Jerzy Grotowski

The central idea behind Grotowski’s work, articulated in Towards a Poor

Theatre, is the formulation of a “Poor Theatre. First, he talks about the necessity of actor-spectator interaction, without which theater cannot exist. Then, he discusses the antithesis of what he seeks: “Rich Theatre – rich in flaws.” He writes that such theater has become too enamored with design, that it glorifies the spectacle of elaborate sets, lighting, and costume at the expense of the human on-stage. The next flaw in theater was that it began to desperately try to emulate the advantages that TV and film had over it. This, theater could not do.



Grotowski, standing “athwart history yelling ‘Stop,’” cuts such nonsensical

overreach short with one simple sentence: “No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television.” Theater, he argues, can’t replicate the conventions of TC and film, and it would be well-advised to stop trying.


His alternative? He proposed “poverty in theatre.” He wanted to constantly

change the acting space and open up “an infinite variation of the performer-audience relationships.” The variations ranged from acting amongst the audience and engaging with them to arranging the audience above them, “like medical students watching an operation.” One particularly compelling arrangement occurred in a “monastery refrectory” for Dr. Faustus’ last supper. The audience was treated as dinner guests of the damned one.



For Grotowski, though, this “elimination” is not an end in itself. “The essential concern is finding the proper…relationships…and embodying the decision in physical arrangements.” These “physical arrangements” meant prioritizing the actor’s skills over the set, lighting, costume, and make-up. This prioritizing created a “striking theatrical transubstantiation,” whereas the others qualify as “merely a trick.” Money quote: “The acceptance of poverty in theatre, stripped of all that is not essential to it, revealed to us not only the backbone of the medium, but also the deep riches which lie in the very nature of the art-form.”



Grotowski spoke of his influences, “from Stanislavski to Dullin and from

Meyerhold to Artaud,” as helping him to “realize that we have not started from scratch but are operating in a defined and special atmosphere.” His work was not a break from Stanislavski, but the next logical step. His other influences include “Delsatre’s investigations of extroversive and introversive reactions…Vaktanghov’s synthesis….oriental theatre – specifically the Peking Opera, Indian Kathakali, and Japanese No Theatre.” Lisa Wolford, in “Grotowski’s Vision of the Actor,” writes that the young Grotowski admitted to being “possessed” by Stanislavski’s ideas. Like Stanislavski, he sought to “help the actor live more truthfully on stage;” that any difference betwixt the two amounted to nothing more than their “respective perceptions

of how that ‘truth’ might best be expressed within an aesthetic framework.” Grotowski viewed his work as picking up where Stanislavski left off in the “domain of physical actions.”


Grotowski’s concept of the “Via Negativa:” he refers to this concept as “not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks,” that is, an elimination of the obstacles that stifle or block an actor’s creative expression and ability. We react immediately to stimuli within our environment. But, young actors still retain that split-second of “acting” thinking that delays and “true” response. The actor must overcome this via a “complete stripping down…laying bare one’s own intimity,” to “achieve a freedom from the time-lapse between inner impulse and outer reaction,” so that “impulse and action are

concurrent.” Another technique he spoke of was the “hidden structure of signs” in “contradiction,” wherein what is coming out of a person’s mouth is totally negated by their body language.


One of the things that struck me the most was his description of what constitutes “acting naturally” because of my research for A Piece of My Heart. He writes that when a person is in “a moment of psychic shock, a moment of terror, of mortal danger or tremendous joy,” that person does not “act naturally.” Too true. Animal instinct, millions of years of evolutionary programming, takes over. In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the body does not recognize the difference between an event and a particularly vivid memory of an event. Both trigger the same fight or flight response. The body undergoes the same tactile and neurological responses it had to the original event.

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 12:25 am  Comments (1)  

Peter Brook

One of the most compelling and challenging aspects of Brook the director is his willingness to try to create a “global” theater that partakes of all cultures. He talks of ritual theater, the “life” which he “believes exists beneath theatrical forms,” as Lorna Marshall and David Williams write. In this I see the Rise of Man, when our ancestors first acquired the idea of “I am.” I see the cave paintings in France with children’s footprints in the corner. It is a circle, clearly, a ritualistic dance. I see the reliance on the body as well as the mind, because our ancestors required gestures, not having sufficiently formulated a cohesive spoken language. What is challenging for me is how such a smart man can occasionally seem tone-deaf, like with The Mahabharata. Though I am certain his critics were too harsh, he didn’t help with his comment about the “flavor” of the East. Does sound a bit Rudyard Kipling.

            Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research “has been driven by the desire to discover what makes theatre ‘immediate’ (or ‘un-deadly’).” He has approached each production with, as it were, a fresh pair of eyes. He experiments with theorists like Brecht and Artaud, with cultural conventions like “Japanese Noh, Balinese Topeng, African storytelling and dance, [and] English and Polish classical theatre,” Marhsall and Williams write.

            Brook has displayed a wide interest in theater theorists: he chooses whichever one is right for a particular production, and abandons them as necessary. His Brechtian influence, for instance, led him to rite in The Empty Space that it is “only through detachment that an actor will see his own clichés….In a way, the most powerful feature of the Brecht actors is the degree of their insincerity (emphasis added).” He wrote that companies “must saturate themselves in Brecht, study the Ensemble, and see all those factors of society…to reconsider their attitude to the darkness of the individual man.” His Shakespearian influence led him to return to the world of the Elizabethan stage, wherein words, description, and suggestion gave all the necessary setting. It was a “neutral open platform,” he wrote, that provided the “greatest freedoms.” Shakespeare, like Brook, presents the whole man: at once good and bad, kind and cruel, deceitful and truthful, altruistic and sociopathic. He warns in his writing about the dangers of performing Shakespeare always in a declamatory style, even in the simplest of phrases. Also striking and useful is the idea of shortening his passages to capture the essence of the sentence, and adding in the decorative prose later. His forays into Artaud were as much a Pavlovian audience experiment as a production of a play.

            Something else that really struck me about The Empty Space was a sort of confirmation of an already-held belief on my part. Brook, in discussing actors, wrote that “if the system dictates the employing of actors one doesn’t know, one is forced to work largely by guesswork.” I have great expectations of seeing the local talent at whatever regional theater I work. However, it is very comforting to me to know that I have an entire stable (hee hee – professional wrestling terminology) of Brooklyn College actors whose skills I have repeatedly seen. I’m sure most of them would be open to the idea of travel and some time spent away from New York.

            I think what Brook represents for the future of theater is what theater needs, and has always needed, most: experimentation. He has shown an eagerness to experiment with theatrical models of all cultures, and is wedded to no one model. He even acknowledged such an attitude when he wrote: “As you read this book, it is already moving out of date.”

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart”

(For my nephew, currently serving somewhere he can’t tell us. Godspeed, thank you for protecting us, and get home safe.)


Shirley Lauro’s play A Piece of My Heart, was inspired by the book of the same name. It recounts the moving stories of women who served in various capacities in The Vietnam War. These women hailed from different regions, races, backgrounds and political views. What they ultimately ended up sharing was a harrowing experience in a war that had no front lines. Women served in various capacities: stenographers, cryptographers, finance clerks, intelligence officers, and Red Cross workers.


The Women’s Army Corps: 1945 – 1978 describes how difficult life for these women truly was. The first group of WACs were shipped over in such a hurry that they received no Vietnamese language training. WACs weren’t safe going to work. Transports could be blown up, the women were subject to attack, and anti-personnel devices littered the road and sidewalks. Gen. Jean Engler was the first to request small-arms training for the women if they were transferred to field installations. As in any war, breaks were found when possible. When a unit was de-activated, a “stand down” party was thrown to celebrate returning home.


Nurses in Vietnam soon learned the prevalence of Viet Cong booby-trap wounds. These often consisted of mines that were designed to maim from the waist down. Punji pits, covered holes lined with sharpened stakes and contaminated with urine and fecal matter, were also used and led to severe bacterial infection. The nurses were exposed to a daily dose of horror, often holding the hands of young soldiers whose life was slipping away. They could expect to work six and a half days for shifts as long as fifteen hours. 


Upon returning home, many were greeted with the same derision as the soldiers by the anti-war movement, though they had never fired a weapon at an enemy combatant. They had a greater risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, since women are twice as likely to get it as men. In PTSD, the body does not recognize the difference between an event and a particularly vivid memory of an event. Both trigger the same fight or flight response. Some estimates put the number of Vietnam Vets with PTSD at thirty percent. Until prompted by the General Accounting Office in 1983, the Veterans Administration provided no services for women because it viewed the number of women vets too small to be “feasible.” They also had to deal with exposure to Agent Orange. So-named because of the orange ID bands, Agent Orange was used to as part of an herbicidal warfare campaign to expose Viet Cong hiding spots. Agent Orange exposure can include spinal bifida in infants, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a number of skin cancers, and breast tumors. There is no known cure, and the lack of a consensus on it so contested, that a federal judge threw out a class-action lawsuit because of a perceived “lack of evidence.”       

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 12:18 am  Leave a Comment