Grotowski’s Work with Text

Interview with Paul Allain

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

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


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

  • 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.

Full interview here: