Acting for Grotowski: What is it to be Human?

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
  • 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.

Full interview here:


World Theatre Traditions – Kathakali

Eugenio Barba introducing Kathakali

On the southern coast of India, the three-hundred-year-old Kathakali ritual theatre still flourishes, a mixture of dance and pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition.

The plays describe extraordinary events involving gods, demons, and legendary characters. They all have one common characteristic: good and the gods always triumph over evil and the demons. The actor acts out the struggle between good and evil exclusively through the motions of his body, and the subjects of the plays are as well known to the audience as the myths of the Greek trilogies were to the Athenians.

Through his gestures and his mimicry, the Kathakali actor recreates the atmosphere and the action of the drama while describing to the audience the action’s locale. His technique is much closer to the Chinese opera than to the European mime or ballet, which tells a story through a direct or “exoteric” technique. In the Oriental ballet, on the contrary, a cipher is used. Each gesture, each little motion is an ideogram which writes out the story and can be understood only if its conventional meaning is known. The spectator must learn the language, or rather the alphabet of the language, to understand-what the actor is saying. This alphabet of signs is complex. There are nine motions of the head, eleven ways of casting a glance, six motions of the eyebrows, four positions of the neck. The sixty-four motions of the limbs cover the movements of the feet, toes, heels, ankles, waist, hips-in short, all the flexible parts of the body. The gestures of the hands and fingers have a narrative function and they are organized in a system of fixed figures called mudras (“signs” in Sanskrit). Those mudras are the alphabet of the acting “language.”

The face expresses the emotions of the actor. If he is terror-struck, he raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs lathis nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions. To express paroxysmal rage, his eyebrows quiver, his lower eyelids rise on his eyes, his gaze becomes fixed and penetrating, his nostrils and lips tremble, his jaws are clamped tight, and he stops breathing to bring about a change in his physiognomy. There are sets of facial motions to express not only feelings and emotions, but traits of character of a more permanent nature, such as generosity, pride, curiosity, anxiety in the face of death, etc. However, the actor does not rely exclusively on prearranged mechanical gestures to express emotions. He cannot reach his audience unless his own imagination and motions come into play. The old masters of the Kathakali have a rule which says:

“Where the hands go to represent an action, there must go the eyes; where the eyes go, there must go the mind, and the action pictured by the hands must beget a specific feeling which must be reflected on the actor’s face.”

From this rule we can see that the face is the emotional counterpart of the story told, not by somebody else, but by the actor’s own hands. In short, there is a double structure: the actor must resort simultaneously to two different sets of technique to express the two complementary aspects of a story, the narrative and the emotional. His hands “tell” the former, while his face expresses the latter.

Barba, E., & Sanzenbach, S. (1967). The Kathakali Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11(4), 37-50. doi:10.2307/1125137

Tadg O’Keefe introducing Kathakali

Katahkali Training

Kathakali Facial Expressions

The future of Kathakali?

The BBC’s Megha Mohan went to a now-closed traditional Kathakali school, one that gave birth to its own style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta: