cieślak in The Constant Prince and then Thomas Richards later) who’s epitomizing his working process and really taking it forward. He worked with the whole group but there was always this individual who was the protagonist, if you like. They would spend months working one-to-one on their personal score. He then brought in the ensemble, the chorus, to the work they had done. Grotowski needed to have that framework of the individual actor who’s at the heart of the play before they could add in the montage and the interactions. It would be different for every production but there was usually a protagonist and a chorus.

PC: How did they begin the broader training?

PA: It was quite mechanical at first: they learnt how to do mime walks like the moon walk; they learnt how to do isolation from mime exercises; they used ballet techniques, music and they explored Chinese vocal resonators. Eugenio Barba was in India watching Kathakali dance, where he learned how to do the eye exercises and brought that back. They drew upon different sources as a way of working on themselves. Grotowski wanted to know: if you’re not working on character and if you’re not trying to represent a character, then what are you working on? He was trying to find a new way of creating theatre and the best way to do that is to start to work on the actor. Grotowski was finding a way of waking the actors up, voice and body.

PC: How did the training develop after that early mechanical phase?

PA: Space was integral to Grotowski’s work with the actor; each different actor/spectator relationship sets up different problems for the actor. He took aspects of Meyerhold’s Biomechanics further. He used yoga but they found that when they did yoga it made them too introspective; so they used yoga asanas but called it ‘dynamic yoga’. They put yoga into a flow; you can see that in the Cieślak training video where he’s training two of Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret performers. He emphasizes that it is what happens between the exercises that counts.

PC: Did all the actors in the Theatre Laboratory contribute to the training?

PA: Yes, it was about building a group culture of the ensemble as well: creating adaptability and flexibility in performers who weren’t actually trained. Particular actors focused on different areas: Zygmunt Molik focused on the voice; Rena Mirecka focused on the plastique exercises.

Part 10: Grotowski Composes Associations: Plastique and Corporeal Exercises

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

  • innovations
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: What were the plastiques exercises?

PA: Plastiques are distinctively Grotowski’s idea. Beginning with isolation, isolating the wrist or the hand or the elbow, you start to rotate and flex it and explore its possible movements. Then you see where that takes you, where the wrist leads you; the wrist is moving you through the space. You can then start to have one part of the body doing one thing in dialogue with another part of the body; the wrist in dialogue with the left knee. Then you open that up to a partner, a key aspect of Grotowski’s work. Plastiques are always done in relation to a partner: the partner could be the wall, it could be the floor, it could be an object. Plastiques are about building a flow where you can move from the wrist, perhaps to the knee, to the elbow, but all the time it has to be unplanned and it has to be impulsive; not rationalized, not conceived, but responsive. Cieślak talks about it is as though the nerves are on the outside of the body, as though you haven’t got any skin. How do you wake up your nerves so that you’re that sensitive that impulse becomes action immediately?



PC: What about corporeals?

PA: Corporeals take the same principles adjusted to more dynamic, gymnastic-like movement. You can think about it in terms of a jump: if you dive into a forward roll, once you commit, you can’t stop halfway through. If you do, you bang your head, so you have to commit. Impulse has to become action. Then you might do the jump or the roll, not just as a task in a gymnastic way but because someone is chasing you or because you’re getting over a river or there are hot flames. Both the plastiques and the corporeals are really about developing associations and waking up the imagination.



PC: How important were the imagination and associations for the actor?

PA: I think that this is one of the problems that Grotowski identified with people imitating the work. People can watch exercises in a film called Letter from Opole, a thirty minute film about the early training or they can watch Cieślak training; but they can’t necessarily understand the connection to the inner work or associations, as Grotowski called it.

PC: Can you give a practical example of these types of associations?

PA: If you’re reaching up with your arms, don’t just lift your arms up in a way that doesn’t have any imaginative connection: What are you reaching up to pick? An apple? It is a Stanislavskian idea: you’re reaching for something but you’re not anticipating, instead the imaginative connection constantly changes: does the apple become something else? Or the tiger exercises where you’re being a tiger. It’s not about imitating the tiger, it is finding the essence of tiger; trying to get to the heart of tiger. To put it in a slightly banal way: how do you become different on stage? Grotowski talks about people imitating his work in Reply to Stanislavsky, and that they saw it as being acrobatic and virtuosic. He said that this is not what it’s about; it’s really about the inner process. It’s about finding that connection, that association between feeling and the physical score you create.

