At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions
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At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions

Thomas Richards

  1. 152 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions

Thomas Richards

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`I consider this book a precious report that permits one to assimilate some of those simple and basic principles which the self-taught at times come to know, yet only after years of groping and errors. The book furnishes information regarding discoveries which the actor can understand in practice, without having to start each time from zero. Thomas Richards has worked with me systematically since 1985. Today he is my essential collaborator in the research dedicated to Art as Vehicle.' - from the Preface by Jerzy Grotowski

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I left to work with Grotowski without really understanding my reasons for going. Faced with my ego, I had difficulty justifying the trip: Grotowski had been so tough on me in Italy I guess different forces were driving me. I needed personal discipline. Grotowski was right, through laziness and impatience I just made moves to the side in my work. I always thought, however, this came from the fact that I had not yet found the right thing to do. I still think there is some truth in that. I had taken saxophone very seriously up to a point, and then stopped working. I did not have the incentive to break through to a level of total domination of the instrument because something inside me had said, this is not your place. From that point on, I relied on youthful energy alone to carry me through jazz sessions in which I improvised. But that worked less and less. The older I became the more the demand grew for quality of craftsmanship.
Grotowski touched on this point many times when speaking about the question of “tourism.” When you are young, he said, people let you get away with not having true technique because your energy is fresh and charming. Here, Grotowski always instanced Zeami’s expression: the “flower of youth.” But woe to you if you pass out of the “flower of youth” without developing the “flower of craft,” the flower of mastery. It’s like the story of the shoemaker, Grotowski said. When the shoemaker is young, people watch him work and exclaim, “What a beautiful shoemaker, how full of life!” A few years later, however, they start to demand, “But
these shoes? The quality of the shoes?”
This was clearly my case. In my “flower of youth,” I had some sort of flame and this carried me when my craft was still undeveloped. When I first worked with Grotowski in California, right after university, I was still in the “flower of youth,” riding on its charm. One year later in Italy, however, Grotowski began demanding to see the quality of my “shoes,” but there was none. I had not developed any capacity.
I now know that in Botinaccio that summer, Grotowski was asking himself: “In this year away from me has Thomas gained or lost?” He was seeing that I had almost completely lost the “flower of youth,” and had not gained anything on the level of the “flower of craft.” Grotowski saw me at a crucial moment in which I would either make or break my artistic life. I am deeply indebted to him for how hard he was on me that summer; his strong criticisms were exactly what I needed. Without that kind of blow, I would have gone on behaving like someone still in the “flower of youth” when that flower had already wilted, and as time passed, I would have had less and less force to build anything; and then, enamored of my past youth, I would have spent my time uselessly trying to recapture it, never reaching mastery in anything. I would have become completely dilettante.
When Grotowski spoke about the “flower of youth,” he often stressed that this special time must not be wasted. By its nature it does not last very long, for some people a little longer than for others, but when it fades it vanishes swiftly. From one day to the next that flower could be gone. In the traditional way of development, you should already have in hand the “flower of mastery” by the time the “flower of youth” dies. Therefore, the “flower of youth” should not be wasted by passing from explosion to explosion, as I was doing, but its force and vitality utilized consciously in order to construct the “flower of craft.”
In the year I worked in New York as an actor—in that short year—I had started to become old. At the time, this I could not see. When I had first gone to work with Grotowski in California, I had just left the undergraduate university system, and even though this system has a lot to be contested, it structured my life, keeping me active and under some stress, raising my level of energy. The year I spent in New York, I had no such rigorous structure. My body and mind in one crucial year became immersed in a very heavy inertia; there was no structure to keep me alert. The work I did in theatre was not demanding, the schedule never lasted more than eight hours a day, and much of my time I wasted waiting and being passive. Because of this passivity, I had aged drastically: from one year to the next, I had become a different person, of a much lower quality, and did not even know it. Grotowski’s shock to me at Botinaccio was like a last signal, a warning sign I could either accept or reject. Much was at stake that summer which would indicate the path of my future life.
Yet something in me was alive enough to realize that I did not have the discipline to break through to a higher level of craft. I was lazy, and the only person I knew who would surely put the needed demands on me to break this laziness, was Grotowski. From the short time I had worked with him, I saw that he asked for total commitment from his colleagues. No limitation was set on our daily schedule—sometimes lasting fifteen hours or more— and often the work was quite physically strenuous.
