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Exploring the Work and Legacy of Jerzy Grotowski with the Stories from the Eastern West Podcast, Part 2

Theatre History Podcast #72

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The Theatre History Podcast is proud to feature a two-part episode in partnership with Stories from the Eastern West, a fellow podcast that presents "little-known histories" from Central and Eastern Europe. 

outside of a stone building

The workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. Photo by Piotr Wolodzko.


  • To learn more about Stories from the Eastern West, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter

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Mike Lueger: The Theatre History podcast is supported by HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. It's available on iTunes, Google Play, and HowlRound.com.

Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. This is the second part of our two-part story on Jerzy Grotowski. So if you haven't listened to episode one yet, you might want to do that first. This episode has been co-produced with the Stories from the Eastern West Podcast. Their in-house producer Piotr traveled to Italy to uncover the full story about this enigmatic figure.

Mike: Hi, this is Michael Lueger, from the Theatre History Podcast.

Piotr Wołodźko: And I'm Piotr Wołodźko from Stories from the Eastern West.

Mike: Just to recap, Episode 1 finished with Grotowski being forced to leave Poland due to the imposition of Martial Law. Having had to give up everything he had been working on, he went to New York to stay with his friend Andre Gregory, and wasn't really sure what would be his next step. Would he find a way of carrying on the research he had begun in Poland, with the Theatre of Sources?

Piotr: He started lecturing at Columbia University, but soon enough Grotowski received an offer from the University of California in Irvine to continue his work there.

Mike: In this new phase called "The Objective Drama Program," Grotowski's team further refined the ritual movements and songs of tradition they had been researching, inviting experts in traditional practices such as Suffi whirling and Haitian singing to give demonstrations.

Piotr: The goal was to find which songs and movements in particular were objective, meaning that they should they have the same effect on every performer who used them.

Mike: Occasionally, groups of young actors from Yale University were selected to come to Irving to come to observe and take part. One of these young actors was Thomas Richards.

Thomas Richards: So I met him…it was strange because I was a young actor, I was in my early twenties. I even wanted to be a star. I didn't know whether I wanted to be a movie star or a Broadway star. But in any case, I had many of these kind of ambitions. And I went to work with Grotowski, who was not doing theatre anymore, which was very strange for me.

When I was hearing these songs of tradition, it had a kind of impact on me. A kind of calling. It awakened something inside of me. It gave me the sensation that I was hearing someone from my ancestry singing. And this was a very, very deep thing for me because I'm half black and half white. I come from a mixed family. I grew up in New York City, completely disconnected from every kind of African tradition. I went to a Jewish school. In fact, I wanted desperately somehow to be black, or to understand my blackness, but without any means to. And when I met this Polish man with a white beard who kind of looked like Santa Claus—Grotowski had a very big body—It was very bizarre and strange to encounter my African tradition somehow through him.

Mike: Richards eventually came part of Grotoswki's core team. As he explains, the two most important things that Grotowski passed to him were the work on acting and something they called "The Songs of Tradition."

Thomas: What is the work of the actor made up of? The capacity to live the same thing again and again and again and again, and each time it should be alive. It's very hard to do. So, in order to do that, we need to break down and make an analysis of human behavior, and our work needs to be on human behavior. Stanislavsky even said that, "An actor is a master of physical actions." Physical actions being not something just physical, that was a term he used, but it was…it's the smallest beats of human behavior.

Mike: And what about the Songs of Tradition? What are they exactly?

Thomas: They're designed to help a human being to recuperate contact with that which is hidden. Your daily life, my daily life, all of our daily life is made up fundamentally of a more superficial part of one's self. We smile before we really smile. We frown before we really frown. We pretend to be humble when we're not.

The song is a certain kind of call. And you're singing this song, and the words, you're not quite sure what it means, but you hear already in your mind a kind of intention that's inside the song…which are basically prayers. A way of relating yourself to something that's much greater than yourself.

And then a kind of process starts to appear, which is all these levels of your human nature, which are intensifying somehow through the work on the song. It starts to stack up like a ladder, one on top of the other on top of the other, and a kind of transcendence takes place. Grotowski used the term "verticality."

