As I write this blog, my predominant emotion is curiosity: I am wondering how you feel as you read it. Specifically, I’m curious how you feel about Grotowski. He has always been a divisive figure in the world of theatre and performance, from his first days in the international spotlight in the early 1960’s. He seems to invoke either adulation, or outright rejection. Richard Shechner famously called him “shape-shifter, shaman, trickster, artist, adept, director, leader”. If you are willing to satisfy my curiosity, and tell me how you feel about Grotowski, then read on.
In the process of my own research and writing on this subject, I have been inviting participation and personal testimony from anyone who feels that some aspect of Grotowski’s work has had an impact on their own practice. If you would like to make contact and contribute, you can do that by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a page of “prompt” questions. Alternatively, you can visit my Facebook page: Grotowski/Kumiega: Re-Write https://www.facebook.com/Grotowski.Kumiega/
At the beginning of the build-up of his international reputation, Grotowski was still a youthful director, just 30 years old. He was bursting with ideas that challenged mainstream theatre and mainstream culture, and he was desperately trying to keep afloat a small experimental theatre company, in a small parochial town, during the bleak grey days of communist control and suppression in Poland. How he achieved that – between 1959 (when he established his theatre) and 1984 (when his company disbanded following the imposition of Martial Law in Poland) – was the subject of my book The Theatre of Grotowski, published by Methuen in 1985.
I first saw the work of Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre in Poland in 1972, and the experience radically transformed me and my life. At the time I was a drama student at Manchester University. I had heard about Grotowski, and I had read his only work in English: Towards a Poor Theatre. I remember that I had no great anticipation as I entered the Laboratory Theatre performance space in Wroclaw. One hour later I walked out in a state of shock: everything I had understood about theatre – its practice and its purpose – had been stood on its head. I wanted to understand how and why. So, between 1972 and 1981 I undertook active research with the Laboratory Theatre – mostly in Poland and Italy.
When The Theatre of Grotowski was first published in the UK and USA, it made the work and words of Grotowski widely accessible to the English-speaking world. Now Bloomsbury has asked me to do a new edition of the book, to bring it up to date.
Working on the re-write has been a fascinating process. It has thrown into sharp relief the radical changes that have taken place on so many levels, which impact on the subject of my book. At a geopolitical level, the Iron Curtain – the presence of which overshadowed all my practical research trips to Poland between 1972 and 1981 – has been literally torn down. Communication and knowledge exchange has been transformed, making research materials potentially available at the flick of a finger.
One of the most striking areas of change relates to the position that theatre, drama, and performance research now hold within higher education. When I decided in 1969 that I wanted to study Drama at University, there were only four universities in England offering it as an Honours subject (Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and, I think, Hull). Now there are countless drama, theatre and performing arts departments across the UK and the USA, and the academic terrain they cover has seen exponential growth over recent decades, as inter-disciplinary approaches world-wide open countless new doors into new fields of theory and praxis. Which brings me effectively back to my subject – Grotowski – since perhaps his greatest skill and legacy was precisely in crossing boundaries into unknown terrain.
I would like to make one thing clear: my purpose in doing this re-write is not to re-erect, or burnish up effigies from the past. Nor is it about some academic pursuit of stitching together previously un-recorded facts and snippets about historic practice. Instead, I hope to test, from a contemporary perspective, some of the fundamental principles and the central vision that drove Grotowski’s search throughout his life (the itinerary of the search was his, but the principles and understandings he arrived at may have continuing value). It is also my intention, by providing an overview of developments during the past three decades, to identify and chart some of the threads within contemporary performance work and cultural research that are the living legacy of his life-work.