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:


Grotowski’s Communication with Spectators

Connections to the IB, GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • influence
  • significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: Were there stories that Grotowski returned to that fit his way of constructing productions?

PA: The story of Jesus and his disciples was a reference point throughout Grotowski’s work. He was very inspired by Ernest Renan’s book The Life of Jesus, as an archetypal figure that we associate with – a person who goes out on a limb, one who’s followed but who is then betrayed.

PC: Can you explain what you mean by archetypes and why they were important?

PA: The idea of archetype is important because it is not stereotype, it is not character, it’s what we can readily associate with. It was Jung’s idea. We recognize the martyr figure in The Constant Prince and Dr Faustus. We recognize the mother taking the Constant Prince in her arms like the image of the Pietà. We can understand these archetypal figures even beyond language, which is probably why his theatre was internationally so successful.

PC: That links back to what Raymonde Temkine said about the “structured composition of the role into a ‘system of signs'”.

PA: Yes, I’ve heard people talking about ‘signs’ quite a lot. It fits in with a semiotic understanding of theatre [a focus on the meaning of the images created] at that time but it is a bit limiting. For me, the embodied experience is so much more important; there is this montage of images, of signs, of symbols, of archetypes but at the same time we are experiencing that work very viscerally. If you try and read Grotowski’s work in a purely semiotic way, you’re only getting a very small part of the story.

PC:  Does that visceral experience, the sense of truth, come out of the physical repetition, the exhaustion, the score of signs? For example, was the pain that they were trying to present of Auschwitz in Akropolis somehow captured through the physical intensity of the performance?

PA: Peter Brook’s introduction to the film of Akropolis is very interesting. He says that it is not a documentary or a recreation of Auschwitz; he feels it’s like black magic happening in front of the you: the spirit of it or the rhythm, the sounds, the energy, the fear is conjured up before you. He says that this is what is distinctive about the theatre. It can do that because it is not referring to the past, quoting the people who were there, it’s in the here and now and you are a witness to it. He feels that this is what Grotowski has done so brilliantly in that performance: he’s somehow brought some essence of it to life.

PC: How did he get to that essence of life?

PA: Grotowski understood that it isn’t about shaping a dance or external pattern, it is actually about letting the actors find their innermost feelings. Not just splurging those out in a very indulgent way, but really precisely shaping them. It was a rigorous exploration of their innermost feelings.

Full interview here: