Poor Theatre Conventions

Today, Grotowski is recognised as one of the great directors of the modern theatre and a significant innovator of the experimental theatre movement. His techniques are easily grasped by school students. Poor Theatre can be performed in any bare space, so school drama departments with few resources often find this style of theatre attractive.

Grotowski coined the term ‘poor theatre’, defining a performance style that rid itself of the excesses of theatre, such as lavish costumes and detailed sets (hence ‘poor’). Poor Theatre pieces centre on the skill of the actor and are often performed with only a handful of props.

As a director, Grotowski preferred to perform works in non-traditional spaces such as buildings and rooms, instead of mainstream theatre houses with traditional stages. Typically, the audience was placed on many sides of the action or in and amongst the action, itself.

Acting in the style of Poor Theatre places emphasis on the physical skill of the performer and uses props for transformation into other objects, sometimes of great significance.

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Theory

  • notable influences on Grotowski included Stanislavski, Brecht and Meyerhold
  • most of Grotowski’s work focused on actor training
  • his was probably the most extensive actor training program developed since Stanislavski
  • the concept of Poor Theatre strips away all of theatre’s excesses
  • Poor Theatre is non-commercial theatre; the antithesis of modern-day blockbusters
  • Grotowski argued theatre could never compete with film and television, so it should never attempt to
  • those that did were often performed only once before a small number of spectators
  • the term ‘paratheatre’ is often associated with Grotowski (‘para’ meaning ‘beyond’)
  • paratheatre saw Grotowski experiment with actors in training programs and other non-performed works
  • Grotowski’s ‘paratheatrical’ phase is generally agreed to be 1969/70–1975/76
  • Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’ phase was between 1959 and 1970
  • 1975 marked the end of all public performances connected to Grotowski
  • Grotowski’s collected writings on theatre are published in ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’ (1968)

No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.19)

Scripts

  • Grotowski sometimes experimented with classic works, changing their setting for contemporary relevance

Movement & Gesture

  • physical movement was a key component of Poor Theatre performances

Space & Actor-Audience Relationship

  • traditional theatre spaces were ignored by Grotowski in preference for rooms and buildings
  • he saw little need for a traditional stage dedicated to acting or a purpose-built theatre for performances
  • Grotowski’s work involved an intense exploration of the relationship between participant and spectator
  • his aim was to eliminate the division between actor and audience, creating a communion between the two
  • actors typically performed with the spectators on many sides
  • particpants also performed in and around the spectators strategically placed amongst them in the space

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate  performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.19).

Stagecraft

  • Grotowski’s acting area was typically bare, with few props and no set
  • object transformation was a key aspect of Poor Theatre
  • after transformation, objects were often symbolic and/or of great significance
  • lighting typically flooded the acting area with no use of spotlights or focus areas
  • if used at all, ‘costumes’ would be anonymous, not identifying character (as with realism)

… one must ask oneself what is indispensable to theatre. Let’s see.
Can the theatre exist without costumes and sets? Yes, it can.
Can it exist without music to accompany the plot? Yes.
Can it exist without lighting effects? Of course.
And without a text? Yes. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.32)

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Acting & Characterisation

  • the actor and his/her skills was at the core of all Poor Theatre performances
  • on occasions, performances used no ‘real’ props, but employed actors as props instead
  • actor training was intense over long periods of time
  • actors with egos had no place in Grotowski’s theatre
  • aim was for acting to be authentic, akin to Stanislavski’s system (but more physical)
  • Grotowski used a variation of Stanislavski’s emotion memory technique with his own actors

This act cannot exist if the actor is more concerned with charm, personal success, applause and salary, than with creation as understood in its highest form. It cannot exist if the actor conditions it according to the size of his part, his place in the performance, the day or kind of audience. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.262)

The pronunciation of ‘Jerzy Grotowski’ has often proved to be a little tricky. Here is the correct pronunciation of his name:

yerr-shjer grrotoffskee

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64 Responses

  1. Hi Jacek, thanks for all your comments. I shall hit the books again and refine some of the content. “…few Poor Theatre works reached performance” is now out :-). I am not implying some of Grotowski’s works were bad by that statement. I wouldn’t be writing about him unless I revered him.

    Your personal knowledge here is fabulous. Thank you for your insights. Readers will appreciate it!

    And yes, culture.pl and grotowski.net are wonderful resources, especially grotowski.net. I did use these resources when constructing this article. A fantastic website with such rich material.

