To Open a Person: Song and Encounter at Gardzienice and the Workcenter
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To Open a Person:
Song and Encounter at Gardzienice and the Workcenter

Gardzienice and the Workcenter

Thanks to the pioneers of modern dance and physical theatre, many strong connections have been drawn between actor training and the study of movement practices and body-work. It is now common for schools and theatre ensembles to incorporate yoga, martial arts, contact improvisation, and body-alignment techniques into their training programs. Far less often are such connections drawn between acting and song. Voice work, even in experimental theatre, tends to focus on sound, breath, and resonance apart from song; and the two mainstream genres of song-based theatre in this country—opera and musical theatre—tend to be commercially oriented and to place greater emphasis on production values than on the interior aspects of acting. As a result, few training programs or theatre companies in the United States actively investigate the relationship between singing and acting, or between song and action.1

My aim in this article is to expose and begin to heal the rift that exists in this country between the study and research of acting techniques and that of singing, especially group or choral singing. With this goal in mind, I will describe and contrast two formally and historically related though essentially very different European groups that have done pioneering work in experimental performance: the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices in Poland, and the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Italy. These two groups have been working at the junction of song and performer training for decades.2 In each of them, the demand for virtuosic singing skills is an integral part of an ongoing exploration of actor training. This ongoing research relates not only to technical training, but also to the more delicate question of “how to open a person”—that is, how to help a performer develop the ineffable qualities that are variously called honesty, believability, or presence.3

I spent two years in Poland (2003–05), first as a performer and apprentice with Gardzienice and then as a Fulbright Fellow at the Grotowski Centre (now called the Grotowski Institute) in Wroclaw. My experience with the Workcenter is as follows: I witnessed its work in Pontedera, Vienna, and Wroclaw, and participated in a three-week practical seminar with the full team in Moscow and a one-week workshop with Associate Director Mario Biagini in upstate New York. In all of these contexts I was present as a practitioner rather than as a scholar; in other words, I was expected to participate in the work rather than to analyze or articulate it verbally. This article is intentionally written from that perspective.4

Gardzienice was founded by Wlodzimierz Staniewski in the late 1970s and continues to operate under his direction today. The Workcenter was created by Jerzy Grotowski in 1986 and is now led by Thomas Richards, who worked with Grotowski from 1985 to 1999 and became his designated artistic heir. Both Gardzienice and the Workcenter maintain physical centers in relatively remote locations: the former in the tiny Polish village near Lublin for which it is named, and the latter outside the Italian town of Pontedera. Staniewski and some of the other founders of Gardzienice [End Page 205] worked closely with Grotowski during the 1970s until breaking from him in 1976 to form their own group. To this connection may be traced some of the most basic similarities between Gardzienice and the Workcenter, such as the premise of long-term ensemble work and a commitment to the highest levels of physical and vocal precision in performance. Both groups have created a very small number of works, each of which is developed and performed over a long period of time—sometimes more than a decade.5

Beyond these basic connections, the methods and missions of Gardzienice and the Workcenter are extremely divergent. In fact, it would hardly make sense to discuss them together if not for one additional commonality: the deep, extended relationships they have each cultivated with old and for the most part anonymous sources of choral song. Gardzienice worked for well over a decade with traditional Ukrainian and Polish folksongs, and then with medieval...