Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Game

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Game

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: How do you go about communicating your approach to theatre to young people during your week-long workshops?

BL: I think we work with young people in a slightly different way. We’re not necessarily interested in the politics as much – not because we don’t trust that they’ll understand it – instead we want to give them a sense of what performance can be. We work towards getting them to a place where they no longer ‘perform’. It takes a little bit of time for them to understand that. We try to make them say things as they would say it, so that we get to see them as people on stage without them putting on a role. It takes a little while, but once they get it, they really feel empowered because they can just be themselves and say things as they would to their friends and that’s acceptable on the stage. By the end of the week, when they’ve made a show, we hope that they can be the best of themselves by just doing what they always do, talking like they always talk. It’s just a case of them understanding what the situation is and what the game is. Once they understand what the game is, we don’t care what sort of script they’re following, as long as they’re in tune with their partners, with the audience, the situation and the game. We try and teach them that making theatre has to start from them: who they are and what they think.

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Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Exhausted Bodies

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Exhausted Bodies

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: Why is dance important in your work?

BL: I think it’s about endurance, it’s about enduring bodies on stage, this sense of seeing bodies being strained and really pushed to the limit. We connect to this idea of what could be political. We really like when the audience feels our exhaustion because when they see exhausted bodies on stage it brings it into the room, here and now. They see actors genuinely getting exhausted, there’s something real that happens. For example, in Eurohouse, Nasi dances to Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac and he keeps asking throughout the show for this song to be played and I keep refusing. He puts it on several times, but I keep stopping it until, eventually, he starts doing the dance and I allow it. It’s just a very free thing that happens for maybe two and a half minutes and he really goes for it: he bangs his feet against the floor and shouts. It’s something really quite big and impressive but also captures the absolute desolation and desperate nature of what we saw in Greece. Dance was the best way that we could express that feeling.

What we’d seen in Greece was so sad and desperate, but at the same time there was this thing that they keep going and they keep fighting and they keep protesting, for us, that was best represented by Nasi having a proper celebratory dance where he gets exhausted. But then I start taking over again, stopping the music and asking him to do it again, to the point where he gets exhausted even more and it shifts the dynamic.

PC: Why is it important for the audience to see your exhaustion?

BL: It generates empathy. So, we’re deliberately trying not to be too good at dancing. We want it to be a bit silly or ridiculous and that creates an empathy. If we mastered it to the point where it seemed effortless there wouldn’t be that empathy. So, for us, it’s important that the spectators get to see the effort. The audience could very easily feel distant from the piece if they didn’t see the error or the failure.

PC: How do you manipulate and control time and space towards the end of the process?

BL: It’s very hard to describe, I think it comes down to timing: comic timing. Every time we do it in front of an audience should feel like it’s the first time. The moments when we stop or if we don’t say anything, creates a climate of uncertainty and this uncertainty really helps to draw the audience in: What’s happening? Why is this person not saying anything? Why are they stopping? Is there a problem?

There’s a moment when people are laughing and then it stops. At that point onwards we work towards ensuring people don’t laugh because we want people to be horrified by what’s happening. For example, in Palmyra, there’s this scene where Nasi’s doing a dance with a hammer towards me, swinging it at me. People find it a little bit funny as he does it faster and harder, and then they stop finding it funny and it becomes quite a violent thing. People are confronted with the reality of the situation when it stops being funny. We’re saying that it’s more than just a funny image, this violence that you see is actually very real.

Read the full interview here.

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Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Danger

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Danger

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: How do you find the balance between a tight structure and the freedom of participation and improvisation?

BL: I think you have to think of it like there’s a start point and an end point, but what happens in between those two things has to feel free, both for the audience and for us as actors. We love when the situation gets out of hand, so we search for the danger of pure improvisation, but we always have those end points. If it just stays within the realm of improvisation it’ll descend into something random, but we have end points because we need to move on to another thing that we want to get the audience to think about. That is something that Declan Donnellan talks about in The Actor and the Target and I really agree with this. I really agree with the way he talks about acting in general.

PC: How do you construct the tasks or games when developing the work?

BL: What’s actually in the rooms we’re in is really important for us. We have a little scan of the space we’re going to be in, not even thinking about it we just have a look at what’s happening in the room and what the objects are in the room. What could happen with those two chairs or that ladder? Each object is like a little gift that we’re going to start using in an improvisation somehow. The objects in the room help us build the allegory or the metaphor that we’re going to be exploring. It’s important that it should feel like things from the theatre. For example, we like to go to a theatre and ask them what kind of brooms they have so that it looks as if we’ve really just picked these things up from the wings. We play with this aesthetic of found objects within a theatre, so it feels in real time and within the room.

Read the full interview here.

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Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Breaking Point

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Breaking Point

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: What’s so important about that collision between comedy and violence?

