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.


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: