We Are Here to Tell the Truth

Moon Fool

From Lublin to London: actor Florence Isabel Brady considers the legacy of Jerzy Grotowski in contemporary theatre making

Cut to a miserable winter afternoon in Dalston. There is a cold church hall, warmly lit, around which we have been running and singing non-stop for the past few hours. It is, quite frankly, knackering. Our teacher moves amongst us, directing the flow of the activity, orchestrating our exhaustion, feeding and feeling our group energy, holding the space. Eventually, we think, we’ll get back to working on the play. Except, obviously, this is us working on the play. To quote Montell Jordan (a somewhat regular feature of my ‘get-going’ playlists from the period), 'this is how we do it'.

It had been very clear to me in the years leading up that moment that 'straight theatre' was of relatively little interest for me. My Head of Drama from college remains the biggest influence on my theatre tastes. Eschewing the classics, he took us to see Kneehigh, RashDash, Complicité – maverick and messy and desperately exciting to a naïve sixteen year-old. Red-ribbon entrails, books transforming into birds: I hadn’t seen much theatre up to that point, but straightforward realism never even got a look in. The moment in Complicité’s The Master and Margarita in which the actor playing The Devil was revealed to be the same actor as was playing The Master (a luminous Paul Rhys – I have a strong physical memory of pure awe), was the moment I knew my future had theatre in it and that it would be a theatre based in interdisciplinary experiment, in a working method that I would come to understand as ‘ensemble’, and as ‘laboratory’.

The route to that church hall in Dalston – the base for the MA Ensemble Theatre (Performer Training) course at Rose Bruford – began on another such sixth-form excursion, to see Polish company Teatr Pieśń Kozła’s (Song of the Goat’s) Macbeth. I remember the music, the whirl of skirts, the full-throated, hot-blooded performances. I was as enraptured as most of my peers were baffled. When I saw the company again with Songs of Lear (2015, at a pre-fire Battersea Arts Centre) and almost concurrently discovered that their gruff and gifted leading man was the director of an MA programme, it seemed fated that my scant audition funds would be directed that way. I got in. And then I learnt about Grotowski.

Jerzy Grotowski, born 1933 in Rzeszów, Poland, pushed consideration of the art of acting into new territory and his theatrical works – and the artistic manifestos born of them – has had an abiding influence on the international avant-garde. Paul Allain defined his influence on (total) theatre work when he wrote, in his 1999 obituary, 'Grotowski is a name that few… speak confidently yet this Polish theatre director is a central figure in 20th century theatre'. As students, we encountered him through his early collaborators and their inheritors, in particular Wlodzimierz Staniewski, who worked with Grotowski for a five-year period in the early 1970s before forming a breakaway group that is still active today (Gardzienice, founded 1977, whose former members have gone on themselves to form Pieśń Kozła, Kneehigh, and Moon Fool). In training, the fundamentals of the practice were deliberately never explained, only experienced – eschewing the intellectual for the physical.

The scope of his work is massive, but as I experienced Grotowski’s ideas in action in my training he came to mean these things: utmost seriousness; working with traditional song and other folk performance modes; working with an integrated body-mind, otherwise known as ‘psychophysical practice’, which tends to result in vocal and physical weirdnesses that are endlessly compelling; learning fearlessness, embracing frustration; the ensemble, and laboratory working conditions (closed, isolated); being tired – very, very tired.

Grotowski – or more accurately Grotowskian practice – has come to define my training, and is therefore a key component of my identity as an actor and performer, as Lecoq is to others. He is the forebear, the auteur-shaman who laid the foundations of my professional artistic development. My working language and my embodied understanding of my craft, is rooted in his legacy. That strange, secret room in Dalston contained something remarkably distinct: hours capturing a particular gesture from a particular Maya Deren film, days learning hymns in Hebrew and Icelandic, weeks finding the ritual at the centre of the work. Compared to friends and contemporaries at other drama schools, I had an undeniably unique experience, which I treasure as my strength, and my selling point. But the oddities have also proved exclusionary. What they have provided in artistic growth, they have proven to lack in cultural capital (at least, the culture that British acting agents can capitalise on). 

