Enthralling Books: Towards a Poor Theatre, by Jerzy Grotowski

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImageTowards a Poor Theatre, by Jerzy Grotowski

I had not heard of Grotowski until 1977 when I witnessed a film document of his Polish Theatre Lab's performance of Akropolis. As I left Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive screening, I wandered the streets in shock and awe. Though I had eight years' experience performing, writing, and directing experimental theatre, nothing could prepare me for Grotowski's visceral explosive and revelatory "paratheatre." I immediately walked down Telegraph Avenue to Moe's Books and found a copy of Grotowski's book, Towards a Poor Theatre. Sitting there on the floor in the Theatre section, oblivious to the world, I was enthralled and astonished by what I was reading. Grotowski's radical premises were so dynamic, yet so clearly pragmatic, they advanced the culture of theatre beyond the previous gold standard of Stanislavki's method. My young 25-year old heart, mind, and body was on fire! I knew right then and there what I would be doing with the rest of my life and that was: some version of this.

Cut to present time. For the last thirty-five years, I have been in the practice and teaching of a version of paratheatre I have been developing in groups with hundreds of actors, dancers, singers, and martial artists. It's not been a career as much as a calling that brought me to this place. Reading Towards a Poor Theatre lit the fuse on an internal time bomb that was already primed to go off to either send me to prison for very bad behavior or explode my meaningless life into smithereens. The book saved me from myself.

The dog-eared copy became my bible yet I felt that I would betray my early theatrical experience if I followed it to the letter. Instead I chose to relate with the book as a source of inspiration in an ongoing process of developing paratheatrical experiments, new techniques, and eventually finding and defining my own version of paratheatre. I even wrote a book on my paratheatrical research (Towards an Archeology of the Soul; Vertical Pool Publications. 2003). To say Towards a Poor Theatre changed my life may be an understatement. It's more like the book gave me life. And when someone of something gives you life, I don't know about you but I feel like giving life back.

Explaining the content of Grotowski's book is pretty much impossible; its luminous threads of white hot intelligence weave across the fabric of world theatre, the inspired madness of Artaud, numerous practical notes on the Actor's vocal and physical training, all towards a methodical science of the acrobatic body as the final source of energy and text as the critical framework for its articulation. My descriptions here fall way short. They also fail to convey the lucidity by which Grotwoski explains the fundamental principles and premises of his "poor theatre", a place where the actor is left alone without props and tricks, with only his naked self to plumb the depths of humanity and then, finally, share the revitalizing fruits of a terrible labor of love.

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