Grotowski and Gurawski: Configuring the Space

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
  • 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.