A heretic and a great reformer of theatre, a communist and a romantic, a demanding director and an ingenious theoretician of 20th century theatre. A 'people person' who loved meetings, and a man who was almost excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Meet Jerzy Grotowski.
A legendary version of Stanisław Wyspiański's play, Akropolis was staged by Jerzy Grotowski and Józef Szajna at the Teatr 13 rzędów (Theatre of 13 Rows) in Opole in 1962. It was also one of the most signficant stagings of 20th century theatre. According to Paweł Gawlik, a long-time artistic director at Kraków's Stary Theatre, Akropolis is also one of the most radical stagings we could have ever witnessed on our Polish stages.
The artists shifted the action of the play into the drama of 20th century Europe. They moved it from the original Wawel, the Polish Acropolis, a centuries' old royal castle which had served as a national sanctuary and burial place for the nation's rulers. In their version, the drama is played out in "the cemetery of tribes", that is, the reality of concentration camps. According to the Grotowski.net portal, this widely commented on and vigorously interpreted piece still remains unrecognised for many of its aspects. One of the heroes of a documentary film by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz recalls decades later that "we arrived in Opole, and we went to see Akropolis, it was a huge shock for us". The prominent theatre scholar and author of the book Teatr Zagłady (Theatre of the Shoah), Grzegorz Niziołek, commented in an article for Dwutygodnik.com:
Akropolis is not just images of a concentration camp, but also a very well-articulated theme of the Shoah of Jews, albeit one articulated in a strange, and somewhat subliminal form (…) In fact, the performances of Grotowski and Kantor are difficult to interpret, it's hard to understand what actually happens in them. In my opinion, a certain disturbance of the strategy of artistic representation that takes place there is intricately bound with the experience of the Shoah, and with the existence of a powerful taboo within the collective consciousness. In both cases, the viewer is placed in a new situation, and he is exposed to dealing with something that is located, as I said in the case of Akropolis, "beyond the pleasure principle" [a concept and phrase coined by Freud]. The experience of shock, of some kind of an emotional disturbance, seems very important to me."
Barba and Brook
These are the two masters of European theatre whose biographies are forever linked with Grotowski. The Italian Eugenio Barba was a director and the founder of Odin Theatre, a scholar of the performing arts and the founder of an anthropology of theatre who first visited Poland in 1961. He was a recipient of a UNESCO scholarship, as part of which he took up a course at PWST - Poland's Higher School of Theatre in Warsaw. He collaborated with the Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole, and soon became one of Grotowski's closest collaborators. He was officially appointed his assistant, and, due to his fascination with his master's theatre, Barba also became the biggest propagator of his creativity in the West. Barba was the author of the first book about Grotowski, and he co-authored, edited and published Towards A Poor Theatre. Eugenio Barba also described the time he spent in Poland in a book titled Ziemia popiołu i diamentów. Moje terminowanie w Polsce (The Land of Ash and Diamonds. My Stay in Poland). He was presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Wrocław, and he is also a recipient of the Gloria Artis Gold Medal for contributions to Polish culture.
The British artist Peter Brook found himself in Poland after he set off on a search for theatrical experiments. This is how he met Grotowski, and in 1966, he invited him to work on an anti-military documentary, together with Ryszard Cieślak. From the mid-1960s, he supported Grotowski's work by regularly inviting him to collaborate on projects, and through hosting his work in the theatres he headed – from the RSC to the Bouffes du Nord, where the first lecture of Grotowski as professor of the Collège de France was held in 1966. Peter Brook is also one of the most important contributors to commentaries on Grotowski's work and writings. He authored a large fragment of the Empty Space which was devoted to Grotowski, and he wrote a preface to Towards a Poor Theatre. It was in the latter publication that Brook coined the concept of "art as a vehicle", a term later appropriated and used by Grotowski in the last stage of his work.
To find out more about the collaboration of Peter Brook and Eugenio Barba with Grotowski, we recommend visiting the bilingual www.grotowski.net portal, operated by the Grotowski Institute in Wrocław.
He acted in all the performances ever staged by Grotowski, the front man of his theatre, and a living symbol of the new acting method – the concept of "poor acting".
The period of close and intense collaboration between Ryszard Cieślak and Grotowski was connected with his legendary impersonation of Don Fernando in the Książę niezłomny (Constant Prince) production. This role brought Cieślak international fame and acclaim. Following the series of showings in the US in the autumn of 1969, New York critics hailed him as the best off-broadway actor. Cieślak thus commented on his work on the role, nowadays considered a breakthrough moment in the art of acting:
"It is anyhow impossible to treat it in merely artistic terms. It resulted in my fundamental transformation, not only as an actor, but also as a human being. It was a compound process, wherein the maturation of an actor was bound with the maturation of a human being. The role evolved, it was shaping itself just as my personal stance towards various phenomena, towards my surroundings and the world was formed. ("Aktor - marzenia, myśli, rozterki. Ryszard Cieślak" A talk conducted by Leonia Jabłonkówna, "Teatr" 1971, nr 14). Ryszard Cieślak also added "It was the deepest kind of self-penetration, a type of a personal confession." ("Aktor natchniony" A talk conducted by Tadeusz Buski, "Gazeta Robotnicza" 1974, nr 74)
After Cieślak's death, during a special meeting devoted to the actor in Paris, Jerzy Grotowski recalled: "When I think about Ryszard Cieślak, I think about a creative actor. I think that he himself was the embodiment of an actor who creates in the same sense in which a poet writes, and in which van Gogh painted."
Cieślak's last role at the Laboratorium Theatre was that of Ciemny in Apocalypsis cum figuris. It was a part that won him acclaim, especially in the United States.
Dziady: Forefathers' Eve
The all-time Polish classic, written by Mickiewicz in the early 19th century, formed the base of an experiment for Grotowski. It was a sketch, an essay, and a research project. Grotowski was interested in reaching the sources of ritual customs depicted in part II of the play, and he also aimed at inaugurating a sense of unity in the experiencing of theatre. The division between the audience and the actors was blurred, as the performers acted among those who were spectators. The director decided to do away with the patriotic and national themes of the play, and he only worked with what seemed crucial to him. He threw out Part III, usually regarded as the most important, and left only the scene of Wielka Improwizacja (The Great Improvisation). He decided to underscore the usually overlooked motifs of rebellion and love. In conversation with Jerzy Falkowski, he said:
We concentrate the meaning of the performance in the Improvisation. In a narrowed meaning, one could say that a lonesome and omnipresent rebellion is hopeless. A meaning that is wider and superior would be identical to the constant object of our search, which Władysław Broniewski described as (…) 'feeling' your voice and body into the human fate (Dziady jako model teatru nowoczesnego. Jerzy Falkowski talks with Jerzy Grotowski., "Współczesność" 1961, nr 21 quoted after Dziady. Od Wyspiańskiego do Grzegorzewskiego, edited by Tadeusz Kornaś and Grzegorz Niziołek, Kraków 1999)
In an interview, Grotowski explained that he was not at all interested in rendering the classic a contemporary piece, nor was he into mocking the romantic convention. He claimed that Mickiewicz wrote good texts, and that was the reason why the writer appeared in his theatre. Although the adaptation diverged significantly from the standard ideas of what a staging of Dziady should be about, taking up this classic was the result of a fascination with Mickiewicz's texts. It was not a very lenient fascination. What it aimed at was employing the text's possibilities in order to build theatre with avant-garde ambitions.
