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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 20. 29th August 1973

Drama — "Unmasking the Unknown" Grotowski

page 15


"Unmasking the Unknown" Grotowski

Image of Jerzy Grotowski

Jerzy Grotowski is a Polish director with a subsidised theatre troupe and an awesome reputation throughout the theatre world for his originality, air of mystery, and, above all, success — as he says himself: "......art is immoral. He is right who has the result." Recently he gave a one-day seminar in Wellington under the auspices of the QEII Arts Council.

Virtually everyone seriously involved in the small New Zealand theatre scene turned up, a little unsure of what to expect. Most of them had heard of Grotowski, and the kind of theatre he is involved in, but little more than that. Grotowski arrived late, and proceded to ask for questions, and to use M. Jugand from the French department as an interpreter. The questions revealed the audience's uncertainty: were they there to find out more about Grotowski in order to know more about him, or in order to learn more about themselves, and their own approach to theatre? Grotowski seemed to hope for the latter, which is why he asked for questions instead of giving a lecture, or posing as the overseas expert of which New Zealanders are still so fond. Presumably the questions would reveal the audience's concerns.

Grotowski's replies were poetic and oracular, but never arrogant and never trite. He has a spellbinding manner of speaking, seeming to be in dialogue, or at least, conversation, with every one of his audience. For those who hoped for specific remedies and descriptions of technique, the seminar was disappointing. Grotowski refuses to give answers, and continually stressed that he was not 'the key' for other people, who would have to find that in themselves. He wished to be more someone to encounter and to get people to attempt to be honest with each other. What remains to be seen is the effect in New Zealand theatre, what I found most disappointing was that we all drifted away after the exit of the great man, instead of talking together. Any talk that did go on was more about Grotowski's appearance, his use of a translator, the fine way he moves his body, rather than using what he had said as a critique of what we were doing, a means of exploring and tapping our own creativity.

What follows is an outline of some of the more important aspects of Grotowski, called from memories of the seminar, the press conference the next day (which is to be printed in the next Landfall, and contains some interesting comments on theatre buildings and acting) and two interviews in The Drama Quarterly.

Jerzy Grotowski' is well known and respected in theatrical circles as an exciting and creative director, but his ideas are little understood. Perhaps this is because Grotowski refuses formulas, or readymade recipes to hand out to actors, in an art where 'technique' is a magical and charming word for the majority of its practitioners. He prefers to see theatre as part of a thoroughgoing and honest self-discovery, a continuing creativity, since for him the definition of humanity might well be the 'condemnation to create'.

Thus any mechanical practice of exercises or even attempts at self-awareness directed, set in motion by somebody else will be in vain because they are additions to the personality rather than originating from the roots of the individual. Both the inspiration to create, and the discipline or structure which allows the creation to be communicated or articulated to other people, must be generated from within; imposition from outside leads only to sham performances.

So also does repetition: "In order to create one must, each time, take all the risks of failure. That means we cannot repeat an old or familiar route. The first time we take a route there is a penetration into the unknown, a solemn process of searching, studying, and confronting which evokes a special 'radiation' resulting from contradiction. This contradiction consists of mastering the unknown - which is nothing other than lack of self-knowledge - and finding the technique for forming, structuring, and recognising it. "

For Grotowski, creativity and discipline go hand in hand separate, they are useless. He is well-known for his acerbic criticisms of American groups, particularly the Living Theatre, for their flaccid self-indulgence, their reliance on the group not only for creative sustenance and impetus, but also for their emotional well-bing. As far as he is concerned the actors are on ego-trips rather than voyages of self-discovery (which he says can come only "through penetrating his relationship with others studying the elements of contact...."). He is also critical of 'political' theatre, since too often it degenerates into slogan slinging, and facades without thought or honest conviction. He has bewildered many would-be disciples by encouraging them to use him as inspiration only, and tends to denounce any attempts at 'Grotowskian theatre'.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grotowski, the one which is most immediately useful to people committed to theatre, is that he has already encountered and overcome, more or less successfully, many of the problems that today's group theatre is only just striking. One of these is the relationship between audience and actors: many actors have seen a barrier existing which allows an audience to distance themselves, to analyse the action instead of concentrating on it. Like many other groups, Grotowski's Polish troupe attempted to integrate the audience into the action by seating them among the actors, and treating them as actors. The trouble with this attitude is that it's ultimately rather condescending; while the audience are treated as participants, there's no way they can alter the action and audiences resent such token representation. Unlike the actors, who work to a script or some kind of mental map, the audience share no such baseline. So any attempts they make to 'join in' are fumbling and unconfident: they are unable to ake the risks necessary for creativity.

Grotowski's solution is to resurrect the traditional theatrical 'unities' of time, space and action. However, he is not attempting unity within the play so much as a meeting between the actor and the text, the audience and the action. In effect, he is trying to recreate communal theatre, not for any statement of solidarity so much as to enlarge experience, and, to use a travel analogy, in the sense of shared experience of humanity rather than the 'round the world in eighty days and a roomful of slides to prove it' traveller. "One must always look for the word-for-word truth. The audience can watch the process of confrontation — the story and its motives meeting the stories and motives in our lives." Grotowski is concerned that one should meet without masks in theatre, so that it becomes a way of reaching back to the fundamentals of 'life', or oneself, or humanity, or whatever. Audience participation only encourages the social masks to be gripped more firmly. His solution however, is very simple: "We solved this problem when we did Marlowe's Dr Faustus. For the first time we found a direct word-for-word situation. The dramatic function of the spectators and the function of the spectator as spectator were the same. For the first time we saw authentic spontaneity. The audience was treated as Faustus' invited guests, people whom Faustus seeks so that he can make an analysis of his own life......."

The audience in Grotowski's terms is not a passive presence, nor is he concerned, as so many people working in theatre are, to grab the masses off the street and into the theatres to replace or at least supplement the proverbial culture vultures, alias artie farties. His idea of the audience is qualitative rather than quantitative: he does not assume that everyone is capable of the same response or tolerance of a piece of theatre: "Each spectator has different needs and in the course of his life, his needs may even change. Our task as artists is to find spectators for whom the kind of work we create is truly neccessary."

There is much else which could be said about Grotowski and his work. However, I hope the broad outlines will inspire those who are interested to seek out his interviews and work ('Towards a Poor Theatre'); following Grotowski, I renounce any attempt at spoonfeeding or definitive summaries. What makes the man worth listening to, or, in his terms, 'meeting', is that his ideas are not just visionary, but have evolved through action and practice, failure and blockages: in short, 'creativity'. "The problem is always the same: stop the cheating, find the authentic impulses."