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:


Essential Videos on Movement

This weeks video resources focus on movement. Here is a selection of video content from around the web. There is the full spectrum here, from abstract dance to more naturalistic theatre. Some are training masterclasses and some are performances. I hope each can serve as an inspiration for your own creativity.

PLEASE NOTE: Not all movement exercises are suitable for everyone and this or any other movement exercise may result in injury. To reduce the risk of injury, never force or strain, use the exercises only as intended and demonstrated, and follow all instructions carefully.

A Eurhythmics introduction and demonstration with Lisa Parker, director of the Dalcroze Eurhythmics program at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA. Lisa discusses Eurhythmics, its goals and benefits through a lesson on measure shape.

In the 1990’s, after the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, an original source of Biomechanics became known. Nikolai Kustow, the Biomechanics instructor in Meyerhold’s Theater, maintained a “hidden” school and secretly passed on principles and etudes to a new generation of actors. In this video, Russian actor and pedagogue, Gennadi Bogdanov is shown presenting the most important etudes and principles of Biomechanics. In addition to historical film and photodocumentation of Biomechanics, the video also displays recent scenic work from Europe and the USA developed from the basis of Meyerhold’s Biomechanics. In English, 43 mins, colour & Black & white.

Gennadi Bogdanov demonstrates a Biomechanics study created by Meyerhold. Then he applies the work to a study of Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot.

The study of Meyerhold’s ‘Throwing the Stone’. This video shows a demonstration of Meyerhold’s study by Ralf Réuker, student of Gennadi Bogdanov, and analyzed by Eugenio Barba. It was taken during a series of lectures organized in 1997 by the Center for Performance Research in Aberystwyth, Wales. During the demonstration Barba sometimes addresses the audience and in Ralph, the student of Biomechanics.

Revolutionary dancer and choreographer Mary Wigman introduces some of her work.

Martha Graham discusses her craft in A Dancer’s World.

Choreographer Merce Cunningham took chances. Over a seven decade career, his explorations reshaped dance into a new kind of art form, deeply influencing visual art, film, and music along the way. Through experimental collaborations with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, and others, he became the 20th century’s most influential choreographer. In conjunction with the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, we look at the many sides of Cunningham: dance maker, collaborator, chance-taker, innovator, film producer, and teacher.

In the spring of 1981, during a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage sat down to discuss their work and artistic process. As frequent collaborators, Cage and Cunningham pioneered a new framework of performance. Their novel approach allowed for mediums to exist independently, or rather cohabitate, within a performance, thus abandoning the co-dependent model of dance and music. Cage and Cunningham go on to discuss the methodology and motivations behind chance operations, a term used to describe artistic decisions based on unpredictability. Wanting to free himself of his likes and dislikes, Cage describes how Zen Buddhism influenced his work, leading him to use tools of chance. These new methods, adopted by both Cunningham and Cage, overturned a whole foundation of thought around music, movement, and the process of creating art.

Taken from a television special called The Body Speaks, Ryszard Cieslak of Grotowski’s Laboratory briefly speaking and then presenting some exercises in the Plastiques and Corporals with two Danish students.

We all use our body on a daily basis, and yet few of us think about our physicality the way Wayne McGregor does. He demonstrates how a choreographer communicates ideas to an audience, working with two dancers to build phrases of dance, live and unscripted, on the TEDGlobal stage.

Wayne McGregor is well known for his physically testing choreography and ground-breaking collaborations across dance, film, music, visual art, technology and science. In 2000, he and his company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance embarked on a series of projects investigating aspects of creativity in dance with researchers from other fields such as cognitive and social science.

A series of systems developed for choreographers to engage more fully the imaginations of performers tasked with generating new movement material.

Spring Dance 2011 hosted the world premiere of DV8’s newest work Can We Talk About This? The performance deals with freedom of speech, censorship and Islam using real life interviews and archive footage to examine influences on multicultural policies, press freedom and artistic censorship. Australian Lloyd Newson conceived and directed the work and founded DV8 in 1986.

The clip starts at a monologue with hand choreography that is particularly interesting.

Masterclass with Akram Khan including interviews

Follow Akram Khan for a day

Clip from Zero Degrees – ‘zero degrees is the reference point where everything begins…and everything ends’. Akram Khan

zero degrees, Akram Khan Company from Akram Khan Company on Vimeo.

In order to help students and teachers who wish to use Hofesh’s work as a stimulus to perform a solo in the style of a specified practitioner, Hofesh and the company offer this short film resource and accompanying study notes which can be downloaded here: http://hofesh-media.s3-eu-west-1.amaz… In this resource Hofesh shares an extract from his 2010 work Political Mother, which he feels best encapsulates his movement style. This extract is danced by company member Chien-Ming Chang (known to us all as Ming) who was an original cast member of Political Mother.

Maze is an immersive new performance presented by Jasmin Vardimon Company and Turner Contemporary, choreographed by critically-acclaimed director Jasmin Vardimon, in collaboration with Ron Arad and artist Guy Bar-Amotz. This film gives an incredible insight into Jasmin’s creation process for both the structure and the performance. It provides a deeper look at the working methods of her company, and how they’ve been adapted to the unique new environment, and exploring some of the motivations and challenges encountered.

Jasmin Vardimon Company Repertoire

Gecko has fantastic video resources with many of their full shows available here. I have chosen The Time of Your Life that was developed specifically as a piece of filmed theatre. It is a great introduction to their work.

Vanessa Ewan leads this movement direction masterclass, guiding an actor playing Nora from A Doll’s House using techniques to explore physicality and enhance character transformation.

Ever wondered what a Movement Director does? In this short film we hear from Movement Directors Joseph Alford, Kate Flatt, Imogen Knight and Diane Alison-Mitchell explaining their role in a production, the key differences between movement direction and choreography and how movement develops its own theatrical language in performance.