BL: I think it’s a double-edged thing for the audience: people take a bit of pleasure watching but also find it very violent and uncomfortable. Seeing someone on stage being humiliated in real time feels very interesting because the audience is complicit. The audience are always having to assess their position as a spectator, or as a witness to someone humiliating someone else. There’s something a little bit masochistic about it too, in the same way that when you watch something incredibly violent on a laptop, you don’t want to see it, but at the same time you do want to see it. We want to explore the limit of what an audience can witness, as well as exploring our own limits with each other. We love seeing how far we can go with each other. It’s that classic comedy thing of taking pleasure from seeing someone fall down and hurt themselves. People find it funny up to a point and we’re interested in how long we can make it funny and playing on that moment it doesn’t become funny anymore. That’s because it’s about real stuff that’s happening outside the theatre. We like the audience to get lost in it, so they don’t always see the metaphor, but then we catch them at that breaking point, so they go, “Oh fuck, this is what it’s about!” Suddenly it hits them in a different way.

PC: How do you ‘write’ the audience in that constant triangle so that those breaking points hit?

BL: Part of the creative process is to invite a lot of people to come and see it so that we can understand the piece, because until people start coming in, it’s impossible to know what the role of the audience is going to be. For example, for both Palmyra and One which is the last part of the trilogy, we only had a sense of the full dramaturgy of the piece once people are in the audience. We don’t really know exactly what we’re going to do when we invite people in, but we have a sense of it. We do a long improvisation with anchors of things that we’ve done in the past that we can launch for each other so that we know where we’re going, it might work, it might not. Then we invite another set of people to come in and we’ll improvise again until eventually we start to understand the piece through what is happening with the audience. The piece is completely rewritten once the audience comes in. Before that we try out games and we talk about it a lot. We have a sense of where we’re going but we only really start writing the piece when we have an audience.

PC: The triangle dynamic was very stark in Palmyra when both you and Nasi simultaneously address the audience about the hammer.  Can you describe that and say why you create those moments where the audience can’t have an answer, or you specifically pull them between two things?

BL: So, there’s the first moment where we address the audience; I stop the show and I say, “I need to stop.” I make comments about how crazy he is and ask if anyone thought about the hammer going into my face. Then I say, “I tell you what we’re going to do, we’re going to give this [the hammer] to someone in the audience, someone I can trust.” There’s a little bit of a fun interaction and then we move on to the next section of the play. Eventually, Nasi starts asking for the hammer back and I say, “Don’t give him the hammer, take it outside.” Then we’re playing this conflict of me saying to the person, “Don’t give him the hammer.” And him saying, “Give me the hammer.” It changes according to who has the hammer and what that person says. Sometimes the person takes it out immediately, sometimes that person doesn’t want to take it out, or they keep it, or they even give it to Nasi. There are all these options and so the audience really does have a choice but then there is always this final moment, which is that I have a bigger hammer. No matter what that person decides to do, I will always win. Maybe that’s your sense of us not giving the audience a choice, because we always land on that same moment. We worked hard to see how we could really give out the choice to the audience because it should feel difficult for the person who has the hammer; it should feel difficult for the whole audience around them as well. That conflict happening in the audience is really important: What do we do? Who do we trust? Who’s to be trusted the most? Is it better to take the hammer out so that it’s safe or is it better to keep it? Sometimes it creates a big debate amongst people in the audience about what they should do. That choice is real.

PC: Why is it important for the audience to be an active witness rather than a passive witness?

BL: I think the point we’re trying to make is that we’re witness to this politics that is happening up to a point, but we’re also completely involved in that problem. For example, they watch the Middle East conflict from afar and that’s what they do in the show. Our conflict happens between two people and they watch from afar, but then we start interacting with the audience and then they’re like, “Oh shit, I thought I was just watching, they want me to actually answer? They want me to think about my role in this?” I think that’s really important for us, to say that we’re not just spectators, we’re not just witnesses, we’re also involved in that problem. We hear about these stories, Greece, Palmyra and the Middle East and we quickly feel desensitized, “That’s happening far away.” Or, “I’ve seen this over and over again, I don’t know what to think about this anymore.”  We want people to actually consider what they think about it.

Read the full interview here.

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Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Frame

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Frame

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: Your work seems to fit into a long tradition of comedy double acts, was that a conscious decision?

BL: No, it was more about understanding the dynamic between us two. We quite quickly found, whilst improvising, that I was oppressing Nasi and he was just the victim of this horrible person that I was playing. We always found it very amusing and very funny. We had no sense that this was what we wanted to do, it just kind of started to happen. Then we saw the film of Bloody Mess by Forced Entertainment which had a comedy routine that was happening between two people where one clown wants to put a line of chairs to the front of the stage and another clown wants to put the chairs to the back. It starts with just one man starting to place them and then the other one moving them and then the way that it builds was really amazing. There was something almost political about it but again not naming anything political: just two people on stage wanting different things. We were really interested in what you could read into that if you give that scene a title. If you frame it for the audience, you start seeing the scene differently.

Tim Etchells on the first moments of Bloody Mess by Forced Entertainment

I think that idea of framing something is quite key to our work. Something clicked, as well, when looking at Cy Twombly’s paintings. Even though his art is very abstract and hard to decipher, there’s always a title which comes to support the viewers understanding of what it’s about. We always try and give our work a very clear title, a very clear frame so that we can take the audience on a journey.

The Song of the Border-Guard by Cy Twombly 1952 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P77550

PC: What’s the first thing that you do when developing a piece?

BL: We get into the room and we just start talking about this thing. Then at some point we need to stop talking and start making something. We then try and leave all the information that we’ve gathered together outside and we start playing. Usually there’s just the two of us, so we start playing games and running long improvisations that carry on for anything up to an hour and a half. After that we make notes of things that we’ve found during the improvisation and what connected to the ideas that we’ve talked about. But we have to find the game and what the game is. So, if you have a man on the ladder and you have a man who’s not on the ladder, what’s the game? How can you play with that? We take a long time to work out what games work with the particular political context that we’re exploring. At the end of the day, it needs to be something that we can play, that we can act with. If it gets too complicated we usually leave it to one side.

PC: Are those connections always clear?

BL: We try to make them clear but sometimes there’s a sense that the meaning of it even escapes us, we don’t really know why it works but we think it works. For example, in Palmyra there’s this moment when I start shaving Nasi’s beard with the microphone, there’s something so violent about this but also very playful, but the meaning of it didn’t come through the first time, we were just playing. It came up again and it was very clear for us that it was about how people perceive the beard of a Muslim person and the act of shaving it, it’s offensive from a religious point of view but also a really quite aggressive thing to do. That all started off as a game; something completely unconscious that we did in rehearsals which came back again and made complete sense with what the show also needed to say.

Read the full interview here.

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Bertrand Lesca (Bert and Nasi) – The Constant Triangle

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Bertrand Lesca is a theatre maker from France. After studying at Warwick University, he went on to assist Peter Brook and Declan Donnellan on several international tours. Bertrand currently works with Nasi Voutsas (Bert and Nasi) with whom he co-created the trilogy EUROHOUSE, PALMYRA and ONE.

The Constant Triangle

Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas in Palmyra. Photo by Alex Brenner

PC: What is theatre?

BL: We’re interested in the idea that everything that you see is happening in the room at the same time – with the audience. We imagine a constant triangle between the audience, Nasi and myself that keeps looping. The constant awareness that we’re in a room with an audience feeds our work. Whatever we do always relates to this one single idea.

PC: How does politics fit in with your work?

BL: I think the politics comes from what people know before entering the room. We give them a hint, which is usually the title and sometimes the blurb. That’s what people should know before entering the room. Once they enter the room, we do things that are supposed to create associations in the spectator’s mind. I think we’re always very careful not to mention anything political in the room – we leave it to the audience to fill in the gaps and to create these associations. Of course, we go into the politics when we make the work: we research and debate. It’s very clear, for us, what we’re trying to create with each image, but I think people watching will think about a lot of things – sometimes that completely escapes us but that’s okay. Everything we do on stage is very open to interpretation. For example, some people will see the work and only see it as a reflection on a relationship, or they will think about conflict, or they will think about what we really want to talk about, which is a specific political conflict, but we don’t force it. We never say, “This is what you should think!”

PC: Why is it important for your form of political theatre to leave space for the audience and to be open to interpretation?

BL: We knew that we wanted it to be political when we started working together, but we felt uneasy when we thought about political theatre because, for us, it was this idea of preaching to the converted – we really wanted to avoid that. So, we started looking at another way of making political theatre which wouldn’t be that.

PC: How did you develop that approach?

BL: We started making Eurohouse with interviews we had done in Greece, almost like a verbatim piece. Then we invited someone from Greece to see it and she was like “Yeah, that’s okay.” Then we showed her us two on stage with me humiliating Nasi and making him do stuff that he didn’t want to do, and she said, “I can connect with this and the feeling that it leaves me with, this sense of humiliation, is exactly what this is all about.” This made us think that we can work through the politics through a feeling, through people having an emotional connection with the political subject that we’re trying to explore, rather than an intellectual understanding of what’s going on. A lot of our work is to do with trying to create an understanding through an emotional connection with what’s happening in the room, with what’s happening between us both or with what’s happening between us and the audience. We’re always really trying to work through the feeling of what that particular political context is doing to people.

Read the full interview here.

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Grotowski’s Influence: Barba, Brook and Beyond

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


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.

Full interview here:

Grotowski

Paratheatre: Finding the Desire to Change

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


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.

Full interview here:

Grotowski

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.

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


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:

Grotowski

Grotowski’s Context: Sickness, War and Oppression

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


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.

Full interview here:

Grotowski