Jerzy Grotowski, fot. East News
Jerzy Grotowski, photo: East News

Theatre director and theoretician, educator, creator of acting methods. Born in 1933 in the city of Rzeszów in southeastern Poland and died in 1999 in Pontedera, Italy. He is considered to have been one of the greatest reformers of 20th Century theatre.

Early Career | Laboratory Theatre | Poor Theatre | Theatre of Sources | Objective Drama | Awards

In 1955 Grotowski graduated from the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow with a degree in acting. He went on to study directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS) in Moscow in 1955-1956. It was there that he learned about the acting techniques and artistic approaches of such greats of the Russian theatre as Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold and Tairov.

Early Career

Upon returning to Poland, he assumed an assistant professorship at the theatre school in Krakow and began studying stage direction (1956-1960). He debuted as a director in 1957 at the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Krakow, where he collaborated with Aleksandra Mianowska on a production of Eugene Ionesco's The Chairs. Grotowski also created radio plays for Polish Radio Theatre. These were based primarily on Chinese and Tibetan legends and the Old Indian play Sakuntala. Around this time he also prepared and led a series of lectures on Asian philosophy at the student club Pod Jaszczurami / Under the Sign of the Lizards. In 1958 he directed a workshop production of Prospero Mérimée's The Devil Made a Woman - the year-end production of fourth year students of the Acting Department of the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow - as well as a production of Bogowie deszczu / Gods of Rain, a contemporary play by Jerzy Krzyszton, at the Teatr Kameralny (Chamber Theatre) in Krakow. He would return to this play later, assembling a new version at the Teatr 13 Rzędów / Thirteen Row Theatre in Opole. In 1959 he also directed a production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the Stary Teatr / Old Theatre in Krakow, though during the same year he made a permanent move to Opole, where he took over the artistic directorship of the Thirteen Row Theatre. The institution also gained a new literary director, Ludwik Flaszen, literary and theatre critic, previously also the literary director of the J. Słowacki Theatre in Krakow. Grotowski's cooperation with Flaszen bore fruit before long in the creation of an avant-garde theatre that also became a dynamic center for research into the theatre arts.

Laboratory Theatre

The first production at the theatre in Opole, Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, premiered in 1959. At the same institution, one year later, Grotowski additionally directed George Byron's Cain, Mystery-Buffo after Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Sakuntala after Kalidasa. With the latter production, the director began his collaboration with architect Jerzy Gurawski. Their cooperation on a new organization of theatrical space ultimately lead to the abolishment of the division between stage and auditorium. The only production that Grotowski created at this time outside of his theatre was Faust after Johan Wolfgang Goethe, produced at the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre) in Poznan (1960), for which Grotowski collaborated on the scenery design with painter Piotr Potworowski. In 1961, as part of the "Public Stage" of the 13 Rows Theatre the director put together two productions that were so-called fact-montages: Turyści / Tourists and Gliniane Gołębie / Clay Pigeons were based on authentic documents, documentary film footage, and archival sound recordings. The same year, in Opole, Grotowski directed Adam Mickiewicz's Dziady / Forefather's Eve, which was followed one year later by another Romantic drama - Juliusz Słowacki's Kordian. Also in 1962, Grotowski worked with Józef Szajna on the first and second variations of Akropolis /Acropolis, based on a text by Stanisław Wyspiański. By this time, the poster for the production reflected the Opole-based theatre's new name - Teatr Laboratorium 13 Rzędów / 13 Row Laboratory Theatre. Before the Laboratory Theatre's closing in 1965, Grotowski directed a series of other productions there, including Tragiczne dzieje doktora Fausta / The Tragic Fate of Doctor Faust, based on the text by Christopher Marlowe (1963), Studium o Hamlecie / A Study of Hamlet, after William Shakespeare and Stanisław Wyspiański (1964), and a third variation of Akropolis / Acropolis after Stanisław Wyspiański (1964).