Mike: But this period in the United States was coming to an end. Grotowski was beginning to feel pressure from the university to present his work, which he wasn't prepared to do. His team needed a more permanent base, where they could continue their research unimpeded.

Ryszard Cieslak: After his funding ran out for Objective Drama, he was invited to the small industrial town Pontedera in Tuscany. So he had a strong connection to Italian scholars, to Italian practice, and he was given a base in a place called Vallicelli in an old wine store to work with a small group of actors on art as vehicle.

Thomas: Normal performances what we're working on are songs of tradition, and we're working on them inside precise performative structures that we create, which are kind of personal…not personal in a…but they're objective, but they're personal in the sense of they're made for the performers. They're made to have an impact on the performers, and then that work is witnessed. We're calling these kinds of works "actions."

Ryszard: Grotowski wants to reframe some of the terminology. So it's not "ordinance," it's "witness," it's not "actor," it's "doer." It's someone not being someone else, it's doing certain things in front of and with the witnesses. So it's research, investigating these songs, these techniques, putting them into a montage structure to create sequences of actions, exploring the work of the doer.

Mike: Grotowski's work on art as vehicle was made more difficult by his long-running health problems. But, as Richards explains, this did not deter him in any way.

Thomas: He was quite sick at the time that I was working with him. So he was an example of a kind of impeccability that was so strong. Literally, when you sat with him in a room or when you worked with him, you were working with a tiger. No question about it. You would not get out of the door, of the rehearsal door, if you had not accomplished the deepest, most high possible thing for you to do. You don't get out the door…And since his knowledge was undisputable, I had no question that I was in the hands of a true theatre master. And not only of theatre.

Ryszard: Grotowski knew he was dying. He'd always had very poor health, but the Italian period of his work, he knew he was dying. So he spent lots of time from 1985 till his death 1999 in the process of transmission—transmitting his knowledge and his experience to Thomas Richards who then carried that work on.

Piotr: I had probably gotten as far I could with Grotowski's story without visiting the Workcenter and experiencing the work for myself. I decided to hop on the very next plane to Italy.

As my plane took off from Warsaw Airport, I really didn't know what to expect. As it happens, my connecting flight to Pisa was delayed by ten hours due to airport strikes, and by the time I got to the old vineyard where the Workcenter has its home, it was pitch dark. It was only the next morning that I got to appreciate the place that Grotowski had founded thirty years ago.

Imagine orange Tuscan stone buildings surrounded by trees and meadows, green rolling hills, and mountains far off in the distance. It definitely seemed like the kind of place that Grotowsky would've spent his final years perfecting his life's work. I couldn't wait to see the performances that I'd only heard and read about, but first I wanted to talk to Thomas Richards and get him to tell me more about this place, and how it had developed such a reputation for secrecy.

Thomas: The Workcenter was founded in 1986, and let's say it was pretty much…we were pretty isolated. Grotowsky was inviting people to come see the work, but it was always five people at a time, one person and three months nobody, then another person. It was something very very…a very slow and gradual process, and this was important for different reasons. First, because Grotowsky wanted to be incredibly clear that he was not doing theatre anymore. He wanted there to be no confusion. Second, because we were young. We were young and we were working with Grotowsky, meaning we had everything to learn. That means we needed to be protected. We needed time to be able to climb a mountain really fast, and you can't even imagine…I guess you can imagine the expectation that people had when they came to see the work, you understand. The pressure was enormous. Voila, Grotowsky, who…the greatest director of the twentieth century, OK, he's done, he is power of theatre, he's done theatre of sources, now he's doing art as vehicle. Let's go see what it is. OK, here we come.

All of the so-called friends, right? Yes, many friends, but you know how things work.

Piotr: Jerzy Grotowski died on the thirteenth of January, 1999, at the age of sixty five after a long period of illness. His ashes were scattered at the sacred hill at Arunachala in Southern India, a place of great importance to Grotowski. As for the Workcenter, it now somehow had to continue without the man who had started the whole thing.

