Jerzy Grotowski

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11 August 1933

Rzeszów, Poland


14 January 1999 (aged 65)

Pontedera, Italy


Theatre director

Jerzy Grotowski (11 August 1933 - 14 January 1999) was a Polish theatre director and innovator of experimental theatre, the "theatre laboratory" and "poor theatre" concepts.

Grotowski was born in Rzeszów, Poland on 11 August 1933 and died in Pontedera, Italy on 14 January 1999, aged 65.[1]



Theatre of Productions

Grotowski made his directorial debut in 1958 with the production "Gods of Rain" which introduced Grotowski's bold approach to text, which he continued to develop throughout his career, influencing many subsequent theatre artists. Later in 1958 Grotowski moved to Opole where he was invited by the theatre critic and dramaturg Ludwik Flaszen to serve as Director of the Theatre of 13 Rows. There he began to assemble a company of actors and artistic collaborators which would help him realize his unique vision. It was also there that he began to experiment with approaches to performance training which enabled him to shape the young actors - initially allocated to his provincial theatre - into the transformational artists they eventually became.

Among the many productions for which his theatre company became famous were "Orpheus" by Jean Cocteau, "Shakuntala" based on text by Kalidasa, "Dziady (Forefathers' Eve)" by Adam Mickiewicz and "Akropolis" by Stanisław Wyspiański. This last production was the first complete realization of Grotowski's notion of 'poor theatre.' In it the company of actors (representing concentration camp prisoners) build the structure of a crematorium around the audience while acting out stories from the Bible and Greek mythology. This conceptualization had particular resonance for the audiences in Opole, as the Auschwitz concentration camp was only sixty miles away. "Akropolis" received much attention, and could be said to have launched Grotowski's career internationally due to inventive and aggressive promotion by visiting foreign scholars and theatre professionals. A film of the production was made with an introduction by Peter Brook, which constitutes one of the most accessible and concrete records of Grotowski's work.

In 1964 Grotowski followed success with success when his theatre premiered "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" based on the Elizabethan drama by Marlowe, featuring Zbigniew Cynkutis in the title role. Foregoing the use of props altogether, Grotowski let the actors' bodies represent different objects, establishing an intimate dynamic of relation between actors and spectators by seating audience members as the guests at Faust's last supper, with the action unfolding on and around the table where they were seated.

In 1965 Grotowski moved his company to Wrocław relabeling them a "Teatr Laboratorium", in part to avoid the heavy censorship to which professional 'theatres' were subject in Poland at that time. Work had already begun on one of their most famous productions, "The Constant Prince". Debuting in 1967, this production is thought by many to be one of the greatest theatrical works of the 20th century. Ryszard Cieslak's performance in the title role is considered the apogee of Grotowski's approach to acting. In one of his final essays, Grotowski detailed how he worked individually with Cieslak for more than a year to develop the details of the actor's physical score before combining this central element of the performance with the work of other actors and the context of torture and martyrdom intrinsic to the play.

The last professional production from Grotowski as a director was in 1969. Entitled "Apocalypsis Cum Figuris" it is widely admired. Again using text from the Bible, this time combined with contemporary writings from authors such as T.S. Eliot and Simone Weil, this production was cited by members of the company as an example of a group 'total act'. The development of Apocalypsis took more than three years, beginning as a staging of Slowacki's Samuel Zborowski and passing through a separate stage of development as a staging of the Gospels, Ewangelie (elaborated as a completed performance though never presented to audiences) before arriving to its final form. Throughout this process, Grotowski can already be seen abandoning the conventions of traditional theatre, straining at the boundaries of what he later termed Art as presentation.

Grotowski revolutionized theatre, and, along with his first apprentice Eugenio Barba, leader and founder of Odin Teatret, is considered a father of contemporary experimental theatre. Barba was instrumental in revealing Grotowski to the world outside the iron curtain. He was the editor of the seminal book, Towards a Poor Theatre (1968) which Grotowski wrote together with Ludwik Flaszen, in which it is declared that theatre should not, because it could not, compete against the overwhelming spectacle of film and should instead focus on the very root of the act of theatre: actors co-creating the event of theatre with its spectators.

