Towards a poor theatre

In 'Towards a Poor Theatre' Grotowski proposes the question "What is theatre? What is unique about it? What can it do that film and television can not?" Using examples from his work, how does Grotowski answer his own question? (You may wish to identify a specific area you are looking at; i.e. training of actors, theatre of productions, theatre of sources etc.)

Jerzy Grotowski's 'poor theatre' examines acting at a primitive level. Grotowski picks at theatres foundations and passionately explores why theatre is so vital. He cunningly investigates the 'essence' of theatre. Grotowski answers his own question by acknowledging that his analysis of theatre is "an ancient theoretical truth" (Grotowski, 1968, p. 19).

At the beginning of the 20th century Sigmund Freud asked: "What is left of a Jew who is not religious, Zionist or even familiar with the language of the Torah, the Holy Book?"(Barba, 1988, p. 12). Just as Grotowski does in 'Towards a Poor Theatre', Freud answered his own question, "Probably the essential" (Barba, 1988, p.12). Grotowski was determined to cut phony traditions and replace them with original and authentic theatre, "in which what is dark in us slowly becomes transparent", (Grotowski, 1968, p. 21). He was determined to unearth and expose an individual's truth, eradicating the synthetic elements so as to generate a blank canvas to be worked on. He believed that sticking to traditions was merely a refusal to learn or explore new forms of expression.

Grotowski wanted to expose primal truths and eliminate opposition through a via negative. According to him, the actor needs to construct "his own psychoanalytic language or sounds and gestures in the same way that a great poet creates his own language of words". (Grotowski, 1968, p. 35). In contrast to film and television, theatre is not about the superfluous: theatre can exist, "without make-up, without automatic costume and scenography". (Grotowski, 1968, p. 19). Actors should create their own masks, as he explains in his 'exercises of the facial mask'. The 'training of the face' is aimed at the manipulation of every muscle in an actor's face, leading to a menu of masks he can call on as necessary: "Lighting, sweat, and breathing transform his muscles into a mask." (Barba, 1991, p. 33). By singling out individual movements and parts of the body, the actor is able to express the desired emotion. "We compose a role as a system of signs which demonstrates what is behind the mask of common vision: the dialects of human behaviour." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 17).

Using his Polish Theatre Laboratory, Grotowski aimed to discover 'the total actor' - the actor who worked from within himself and who's fashioning is complete. Grotowski used his production of 'The Constant Prince' to exhibit his methods. Ryszard Cieslak's performance during the show has been acknowledged by critics internationally as one of the most talented of the 20th century. Stephan Brecht says "Cieslak creates such an intense focus on his physical being as to channel attention to an ideal compounded of emotions and intents." (Brecht, S, 1970, p. 186) Grotowski eliminated the usual theatrical tricks replacing them with just the actor. Joseph Kelera in a monologue about Cieslak, "He is in a state of grace. And all around him this 'cruel theatre' with its blasphemies and excesses is transformed into a theatre in a state of grace." To reach this commanding climax Cieslak devoted himself completely. Grotowski reinvented Cieslak into a new being of theatre. Grotoski's actors display a unique spirit by infusing their ego through their body. "The ego-theatre's acting is designed to evoke the character or personality of this person, not spiritual realities (attitudes, emotions, inclinations) per se, but qualities characterizing individuals in whom, per se, it is solely interested." (Brecht, S, 1970, p. 186)

When training his actors, Grotowski asserted the importance of justifying every detail with an image. He is passionate about eliminating resistance to change; only after this battle is forgotten, will his methods be correctly executed, and the impossible made possible. "The body should therefore appear hard as steel when acting as a support, capable even of conquering the law of gravity." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 103).

