On the recommendations of a friend I worked with at Cortland Repertory Theatre this summer, I bought a copy of Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, from which I realized I stole some, if not all of my ideas for my last post. I’ve been reading it with some interest.
So, not one to let close reading or analysis stand in the way of putting my foot in my mouth, here are some initial thoughts.
It sure seems dour. This is theatre of the hairshirt and the flail. He constantly speaks of a “holy theatre” that requires sacrifice and self-immolation (that phrase “self-immolation” may actually be a quote. Can’t be bothered to look it up right now). A digging into the psyche and laying bare of the roots of action and emotion. My God. How many more times do we have to go through this? Perhaps, as so often happens with gurus (and especially acting gurus) there is a slight disconnect between the technique and the practice, but it sure sounds like he is a patriarch daddy-type who practices psychology without a license, putting his actors through the wringer in an effort to wrest great performances out of them. I have had teachers like this and I find them reprehensible. If Grotowski is of that stripe, I have no use for this technique of his. Good DAY, sir!
Well, this may be my own daddy-complex (often wounded by imperfect men and women who have experimented on me in their well-intentioned attempts to “mould” me) complaining. He may have aught to teach me, so I will keep reading, but I read with a skepticism that I did not possess when I was younger.
I have read about the great British actors, Olivier, Gielgud, and Guinness for example, and they had no recourse to such techniques, no need to put themselves through such fresh hell with every performance. The texts were tough enough, the physical demands plenty to engage and leave them worn out and frazzled. Perhaps that is what Grotowski speaks of, that the great Brits did unconsciously. Perhaps what helps to make the greats great is an emptying out. An engagement with the audience, with their fellow actors, and with the material that exhausts the mind and body, leaving a certain purity to shine through.
Regardless, when I was a Christian (or rather, when I was religious-mad), I would have taken to Grotowski’s theories like a drowning man takes to water. I loved the idea of sacrificing myself. I was all about that, and especially for art, love, “God”, or whatever. Now, I look on theories like this one with a certain distaste.
One of the things I love about theatre is that it is fun. Not fun in the sense of “Ha-ha, ho-ho, hee-hee, aren’t we having a wonderful time.” Fun in the sense of play, a concentrated engagement with the subject at hand that allows one to push oneself to the fullest. The way children play. Not forced, not straining and painful and “intense” but fun! I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.
Now, I know that, in many of the circles I run with, when I’m at work, I tend to be the less-fun guy. When everybody is getting goofy, starting to get slappy, I am the one saying “C’mon, guys, let’s just get through this!” Yeah, I’m that guy. Always have been. So when I say I’m having fun in theatre, to me that means doing the work as best I can, and being totally engaged and trying to become more than I am right now. Always striving. Even the failures and mistakes and wrong turns are part of the fun, for me. Everything else is just sorta distraction.
So perhaps there is something to the Grotowski fellow’s theories. I’ll keep reading and find out, but truthfully, what I’m looking for is something that treats the process, not as pain and suffering, but as play. It can be painful, of course, in much the same way that an athlete is in pain when he pushes himself in training, but pain is not the same as hurt, i.e. aches are not injuries, and hitting the wall and going on is not the same as vomiting up blood. Acting should not be an assault on the psyche of the actor. We’re not strip-mining. We’re panning. The river will bring us what we need.