When theatrical visionary Jerzy Grotowski died last month at 65, he left a long and distinguished legacy. Obituaries lumped him with Stanislavsky and Brecht and likened the Polish director to a Zen master. For a generation of experimental theater artists who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, the importance of Grotowski’s work and teachings is undeniable. Joseph Chaikin, the Living Theater, Mabou Mines, Andrei Serban, and Richard Schechner are among many who made pilgrimages to Poland or worked with him during his visits to the U.S.
But for artists under the age of 45, it’s a different story. They never saw his work, since the Polish Laboratory Theater last performed in the U.S. in 1973, and the director stopped doing traditional theater altogether in the mid ’70s. Their connection to Grotowski is second- or thirdhand: Maybe they were exposed to his teaching methods in an undergraduate theater course— remember the infamous cat-stretch
exercise?— or heard André Gregory’s rather bizarre account of one of the director’s later “paratheatrical encounters” in a Polish forest in the film My Dinner With André.
Most members of the younger generation found out about Grotowski by thumbing through his long-out-of-print collection of essays, Towards a Poor Theater. They read about his belief in a “holy” theater— work that was spiritual and ritualistic. They probably also read such solemn platitudes as “We can define the theater as what takes place between the spectator and actor. All the other things are supplementary. The ‘Rich Theater’ [that is, most Western theater that is not Grotowski’s] depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles [and] conglomerates without backbone.”
These sentiments may have had resonance in the ’60s, but in our high-tech, image-driven, short-attention-span world they sound, well, a little quaint. In an atmosphere where many younger artists look to the television monitors of the Wooster Group or the tape loops of Richard Foreman for inspiration, it’s hard not to think that Grotowski’s Poor Theater may belong to an older, gentler time.
“When I survey the scene in the last decade,” says Target Margin director David Herskovitz, “a lot of the interesting things don’t have a hell of a lot to do with him. And the idea that the encounter between the actor and the audience is the essential element is not exactly a view I share. You could say that what’s essential is presenting a text in a faithful way. Or you could also argue that the core of the theatrical experience can be a bunch of different elements— sound, video, actors, whatever— that are put together for an orchestral effect.
“That austere approach can be a beautiful thing,” the director continues, “but as an artistic matter, it’s rather hermetic. At its worst, it can be annoying and inspire a kind of zealotry. Obviously, Grotowski agreed, because at a certain point he just quit.”
“I agree with his idea that all you need is an actor— that theater’s about the connection between the performer and the audience,” says Anne Dudek, the 23-year-old star of the recently closed Iphigenia Cycle, directed, coincidentally, by onetime Grotowski student JoAnne Akalaitis. “I’m an actor, so naturally I believe that’s the important thing. But still, there’s nothing wrong with establishing a good balance. All this technology we have at our fingertips— video, lighting, sound— are just elements that
assist the actor.”
It’s also obvious that in the ’90s, Poor Theater is not really a choice at all, but an unfortunate necessity to younger artists. Rather than embrace the poverty (after all, how many times have you sat through shows on the Lower East Side where the main technical elements were clip lights and Duvatene?), many do everything they can not to let their work look “poor.” That distresses playwright Ruth Margraff. “I see this thing in experimental theater a lot where there’s this supposed elegance to it,” she says. “The thing is, work that’s more ragged and raw is a lot more difficult to stomach. It’s like watching a bum come up and ask for money. Still, I love that ragged poverty.”
And where can you see that kind of ratty energy nowadays? “Maybe with the punk kids on St. Mark’s Place,” she says. “Not in a theatrical setting, that’s for sure.”
Still, there’s something attractive about Grotowski’s theories, particularly in as cynical a climate as the contemporary New York theater environment. “People have this reaction to Grotowski, like, ‘Oh, that’s just therapy, and therapy is indulgent,’ ” says actor Steve Ratazzi, who once studied with Ryszard Cie´slak, Grotowski’s principal actor. “As if it’s all bullshit. But it’s not. It’s about process. And unfortunately, the New York theatrical scene is very antiprocess right now.”
In this kind of atmosphere, Grotowski’s naive belief in the passion and the “holiness” of the art can seem not only invigorating, but downright radical. “Don’t get me wrong,” says playwright C.J. Hopkins, “I don’t care for gurus of any stripe, and I don’t believe in secret mysteries, but I do believe there is such a thing as the sacred. I do think that the world is changed in our every act. And any artist who attempts to remind us of that, regardless of whatever pretentious horse dung he leaves in his wake, has contributed something important.”