It is notable that some of the work marked as ‘Grotowskian’ has an undeniable oil-on-water relationship with many British audiences. Emily Ayres, in ‘Something Polish This Way Comes’ (23-1, spring 2011) was 'underwhelmed' by the same Macbeth that awed me. For her, there was evident beauty and skill in the piece, but if it proved that 'Grotowski was alive' in British theatres, it also proved that he was 'due some blasphemous reinterpretation'. Shows made in the shadow of his influence are often otherworldly – but in some cases that means they are interpreted as out-dated, alien, and inaccessible. Too foreign, perhaps. Because, of course, the man, the myth, the legend Grotowski is also just that old Polish bloke in a reproduced black-and-white photograph on the back of a dog-eared copy of Towards a Poor Theatre (featuring a foreword by Peter Brook) – scruffy haired and toting the ubiquitous cigarette, with a whiff of the beatnik and the Iron Curtain exotic. Both European and Experimental, it is undeniable that he occupies only the obscurest of niches in the pantheon of practitioners whose influence is felt, known and acknowledged in contemporary British theatre. More often than not, if I bring him up, I am met blankly with: 'who?'

As a recent graduate in a ruthless industry, this has left me in an interesting position, and is something with which I’m still trying to come to terms. My current travels in the Total Theatre archive, and ultimately this article, are an attempt to put myself into the context of other practitioners making theatre on the tiny sliver of the venn diagram where ‘British’ and ‘Grotowski’ intersect. As I’m finding, it’s a small island rich in creative tension. But there is also work, seeded there, that is provocative, playful, and popular. I will begin with the latter.

Emma Rice went to Gardzienice as an actor with Theatre Alibi (under the auspices of Ali Hodge, a long-time collaborator of Staniewski’s) and then returned for a few months as a performer at Staniewski’s behest (this was all before Kneehigh, of course). Katie Mitchell, too, spent a formative time there. 

It’s an astonishing place, a work centre built up from the rubble in rural Poland, couched in a spot of woodland between Lublin and the Ukrainian border. It is an all-consuming environment, in the best and worst of ways, designed to be a crucible: as Paul Allain writes (11–1, spring 1999), it is the product of 'an intense artistic quest… forged in the furnace of Communism and Catholicism, co-existent in post-war Poland'. Recently, in a particular fit of creative frustration, I considered abandoning my Camden haunt in favour of returning there for more training (having been part of a student programme there in 2016). A period of targeted deep-breathing was enough to realise that, at present, upping sticks is not the answer, and I was comforted to read that Rice, uninspired by her Britishness having been 'cracked open' by the Polish way of doing things, had spent her early twenties similarly 'just wishing I was Eastern European' (in interview with Duška Radosavljevi). She encountered, as I did, the 'very physical, European, autocratic system' at Gardzienice that produces 'phenomenal work, though at considerable cost to the individual’. And, while she did not remain, Rice’s work has been deeply informed by her experiences there. The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk was partly inspired by Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson’s expeditions to Belarusian villages whilst they were both working with the Polish company. Her rehearsal room emphasis on removing fear in her performers – as charted in ‘Emma Rice: Voices’ (19–3, autumn 2007) – and her Bakhtinian enjoyment of the carnivalesque, is fundamentally aligned with something essential at play in Gardzienice’s performances, which revel in the folk; in 'the fighting, farting, loving and fucking.'

The radical difference of Rice’s more recent work to the practice of her formative years is that it takes joy and silliness as its source, as well as its demonstrative love of play and popular culture (which, for Rice, is a defining feature of folk culture). Upon joining Kneehigh in 1994, there was a thrill in the chemistry between her newly acquired eastern European seriousness and their Commedia dell’Arte roots. She found 'a way of working that is based on joy, not on pain'. The music is that of the Bay City Rollers, not of Balkan lamentation. There is a whimsy and raw comedy to Kneehigh’s work, and Rice’s subsequent work with her new company Wise Children, that speaks to something particularly British, 'a level of saying ‘this is what I am, this is the culture I am in, but I am as passionate and I do care as much [about the art]’. (quotes from a Kate Kellaway interview in the Guardian, 1 July 2018) 

Intercultural adaptation is fundamental to understanding what, if anything, the legacy of Grotowski can mean in contemporary British theatre. It is also the central question of young artists like myself: how do we grow into our own artistry, acknowledging the physical and emotional impression that practitioners like Grotowski and Staniewski have left on us, but duly receptive and informed by our own culture, our own communities, our own selves? For example, Britain’s complex colonial history, multicultural identity, and new-found (for white people) yet deeply necessary awareness of cultural appropriation complicates a process central to much Grotowskian work: the expedition – a process by which the company undertakes a journey of ‘genuine engagement’ with a rural or indigenous community, to share art, but ultimately to research new performance material (Gardzienice, like Odin Teatret, can be classified as an 'anthropological theatre'). 

