There were few men who were seen as key figures in the 20th century in terms of furthering the actor’s technique, and Jerzy Grotowski was one of them. Grotowski was a Polish theater director and innovator of experimental theater, the “theatre laboratory,” and “poor theatre” concepts. On August 11, 1933, Grotowski was born in Rzeszow, Poland, and he died in Pontedera, Italy on January 14, 1999 at age 65. During World War II, Grotowski’s family got separated. His father went to fight in the war and was stationed in England.
However, Grotowski escaped the Nazis with his mother and his brother.
The three of them went to live with his aunt and uncle on a farm in Krakow where he learned spiritual advances from his uncle, who was a Bishop. These spiritual awakenings led to his ideas about the theater. In 1955, Grotowski graduated from the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow with a degree in acting. Immediately after graduating he moved to Moscow to study the styles of directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts.
It was at this institute that he learned about the acting techniques and artistic approaches of Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and Tairov’s work.
Stanislavsky was a socialist and portrayed that in his work. He believed that every actor should show real emotion and realism. “His plan was to realize all the intentions of dramatists, to create a literary theatre” (Grotowski 56). Grotowski also studied Vakhtangov, who was a student of Stanislavsky’s. Grotowski made his directorial debut in 1957 with the production “The Chairs”. By 1959, he achieved artistic directorship of the Thirteen Row Theatre in Opole where the beginnings of his new vision began to grow. However, Actors’ Institute – Laboratory Theatre did not become the official title until 1971.
The Laboratory Theatre, Grotowski’s institute, was devoted to researching the art of theater with specific focus on the actor. Grotowski and his ensemble were well known in the 1960s and the 1970s when they toured the world participating in many major theatrical festivals. The world was surprised and intrigued with Grotowski’s new ideas on how theater should be interpreted. Grotowski pursued his actor-spectator interaction in a more direct manner. He believed the producer must always remember that he has two ensembles to direct: the actors and the spectators.
In many of his plays, the audience came to embody a character. Grotowski has written of his theater: For Akropolis, it was decided that there would be no direct contact between actors and spectators: the actors represent those who have been initiated in the ultimate experience, they are the dead; the spectators represent those who are outside of the circle of initiates, they remain in the stream of everyday life, they are the living. (Grotowski 63) He intends for the separation between the two ensembles to show that the dead are born from a dream of the living.
The main goal for Grotowski’s experiments was to question the nature of theater and discover new forms of expression for the actor in a way that the body and the voice can confront their true nature. By 1968, Grotowski had written a book called Towards a Poor Theatre, where he disagreed with the idea that theater should compete with television and film. He, instead, believed that theater should simply continue to have an actor perform in front of spectators. Even though the rest of the theatrical experience, including costumes, props, set, etc. , was important, it was not necessarily required.
By stripping away all that is unnecessary in theater, a vulnerable actor is all that is left. He abandoned complete sets and costumes, preferring a plain black set and actors dressed in plain black rehearsal clothes during rehearsals. He wanted to ensure that the actor maintained complete control over the body and the voice by participating in a series of difficult exercises. In his book, Grotowski admits, “I was searching for a positive technique or, in other words, a certain method of training capable of objectively giving the actor a creative skill that was rooted in his imagination and his personal associations” (Grotowski 133).
These thoughts are very similar to Stanislavski’s ideas. The actor is required to discover various obstacles that interfere with his creative task. The actor must know what not to do and what obstructs him. Grotowski’s exercises help each individual actor eliminate their numerous obstacles. As stated in Richard Mennen’s, Jerzy Grotowski’s Paratheatrical Projects, “the process of elimination led first to the ‘poor theatre’ and then to the principle of ‘via negativa’ – the non-technique of knowing what not to do, or how to eliminate the blocks of separating the actor from his true nature” (Mennen 60).
Commenting on Grotowski’s work, Mennen also reveals that “the actors had worked to remove the masks, disguises, defenses, roles, etc. , that divided them from each other, but relationship to the audience was that of a role – an actor” (Mennen 60). Grotowskian aesthetic means that the actor is engaged in himself and the audience. The aim is for everyone to find something from within relating to the spiritual awakenings Grotowski learned from his uncle early on. Grotowski believed that “the memory is in the muscle” and that movement connects your body with impulse, which is the root of all true expression.