When it spoke, which was often, my wounded ego did not completely accept the work with Grotowski: it had difficulty tolerating this man who had been so tough on it. But something much deeper in me really wanted my work with Grotowski to succeed. I set out for California.
The Objective Drama Program had no funding to pay us. So, upon arriving in California with almost no money, I found a job as a cashier at a local mall to pay my apartment and expenses. That job I worked about five hours a day; then I would go home for a quick nap before the car from Grotowski’s Program would drive by to take me down to Irvine, where we would work into the night, normally from six in the evening until about two in the morning. The schedule was tough and I was almost continually exhausted. This did not discourage me, however. I found it invigorating after the last year I had spent in New York where work was inconsistent. Because of this full schedule, some interesting changes also manifested themselves in my sleeping: whenever I would arrive home, the instant my head hit the pillow I would be fast asleep.
That year, the work with Grotowski centered on what would later come to be called the “Main Action.” It took one year for this “Main Action” to be completed and, while we worked, its gradual formation seemed inexplicable to me; at the time it seemed as if everything molded and modified itself like in a dream. There were nine of us in the “performance team” at the Objective Drama Program. “Performance team” seemed rather a strange term to describe us because, to my knowledge, we were not going to give performances. The name did serve well one purpose, however: it silenced my ego which still really wanted to perform and had difficulty accepting the idea of pure theatre research. The name “performance team” kept it quiet, dreaming that maybe someday there would be a performance.
Besides the other elements of work, the “performance team” started to do a training, mainly a physical and acrobatic training, based on exercises that one of the “team” members had learned in Poland with the Laboratory Theatre. These exercises seemed designed to get our group into general physical condition which lacked in some members, especially myself.
Years later, Grotowski told me that the work involved in the creation of the “Main Action” had served as a trap for me. Grotowski was looking for someone who he would try to teach and with whom he would work directly. Still unsure as to who he would concentrate his efforts on, he used this year and this “Action” as a trap to find the right candidate. Of course, at the time none of us knew this. Or at least I was not aware of it.
Each day we did Motions, a very demanding exercise coming from the Theatre of Sources (in the last period of the Laboratory Theatre). Then and after, Motions was gradually transformed and reelaborated. The structure of Motions was filtrated between 1979 and 1987. After 1987 the structuration was finalized, based on minute details. I learned the initial structure of Motions during the two-week workshop I attended at the Objective Drama Program in 1984. Ever since, Motions has remained a stable element of our work.
As our ability to do Motions grew, little by little it had to become more precise. Motions is in part an exercise for the “circulation of attention,” so when certain elements after many years became easy for us to execute, a new level of precision had to be added to make the exercise again a challenge. Indeed, the work on Motions was, and still is, in progress. There exist many levels on which it can be executed. I now describe the work on Motions and a few of the possible mistakes involved.
Motions is a series of stretches/positions of the body. Its structure is fairly simple, and on its first superficial level can be taught quickly. In a brief work session of four days, for example, a participant might learn this first superficial level and leave the session mistakenly thinking he has actually learned Motions. He might think he now knows how to do something practical and simple, and then assume that the next step is to go and teach Motions. Later, when we were conducting selections in Italy, even if we had informed the candidates about this possible misunderstanding, some went on to give their own workshops “teaching” Motions, when in reality they had only worked with us for one week or less. Among such participants, some taught Motions in theatre schools, and others put the entire structure or fragments of it into theatre performances. In this way, the essence of the exercise is destroyed, and many mistakes are passed on.
Motions is deceiving; on the surface it seems very simple but it is not. To really approach even one of its elements, for example the “primal position,” each of us who now practices Motions has invested years of systematic work.
The “primal position” is the starting point of Motions, a position of readiness from which the body can move immediately in any direction. When I first learned Motions at Irvine, I was told that from the “primal position” I should be able to defend myself from attack. An assistant of Grotowski had taken me to the edge of the desert to teach me Motions, and the first thing he showed me was this “primal position.” When I saw him take this stance, I thought he looked like a little rocket about to take off, or a fighter plane in mid-flight soaring through the sky.
In his text, “Tu es le fils de quelqu’un,” Grotowski speaks of the roots of the “primal position”:
“Why do the African hunter of the Kalahari, the French hunter of Saintonge, the Bengali hunter, or the Huichol hunter of Mexico all adopt—while they hunt—a certain position of the body in which the spine is slightly inclined, the knees slightly bent, a position held at the base of the body by the sacrum-pelvis complex? And why can this position lead to only one type of rhythmical movement? And what is the utility of this way of walking? There is a level of analysis which is very simple, very easy: if the weight of the body is on one leg, in the moment of displacing the other leg, you don’t make noise, and also you displace in a continuous, slow way. Suddenly the animals cannot spot you.
