Grotowski Burning at the Stake After Artaud

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

  • artistic intentions
  • innovations
  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice

PC: What was the relationship between Grotowski’s performance work and Artaud’s ideas?

PA: The relationship with Artaud is explained very clearly in Towards a Poor Theatre in the chapter titled ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself. In this, he says that his engagement with Artaud came later than one might expect. He developed his practice and his ideas of theatre and then discovered the connection and closeness to Artaud’s ideas. He didn’t look at Artaud and think “I could put that into practice.” Artaud has incredible ideas about total theatre: people on revolving chairs, using all the mise-en-scène and including cinema, sound; but it is quite hard to enact. You see the same words, the ‘total’ theatre of Artaud and the ‘total’ act of Grotowski; but they are completely different. Grotowski is about paring away scenography, lighting, sound – of course, the actors are still lit but it’s never decorative, it is totally functional. It’s about getting a really simple mise-en-scène which he adapted for every production to focus on the actor. That’s what is at the core of it for Grotowski: the actor/spectator relationship, whereas Artaud was really about total theatre, in a much more filmic way, the montage of all these elements that would somehow take over the audience.

PC: Would you say there was a closeness in their intensity, even though Artaud’s ideas were never fully realised?

PA: Yes, I think there is a similar interest in rigour. How, through theatre, you can create an impact that changes the spectator. Artaud wanted it to be like the plague where this psychic contamination spreads out from the theatre event and changes society somehow, ‘heart and soul’. Through your nervous response to this extraordinary, frightening, sensational experience you’re changed and society is improved. Grotowski wanted that as well but through very different means. Both Artaud and Grotowski wanted to push limits: how far can you go? It is not about the entertainment industry, it’s not about pleasing the audience. Grotowski is quite critical in his language talking about the Courtesan actor who’s selling themselves for the price of an expensive ticket. The actor should rather be giving themselves to the audience. I think that has connections with Artaud’s view of this actor opening him/herself up. Grotowski cites Artaud’s image of “the actor should be like the martyr burning at the stake, still signalling through the flames.” I always find that a very potent idea; even when you’re burning up, you’re still trying to communicate through the flames as you die, like Joan of Arc. It is a powerful metaphor that captures the rigour, that extremity of what they’re both trying to do. The cruelty that I think Artaud talks about is a cruelty to yourself; Grotowski is interested in the actor penetrating their own existence, in questioning themselves to a deep level: What happens if I go on stage in front of people? Why should I have the privilege of doing that? If I do, how do I get over the desire to entertain; the desire to please; the desire to be successful? Instead you work in a ‘via negativa‘ way, stripped back, not resisting things.

PC: How would you explain via negativa?

PA: It is quite difficult to explain the via negativa but he talks about removing psychophysical blocks, making impulses actions. Stanislavski did acrobatics with his actors and Stanislavski thought, “If you can overcome your fear of doing a leap or a roll, how much easier is it then to overcome a difficult role or a difficult bit of text.” It gets you over that sense of fear and it makes you freer. Grotowski is the same: he is finding that freedom of action, of not hesitating, of turning impulse into action and stopping that self-judgmental voice in the head that’s always saying, “Am I good enough?” Instead, you really commit to something, like the idea of the gift, you give yourself totally: the ‘holy actor’; it’s an act of submission. However, if it’s too vain, if it’s too egotistical, then it becomes an imposition.

Up Next:

Part 4: Grotowski’s Significant Productions

Part 5: Grotowski and Gurawski: Configuring the Space

Part 6: Grotowski Inspired Creativity and Outrage

Part 7: Grotowski’s Work with Text

Part 8: Grotowski’s Communication with Spectators

Part 9: Acting for Grotowski: What is it to be Human?

Part 10: Grotowski Composes Associations: Plastique and Corporal Exercises

Part 11: Grotowski’s Voice Work: Connecting Body and Voice

Part 12: Grotowski’s Context: Sickness, War and Oppression

Part 13: Paratheatre: What is Beyond Theatre?

Part 14: Paratheatre: Finding the Desire to Change

Part 15: Grotowski’s Influence: Barba, Brook and Beyond