Grotowski used both severe and gentle movements as well as vocal exercises to unlock this expression. Training for the body consisted of physical exercises, plastic exercises, and exercises of the facial mask. Physical exercises include warming up, exercises to loosen the muscles and vertebral column, “Upside-down” exercises, flight exercises, leaps and somersaults, foot exercises, mime exercises concentrating on the hands and legs, and studies in acting on any theme performed while walking and running. All of these exercises are aimed toward loosening and becoming comfortable with one’s body.
Plastic exercises include elementary exercises and exercises in composition. The fundamental principal of elementary exercises is the study of opposite vectors, particularly in opposite movements and contrasting images. According to Grotowski, exercises in composition “have been adapted according to the process of the formation of gesticulatory ideograms as in ancient and mediaeval theatre in Europe as well as African and oriental theatre” (Grotowski 142). The starting point for these gesticulatory forms is the stimulation of one’s imagination and the discovery of one’s own imagination.
Exercises of the facial mask involve facial reactions that can be divided into two groups: introversive and extroversive impulses. All of the reactions can be in one of the following categories: movement creating contact with the external world (extroversive), movement which draws attention from the external world in order to concentrate on the subject (introversive), and intermediate or neutral stages. Other than the physical aspect, the voice is also a very important part of training for actors.
In order to obtain and maintain an acceptable technique of the voice on was required to learn to carry the power of their voice, to understand the types of respiration, to open the larynx, to use resonators affectively, to acquire one’s voice base, and to place the voice. The actor must carry the power of the voice so that the spectator hears the voice of the actor perfectly. The three types of respiration are upper thoracic or pectoral respiration, lower or abdominal respiration, and total respiration, which is most effective because upper thoracic and abdominal respirations are being used.
Opening the larynx is important when speaking and breathing. Closing the larynx prevents effective release of air, which causes the actor to incorrectly use his voice. Using resonators effectively allows the actor to amplify the carrying power of the sound. There are two ways to place the voice, and one is for actors and the other is for singers. It is important to use the correct technique; otherwise, one will become hoarse as they speak or sing. Loosening up the muscles and vertebral column are important physical exercises for actors to engage in.
In Towards a Poor Theatre, Grotowski lists fourteen exercises for actors to perform in order to loosen up. “The cat” is an exercise based on stretching and relaxation. The subject on the ground faced downwards completely relaxed. The “cat” wakes up bringing the hands in towards the chest with the elbows in the air. The hips are raised and the legs walk on tiptoe towards the hands. The left leg is raised and stretched while the head is lifting from the ground stretching. The same movements are then repeated with the right leg.
The second exercise has the actor imagining a metal band is around the chest, and they have to pretend to stretch it by vigorously expanding the trunk of their body. Thirdly, one does a handstand with their feet against the wall and slowly opens the legs as wide as possible. The next exercise is a resting position where the subject squats with their head dropped forward and their arms dangling between the knees completely relaxed. In the fifth exercise, the actor is in an upright position with the legs together and straight. The trunk of one’s body is flexed towards the ground until the head touches the knee.
Then, the individual does a vigorous rotation of the trunk from the waist upwards. Then, the individual jumps onto a chair keeping the legs together, and the impulse should come from the trunk, not the legs. After, the actor attempts to do total or partial splits. The actor then starts from an upright position and bends the body backwards to form a bridge until the hands touch the ground behind them. In the tenth exercise, the person is in a lying position stretched out on one’s back and rolls the whole body energetically to the left and to the right.
Afterwards, starting from a neeling position, the individual bends the body backwards into a bridge until the head touches the ground. Next, one jumps and imitates a kangaroo. Then, one sits on the floor with the legs together and stretched out in front of their erect body. The hands, which are placed on the back of the neck, press the head forward and downwards until it touches the knees. Lastly, the actor walks on the hands and feet with the chest and abdomen facing upwards. It is only correct to perform these exercises in an animate way, as it is not meant to be an automatic repetition.
As Grotowski says: During the exercises on investigates the body’s center of gravity, the mechanism for that contraction and relaxation of the muscles, the function of the spine in the various violent movements, analyzing any complicated developments and relating them to the repertory of every single joint and muscle. (Grotowski 136) Therefore, it is essential not to merely repeat the exercise, as that will give inferior results. Jerzy Grotowski played a significant role in acting during his time.
Being a theater director, a theoretician, an educator, and a creator of acting methods is a great achievement. His ideas are very interesting and insightful. Most of his methods and philosophies are truly helpful to an actor. His thoughts on the actor-spectator interaction were the most fascinating to me. I had never thought of theater in that way before; therefore, he opened my eyes in learning new and astute ideas. Grotowski is one of the most influential figures behind the development of theater in the twentieth century.