But this is not the essential. The essential is that there exists a certain primary position of the human body. It’s s a position so ancient that maybe it was that, not only of homo sapiens, but also of homo erectus, and which concerns in some way the appearance of the human species.”13
There is no walking in Motions. The “primal position” in Motions involves a certain way of standing at precise moments during the course of the exercise.
With the exception of the “primal position,” Motions is a series of stretches. The stretches are simple (one can see some similarities to hatha yoga, but it is different). There are three cycles of stretches/positions. Each cycle is one specific stretch/ position executed four times, once toward each of the four cardinal directions; turning from one direction to the next is done standing on the same spot. Separating each cycle is a stretch called nadir/zenith, a quick stretch down followed by a quick one up.
When I learned Motions I was told that, when doing them outside, in the forest for example, I should not disturb the life around. Consequently, turning from one direction to another, I should do so slowly and silently, in a way that would not provoke any change in my surroundings. I noticed that if I made noise while turning, shuffling my feet for example, the song of the bird I was hearing was interrupted; the bird had probably stopped to hear what had happened. In that moment I knew I had disturbed. The turning should be done in such a way that I did not disturb, and in order to know if I was disturbing or not I should hear.
There is also a specific way of seeing in Motions. We were told not to “grasp” things with our vision: we should not see like sharpshooters with our eyes fixing upon an object, but see as if through a big open window. We should see what is in front of us.
At first I learned Motions superficially; the workshop at Irvine lasted only two weeks. When I went back to New York to act, I naïvely wanted to apply something of Motions in a performance. So I tried to use this type of “open vision” on the stage. The result was of course catastrophic; trying to apply something from Motions out of its context was a big mistake—I saw nothing. This “seeing nothing” can be a problem for those who do Motions for a short period of time. Motions is an exercise which can give results only if practiced almost every day, and in Motions one must continually fight against this “zombie look,” the dead eyes that see nothing. You must see what is before you and hear what is around you in each moment of the exercise. And in the same time be present to your own body: “see that you are seeing, hear that you are hearing.”
After we had practiced Motions for some years, the structure became more easy for us, so we had to make it more exact in order that the exercise could once again be a trap for our attention. We started to concentrate on the synchronization of even smaller details, fighting to arrive at a level in which each of the small movements of the persons doing the exercise would be in total synchronization: each small impulsion, the angles of the bodies, the raising and putting down of the feet, etc.
A common mistake in Motions, which we always have to fight against, is when a stretch becomes replaced by a static position. Grotowski strongly corrects us when we “no longer stretch”: each position should be arrived at because we are stretching, not because we are “keeping the form,” an aesthetic position, with our body.
Besides Motions and the physical training, each day the “performance team” did something called “the River.” This was a flow of several different Haitian songs together with a dance and very simple improvised reactions. But the main thrust of our work went toward the creation of the “Main Action.” To arrive at this, each of us began working on small “individual structures,” based on fragments of a text thousands of years old, found in Egypt. The “performance team” members, however, never received from Grotowski any precise data about the origin of that text, or about the translators, etc. Grotowski still repeated: the text speaks by itself.
The work on the “Main Action” was organized as follows: one of the assistants, Jim Slowiak, led the group in finding and elaborating a structure. Grotowski himself, often not present in the beginning stages of work, would come in when we had prepared a draft to show him, or had accomplished some task he had given us. Jim, who functioned as Grotowski’s assistant director in the Objective Drama Program, conducted the practical day-today work with the “performance team.” A great burden lay on Jim: he would help us create and prepare the structures and then Grotowski would come in, make comments and corrections. We would then go back to work with Jim in order to make the needed revisions.
This period is reminiscent of the work Stanislavski conducted in the final period of his life, when he concentrated his attention on a small group of actors, not to create a performance, but to perfect the technique of those specific actors while working on Moliùre’s Tartuffe. In those rehearsals, Kedrov shouldered much responsibility, working with the other actors on assignments Stanislavski had given them. In fact Stanislavski, because of his failing health, was often not present. When the actors arrived at a certain stage in the rehearsals, Stanislavski would come in and work directly, making all of the needed corrections, pointing them in the right direction, making sure they understood where they had been mistaken. This process is clearly outlined by Toporkov in his book Stanislavski in Rehearsal. Our work in the Objective Drama Program was very similar. A great part of the responsibility fell on Jim, who to a certain extent had the task of making the “Main Action” appear.