PC: What do you mean by ‘score’?

PA: They created a score like a music score; he uses that word. When we see musical notes, it is very clear that those notes have a certain rhythm and time; but how you play the instrument, how it fits with the other parts is so variable. He used lots of images about the actor’s score, it being like the banks of a river, for example: what’s important is the water that is flowing between the banks; or the score is like a candle in a bowl and the inner life is the candle flame, flickering. It’s the inner life that gives meaning to the action, that makes the score come alive. That often gets forgotten about Grotowski’s work.

Part 11: Grotowski’s Voice Work: Connecting Body and Voice

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

  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice

PC: Voice is another element that I think gets forgotten. It is given a lot of space in Towards a Poor Theatre. So how did that translate to the training and productions?

PA: Zygmunt Molik had been to drama school and led a lot of the exploration in voice, working with the resonators. Just as they were pushing the body in terms of its acrobatic potential and its flexibility, its strength and balance, they were also pushing the voice. They explored the head resonators, doing animal noises. They wanted to find a voice that was rooted in the body; the whole body needed to be making the voice.

PC: You have spoken about the score and musicality; how does the voice work fit in with that?

PA: Grotowski said that he later looked back at his early performance work and saw that it was sung. What is special about singing? Singing is something we don’t do all the time. We speak, we don’t sing. So when do we sing? We sing when we’re happy, we sing when we’re sad, we sing at demonstrations. Song is tied up with identity and national identity. It is very powerful, it is very physical and has a range which goes beyond daily talking. Song is important and interesting because it is not about speaking, it is not conversation. That is why in the last period of his work (Art as Vehicle), he looked at the quality of Afro-Caribbean vibratory songs and the impact they have on your energy. He was investigating how the voice, the song, can change what you’re doing. Just as what you’re doing changes the voice. It is about finding that absolute connection between body and voice. You start with the body and then you find the voice.

PC: How does text fit in with that process of discovery?

PA: You don’t suddenly stop what you’re doing and look at the text, you find a continuum between working with the body and voice before then bringing in text. This is why they sounded the text or recited it very fast.

PC: Did they ever use the voice without language?

PA: Yes, in Dr Faustus for example, the actor creates the sound of when he’s being drowned by Mephistopheles. You can hear he’s created the sound of going under water and coming back up again for air, the sound of spluttering. You haven’t got any taped or recorded music so the actor is creating the mise-en-scène: the wind, the atmosphere. They were always pushing the actor to find a voice which wasn’t their natural register.

Part 12: Grotowski’s Context: Sickness, War and Oppression

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

  • artistic intentions
  • theatrical style
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: You have mentioned how important the imagination and associations are when the Theatre Laboratory were developing their work. These are very subjective connections that cannot be separated from context. What was the context and how is it revealed in his productions?

PA: It is a really important point, as I think the context is often overlooked. Grotowski was working in Poland until he started to tour internationally. His work was then picked up by Eugenio Barba with the production of Dr Faustus which, like all his productions, was performed in Polish. People sometimes say that Grotowski was dismissive of language but it was the Polish language and it was very beautiful language, often recited or sung very fast. He was working with beautiful text and the dramaturgical work was important. People who don’t know Polish overlook the textual elements, that’s why they focus on the physical aspects too much.

PC: What other contextual reference points were there?

PA: The Second World War was another key contextual reference. Grotowski was born in 1933, so he was six when the war started in his country. Hel peninsula was invaded by the Germans and they took over Poland within six weeks. He was used to deprivation, violence and fear at a very young age. His mother was key in bringing him up through that. She educated him, and was very interested in Hindu and Indian culture. He was also very ill and was told that he had a year to live, but somehow he survived to the age of sixty-six. He had recurring health problems and it is interesting thinking about the impact this might have had on him as someone who is working beyond their own life expectancy. Did it impact the urgency, the rigor, the intensity of how he lived; of what he expected from other people? He never had children; never married. It perhaps explains his transience, for he was very much a wanderer later on, absorbing different source cultures.

PC: How did the work change as he moved?

PA: Poland in the 1960s was a very isolated, Soviet occupied country, behind the iron curtain. He lived in the tiny town of Opole before he moved to the bigger city of Wrocław where he became well known. In Opole, it was a very marginal, experimental theatre where he’d sometimes perform just for two people. In the seventies, when people could travel more, he became an international figure. It was quite a big transition from Opole to Wrocław to the Edinburgh Festival; in 1969, he was suddenly on the international stage. There was a lot of interest in Polish theatre at that time: figures like Tadeusz Kantor started making an impact on the world stage. There’s something about the difficulty of their working environment: the poverty. ‘Poor theatre’ is a phrase that Ludwik Flaszen coined for the work with Grotowski; but it was also poor economically and in its material resources. If you see the Apocalypsis room, as the main space in Wrocław is called, it’s not a very big studio. This is someone who’s an international figure, but he had very simple means. He’s a very political person and I think this is often overlooked. With something like The Constant Prince, although it is inspired by Calderón de la Barca’s seventeenth century play, in Poland the implications of seeing someone being tortured by the Moors to the point of death meant something very particular. People tend to think that Grotowski’s work wasn’t very political but for his local audiences it was extremely political; they understood this was Poland being sacrificed to the Russian oppressors. They had that allegorical meaning but it didn’t necessarily translate to other countries. When it was shown in New York or Manchester there was a whole different set of expectations and people focused more on the aesthetics. The context is absolutely vital; it’s very Polish but it also became very international.

Part 13: Paratheatre: What is Beyond Theatre?

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.

Part 14: Paratheatre: Finding the Desire to Change

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

  • 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: Were there any major events that took place during this period?

PA: They did the Theatre of Nations project in 1975 and invited Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook, Luca Ronconi, and André Gregory. They all came and there were workshops and talks. Five thousand people participated in the various projects. It was a very broad frame of activities that Grotowski oversaw as an ‘über-director’, if you like. Not really leading practical sessions himself, though some of them he would, but really letting the others develop their work.

PC: That sounds huge. Where did these explorations take place?

PA: They restored the barns in Brzezinka outside Wrocław as a natural location, away from the city, to do this work. They did projects like the Mountain Project that was outdoors. They would spend two days in nature and people would immerse themselves in water and in grain in non-urban spaces. Very experiential, we’d possibly call it therapy today, but it was never couched in that way. It seems very much of its time, in terms of the hippy culture, but in fact in Poland this only became more established later; so it was quite innovative for Poland then.

PC: Did these projects tour like the productions?

PA: Yes, some of the projects went to Australia, to France; they weren’t all located in Poland. At the same time as the active culture activities were going on, Apocalypsis cum Figuris was being shown as a performance. Grotowski used it as a way to meet people and bring them into the paratheatre work.

PC: Was that anyone of any ability?

PA: Yes. He advertised on the radio, he sent callouts via socialist youth networks. So in some ways, it was everyone, but it was also people who had a need for it: a desire. Again, some people have called it elitist, but it wasn’t elitism based on wealth or money or privilege, it was really an elitism of whoever wanted strongly enough to be there and to participate.

PC: Was there any selection process?

PA: Yes, because if you’re going to spend two days with someone, living together, running through the woods, doing these experiments, you need to iron out people who might be difficult: people who were there for egotistical reasons. I can understand the need for a selection process. It was inclusive but not totally inclusive; it was guided. They were trying to find people who had a real desire to change.

PC: It sounds quite religious, is there a connection with religion? You mentioned he was thought of as a guru.

PA: He was avoiding that, but I think that people invest what they want. The activities had a parareligious aspect to them I suppose. Anything where people are brought together, where they sing together, can become religious; but for him it was never about a god or divinities. That’s one of the things that Grotowski would have weeded out; people who were investing too much in him as a figure who would save them. He was very careful not to create an alternative religion at a time when cults and that kind of behaviour were being widely adopted or created. They did draw on religious iconography, like grains of wheat for example, but it was more in a very functional, practical way. There was some religious symbolism but equally he was inspired by a very broad range of cultural references such as from Sufism, Indian culture and Catholicism.

PC: How did the paratheatre phase of work come to an end?

PA: In 1976 they were in Venice, at the Biennale and Włodzimierz Staniewski, who went on to set up Gardzienice, had a bust up with Grotowski and left. He thought that the work had lost its point: it had become nebulous, too self-indulgent and lacked direction. He exposed the flaws that Grotowski later looked back on and thought were legitimate issues with the work. The next phase of work overlapped with paratheatre – Theatre of Sources. This went to a much more technical level, finding people around the world who had technical expertise and looked at the sources of theatre from different cultures in terms of ritual and musical practices and dance. All this was an attempt to understand where theatre begins.