Following the closing of the theatre in Opole, Jerzy Grotowski and his ensemble moved to Wrocław. The first premiere of the 13 Row Laboratory Theatre at its new home was a fourth variation on Akropolis / Acropolis after Stanisław Wyspiański (1965), prepared, as all the previous variations had been, in cooperation with Józef Szajna. The creators of the production put together its fifth and last variation two years later, in 1967.

Still in 1965, the Wrocław theatre, which Grotowski also referred to as the Instytut Badania Metody Aktorskiej / Institute for the Study of Acting Methods, premiered two variations on Słowacki's adaptation of Calderon's The Constant Prince. Grotowski went on to present a third variant of the piece in 1968. In 1967 Grotowski and his ensemble abandoned work on a production titled Ewangelie / Gospels. Prior to this, however, the troupe held an open rehearsal of the play and several closed showings. These etudes, depicting the life of Christ and the contemporary dimension of taking a Christian stance, found their continuation in a breakthrough production by Grotowski's theatre titled Apocalypsis Cum Figuris, which drew on quotes from the Bible, the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas S. Eliot and Simone Weil. Apocalypsis Cum Figuris, which alongside Akropolis and The Constant Prince, became the most famous of Grotowski's productions throughout the world and was ultimately realized in three different versions: the first in 1968, followed by subsequent versions in 1971 and 1973. All of these were produced at the theatre in Wrocław, which acquired a new name in 1971 - the Actors' Institute - Laboratory Theatre. Grotowski created these productions in cooperation with his leading actor, Ryszard Cieślak. In the 1960s and 1970s the Laboratory Theatre went on a series of grand foreign tours and participated in a majority of the world's significant theatre festivals.

 



In one of his first productions, the controversial Bogowie deszczu / Gods of Rain, Grotowski the director, as Zbigniew Osiński recorded in writing, "collided with the author, while his theatre collided with literature. Grotowski not only changes the title of the play (the original was Rodzina pechowców / Unlucky Family), but interlaced the original text with fragments from other poetic works and added a film as a prologue. In the program to the production, Grotowski quoted one of Meyerhold's maxims: 'To select an author's play, does not mean to share his views.' He was later to expand on this in an interview: 'In terms of my attitude to the dramatic text, I think that the director should treat it solely as a theme upon which he builds a new work of art that is the theatrical spectacle'" (R. Konieczna, "Przed premiera 'Pechowców'. Rozmowa z reżyserem" / "Before the Premiere of 'The Unlucky' - A Conversation with the Director").

From this moment, he would consistently defend the right of a director to work on the text, with most of his subsequent productions built "according to" or "based on the words of" the text's author. His desire was not to tell the story in a traditional manner. He attempted instead to transform plays into mentally coherent stagings. With his next two premieres, Orfeusz / Orpheus and Kain / Cain, Grotowski questioned the function that literature traditionally plays in the theatre, editing his productions as a filmmaker might edit a film. He was accused of focusing excessively on formal experimentation. He himself would later admit that Cain was "more an exorcism of conventional theatre than a proposal for a counter-program" (Jerzy Grotowski, Teatr Laboratorium 13 Rzędów / 13 Row Laboratory Theatre, in: "5. Festiwal Polskich Sztuk Wspolczesnych" / "5th Festival of Contemporary Polish Plays," Wrocław, October 17-25).

Grotowski went on building his own "program," conducting in depth research into the relationship between the stage and audience and, consequently, between the actor and the audience. In Sakuntala the audience assumed the role of the collective hero, while in Forefathers' Eve they were treated as the participants of a ritual. In Kordian they were the patients of a psychiatric ward, while in Faust they became the hero's confessor. During this time the director and his troupe focused above all on seeking out new forms of expression for actors. The work the troupe did on Sakuntala proved especially significant in this respect. As Grotowski put it:

In this production we tested the possibilities for creating signs within the European theatre. Our intentions were not entirely deprived of mischievousness: we sought to create a production that would be an image of Oriental theatre, not entirely authentic, but similar to the manner in which Europeans imagine it. [...] However, below the surface of this search that was at once derisive and directed against the viewer, there was a hidden program - the effort to discover and reveal a system of signs that would be appropriate to our theatre and appropriate to our civilization."