On the 12th of August, 1982, Jerzy Grotowski left Poland. He arrived in Denmark, but from there, he travelled to the United States. He announced his split from relations with "the regime in Poland", and his decision to emigrate in a letter to the members of Teatr Laboratorium. Yet, as a long-time member of the PZPR communist party, he was never persecuted, and he never officially spoke out against communism. After the political transformation of 1989, Grotowski never returned to live in Poland. He continued to work in the Italian town of Pontedera until the end of his life. This is how he commented on his decision:
I left Poland because of the Martial Law. It was a decision that was impossible for me to avoid, because in such a situation, there is a huge difference between directing a theatre which makes performances for a wide audience within one country – even if it is financed by a state that is considered oppressive – and directing a closed international laboratory which uses the funding of a country with special regulations. I received asylum in the USA.
"You will be the head and director, and I will be your main collaborator", wrote Ludwik Flaszen in a letter to Jerzy Grotowski, as he offered him the position of director at the Opole theatre. This is how their common path began, and with it, a bond lasting years between an intellectual and an artist, a director and a renowned literary critic from Kraków. It was one of the most prominent duos of Polish theatre, and this is how the two spoke of it themselves:
"In our collaboration with Ludwik, his stunning and invigorating role was to be the devil's advocate. Eruption and turmoil, especially in the early years […] were MY domain, and Ludwik, thanks to the his calm and precise criticism, granted me a fuller objectivisation of what came out of the sources, a kind of ability to formulate, so that things could be defended and be filtered as something consistent. Here, I am referring to the inner [collaboration] between us, the one that is not known to other people, while there are many very important elements of this collaboration which are known or obvious (…)" Zbigniew Osiński: Grotowski on "theatre couples" (Osterwa – Limanowski, Stanisławski – Niemirowicz-Danczenko, Grotowski – Flaszen) and his Centro di Lavoro – Workcenter w Pontederze, "Pamiętnik Teatralny” 2001
Let us give Flaszen a voice. In one of the interviews published in the Echa Krakowa (Echoes of Kraków) magazine, he spoke about the new theatrical form of contact with the audience: "We are well aware of the fact that a viewer unaccustomed to this kind of theatre will not grant us considerable attendance, especially in the early stages. I don't think, however, that this would the most important reason to give up the search. We hope that victory will be ours, hopefully before the grave".
This is Grotowski and the Russian experience. The mysterious abbreviation, as the Grotowski Institute reveals to us, stands for Gosudarstvennyi Institut Tyeatralnovo Iskusstva – The National Institute of Theatre Art in Moscow (which is currently called RATI – Rossiyskaya Akademia Tyeatralnowo Iskusstva, the Russian Academy of Theatre Art). This is the famous Russian theatre school, one of the country's most significant educational centres. Jerzy Grotowski was a student of the institute from late August 1955 to April 1956. The biggest revelation of the months spent in Moscow was the tradition of the institute's greatest students – Meyerhold and Vakhtangov. Grotowski delved into the achievements and ideas of Meyerhold as he worked on the documentation in the archives. The story goes that he was led into rooms which contained the documentation material – which was forbidden at the time – by an old lady, the head of the institute's archives, who had a soft spot for Poles.
Grotowski's favourite novel, and also the only performance of the Theatre of 13 Rows that he had directed by Waldemar Krygier, the artistic director of the theatre. Why? It remains a mystery, but the internet encyclopaedia, Grotowski.net reveals that:
"The actors performed in historic costumes, with their faces painted white and transformed into some kind of mask. The transitions between scenes were marked by a dreamy dance to baroque music. The finale of the whole was constituted of a talk between Rogozhyn and Myshkin after the death of Nastasia, which finished with a brief laugh"
According to the actors, the performance was a success, and it was liked by those performing and the audience alike. The critics were also univocal in their judgement, and they especially praised the acting of Antoni Jahołkowski and Zygmunt Molik. The performance was shown in Opole, and also in Wrocław, Katowice, Kraków and Łódź.