Grotowski grew up on the theatre of Stanislavski, whose 'System' had become the definitive approach to naturalistic theatre. "Nature is the best creative artist and technical master of all. She alone has the absolute power to control both the inner and outer apparatus of experiencing and of embodiment." (Stanislavski, 2008, p. 352.) However, unlike Stanislavski, Grotowski would cross-examine his actors on the self rather than the character during dress rehearsals. He would 'hot seat' (questioning an actor whilst they are in character) releasing the actor from subjectivity. Mitter writes, "Playing a character involves receiving an agenda by which the self must at all times comply" (Mitter, 1992, p. 114). For a character to be understood and believed on stage the actor playing the role needs to have substance. He needs to be fully aware that the requirements of his actions are governed by nature, "The artificiality which Grotowski strives for must stem from reality, from the organic necessity of the movement or the intentions." (Barba, 1991, p. 25)

The Actor/ Audience relationship is vital to Grotowski's methods. What defines theatre for Grotowski is concentrating on human actions, and confronting artifice. Working completely from within, "To be poor in the biblical sense is to abandon all externals. And that is why we call our theatre "poor theatre"." (Margaret, 1975, p. 196). The purpose behind Growtowski's Theatre Laboratory workshops was to educate his actors into provoking and captivating their audience, "As a shaman, he must force the audience to drop its social mask and face a world in which old values are destroyed without offering in their place any metaphysical solutions." (Barba, 1991, p. 81). It was whilst devising his theory of a 'poor theatre' that Grotowski crystilised his definition of theatre as what takes place between the spectator and the actor, although, he was aware this could be taken to far: "The performance engages a sort of psychic conflict with the spectator. It is a challenge and an excess." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 47)

Grotowski's spectators become active participants in the performance. His crucial concern was finding the correct and unique actor/ spectator relationship for each and every performance. In 1968, during Growtowski's 'Apocalypsis cum figuris' the actors and audience members enter the performance space together. The actors were about to present and provide, and the audience as a whole to accept and witness. This was the furthest Grotowski could go in his compulsive manipulation of the mysterious actor/ audience relationship, whilst still remaining inside the boundaries of theatre. During this performance, it was the actors who defined the space for their own stage. "Gotowski trains his audience on the action like a telescope." (Brecht, S, 1970, p. 186)

Grotowski adapted his training regime to meet his high standards for authenticity. Involving his audience at a primary level was essential as his technique of 'carrying power' demonstrates. He wanted his actors to develop their voices to a unique intensity, eradicating any chance of an audience reproducing or mimicking performed sounds. "The spectator must be surrounded by the actor's voice as if it came from every direction and not just the spot where the actor is standing. The very walls must speak with voice of the actor". (Grotowski, 1968, p. 115)

Language affects an individual's everyday engagement with reality and Stanislavski believed that the basis for acting was to develop the voice and body with a naturalistic approach as the basis for acting. Grotowski's says, "Impulse and action are concurrent: the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 16) Grotowski thrived on creating this unconscious state of performance. "It is essential for him spontaneously and almost subconsciously to exploit these possibilities while executing the score of his role." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 133) Grotowski's 'Diction' training exercises demonstrate his desire for spontaneity. He believed that even the simple well taught act of reciting one's lines was flawed. "The actor must never learn his part aloud. This automatically leads to an interpretational 'petrification' leads to immediately to banality without the actor even realizing it". (Grotowski, 1968, p. 137)

Grotowski did not want his actors to work for themselves. If the actor worked striving for a reputation, then he would expose and reveal his emotion, and his emotion would become phony. "Because all psychic states observed are no longer lives because emotion observed is no longer emotion." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 31) Grotowski also states that the actor must not play for the audience because once again this means that he is playing for himself. He desires the affection of the spectator and yearns acceptance. Grotowski sees performance in a more pure form and states that, "The actor must give himself and not play for himself or for the spectator. His search must be directed from within himself to the outside, but not for the outside." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 32). Grotowski puts emphasis on the dishonesty created when trying to impress an audience, "We begin to imitate emotions within ourselves, and that is pure hypocrisy." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 32)

Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory experimented with, and researched, theatrical questions, training its actors by forcing questions upon them. It became an artistic showcase, but Grotowski didn't produce his plays for general or mass audiences. Grotowski's exercises informed his research. He stove for a deep understanding and examination: "Only the exercises which 'investigate' involve the entire organism of the actor and mobilise his hidden resources. The exercises which 'repeat' give inferior results." (Grotowski, 1968, p. 104)

