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Jerzy Grotowski: the experiment continues.

Twenty years ago a group of actors from Poland under the direction of jerzy Grotowski appeared in New York and created an artistic sensation. Critics hailed the Grotowski troupe as the harbings of a new acting technique, a technique based on body, voice and image that differed radically from the Prevailing naturalism of the celebrated method, of the Acto, Studio. Through the perfomances of the inimitable Ryszard Cieslak in The Constant Prince and Acropolis Cum Figuris the haunting imagery created by the beautifully carved bodies and resonant voices of the Polish ensemble, the workshops and seminars conducted for actors at New York University, Grotowski and company changed the theatrical vison of future directors and the training methods of young performers. The theatre of Growtowski was hailed as a metaphysical and spiritual breakthrough that dynamically captured the objective world even as it laid bare the subjective response of the actor.

But a strange thing happened. On the heels of his phenomenal success in the U.S., Grotowski announced that his company would make no more appearances as a theatrical entity. Instead, it would organize a series of paratheatrics' in Poland, involving the participation of volunteers in the creation of performance events not intended for audiences. Many theatre practitioners went to Poland to see for themselves what Grotowski was up to. They took part in various Projects, including theatricalized ceremonies - some of them conducted in the woods - that lasted all night.

Grotowski, it turns out, was interested in discovering what body impulses or states could be evoked when people work for extended periods in a natural environment, as well as how habitual attitudes could be transformed to more authentic responses. This paratheatrical phase ended in the late 1970s, and since then Grotowski has focused on what he calls "art as vehicle" - which likewise concentrates on the impact of performance on the doer rather than the spectator - as opposed to "art as presentation." Grotowski has developed this work with a small group of collaborators in Pontedera, Italy, at a center operated in connection with the University of California, Irvine (where he has taught for several years) and Peter Brook's International Center of Theatre Research in Paris. The Pontedera center gained further support when Grotowsky was named the recipent of a "genius grant" in the most recent round of MacArthur Fellowships.

Its far-reaching influence notwithstanding, Grotowski's work has remained largely inaccessible to the uninitiated. A new documentary film made by Mercedes (Chiquita) Gregory may help to change that. Made entirely in Grotowski's workplace in Pontedera, the film details his group's daily routine and provides a one-of-a-kind glimpse of the mesmerizing results of Grotowski's current research."

As the film begins, five men dressed in white and a woman sing songs and incantations; there are few discernable words, but these rhythmic, highly structured vocal works - some derived from African and Caribbean initiation rite - have an uncanny resonance and vibration. The principal "doer" is American actor Thomas Richards, who leads and guides the group. Their carefully controlled movements, based on ancient forms of concentration, include a special way of holding the spine and protruding the backside, much like the warrior's position in primorial tribes. The stance, silent and attentive, is supposed to energize and enliven the body and awaken a certain innate physical power and mindfulness.

None of the "doers" are trained singers, but the effect of their music is superb: clear, pure and open, bell-like at times. The ancient patterns in the songs and incantations are connected with the stream of life of the doers,"' Grotowski suggests in an interview about the film. His interest, he says, is in finding the vibratory aspects of a particular song, which, like a person, has "its own secrets."

The remarkable sounds continue for more than an hour, while the group arranges itself in spatial configurations of startling beauty and grace. The work seems to throb with a certain subdued passion; there are moments Of epiphany that are suddenly moving.

As they follow their inner processes, some of the "doers" appear to reach a trancelike state. But Grotowski maintains that "they are always keenly aware of their movements and the structured score-the piece as it exists. The leader must have double attention; he's contacting the others, he is aware of their reactions as well as his own. So there is not really a state of trance in the usual meaning of the word, no absence of consciousness."

Is there a social function of such work? It is an inner quest,' Grotowski answers, "a personal itinerary toward something higher. I am under no obligation to do work that has a social function; it is pure research. I am not looking for results in terms of performance values, or in terms of audiences or critics. Art as vehicle does not depend on the pereeption of the spectator. Its aim is to change the perception of the 'doer."

Grotowski's research is clearly not for everyone, though the uncanny voices of the "doers" illustrate that his training can produce extraordinary results on the level of acting alone. In fact not everyone agrees that Grotowski's work is related to theatre at all.

"The work at Pontedera concems and touches the theatre world," concedes Peter Brook, who has followed Grotowski's evolution for more than two decades. Writing in a recent issue of The Drama Review, Brook notes, Certain experiences are impossible to accomplish outside of the laboratory. That is why we at the center in Paris are associated with Grotowski's center. We are absolutely convinced that there is a living, permanent relationship to be established between the work of research which is without public witness and the immediate nourishment that this can give to public [theatre] work."

Mercedes Gregory's as-yet-undistributed film, Art as Vehicle, illuminates the possibilities of such a relationship. Made in eight days during 1991 when Gregory was ill with cancer-she died last February - the film is both stark and beautifully muted, capturing the intensity and energy of the group as well as the studio's unique atmosphere: its pristine setting, its white walls, varnished floors and simple furnishings. Gregory and her staff of five had to work mostly at night, and were positioned in a single spot in order not to disrupt the performance work.

"Grotowski opened up a spiritual knowledge for me, a new horizon,' Gregory said at a showing of the film for an invited audience last year. We in the United States are in a period of looking at things from the outside. And this work is looking inside."
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Author:Croyden, Margaret
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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