From the very beginning, he was connected to the Laboratorium Theatre and he performed in all of its productions. The actor Antoni Jahołkowski had a distinct cabaret talent and was also gifted musically. He used his skills in the piece called Błażej Sartre Cabaret, for which he also composed the music. He was cast in dozens of roles, and among the most remembered are the role of King in The Constant Prince and the role of Simon Peter in Apocalipsis cum figuris. Jahołkowski passed away on the 1st September, 1981. His last performance was called Thanatos polski (The Polish Thanatos). His accompanying artists, Teresa Nawrot, Ryszard Cieślak and Lucyna Pijaczewska recalled it in the following way:
"We knew that it was Antek's last role. In my opinion, Antek went beyond himself in this piece. Antoś was never the way he was in this performance. Antoś performed the last role of his life. It is a wonderful coming into being of this constantly warm, cordial friend, the best man – Antek Jahołkowski."
Książę Niezłomny: The Constant Prince
Ryszard Cieślak said, "One day, Grotowski brought in the text of The Constant Prince that he had put together himself. He didn't bring it to the group, but he asked me to meet him in a cafe late in the evening. He offered the role to me. I stared blankly. He said that it would be very, very difficult, and that he was imaging a finale in which the Prince enters living, real fire. 'So, are you decided, Mr. Ryszard?', and I asked 'But do you imagine that we will perform only once?'"
The theatre scholar Tadeusz Kornaś called the meeting of these two artists and their work on the monologues for The Constant Prince one of the incredible adventures in the history of theatre. The first rehearsals for the performance took place in Opole in 1963. Grotowski worked with Cieślak separately and he also worked with the rest of the team. Kornaś writes:
"The score of the actions was so united with the memories that were found within the body, that almost always it was at the exact same place in the monologue that the Prince's solar plexus began to quiver. As Grotowski used to say, it was an element that wasn't worked upon, but something that surfaced organically in each performance. The energetic centres were simply always triggered at a given moment. The action was so deeply planted within the body that the organism reacted to them in exactly the same way in each performance. Cieślak, I presume, acted within the present tense, as if on each occasion he was taking up the role for the first time."
The actress Maja Komorowska recalls her first confrontation with Cieślak, "What I saw was shocking. I remember that I thought to myself, all right, this one time, ok! But how to repeat this? Every day, every evening?! (…) Ryszard succeeded in doing this. It was precise, meticulous composition, but there wasn't the slightest sign of artificiality. (…) Grotowski's method found its full materialisation here, it became credible. In any case, this explosion, an eruption of emotion and truth – this was no longer merely theatre".
Grotowski and Cieślak worked on this piece for years, and the director admitted that the rehearsals lasted up until the very last showings. Książe Niezłomny was never recorded in its entirety, and the fragments of Cieślak's legendary monologue from a performance in Oslo can be viewed at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy.
The theatre of cultural research at the thresholds of theatre and art and spirituality was founded by Grotowski and Flaszen. It first functioned in Opole as the Theatre of 13 rows, and from 1965 in was located in Wrocław. Laboratorium (Laboratory) won international acclaim, and its actors travelled across Europe as well as Australia, Iran, Mexico, Lebanon and the United States. Laboratorium was not only the name of the theatre, but it also labels the entire period of Grotowski's creativity as well as the artistic research that was continued through to the 1970s and 1980s by the Theatre of Sources.
Apart from the performances, other stage programmes were also realised by Laboratorium, such as the aforementioned Kabaret Błażeja Sartra (Błażej Sartre Cabaret) directed by Zygmunt Molik, based on the text by Adam Kurczyna, and with songs by Antoni Jahołkowski. There was also the Estrada Teatru [Laboratorium] 13 Rzędów (Theatre Estrade) initiative, which was in turn documentary, poetic, or engaged in publishing activities. Most of the time the projects consisted of so-called facto-montage, which included live acting with fragments of archive film footage and audio recordings. The actors were also frequently active in the radio plays of the Polish Radio.