Thomas: We needed to realize certain things. First, we weren't Grotowski. We have a different destiny. What is our destiny? You see, because he had reached such an apex in his career as a theatre director, he could say to people, "OK, I'm not doing theatre. I'm doing pure research. Please give me funding," and he received that funding, enough to make the work go on. Who knew Thomas Richards? Who knew Mario Biagini, my colleague for the last thirty two years? Almost nobody. The few twenty people here and there who had come to see the work, who had been deeply impacted by the work, but we have almost no public persona also.

So what were we gonna do? We needed to recognize what was our family. Were we a religion? No, we're not a religion. We all come from different cultures, many different religions, we're not a religion. What are we? We are very strange, but we are performers. Our family is the performing arts. So, somehow we needed to create a logic that we exist. That means what? It means to be of use. So over the years since his death, we've constructed the ways that we are useful. And one of the ways that we are useful is to perform. The other way is through pedagogy. We teach, both giving experience of what it is to work on objectivity of ritual, but not pretending to teach people how to do that in a short-term situation, which is impossible. But we can teach them about theatre craft.

They're actors that are coming from around the world. Somehow they are very deeply, I see, drawn to this work on songs of tradition. They each have gifts. They're very gifted for this kind of work as well.

Piotr: One of the young actors I talked to was Lynda Mebtouche, a member of the Workcenter studio and residence.

Lynda Mebtouche: I am half-Algerian and half-French, so I was using some Algerian song, and it was really strong for me to enter in this territory. You go into the work and it's a question of life in some way. You need to do it, because you don't have tomorrow to do it.

Piotr: I also talked to Alejandro Thomas Rodriguez, a former member of the open program run by Mario Biagini, and now touring with his Latin influence rock group Engine.

Alejandro Thomas Rodriguez: This place was very very alive, and people were working very hard. You know, they have the work space that you can work eight hours per day, and dedicate yourself just to this, and this was exactly what I was looking for. And here I discovered this work singing, this very particular approach, and the theatre structure, the performative structure, contain this effervescence, this living flow, this life.

Piotr: Finally, I spoke to Thomas Richards' wife, Cécile. Originally from Belgium, she's been a member of the Workcenter for the past sixteen years.

Cécile Richards: We live here in the countryside, in a place we don't know. We don't have the family. Some people have family really far away. They live in very modest conditions. But every day, they come here and they are here. And they are ready.

Piotr: For people who come here to work at the center, must definitely make a lot of personal sacrifices to do so. Obviously this kind of intensive work and small group cut off from the rest of the world gives rights to suspicion for those from the outside, which I guess is something that Grotowski faced even in his early days in Opole.

Though it is hard to deny how much Grotowski achieved as a theatre director and teacher, his methods have also been called manipulative and dictatorial. Some performers, like Ryszard Cieslak, had a very hard time adjusting to a normal life after leaving Grotowski's close-knit team and the psychologically strenuous work they'd been doing.

Ryszard: Grotowski's attracted a lot of controversy generally throughout his work, his practice, his performances were called elitist. Whereas I think he was just very carefully managing the theatric experience for small amounts of people. It wasn't mass-scale kind of work. Apparently he actually took people outside of their daily routines, took them into new communities, established different ways of working and being with each other. What it didn't really do was then take responsibility for how people entered back into the real world. It perhaps left them high and dry a bit, left them a bit exposed, perhaps. I think some people found ways to reenter. Some people might've found that difficult.

Actually, I kind of am sympathetic, I think. Do we really have that responsibility? People can come join this experience if they want. They don't have to participate. It's in a way up to them to deal with the aftermath. I think Grotowski's an easy target. There's questions about his political engagement. He's controversially interesting figure, but I think artist's should have some aspect of controversial. Otherwise, they're not really pushing at the boundaries of the form.

Piotr: But despite these controversies, Grotowski's work still attracts an incredible amount of interest around the globe. As for the Workcenter team, each year they travel to four different continents and eight to ten different countries, holding acting workshops and performing to new audiences who are able to witness the pieces and songs of tradition for themselves.

