Grotowski & Sacrifice


The following excerpts are from an interview with experimental director and dramatic theorist Jerzy Grotowski describing the nuances of his approach to the actor, the theater, and the audience.  

The interview is featured in his opus Towards a Poor Theater and titled The Theatre’s New Testament.

I have placed an emphasis on extracting and studying Grotowski’s perspective and emphasis on the actor as a sacrificial vessel.  Grotowski’s assumptions are in conflict with my own view of the actor’s work, but not to the degree that I reject his system in its entirety or deny that Grotowski has emerged with some revolutionary insights that have greatly influenced my own approach.

If the actor by setting himself a challenge publicly challenges others, and through excess, profanation and outrageous sacrilege reveals himself by casting off his everyday mask, he makes it possible for the s peculator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration.  If he does not exhibit his body but annihilates it, burns it, frees it from every resistance to any psychic impulse, then he does not sell his body but sacrifices it.  He repeats the atonement; he is close to holiness.  If sic hacking is not to be something transient and fortuitous, a phenomenon which cannot be foreseen in time or space: if we want a theatre group whose daily bread is this kind of work – then we must follow a special method of research and training. (Grotowski 34)

The difference between the “courtesan actor” and the “holy actor” is the same as the difference between the skill of a courtesan and the attitude of giving and receiving which springs from true love: in to her words, self-sacrifice.  The essential thing in this second case is to be able to eliminate any disturbing elements in order to be able to overstep every conceivable limit.  In the first case it is a question of the existence of the body; in the other, rather of its non-existence.  The technique of the “holy actor” is an inductive technique (i.e. a technique of elimination), whereas that of the “courtesan actor” is a deductive technique (i.e. an accumulation of skills). (Grotowski 35)

The actor who undertakes an act of self-penetration, who reveals himself and sacrifices the innermost part of himself – the most painful, that which is not intended for the eyes of the world – must be able to manifest the least impulse.  He must be able to express, through sound and movement, those impulses which waver on the borderline between dream and reality.  In short, he must be able to construct his own psycho analytic language of sounds and gestures in the same way that a great poet creates his own language of words. (Grotowski 35)

But the decisive factor in this process is the actor’s technique of psychic penetration.  He must learn to use his role as if it were a surgeon’s scalpel, to dissect himself.  It is not a question of portraying himself under certain given circumstances, or of “living” a part; nor does it entail the distant sort of acting comment o epic theatre and based on cold calculation.  The important thing is to use the role as a trampoline, an instrument with which to study what is hidden behind our everyday mask – the innermost core of our personality – in order to sacrifice it, expose it.

This is an excess not only for the actor but also for the audience.  The spectator understands, consciously or unconsciously, that such n act is an invitation to him to do the same thing, and this often arouses opposition or indignation, because our daily efforts are intended to hide the truth about ourselves not only from the world, but also from ourselves.  We try to escape the truth about ourselves, whereas here we are invited to stop and take a closer look.  We are afraid of being changed into pillars of salt if we turn around, like Lot’s wife.

The performing of this act we are referring to – self-penetration, exposure -d emends a mobilization of all the physical and spiritual forces of the actor who is in a state of idle readiness, a passive availability, which makes possible an active acting score. (Grotowski 37)

If I were to express all this in one sentence I would say that it is all a question of giving oneself.  One must give oneself totally, in one’s deepest intimacy, with confidence, as when one gives oneself in love.  Here lies the key.  Self-penetration, trance, excess, the formal discipline itself – all this can be realized, provided one has given oneself fully, humbly and without defense.  This act culminates in a climax.  It brings relief.  None of the exercises in the various fields of the actor’s training must be exercises in skill.  They should develop a system of allusions which lead to the elusive and indescribable process of self-donation. (Grotowski 38)

How do you combine spontaneity and formal discipline?

The elaboration of artificiality is a question of ideograms – sounds and gestures – which evoke associations in the psyche of the audience.  It is reminiscent of a sculptor’s work on a block of stone: the conscious use of hammer and chisel.  It consists, for instance, in the analysis of a hand’s reflex during a psychic process and its successive development through shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers in order to decide how each phase of this process can be expressed through a sign, an ideogram, which either instantly conveys the hidden motivations of the actor or polemizes against them.

This elaboration of artificiality – of the form’s guiding rein – is often based on a conscious searching of our organism for forms whose outlines we feel although their reality still escapes us.  One assumes that these forms already exists, complete, within our organism.  Here we touch on a type of acting which, as an art, is closer to sculpture than to painting.  Painting involves the addition of colors, whereas sculptor takes away what is concealing the form which, as it were, already exists within the block of stone, thus revealing it instead of building it up.

This search for artificiality in its turn requires a series of additional exercises, forming a miniature score for each part of the body.  At any rate, the decisive principle remains the following: the more we become absorbed in what is hidden inside of us, in the excess, in the exposure, in the self-penetration, the more rigid must be the external discipline; that is to say the form, the artificiality, the ideogram, the sign.  Here lies the whole principle of expressiveness. (Grotowski 39)

What do you expect from the spectator in this kind of theatre?

Our postulates are not new.  We make the same demands on people as every real work of art makes, whether it be a painting, a sculpture, music, poetry or literature.  We do not cater for the man who goes to the theatre to satisfy a social need for contact with culture: in other words, to have something to talk about to his friends and to be able to say that he has seen this or that play and that it was interesting.  We are not there to satisfy his “cultural needs”.  This is cheating.

Nor do we cater for the man who goes to the theatre to relax after a hard day’s work.  Everyone has a right to relax after work and there are numerous forms of entertainment for this purpose ranging from certain types of film to cabaret and music-hall, and many m ore on the same lines.

We are concerned with the spectator who has genuine spiritual needs and who really wishes, through confrontation with the performance, to analyze himself.  We are concerned with the spectator who does not stop at an elementary stage of psychic integration, content with his own petty, geometrical, spiritual stability, knowing exactly what is good and what is evil, and never in doubt.  For it was not to him that El Greco, Norwid, Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky spoke, but to him who undergoes an endless process of self-development, whose unrest is not general but directed towards a search for the truth about himself and his mission in life. (Grotowski 40)

Does this infer a theatre for the elite?

Yes, but for an elite which is not determined by the social background or financial situation of the spectator, nor even education.  The worker who has never had any secondary education can undergo this creative process of self-search, whereas the university professor may be dead, permanently formed, moulded into terrible rigidity of a corpse.  This must be made clear from the very beginning.  We are not concerned with just any audience, but a special one. (Grotowski 41)

There is only one element of which film and television cannot rob the theatre: the closeness of the living organism.  Because of this, each challenge from the actor, each of his magical acts (which the audience is incapable of reproducing) becomes something great, something extraordinary, something close to ecstasy.  It is therefore necessary to abolish the distance between actor and audience by eliminating the stage, removing all frontiers.  Let the most drastic scenes happen face to face with the spectator sot hat he is within arm’s reach of the actor, can feel his breathing and smell the perspiration.  This implies the necessity for a chamber theatre. (Grotowski 42)