Grotowski admitted that this path had to lead to the creation of signs that would be a set pattern, but at the same time, it was work on this production that lead, as the director puts it, "to the initiation of a search in the realm of organic human reactions, and to the creation of a structure of these reactions. This is what resulted from this most fruitful adventure in our troupe's history, specifically, it resulted in our research into the art of acting" (Jerzy Grotowski, Teatr a rytuał / Theatre and Ritual).

Poor Theatre

In 1965, in an issue of the monthly Odra, Grotowski published a sketch titled Ku teatrowi ubogiemu / Towards a Poor Theatre. This later became the titled of a book that was first published in Denmark and subsequently (in 1968) appeared in the United States with a preface by Peter Brook. This study by Grotowski went on to be published in more than a dozen countries... with the exception of Poland. It became a textbook for exploratory theatres of the 1960s and 1970s. Towards a Poor Theatre summed up the director's first creative period, during which he focused on shaping acting methods and formulating the idea of "poor theatre." Physical work by actors consisted of syncretic trainings that lasted many hours and drew on East Asian techniques. Significant attention was also paid to the voice resonators. Grotowski attempted to tap into the sources of ancient expression. Fascinated with the thoughts of Carl Jung, he sought out archetypes that would prove helpful in building roles and turn his actors' efforts into an act of sacrifice. The ecstatic acting techniques of the Laboratory Theatre were not aimed at achieving a state of trance, but rather on nurturing precise acting in a state of sharpened consciousness.

The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis Cum Figuris were apogees of ecstatic acting, and also exemplified the concept of "poor theatre," about which Peter Brook wrote in The Empty Space, published around the same time.

"In Poland there is a small company lead by a visionary, Jerzy Grotowski, that also has a sacred aim. The theatre, he believes, cannot be an end in itself; like dancing or music in certain dervish orders, the theatre is a vehicle, a means for self-study, a means for self-study, self-exploration, a possibility of salvation. The actor has himself as his field of work. [...] Seen this way, acting is a life's work - the actor is step-by-step extending his knowledge of himself through the painful, ever-changing circumstances of rehearsal and the tremendous punctuation points of performance. In Grotowski's terminology, the actor allows a role to 'penetrate' him; at first he is all obstacle to it, but by constant work he acquires technical mastery over his physical and psychic means by which he can allow the barriers to drop. 'Auto-penetration' by the role is related to exposure: the actor does not hesitate to show himself exactly as he is, for he realizes that the secret of the role demands his opening himself up, disclosing his own secrets. So that the act of performance is an act of sacrifice, of sacrificing what most men prefer to hide - this sacrifice is his gift to the spectator. [...] Grotowski makes poverty an ideal; his actors have given up everything except their own bodies; they have the human instrument and limitless time - no wonder they feel the richest theatre in the world" (Peter Brook, Pusta przestrzeń / The Empty Space).

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Theatre of Sources

In the 1970s Jerzy Grotowski slowly began to abandon theatre and ceased mounting theatrical productions entirely. He deepened his studies into Central Asian culture and schools of spirituality. In 1970 he took his third trip to the East, traveling to India. (Earlier, he had voyaged to Central Asia in 1956 and visited China in 1962.) He also began to teach, leading classes and quasi-theatrical internships for Polish and foreign actors. He began inviting previous viewers of his productions to participate in these projects. Pursuant to the program of "active culture" he had formulated in the 1970s, Grotowski began to focus on interpersonal relationships in a new dimension, specifically, that of "celebration." His new "live culture" was designed to lead to face-to-face meetings between human beings. In Grotowski's last theatre production, Apocalypsis Cum Figuris, the viewer and actor were unified to the maximum degree possible, though a division was retained between active and passive participants.

