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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  1. I felt the same way after reading Richard Schechner’s Environmental Theatre. Grotowski was definitely one of the greats in theatre. There are lots of videos on YouTube about training sessions for his theatre: http://youtu.be/dRyLLTvs00c

  2. I started reading this without looking at who wrote it. As soon as I saw the word paratheatre I thought of Antero, scrolled up and knew I’d have to buy this book now. Alli’s work is intense and wonderfully weird…and he taught/teaches a great online course at Maybe Logic too!

  3. I cannot agree more! I was introduced to Grotowski as an undergraduate by a professor who actually worked with the man years ago! Even if you don’t take every word he says by heart, which I don’t, he’s a revolutionary man and this wonderful book is a MUST for any theater practitioner. Find it, buy it, borrow it, read it, study it,  highlight it, smell it, eat it, DO IT!

  4. I just read this book a couple weeks ago and liked it a lot. I wish I could have seen some of the performances he directed. Grotowski’s theory of performance reduces theater into its minimal constituting elements and explores their fundamental relationships. By stripping theater down, removing its unnecessary complications, basic and yet powerful forms of theatric expression that emerge directly from the body become the whole of a syntax rich enough to produce what lies at the essence of drama. 

    Grotowski often describes his process through which actors train to create his very physical performances as removing blocks from the body and its movement. Once blocks and inhibitions are surmounted deep emotions can manifest directly through the body without being obscured by physical or mental self-limitations. As in language, where it is difficult to gain command over the full range of phonemic possibilities, which have become pruned down to the few that lie within ones primary tongue, giving one an accent that follows them from language to language as a series of invariant sounds and nuances, similarly it requires significant work to free the body to its full range of expressiveness and given the actor, unlike the aimless freedom of a child, a command over the freedom.

    I like Grotowski a lot and agree in theory with most of his theatric constructivism (which can be likened in some ways to the constructivism of Rodchenko and Popova in painting). However, I would debate Grotowski on is his Essentialism: that in freeing the body one gets as a result the direct expression of some inner Truth beyond the forms of mediation, inhibition, and objectification. As a Lacanian, I would certainly take the position that there is no such inner Truth that the free body expresses. Instead, freeing the body simply renders it into a precise medium for the material support of creative signification. The direct access achieved through the removal of mediation is not some “Real” of human emotion but rather the Symbolic of the body that determines the role it plays in the development of meaning and the formation of subjectivity. Nevertheless, this would only be a debate about ends, both of which sharing the same initial process of investigation of the body as a means of expressing drama that Grotowski devises in this book so brilliantly.

    This is definitely something worth reading.  If you are an actor, you should find it even more interesting than I did, since I am not. Indeed, I think there is something beyond Grotowski that can only achieved by working through Grotowski.

  5. Andre Gregory was heavily into Grotowski and talks about it and a great number of other things in the regrettably out of print book “Alice in Wonderland: the forming of a company and the making of a play”

  6. This stuff is amazing, if dated in it’s hippie-esque pursuit of the “true inner impulse,” which, as Chris says in his cute Lacanian way, carries some heavy metaphysical baggage. Grotowski’s theater research was heavily funded by the Communist Polish Gevernment, as it was in part motivated by deeply sublimated Polish Catholic Mysticism. He wanted to discover new ways for human beings to live together–and, as a teacher of mine once quoted one of his long-time students, he “wanted to get his filthy hands into your soul.”
    The Poor Theater is still a seductive ideal, though. Too bad practicing it in these United States would guarantee you poverty in a very un-metaphysical sense!
    Grotowski’s later work in shamanism and paratheater is also incredible;  Andre Gregory talks about the surreal spaces they invoke in “My Dinner with Andre.”

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