As a “pretext” for creating the structure, we started with the “Watching” (described below). We departed from this initial base which through time would adapt and change, and as new elements appeared and were added, eventually the “Watching” itself was no longer recognizable. It had gradually disappeared as the “Main Action” appeared. It was an amazing process of transformation.
The “Watching” was like a very long game of “follow the leader.” It had a precise but loose structure of simple sequences, almost physical games, and was led by one person. All of the others had to follow in the tempo of the leader, but each in his own individual stream. The whole event had to be silent, no sounds from the floor and no sounds from breathing.
At that stage of the work the “Watching” had become a very difficult test of endurance, like a warrior’s game. It could go on for a very long time, and often afterwards everyone had large blisters on their feet from the movements and quick turns involved. During this first year I was always limping home to pop and disinfect foot blisters. Grotowski always said it was possible to do the “Watching” without getting blisters, but we had to discover the way. At the time, I did not believe him. After one year, however, I did stop getting blisters and now in the work I never do. He was right: the body had found its natural way of stepping.
In the “Watching,” my problem was to discover how to move silently. Especially during the sequence with dance, I always made an enormous amount of noise with my feet. Still interested in physical and emotional explosions, I would enter into a very big dance and inevitably stamp my feet. Afterwards, Jim would tell me how much noise I had made and I was shocked: I had not heard any noise at all, I thought I had been totally silent. I realized that, in order not to make noise, I would have to be attentive; but my attention was so dispersed that during the entire “Watching,” I might only have been truly hearing for some seconds. Right after we began, I would lose concentration and no longer be present in order to hear if I was making noise or not. My rate of attention was remarkably slow. Where did I go in these moments when I made noise and did not hear it? This became the key question for me.
Every day that we did the “Watching,” Jim would get angry at me for making noise. So as not to make noise, I would have to awaken my attention and watch (“watching,” in effect) all the time. Hence the name. From the “Watching” it was possible to see who was attentive and who not, who had quick attention and reactions, whose body was awake. The body, in fact, had to react to the propositions of the leader with lightning speed.
Jim also often accused me of not seeing in the “Watching.” It took me a very long time to be able to see anything, we were moving so fast. Often, though, I would just look down and go into “my own world,” which was part of my way of pumping. Whenever I tried to do something deep and intense I would disconnect from my partners and look down to the floor. Then from Jim always came the reaction, “Don’t look down!” This question of seeing was also part of the general waking-up process I needed. These games shocked one into being alert. Nevertheless, for a long time, I still lost contact with the others and the leader, drowning in those moments in my own thoughts. For someone who observed, my absence was apparent, but I, being lost, did not even know I was stamping my feet. It was as if I were fast asleep. When I remembered, and succeeded in not making noise and in seeing the others, it was as if I had woken up for a moment out of an inner stupor. Jim constantly fought for me to wake up and watch.
A few months into the work, Grotowski invited us over to his house, and showed us a typed copy of the ancient text(mentioned above), divided into small fragments. One after the other we went into an adjoining room to read the text alone, while the rest of us discussed and analyzed with Grotowski various details from the work. After we had all read the text, each of us selected two small fragments that were for him most meaningful. Grotowski then asked each of us to create a song for each of the two fragments we had chosen, and then with these two songs, to create two “individual structures”: something along the line of a “mystery play,” but now the song was to be of our creation; the words, those of the two fragments we had chosen from the ancient text.
I became scared. The work we had been doing up to that point was related to improvisation within a structure. I knew, however, that when Grotowski started to speak about “individual structure,” he was speaking of something that had to be precise and repeatable, like a mini-performance. And, of course, this would call for craftsmanship and the ability to repeat. I was flooded by fearful images as I remembered how I had failed so miserably in this domain the previous summer in Italy.
In order to compose the songs for these...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Preface
  8. Stanislavski and Grotowski: The Connection
  9. Ryszard Cieslak at Yale
  10. The Workshop at the Objective Drama Program
  11. In New York
  12. Grotowski Speaks at Hunter College
  13. The Work at Botinaccio: An Attack on Dilettantism
  14. One Year with Grotowski in Objective Drama
  15. At the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski
  16. Beginning Stages
  17. Grotowski Vs. Stanislavski: The Impulses
  18. “Realistic” Actions in Everyday Life
  19. Conclusion on “Realistic” Actions
  20. Notes
  21. References
  22. From the Theatre Company to Art As Vehicle