Theatre - through the actor's technique, his art in which the living organism strives for higher motives - provides an opportunity for what could be called integration, the discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a totality of physical and mental reactions. This opportunity must be treated in a disciplined manner, with a full awareness of the responsibilities it involves. Here we can see the theatre's therapeutic function for people in our present day civilization. It is true that the actor accomplishes this act, but he can only do so through an encounter with the spectator - intimately, visibly, not hiding behind a cameraman, wardrobe mistress, stage designer or make-up girl - in direct confrontation with him, and somehow " instead of" him. The actor's act - discarding half measures, revealing, opening up, emerging from himself as opposed to closing up - is an invitation to the spectator. This act could be compared to an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings - this is just a comparison since we can only refer to this "emergence from oneself" through analogy. This act, paradoxical and borderline, we call a total act. In our opinion it epitomizes the actor's deepest calling.[2]

Debut in the west

The year 1968 marked Grotowski's debut in the West. His company performed the Stanislaw Wyspianski play Akropolis/Acropolis (1964) at the Edinburgh Festival. This was a fitting vehicle for Grotowski and his Poor Theatre because his treatment of the play in Poland had already achieved wider recognition, and was published in Pamiętnik Teatralny (Warsaw, 1964), Alla Ricerca del Teatro Perduto (Padova, 1965), and Tulane Drama Review (New Orleans, 1965). It marked the first time many in Britain had been exposed to "Poor Theatre". The same year his great book called Towards A Poor Theatre appeared in Danish, published by Odin Teatrets Forlag. It appeared in English the following year, published by Methuen and Co. Ltd., with an Introduction by Peter Brook, then Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In it he writes feelingly about Grotowski's private consulting for the Company; he/they felt Grotowski's work was unique but equally understood that its value was diminished if talked about too much, if faith were broken with the consultant.

Grotowski's company made its debut in the United States under the auspices of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall of 1969. BAM built a theatre for Grotowski's company in the Washington Square Methodist Church in Greenwich Village. Three productions were presented: Akropolis, The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis Cum Figuris during a three week run.

Paratheatrical phase

In 1973 Grotowski published "Holiday,"[citation needed] which outlined a new course of investigation. He would pursue this 'Paratheatrical' phase until 1978. This phase is known as the 'Paratheatrical' phase of his career because it was an attempt to transcend the separation between performer and spectator. Grotowski attempted this through the organization of communal rites and simple interactive exchanges that went on sometimes for extended periods, attempting to provoke in participants a deconditioning of impulse. The most widely circulated description of one of these post-theatrical events (a "beehive") is given by Andre Gregory, Grotowski's longtime friend and the American director whose work he most strongly endorsed, in My Dinner with Andre. Various collaborators who had been important to Grotowski's work in what he termed his "Theatre of Productions" phase had difficulty following him in these explorations beyond the boundary of conventional theatre. Other, younger members of the group came to the foreground, notably Jacek Zmysłowski, whom many would consider Grotowski's closest collaborator in this period. Theatre critics have often exoticized and mystified Grotowski's work on the basis of these paratheatrical experiments, suggesting that his work should be seen in the lineage of Antonin Artaud, a suggestion Grotowski strongly resisted. Later in life, he clarified that he quickly found this direction of research limiting, having realized that unstructured work frequently elicits banalities and cultural cliché from participants.

Theatre of Sources

In this period of his work, Grotowski traveled intensively through India, Mexico, Haiti and elsewhere, seeking to identify elements of technique in the traditional practices of various cultures that could have a precise and discernible effect on participants. Key collaborators in this phase of work include Włodzimierz Staniewski, subsequently founder of Gardzienice Theatre Association, Jairo Cuesta and Magda Złotowska, who traveled with Grotowski on his international expeditions. His interest in ritual techniques linked to Haitian practice led Grotowski to a long-standing collaboration with Maud Robart and Jean-Claude Tiga of Saint Soleil. Always a master strategist, Grotowski made use of his international ties and the relative freedom of travel allowed him to pursue this program of cultural research in order to flee Poland following the imposition of martial law. He spent time in Haiti and in Rome, where he delivered a series of important lectures on the topic of theatre anthropology at the University of Rome La Sapienza in 1982 before seeking political asylum in the United States. His dear friends Andre and Mercedes Gregory helped Grotowski to settle in the US, where he taught at Columbia University for one year while attempting to find support for a new program of research.

Objective Drama

Unable (despite the best efforts of Richard Schechner) to secure resources for his projected research in Manhattan, in 1983 Grotowski was invited by Professor Robert Cohen to UC Irvine, where he began a course of work known as 'Objective Drama'. This phase of research was characterized by an investigation of the psychophysiological impact of selected songs and other performative tools derived from traditional cultures on participants, focusing specifically on relatively simple techniques that could exert a discernible and predictable impact on the doer regardless of her belief structures or culture of origin. Ritual songs and related performative elements linked to Haitian and other African diaspora traditions became an especially fruitful tool of research. During this time Grotowski continued several important collaborative relationships begun in earlier phases, with Maud Robart, Jairo Cuesta, and Pablo Jimenez taking on significant roles as performers and research leaders in the project. He also initiated a longstanding creative relationship with American director James Slowiak and discovered the individual to whom he would ultimately pass responsibility for his life-long research, Thomas Richards, son of legendary North-American black director Lloyd Richards.

Art as vehicle

In 1986, Grotowski was invited by Roberto Bacci of the Centro per la Sperimentazione e la Ricerca Teatrale to shift the base of his work to Pontedera, Italy, where he was offered an opportunity to conduct long-term research on performance without the pressure of having to show results until he was ready. Grotowski gladly accepted, taking with him three assistants from Objective Drama research (Richards, Jimenez and Slowiak) to help in founding his Italian Workcenter. Robart also led a work-team in Pontedera for several years, after which time funding cuts necessitated downscaling to a single research group, led by Richards. Grotowski took the term used to describe his final phase of research from a talk by Peter Brook, who coined the phrase "art as vehicle" to characterize the focus of his attention. "It seems to me," Brook said, "that Grotowski is showing us something which existed in the past but has been forgotten over the centuries; that is that one of the vehicles which allows man to have access to another level of perception is to be found in the art of performance." Toward that end, he drove Richards to take on increasingly greater responsibility and leadership in the work, until he was not only the primary doer in the practice of Art as Vehicle, but also its leader and "director" (if such a term can be accurately used) of the performance structures created around these Afro-Caribbean vibratory songs, most significantly 'Downstairs Action' (filmed by Mercedes Gregory in 1989) and 'Action', on which work began in 1994 and continues to the present. Italian actor Mario Biagini, who joined the Workcenter shortly after its founding, also became a central contributor to this research. In 1995, Grotowski changed the name of the Italian center to the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards to signal the unique and central place Richards held in his work. Although Grotowski died in 1999 at the end of a prolonged illness, the research of Art as Vehicle continues at the Pontedera Workcenter, with Richards as Artistic Director and Biagini as Associate Director. Grotowski's Will declared the two his "universal heirs," holders of copyright on the entirety of his textual output and intellectual property.


  • Towards a Poor Theatre (Introduction by Peter Brook) (1968)
  • The Theatre of Grotowski by Jennifer Kumiega, London: Methuen, 1987.
  • At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions by Thomas Richards, London: Routledge, 1995.
  • The Grotowski Sourcebook by Lisa Wolford and Richard Schechner, London: Routledge, 1997.
  • A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer by Eugenio Barba (2001)


  1. ^ The New York Times
  2. ^ Jerzy Grotowski (19 June 2004). "Source Material on Jerzy Grotowski's Statement of Principles". Owen Daly. Retrieved 2008-09-18.

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