Jerzy Grotowski was born in 1933 in Rzeszow, Poland and became a leading member of the Expressionist theatre movement. Though his name is not as famous as other dramatists, such as Bertolt Brecht or Samuel Beckett, he influenced many who changed the way that theatre is perceived in the modern era. His work also helped actors to achieve a deeper understanding of what they were doing; he did this by focussing on ritualistic movement and gesture.
He lived, until the age of six, in a city not far from Rzeszow in South East Poland. When the Second World War broke out he moved with his mother to a small village while his father served in the Polish Army, later becoming stationed in England. He graduated from the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow with a degree in acting by 1955 and followed this with two years of studying Directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow. At the Lunacharsky institute, he learnt about the great Russian conceptualists like Stanislavski, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold and Tairov with their innovative theories.
On returning to Poland he re-attended his previous theatrical school to become an assistant professor while studying stage direction for the next four years, until 1960. He debuted as a director in 1957 alongside Aleksandra Mianowska on a production of The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco; he also spent some time creating radio plays based on Chinese and Tibetan myths. By 1959 he achieved artistic directorship of the Thirteen Row Theatre in Opole, where he began to work with architect Jerzy Gurawski and the beginnings of his new vision began to build, though it would not be until 1971 that the name Actors' Institute - Laboratory Theatre became the official title.
The Laboratory Theatre
Rather than an actual theatre, it is a term Grotowski used to describe his institute which devoted itself into researching the art of theatre, with particular focus on the actor. In the 1960s and 1970s the ensemble toured the world, participating in all the major theatrical festivals and shocked the world with its new ideas on how theatre should be interpreted. Grotowski worked hard to break down the barrier between the audience and the actor in various ways - in many of his plays the audience came to embody a character: in Sakuntala the crowd became a collective hero while in Forefather's Eve they were participants of a ritual, later he would make them patients of a psychiatric ward in Kordian. The whole aim for these experiments was to question the nature of theatre and seek out new forms of expression for the actor; a way that the body and voice of an actor can confront its true nature.
By 1968 he had written a book, Towards a Poor Theatre1, where Grotowski challenged the idea that theatre should compete with TV and film - instead, he believed that it should return to its simple root; an actor in front of spectators. Though the rest of the theatrical experience2 was important, it was not necessary and by stripping away all that is unnecessary in theatre what is left is a stripped and vulnerable actor. He began to scrap entire sets and costumes, favouring only a plain black set and actors in plain black rehearsal clothes during rehearsals; he wanted to make sure that complete control over the body and voice was achieved through a series of strenuous and rigorous exercises. He did not completely disregard all other elements of theatre; in public performances he used lighting, sets and costume, but he wanted to make sure that the focus was on the actor and not the images - that was a role of cinema.
Achieving a Grotowskian aesthetic means that the actor has engaged both himself and the audience in a revelation that is spiritual and almost psychic; the aim is for everyone to find something from within. The actor has to be highly prepared for his art; he can do this by, rather than learning something, taking away the barriers that might prohibit that. An actor's performance should eliminate his resistance to impulse and psychic process - a true Grotowskian actor acts with complete impulse, making his body react to something as soon as it is thought of. The actor's body must create all that is needed within the play; after this is accomplished, additional props may be used but they should not be necessary. The subject matter should present extreme actions that emerge from powerful artworks, be they classical or modern, that illuminate social taboos such as mass-murder, losing freedom, suicidal depression and so on.
Theatre has been... my way of thinking, my way of seeing people and looking at life.
- Jerzy Grotowski, speaking at his funeral via tape-recording
In 1970 he took his third trip to the East, by visiting India - he had already been to Central Asia in 1956 and China in 1962 - as he started to abandon theatre in order to further study Eastern culture. Later, he began to invite viewers of his previous productions to participate in his new projects in 'live culture' in an effort to achieve the maximum degree of unifying the actor and viewer; this was his last theatrical production, Apocalypsis Cum Figuris. After this he held public projects in many countries around the world from 1973 - 1977 which took the form of group séances of psychotherapeutic and ethical dimensions, they intended to find new forms of inter-personal understanding via physical and mental sensitivity.
In short, Grotowski was trying to find a new way of communicating to other people and relating to their own deeper thoughts through gesture and movement, then finally chants and song - these projects were attended by many later theatrical masters, such as Peter Brooks and Jean-Louis Barrault. As the 1970s closed, Grotowski was busy with his entourage studying ritualistic dances from around the globe, trying to find common denominators, while exploring their theatrical forms, in Mexico, Haiti, Nigeria and India. Grotowski emigrated to the United States in 1982 after Martial Law was declared in Poland, and became a lecturer at California's University before he moved to Italy in 1985. There he opened the 'Workcentre' in a small village, Pontedera. His ideas about theatre and spirituality are still explored, actors are still trained in his methods and an abstract song and movement composition, called Action, is frequently performed. Grotowski lived there until his death in 1999.