Part 15: Grotowski’s Influence: Barba, Brook and Beyond

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

  • innovations
  • key collaborations with other artists
  • influence

PC: How have people been influenced by Grotowski’s work?

PA: People have been influenced in different ways; from someone who has only read Towards a Poor Theatre and then been inspired by it; to people who have perhaps seen a bit of The Constant Prince or Dr Faustus on film and used that to make their own physical theatre; to people who worked directly with him.

PC: You have mentioned Eugenio Barba a lot. How was he influenced by Grotowski?

PA: Barba always talked about Grotowski as his master; he was always very explicit about that relationship. Barba was his assistant director and apprentice for two years then set up his own company – Odin Teatret in Denmark. He used the training processes, starting from the same point as Grotowski but taking it in a very different direction. He was very much more about making theatre. Barba has kept that company together for fifty years, an extraordinary feat to keep an ensemble making theatre productions. He edited Towards a Poor Theatre and was crucial in introducing Grotowski to the world. He opened up Grotowski’s work in many different ways, the practice and the writing. He was very closely connected to Grotowski throughout his life.

PC: Peter Brook is someone we know well in British theatre. How was his work influenced by Grotowski?

PA: Peter Brook is important because he was also looking for something, a fresh impetus; something more universal; something beyond language. He saw in Grotowski’s work a physical way of trying to do that using song, rhythm and musicality. There are lots of parallels between Grotowski and Peter Brook’s work. At the time when Grotowski was going into paratheatre, Peter Brook had left England to set up in France and do three years of research. Brook’s was a similar process of investigation, of taking theatre back to the community. The connection came out of Peter Brook having Grotowski and Cieślak do two weeks’ work on Brook’s production of US with the RSC in 1966. Brook’s collaborator Albert Hunt said it changed the work for the worse and made it indulgent and personalised, when he had wanted it to be political, ‘Brechtian’ if you like. He felt Grotowski took the piece in the wrong way. Peter Brook kept very close to Grotowski and employed Cieślak in the Mahabharata (1985) playing the blind prince. It was the only role that Cieślak did after he left the Laboratory Theatre before he died. Peter Brook also coined the phrase ‘Art as Vehicle’ that came to be used for Grotowski’s final phase of work. They both had an interest in G.I. Gurdjieff, the mystical philosopher. The film Meetings with Remarkable Men by Peter Brook was based on Gurdjieff’s book of the same name. Gurdjieff believed that “We’re sleeping all the time, we need to wake up.” He had these rigorous exercises to wake people up in their daily lives. We can see that idea in Grotowski and Brook too.

PC: How about Tadashi Suzuki? He is a contemporary of Grotowski’s that you have written about.

PA: Suzuki has been called the ‘Japanese Grotowski’. He actually met Grotowski for about three days once when Grotowski was in Japan in the 1970s. Again, he was inspired by what Grotowski was doing and Towards a Poor Theatre. Similar to Grotowski, Suzuki investigated what the body could do but he looked to his own traditions of Noh and Kabuki rather than looking at world traditions.

PC: It was quite a revolutionary time for theatre!

PA: When you think about Peter Brook, Barba’s Odin Teatret, the Living Theatre, and Grotowski, all at the same time in the seventies, breaking down the walls, breaking out of the theatres in an attempt to reestablish new relationships to the community; that whole community theatre movement is a major part of Grotowski’s work. It’s about re-establishing a relationship with the spectator, not just about the aesthetic or the training.

PC: Do you see that Grotowski has influenced Physical Theatre?

PA: Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8, has said that ‘physical theatre’ is a Grotowskian term. He locates this whole movement in the UK as starting with Grotowski. However, Grotowski didn’t call it physical, but psychophysical. He didn’t want to focus on the exterior or the virtuosity of it. Nevertheless, I can understand how Grotowski’s visits to the UK in the sixties and seventies influenced companies like DV8.

PC: How has Grotowski influenced training for theatre?

PA: I think the impact that Grotowski has had on training is massive. The ‘traditional’ theatre has in general been quite a sedentary form – the cliché of it being talking heads is too often true. Grotowski offered an alternative to that in terms of realising the actor’s full potential. Nowadays, even if you’re going to produce an Ibsen play you can start from physicality. The director Katie Mitchell, who is very interested in Polish theatre and Grotowski, has brought that sensibility of the importance of the ensemble, of the voice, of singing to her work, especially in its early phase. It is not just about speaking the text, it is about embodying something.