A Polish Theater Cookbook
The Closed and Open Door
An ongoing series of reports from rehearsal rooms and interviews with theater people in Poland; how US artists can modify or adapt Polish techniques for their own rehearsal kitchens.
One of the stereotypes about the post-Grotowski Polish ensemble theaters is that their processes are rigidly closed and their rehearsal rooms are treated like devotional spaces. As with an ancient mystery religion, only people participating in a rite (or a rehearsal) are permitted to be present. So one question that comes up, when I talk about my two years hanging around Teatr Chorea, is "How did you get them to let you watch?"
Well, I didn't "get them" to do anything; they asked me if I wanted to watch. Not kidding: really happened.
Ten-year-old Chorea, the youngest of the post-Grotowski pack, welcomes visitors to Łódź—the post-industrial city in central Poland is not exactly overrun with tourists. When I showed up in 2011, and mentioned wanting to write articles about Polish theater, a choir director, Jakub Pałys, asked me if I wanted to watch his rehearsal for their current show: Oratorium Dance Project. That was how I learned that some doors are more closed than others, and that every post-Grotowski theater was different.
There is often a way through a more closed door, but you may have to put on your sweatpants. One of the first post-Grotowski Polish theater productions I ever saw was Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat Theatre)'s Macbeth. I was enamored with their chorus-infused work, so I trotted round the next day to ask their director, Grzegorz Bral, if I could observe a rehearsal. "No. Our rehearsals are closed." But through questioning fellow tourists, I discovered TPK ran weeklong workshops every summer, in English. I came back for their "Workshop Village," two years running—I even got to study with Bral.
Our rehearsal studio was part of a converted fourteenth-century monastery, with heavy brick walls. Those workshops were closed. There was only one way out, covered by both a door and a thick curtain. No windows, no wings, no fire exit. It almost felt like being underground. We couldn't eat, have cell phones, or raise our voices. No stage manager, no observers. Seen through my US Tourist Glasses, it all seemed silly. Cultish. Creepy.
But after a day of work—jogging, chanting, singing, tossing around three-foot wooden dowels—I started to realize this door was there to help me as a performer. It was private, it was intimate—I was free to make mistakes. The people directing the workshop participated. No one was watching and judging. Everyone was taking part. Closed-door processes let performers work in a place of trust.
Even the most open door of the post-Grotowski Polish theater group—and that would be Chorea's—invites you to come in and close the door behind you. After Oratorium, I started hanging around Chorea's next production: 2012's Bachantki. I tried to do what the TPK workshop directors had done: honor the process by unobtrusively taking part. I sat on one side. They sang: I hummed. They stretched: I rolled my head from left to right. They danced...well...I'm not much of a dancer. After three days, they sent me over to the choir. Since then, almost every Chorea rehearsal I've "observed" is one I've participated in. That's how I got them to "let me watch." The door was open, as long as I joined in. And once I was singing with them, behind the closed door, I didn't want to leave.
A few ways in which US rehearsals might reproduce part of this intimate closed-door atmosphere:
- A curtain over the door muffles outside sound, and makes the door less visually distracting. People entering or exiting will realize they need to try to be quiet.
- Taking shoes off at the door frees up movements, grounds singing voices, and helps keep the floor clean. Do it yourself and you're more likely to join a warm-up, or sit on the floor with your actors. Follow TPK's example: no one sets themselves apart.
- Try to have music playing when people come in, and also when they leave. If someone in the show plays an instrument, he or she might improvise during the warm-up.
- Have a secure, separate place where people can leave their bags and phones. Frown on electronics. Even on break, no one sends texts or emails from the rehearsal room. When possible, make this the general policy with stage managers, too. Be reasonable, but don't encourage business in the room where you're trying to make living art, any more than you would welcome a chainsaw in your kitchen.
- Time keep with an analog watch or clock. If you have to have your phone on, put it on vibrate and leave it in your pocket.
- Put a sign on the door: "No Shoes Or Cell Phones In The Room, Please."
- Sweep the floor. Bral told our workshop a story about a master theater artist from Japan who came to visit TPK's studio. He told them to rub their new wood dance floor every day with a silk rag. "But we don't do this," Bral admitted. A broom is enough for most of us. But the floor—the ground from which all the work comes—should be clean.
- Just once, rehearse in a place outside the usual "room." Elope with your process to an inspiring location. A monastery-studio may be unavailable, but you can escape to a park, a forest, a museum courtyard, or a friend's back yard. Achieve the closed door through a rehearsal getaway. Leaving the building also means fewer interruptions.
- When observers come in, invite them, as much as you can, to join. Welcome them, and then close the door behind them. Teach them the chorus. Invite them to stretch, to join the warm-up. Don't make them feel like they've intruded. Invite the administrators to an open dress rehearsal.
- Treat everyone and everything, including yourself, the rehearsal room, and your staff, with respect and compassion. Don't shout; don't rush. This is a tough goal. I screw this up ten, if not a hundred, times a day. But I make myself keep trying.
I promise not to say that the theater is a temple of either Apollo or Dionysos. But if you act as if you believe it is, you could end up with some closed-door atmosphere in your rehearsal room—and the sense of a mysterious, elemental process in your art. I acknowledge that many US directors may balk at this: we expect a more businesslike, less reverential process. But just because we expect something doesn't make it the only way to rehearse.