The next morning, I was eagerly awaiting the first work to be presented, The Living Room. The group of ten or so guests including me arrived at the entrance to the Workcenter. We were invited inside and told to sit anywhere we like inside the performance space, which had been set up like someone's living room with tables of food and chairs arranged around the space. Meanwhile, members of the Workcenter circled round offering us tea and coffee.

For those witnessing the work for the first time, there was a definite sense of anticipation in the air. When and how would it start? What exactly was going to happen? These interactions immediately signaled that what was about to follow was meant to be something which the doers and witnesses were gonna experience together.

The performers assume their places, and Thomas Richards entered wearing a backpack.

Piotr: As the songs resonated through the stone walls of the Workcenter, it was impossible not to feel shivers. As the piece progressed, raw emotions were laid bare and infused with something that was beyond just emotion. Maybe this was the verticality that Richards had described to me. At times, a kind of strange, in the sense of something you don't usually see, kind of spontaneity took over, with performers interacting and laughing together with the witnesses.

The culmination of The Living Room is a birthday party. A cake is pulled out and candles lit. There is a celebration of singing and movement which explodes into something resembling pure joy.

It's hard to walk away from something like this without taking something with you. Even if you can't really explain to other people or yourself what it is exactly. The Living Room was singing, movement, storytelling, and also something else entirely. It was something closer to painting or poetry than anything I'd ever seen before in the theater. The other works I saw over the next few days, such as The Underground and Sin Fronteras, only added to this kind of strange sense of having witnessed something remarkable. And that would stay with me long after my return to Warsaw.

I was going back with the feeling that I was only just scratching the surface of both the work and Grotowski himself, but I definitely got the sense that like Grotowski, and the actors from his early days in Poland, the people who come to the Workcenter all seem to be looking for something…But have they found it?

Thomas: We hear this phrase, "Grotowski was one of the greatest directors," and it's so strange, because if we look at his history, we see that in fact he was only creating theatre performances in a ten-year period. And these performances, they had such a resonance throughout the world, not only in Poland, but throughout the world. Why? What did he really do?

Ryszard: People were upset that Grotowski had left the theatre. They felt they wanted this leading world figure from Poland to carry on making theatre performances. Grotowski felt he'd exhausted this possibility. He wanted to move on and develop new things.

Piotr: He looked around in the world and he saw, "OK. TV and film are already (back in the 1950s) taking somehow, and they will take the place of storytelling. Normal storytelling is going in that direction. The death of theatre will be if it's just a bad imitation of TV or film."

Lynda: Grotowski was a man that was questioning every day, "What is the potential inside a human being? What to do with this potential for this individual, for this individual, for this one, for this one."

Ryszard: Grotowski never married. He had no children. He was a workaholic. He totally lived his work, there's no separation between when he worked and life.

Grażyna Soczewka: [Maja Komorowska English voiceover] As a matter of fact, it was a kind of a mystery to me. Actually, I think that mystery is necessary. I mean that in art I think we shouldn't completely dot all the i's. But just like in life, there's never a final answer, and there never will be.

We are kind of walking towards the horizon. That's the feeling I have. That we are walking, and we'll never get the complete answer. Because if we did, we probably couldn't go on living.

Piotr: This two-part episode on the life and work of Jerzy Grotowski was a collaboration between HowlRound Theatre Commons and Stories from the Eastern West. We'd like to thank Paula Lane, Mya Komarovska, Cécile and Thomas Richards, and the members of the Workcenter for making this piece possible. For more stories about theatre history, go to the theatrehistorypodcast.net or for more stories from Central and Eastern Europe, check out SFTEW.com.

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This podcast aims to introduce listeners to the artists, scholars, and archivists who are working to bring the history of performance to life. We hope that, by listening to this show, you’ll learn about exciting new performances, fascinating books, and valuable repositories of knowledge, all of which will help you better understand theatre’s history.

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Reading "Towards A Poor Theatre" I was surprised by the physical strength and commitment that Grotowski required.  It made me look at my own practice and question if I was doing enough.