During the Wrocław period, Akropolis was put back on the stage as wariant IV, and on the 25th of April, 1965, the first premiere took place. It was the Constant Prince, based on Calderon and Słowacki, and then, on the 19th of July, Apocalypsis cum figuris. This performance, which was officially presented on February 11th, 1969, had two subsequent versions and it made history as Grotowski's last theatrical work.
The company, which was gaining new members – among them the later founder of the Gardzienice theatre, Włodzimierz Staniewski – began to undertake the so-called para-theatrical projects. Among them was the Complex Research Programme. A one-of-a-kind initiative was also the University of Research of a Theatre of the Nations, realised in Wrocław and its surroundings as part of the Theatre of Nations Season in 1975. Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook and Jean-Louis Barrault were among the invited guests. Simultaneously, members of the troupe took up projects which were works based on processes, such as Acting Therapy, Zdarzenia (Happenings), and Twoja Pieśnń (Your Song). After the introduction of Martial Law in Poland, Grotowski made the decision to emigrate and dissolved the company.
A graduate of the State Higher Theatre School in Kraków, actress of the Laboratorium theatre and a poet whose verse was employed in the Thanatos polski (Polish Thanatos) production, among others. In Grotowski's theatre, she was responsible for the visual aspect of movement. Audiences remember her role of Ewa in Kain, as well as the dame in Misterium buffo, Nastasia in The Idiot, Laura and the Witch in Kordian, Rebeka-Kasander in Akropolis, and Feniksana in The Constant Prince.
Mirecka has continued to collaborate with the Grotowski Institute to this day, and she conducts paratheatrical workshops inspired by Grotowski's method. In 1993, together with Ewa Benesz, Mirecka founded the International Centre of Work Prema Sãyi in Sardinia. Her workshops are popular both in Poland, and in Italy .
He is an American actor, performer, and a director, as well as a long-time collaborator of Grotowski, and the author of numerous publications about him. He calls himself the artistic heir of the Polish director. The two had worked together from 1985. They first met at the University of California in Irvine, where Thomas Richards took part in the Focused Research Programme conducted by Grotowski.
Learn about how Grotowski passed on his work to Thomas Richards in the SEARCH & CONTINUATION episodes of our podcast Stories From The Eastern West:
After one year, Richards became an assistant to Grotowski and they soon moved to Italy together. There, the Centro per la Sperimentazione e la Ricerca Teatrale in Pontedera was transformed into the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski. They were bound by a particular bond, of which Grotowski himself said, "My work with Thomas Richards has the character of a transmission. I transmit to him that which I attained in my life's work: the inner aspect of the work."
After Grotowski's death in 1999, Richards became the head of the centre. Together with a team of Polish editors - Igor Stokfiszewski, Dariusz Kosiński and Agata Adamiecka-Sitek - Richards and Mario Biagini (the second long-time collaborator and a key figure of the Workcenter) edited a volume of some one thousand pages of their master's writings. This collection of Grotowski's writings embodies a summary of his oeuvre, and it also constitutes an intellectual and spiritual biography written in his own words.
Click here to read our article about the collection, released in 2013.
He was the designer of, amongst others, the sets for Grotowski's famous, albeit controversial, staging of Dziady. Józef Szajna, a painter, director, stage designer and the author of theatre texts represented Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1970 and in 1990, as well as the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1979 and 1989. His global career was based on his work as an artist of the theatre. He was the member of numerous artistic associations, and was frequently honoured with awards, both in Poland and abroad. Szajna was especially famous in Italy, which also granted him numerous prizes (among them the 1981 Golden Medal of the Accademia Italia delle Arti e del Lavoro awarded in Salsomaggiore Terme).
Thanatos polski: The Polish Thanatos
The last production realised by members of the Laboratorium Theatre, which brought together inspirations from Dostoevsky's prose as well as paratheatrical experiences and the political dimension. According to Ryszard Cieślak, "The performance was an attempt at filling in the gap between the extreme experiences of Laboratorium, an attempt felt as a need both by some members of the team, and by certain viewers, who had the need and readiness to join in with that performance". After the death of Antoni Jahołkowski, one of the actors in the play, showings were halted.
