- Jerzy Grotowski
James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta’s Jerzy Grotowski is an introductory guide to the work of the Polish director. Intended for readers with little or no previous knowledge of Grotowski’s career, it places in a single slender volume a concise overview of Grotowski’s personal and professional biography, key texts, and approach to directing; and an introduction to practical approaches to that work as interpreted by Slowiak and Cuesta (artistic directors of New World Performance Laboratory). Slowiak and Cuesta’s decision to include their own acting exercises (developed from principles derived from years of tutelage under Grotowski) is at once the most controversial and refreshing aspect of the book. [End Page 185]
Slowiak and Cuesta do not come to this material casually. Cuesta worked closely with Grotowski in Theatre of Sources, and on the paratheatrical project “Vigil,” led by Jacek Zmysłowski. Both Cuesta and Slowiak were “Technical Specialists” in Objective Drama, and contributed to Grotowski’s early work on Art as vehicle in Pontedera, Italy. Direct experience yields telling details that lift their narrative out of the realm of the dry and impersonal, offering context without devolving into mere anecdote. For instance, the book’s opening depiction of Grotowski’s appearance at the International Theatre Festival of Manizales, Colombia, in 1970—where he first publicly announced his decision to leave theatre behind—immediately de-centers Anglophone narratives of Grotowski’s radical shift to paratheatre (which tend to focus on Grotowski’s later appearance at New York’s Town Hall). It owes much to Cuesta’s perspective as a Colombian actor whose career has taken him to Poland, France (where he worked with Peter Brook), and the less exotic Ohio (home of New World Performance Laboratory).
The standard reference works for Grotowski’s personal and professional biography (Osiński 1986; Kumiega 1985) are out of date, having been published prior to the cataclysmic events of martial law that led to Grotowski’s departure from Poland in 1982, and consequently prior to his Objective Drama and Art as vehicle research. Grotowski’s own Towards a Poor Theatre can be daunting in its heterodoxy and soaring rhetoric, while The Grotowski Sourcebook is intimidating in its immensity. Jerzy Grotowski offers a skeleton key, summarizing key ideas of Grotowski (“impulse,” “contact,” “the score,” “associations,” “poor theatre,” “the holy actor”), and pointing the interested new reader to Towards a Poor Theatre and/or the Sourcebook, without attempting to replace them.
Like other books in the Performance Practitioner series, Jerzy Grotowski is divided into four main sections addressing personal biography, explanation of key writings, description of significant productions, and reproduction of practical exercises. In the first, “Biography and Context,” the authors accomplish the difficult task of providing a concise and accurate narrative, while offering a glimpse of the man behind the many masks of Jerzy Grotowski. If their account tends to smooth over contradictions rather than exploring them, that is appropriate to an introductory synthesis (as opposed to a scholarly critique).
The texts analyzed in “Grotowski’s Key Writings” are well-chosen, and their explication clear. The little-anthologized “Skara Speech” (drawn from Grotowski’s remarks to participants in an acting workshop in Skara, Sweden, in 1966) provides an excellent primer on his approach to acting during Theatre of Productions. Oddly, the section on “Grotowski as Director” is the least satisfying. Here, the book’s pragmatic “how-to” tone falls short. Slowiak and Cuesta’s analysis of Grotowski’s approach to the separate elements of text, space, costumes and props, actors’ facial mask and body, and soundscape in his landmark production Akropolis (premiere 1962) are adequate, but describing the parts of an elephant does not convey the essence of the living thing.
Their accounts of paratheatre and Theatre of Sources are short, simple, and accurate, if limited by space. Grotowski’s research on Art as vehicle is also given short shrift in this volume. The unstated inference is that Grotowski’s legacy as a director still rests primarily on his theatre work: or at least that the intended readership...