Our Philosophy and Theater discussion group has just spent two months studying a series of readings on the work of Jerzy Grotowski, the famous Polish director whose productions first stunned audiences in the 1960s with their distinctive physicality. We wrapped up with our usual recorded Skype call, which featured Carlos Franke, Philip Cherny and myself. Members can download it from the Free Stuff for Citizens page (under Not School Discussion Audio). Not a member yet? Sign up here.
Studying philosophy in theater primarily through texts is obviously somewhat indelicate. Plays are meant to be experienced firsthand, in a live setting. Grotowski’s work is especially resistant to this approach, because much of his career was spent in a deliberate attempt to reach beyond (or before) both text and theater. Even during his early work directing text-based plays, the textual montages he created rendered them almost unrecognizable. In The Grotowski Sourcebook, Richard Schechner says:
Underlying Grotowski’s work during this period was a conviction regarding the capacities of performance to catalyze inner transformational processes, a function he linked to achaic performative forms, historically prior (in western culture, at any rate) to the division between the sacred and aesthetic aspects of art.
In our discussion, we found it preferable to try to understand Grotowski’s work on its own terms rather than to try to establish its relationship to theater proper. Grotowski considered the actors and the audience to be the only essential elements of theater, but as time went on, the effect of the performance upon the actor became his primary interest. Having only the length of a performance to work with an audience, their inclusion became increasingly burdensome as his focus shifted. Fairly early in his career, Grotowski left the theater altogether. He traveled extensively, collecting fragments from the rituals of a wide variety of cultures, then working with small groups of actors to try to strip away elements in order to find commonalities.
Grotowski wasn’t just an essentialist about the theatre, but also about acting. Rather than collecting a toolbox of expressions, his actors underwent a demanding process of elimination in which they would learn to drop their “social masks.” The influence of Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes looms large here, but Grotowski saw his methods as distinct. Philosophically, our group had difficulty digesting this essentialism as applied to human beings, and so one of our primary questions was: what validity can there be to Grotowski’s eliminative approach to training actors if human beings lack such an essence?
We will be continuing through January, this time looking into the Grotowski directed Akropolis, as well as a corresponding reading that members can find on our page. We’ll have another call toward the end of the month, so jump in with us if you’re interested.
– Daniel Cole