Ubogi teatr: Towards a Poor Theatre
The famous method of Grotowski and his Laboratorium which drew inspiration from Oriental philosophy and made him famous across all of Europe. It was this method that also made the United States' audiences and theatre experts consider Laboratorium's visit to be the most significant event since 1923 – that is, since the performances of the famous Moscow Art Theatre of Stanislavsky.
The concept assumed that "neither a staging nor any visual forms, nor, finally, a word, are about what is, properly speaking, theatrical. What remains after rejecting philology and visual art? An actor – and a spectator. This is where the primal element of the play is born. Theatre must be laid bare – insofar as it is possible – and be rid of all that is not within this element of the theatrical. (…)
The Constant Prince and Apocalipsis cum figuris are two model examples of the concept of Poor Theatre.
Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski
Grotowski's Italian address, the centre of practical research in Pontedera, was where the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski (Centro di Lavoro di Jerzy Grotowski) was founded in 1985. In the autumn of 1996, the name was changed to the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. In the very beginning, Grotowski was working from the sidelines, in a small apartment a few kilometres outside the city. Later, together with a few of his collaborators from the United States, Grotowski moved to the Tuscan Pontedera. He said,
"From one point of view, it was Italy that chose me, and from another it was me who chose Italy. For years, I remained in certain relationships connected with internships, acquaintances, and the cultural milieux of this country, where a certain level of theatrical thought is very vivid. Italy was ideal for my kind of research. It was Roberto Bacci, the head of the Centro Teatrale in Pontedera, with whom I was in an artistic friendship thanks to Carla Pollastrelli, was the person who offered that I stay here, that is, that I would have a place for real work on the performing artist's craft, and on his development through art."
The Centre hosted a series of work exchanges with theatre troupes from afar. They were presented with the ideas and principles of Grotowski's team. Many befriended artists and scholars were also invited there. The works created in Pontedera also travelled with the team for presentations and discussion in Brazil, Poland, and in France. Since Grotowski's death, the centre has been run by Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini, who cooperate very closely, even if their search takes them in slightly different directions.
Źródła: The Theatre of the Sources
Teatr Źródeł was an experimental research project which took place from 1976 to 1982. Its participants came from various continents, cultures, and races. Together with an international team, Grotowski delved into the rituals of exotic corners of the world, and attempted to find their common denominator. The search was conducted from an anthropological perspective as well as the theatrical one. Archaic ritual and dramatic techniques were examined, among them yoga, elements of the Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition, and Noh theatre. Grotowski always underscored, however, that his endeavour cannot rely on a 'parasitic relation with the exotic form', or become some kind of a folklore festival.
"I would not want The Theatre of Source to be associated simply what is strange or exotic. Not only because I think that in this way we patronize non-European cultures, but because living sources are now being discovered at the core of our culture. (…) The Theatre of Sources is a way of working on oneself. We could say that silence and loneliness drift over the Theatre of Sources, in the most literal meaning of these words. The two are the best conditions for working upon oneself."
Grotowski organised many international field trips. He travelled to the Białystok region in Poland, to Mexio, India, and twice to Haiti.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn writes more about the subject in his article on "The Art of Disappearing", a documentary film made by Bartek Konopka, featurting Haiti, voodoo and Jerzy Grotowski.
Originally written in Polish, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 24/06/2014
Sources: Anna Legierska employed information published on the www.grotowski.net portal, ran by the Jerzy Gorotowski Institute, as well as fragments of The Collected Writings of Jerzy Grotowski, published by Krytyka Polityczna. other sources include: www.tadeuszkornas.republika.pl, eteatr.pl, dwutygodnik.com, krytykapolityczna.org, Culture.pl