This division was to vanish in the new training/performance projects the artist began organizing in 1973. In the model of culture postulated by Grotowski, no one was a consumer while everyone had the right to create. Subsequent endeavors, referred to as projects, were publicized and open to all those willing to participate. Participants from throughout the world traveled to Wrocław and to Brzezinka near Oleśnica, where the projects were held. Beginning in 1973 Grotowski and the Laboratory Theatre also conducted internships abroad, working in the United States (1973, 1975, 1977), France (1973, 1976, 1977), Australia (1974), Austria (1974, 1975), Italy (1975, 1977), Switzerland (1976, 1977), West Germany (1977) and Canada (1977). Projects like his Special Project (1973) or Przedsięwzięcie Góra / Project Mountain (1977) took the form of group séances that had an ethical and psychotherapeutic dimension. They constituted an attempt at finding a new form of inter-personal understanding based on bodily and mental sensitivity and communal relating and action. They consisted, among other things, of slowly building inter-personal systems of communication - first using movement, then using the voice, finally, through group singing. Intensive quasi-theatrical workshops were also held in 1975, during the University for the Exploration of a Theatre of Nations that was organized by Grotowski and the Laboratory Theatre. At that time, the top people representing exploratory theatre throughout the world traveled to Wrocław, many of them inspired by the thought of Grotowski. Participants included Peter Brook, Jean-Louis Barrault, Joseph Chaikin (Open Theatre), Eugenio Barba (Odin Teatret), Luca Ronconi, Andre Gregory.

In 1976 Jerzy Grotowski presented a new research program that he referred to as Teatr Źródeł / Theatre of the Source. He pursued this program in the region surrounding the north-eastern city of Białystok, as well as during voyages he took to Mexico, Nigeria, India and Haiti. Ethnological and anthropological in nature, Grotowski pursued these explorations with his international group of collaborators. This research consisted of looking at rituals from various parts of the globe and attempting to find the common denominator between them, exploring at the same time their theatrical forms. During their work in the field, participants were to confront their techniques with the old, existing techniques of individual tribes. Grotowski stated, however, that his project could "not be viewed as a zeroing in on the exotic, as some folkloric celebration or as a festival of cultures of the so-called Third World" (Wyprawy terenowe 'Teatru Źródeł' / The Voyages into the Field of the 'Theatre of the Source', edited by R. Różycki, Notatnik Teatralny / Theatrical Notebook). Rather, the techniques applied were designed to reaffirm a feeling of connection with the natural world.

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Objective Drama

In 1982, after the declaration of Martial Law in Poland, Grotowski emigrated to the United States. Initially, he was a professor at Columbia University in New York. In 1983 he was appointed a professor at the University of California, where he realized his next project, known as Objective Drama. In 1984 the ensemble of the Laboratory Theatre voted to close the troupe's center in Wrocław. In 1985 Grotowski relocated to Pontedera in Italy. While there he worked at a center that bore his own name (The Work Centre of Jerzy Grotowski - Centro di Lavoro di Jerzy Grotowski) with a group of international interns, focusing on a program titled Ritual Plays. At this time he worked most closely with Thomas Richards, who also assembled documentation of Grotowski's research at this time and focused on publishing Grotowski's works. At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions was one of the more significant titles published as a result of his efforts. Jerzy Grotowski spent the last years of his creative life on laboratory work. His students studied in isolation and the results of their work were initially shown to only a handful of people, and only later made available to a broader public. The program known as Objective Drama consisted of seeking out common, cross-cultural stances and movements that could become universal, leading to the creation of arts that would be ritualistic in their nature.

Significant awards and distinctions:

  • 1971 - Appointed Full Professor of the Ecole Supérieure d'Art Dramatique in Marseille
  • 1972 - State Award 1st class in the realm of art for "creative activities with the Laboratory Theatre on staging and research into the art of acting"; Diploma of Merit from the National Museum of the USA "for exceptional contributions to the development of world theatre";
  • 1973 - Creation of the American Institution for Research and Studies into the Oeuvre of Jerzy Grotowski, whose primary objective was to "popularize Grotowski's artistic discoveries and ideas in the USA"; Honorary Doctorate of the University of Pittsburgh;
  • 1975 - Winner of a Wrocław City Prize for "his creative activities in the realm of theatre"
  • 1985 - Honorary Doctorate of the University of Chicago
  • 1991 - Honorary Doctorate of the University of Wrocław
  • 1997 - Professor of the College de France


Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, October 2002.

Updated in November 2010.