Another area of reassessment is ‘the laboratory’ – hermetically sealed and oftentimes geographically isolated, balancing aesthetics and economics. Is there a way to achieve the depth of investigation and the discipline of the laboratory setting, whilst embracing the realities of modern urban living and our technological interconnectedness? Furthermore, ensemble theatre in this mould is often the realm of the male autocrat, which I and many of my peers – predominantly women – are duly suspicious of. Emma Rice is a fine example of a theatre maker who has actively embraced these sorts of negotiations.

Another artist exploring these culture clashes through her practice is Anna-Helena McLean, who returned to the UK after ten years in the forest with Gardzienice to 'begin again… [choosing] a solo-driven path, running workshops to cultivate a new creative environment to find myself afresh as an independent actor, musician, and teacher’. (‘The Trestle Legacy’  18–2, summer 2006.)

I met Anna-Helena through one such workshop, having just returned from Gardzienice myself, and I now help her coordinate an annual international actor-training residency in Italy. In spring 2019, she performed a work-in-progress at Juju’s Bar and Stage in East London, a multi-arts venue in the heart of hipster Shoreditch and a stone’s throw from Brick Lane. The piece, Innana, was a fascinating example of Grotowskian/Staniewskian ideas and methodologies in tension and conjunction with divergent disciplines; an experiment pushing out and away from McLean’s theatrical heritage and into new, personal spaces. There were many identifiable elements from Gardzienice: the use of a codified gestural language (cheironomia) derived from millennia-old iconography; reconstructed ancient music; extended vocal technique; physical interactions with co-performer Danny Kearns based on the understanding and practice of ‘mutuality’. Nevertheless, it was startling and exciting in its departures. Despite the presence of Kearns and musician William Summers, Inanna was predominantly a solo work, and McLean’s 'Wigman-liek quality' (as Tom Wilson described it in his review of Metamorphoses and Electra, 18-2, summer 2006) was arresting in isolation. An ancient Sumerian hymn was daringly interwoven with original electronic composition. Between the exposed wires of the sound equipment and the undeniable ‘cool’ of the venue, it felt futuristic rather than antiquated (the subject of the piece is the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna’s descent into the Underworld – the prototype of the Persephone myth – in keeping with McLean’s recurring interest in female transmutation), a sense that it was tapping into the transcendent euphoria of a warehouse rave rather than a Bacchanal.

Peter Brook referred to Grotowski’s theatre as 'Holy Theatre' (as referenced in Paul Allain’s obituary  ‘Jerzy Grotowski, 1933–1999’ ). As an audience to Gardzienice and to Teatr Pieśń Kozła, I have certainly felt privy to something approaching the sacred – that rare sparkle found in the truly exceptional live arts. Thus, whilst I have spent the majority of this piece exploring points of departure from the Polish avant-garde, I want to end by extolling its rare virtues. The actors, centred at the bleeding, beating heart of it all, are truly some of the most accomplished, dedicated, and disciplined performers I have ever had the pleasure of watching, and the privilege of being able to meet and learn from many of them is something I carry with me every day. And, as Cassie Werber writes in ‘The Crying Game’, an interview with the Teatr Pieśń Kozła’s artistic director Grzegorz Bral, if the British theatre industry feels like it 'takes its impetus from a business model rather than an artistic perspective… it is not difficult to see why [their] intensity, commitment and extraordinary coordination… stands out’. And, small as their niche is, their presence here is enduring: Pieśń Kozła has been programmed at Shakespeare’s Globe June–July 2019.

Like all actors and makers, my ultimate goal is to be part of the creation of something artistically viable and economically sustainable. Adaptation is the key to that. I am finding, for example, that the principles of my training and the style of performance to which it is aimed does not preclude me from more ‘typical’ work: my most recent gig required very naturalistic character acting and, whilst my musical-intuitive approach to performance was in its roots a gulf apart from my scene partner’s commitment to psychological mapping, we found an easy synchronicity and an exciting dynamism that I am excited to revisit when we have a long run next year. 

Grotowski, in Reply to Stanislavski  (1983) wrote that ‘we are all a product of the meeting of our tradition with our needs. There are things that one cannot transplant from one place to another without falling into clichés, into stereotypes, into something that is already dead the moment we call it into existence'. And he is right, of course. Ours is not to repeat or derive but, through experimentation, collaboration, failure and false starts, to find the cutting edge and keep it sharp. Yes. This is how we do it.

Referenced Artists