Grotowski states that there are three types of actor: the 'artificial actor', one who trains and builds a structure of physical and verbal stage effects; the 'elementary actor', one who is in the academic theatre; and the third, the 'archetypal actor,' which Grotowski sought to accomplish. Jan Kott says that the task of Grotowski's 'holy actor' "Was to experience and incarnate archetypes" (Kott, 1970, p. 200)

Jan Kott himself asks the question, "What does the excellence of Grotowski's theatre signify?" (Kott, 1970, p. 200). Grotowski sees theatre as a personal exploration of one's individual spirituality. This is the state of mind required to inspire automatic reaction. Some critics say his method is political in the same manner as Brecht's theatre. Grotowski desires his actors to be masters of their own fate. He says himself, "This act ought to function as a self - revelation...At the moment when the actor...discovers himself...the actor, that is to say the human being, transcends the phase of incompleteness, to which we are condemned in everyday life... The reaction which he invokes in us contains a peculiar unity of what is individual and what is collective," (Grotowski, 1992, p. 78)

20th century directors sought to revitalise the spirit of an actor and incorporate him into a new role as a theatre maker. Grotowski's commitment to his methods and the depth of his analysis help us to recognize the true raw atmosphere only present in live theatre. Grotowski strictly limited his audience numbers to intensify and personalise their experience. "At Grotowski's Theatre the audience was again restricted to thirty or forty, but at that performance of The Constant Prince there were no more than a dozen or so." (Kott, 1970, p. 199).

Theatre is live and dynamic in terms of its actor/ audience relationships. Grotowski says that, "The core of the theatre is an encounter", (Grotowski, 1997, p. 234). Stephen Sondheim, award winning composer and lyricist says that, "All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That's what makes theatre live. That's why it persists." (Celebrina) As a practitioner, Grotowski's contribution has earned him the highest respect, but there is still anxiety over its spiritual dimensions.

Film and television are very much associated with personal gain and celebrity, what with the millions to be made and the stardom to achieve. In Grotowski's view, film and television is full of the trappings unnecessary to the central core of meaning that theatre should generate. "So I asked myself: How can we have a meeting between actors and spectators which is a real one, an exchange, something that cannot be done in film or TV? (Grotowski, 1997, p. 47)

In 'towards a poor theatre', Grotowski demonstrates that no actor should hide behind masks nor attempt to rely on artifice and trickery. The theatre is literally where it happens. For him, success lies in the immediacy of live theatre, its physicality and tangibility. His analysis is particularly relevant in an age of mass and remote communication. There is a world of difference between theatre and TV, although it would be interesting to know his views on the latest developments with the Internet.


  • Stanislavski, K. (2008). An Actors Work. Routledge: Milton Park, Abingdon.
  • Barba, E. (1988). The Essence of Theatre Source: The MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Grotowski, J. Schechner, R. Chwat, J. (1968). An Interview with Grotowski: The MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Brecht, S. Feldman L, P. Kaplan, M, D. Kott, J. Czerwinski, J. Ludlam, C. Richie, D. (1970). On Grotowski: A Series of Critiques: Latin American Theatre: The MIT Press, Cambridge.
  • Barba, E. Savarese, N. (1991). The secret art of the performer: (Gough, R). Routledge, London.
  • Croyden, M. (1975). New theatre rule: no watching allowed: Vogue, New York.
  • Mitter, S. (1992). Systems of rehearsal: Stanislavsky, Brecht, Grotowski and Brook: Routledge, London.
  • Grotowski, J. (1968). Towards a Poor Theatre: Odin Teatrets Forlag, Denmark.
  • Schechner, R. (1997). The Grotowski Sourcebook: Routledge, London.
  • Sondheim, S.

Please be aware that the free essay that you were just reading was not written by us. This essay, and all of the others available to view on the website, were provided to us by students in exchange for services that we offer. This relationship helps our students to get an even better deal while also contributing to the biggest free essay resource in the UK!