    – Justin

  2. Jacek Zuzanski says:

    I found peculiar statements in the text: “Poor Theatre Conventions” by Justin Cash.
    • few Poor Theatre works reached performance
    • those that did were often performed only once before a small number of spectators
    • paratheatre saw Grotowski experiment with actors in training programs and other non-performed works
    • 1975 marked the end of all public performances connected to Grotowski
    This was published many years ago, but still let me ask, could you reference sources of these statements? These statements are false. All Theatre Laboratory productions were performed. Processes of production in the Laboratory Theatre were long. This was not a repertory theatre. This was a center of theatre devoted to study and research the art and physiology of acting called also Institute for Studies of the Method of Acting. Small number of spectators was a choice made by Grotowski. These shows were not performed on regular stages. No once! Many times all around the world! Paratheatre projects were not related to “experiment with actors”! These projects were developed by separate team at the Laboratory Theatre. They were not actors and not acting techniques were used nor studied. Note please that at the same time many parallel projects were carried on. In some of these projects actors were involved. In some projects actors worked together with creators of “paratheatre projects”. Actors also continued acting trainings also open for participants from all around the world. But these were not “paratheatre projects”. Apocalypsis cum Figuris Grotowski’s last performance were carried on presenting until 1979. Later on Grotowski presented his other projects to limited and selected audiences. These were not theatrical performances.
    There are a lot of sources online and in the libraries to learn this.
    https://culture.pl/en/artist/jerzy-grotowski
    https://grotowski.net/

  3. Jacek Zuzanski says:

    What do you mean by: ” few Poor Theatre works reached performance”? Could you refer to resources for this peculiar statement?

    • Jacek, my understanding is, as Grotowski was more concerned with process than product, actual performances from his Laboratory Theatre group were few and far between. Some works never reached the performance stage, and when they did, they were often performed before 100 people or less.

      • Jacek Zuzanski says:

        Hi Justin, thank you for responding. Yes, Grotowski’s Laboratory had not produced 12 shows per year, but this was not the goal. Where did you learn about “works never reached the performance stage”? What does this mean “some works”. The way you word it suggests or allow to understand that some productions were so “bad” that they did not reach the stage. Well, you could as well say that no one reached the stage. They were not performed on”regular” stage. Laboratory Theatre “stage” in Wroclaw is just a big room, not very big. Still is used and a lot of theaters from all around the word performs there.

  4. Laiken says:

    What’s the pros and cons of Grotowski’s Poor theatre?

    • Jacek Zuzanski says:

      To practice? A con is that it is very impractical 🙂 Grotowski was very well subsidized by the Polish government. If you have a rich aunt, go for it. Pros, well there was and still is the “Theatre of the Eighth Day” which uses this acting technique. They are radical fighters for social change. Their shows were and I believe still are extremely expressive. Well, they are not in theirs thirties anymore. And some of them joined Grotowski in the grounds of eternal hunting. If you aim to yell and to move strongly emotions of your audience this could be for you.

  5. Wendy says:

    In response to the question about the impact of Grotowski’s work upon the public and the ensuing discussions – it may be important to note that in South Africa, Grotowski’s Poor Theatre techniques became pivotal to work done during the Apartheid era. Non-white theatre received no funding from government and Grotowski’s Poor Theatre techniques became an essential core for a body of work that was also created through Workshop Theatre – BECAUSE the performers and practitioners did not have financial resources. I am aware this was not the intention of Grotowski’s work, but it definitely played into the reality of artists who were, indeed, poor in resources.

  6. Deanne Groom says:

    What impact did poor theatre have on the public when it was first performed

    • Hi Deanne, this is a really good question, as very few people actually witnessed an authentic Grotowski-directed performance, due to the nature of his work which deliberately limited access in terms of number of performances and people present. This article at Grotowski.net may shed some light on it for you. This website is the single-best source on Grotowski and his work available on the Internet. – Justin

    • Jacek Zuzanski says:

      Hi Justin, this website is fabulous! I am happy I stumbled here by some kind of accident. Thank you for putting so much work into research and for publishing so broadly on so many topics. Well, I am not a scholar but I grew up working with Grotowski’s actors and participating in his paratheatrical projects.
      There is one more thing I would like to bring your attention to. You mentioned: “lighting typically flooded the acting area with no use of spotlights or focus areas”. Well…. I can’t tell about all Grotowsi’s shows. I had seen just the last one. The lighting did not “flooded the acting area”. Not all the time. If I remember well, there was one reflector used (maybe two…) kind of similar to Parabolic Aluminized Reflector lights, or PAR lights. It was on most of the time, but the light was changing. Not by technicians but by the actors using theirs bodies. They covered and uncovered the light when they needed it. Important, this was done in the midst of the action, actors did this as a characters this was a part of this amazing theatrical language. At to this naket sweating torso in convulsions. The entire room was in convulsions. The interplay between the shadow and reflections and vibration of the body in the strong physical act was amazingly charged emotionally, and we the audience were in the middle of that, surrounded by that. The motion of the lights around us spoke, screamed and wiped. Then one more. There was also darkness. And there was also the light of the candles with a very strong focus on very limited parts of the actors’ faces and bodies.

      • Jacek, thank you for your kind comments and for your wonderful description of Grotowski’s work in performance. How fortunate you were to be participating in this! The action seems very ritualistic. Could you describe in more detail the relationship between performer and audience during that performance? I am most interested in the physical arrangement. Were performers and audience members sharing the same space (from memory, Grotowski referred to it as a “communion” between the two). Were you seated on chairs? Was the performance happening all around you? I would love to hear more…

        • Jacek Zuzanski says:

          For each show, Grotowski and his space and stage arrangement assistant Gurawski created new space arrangements and performers – spectators relationships. Always actors and audience were in the same space, the same room. You can find diagrams and descriptions in “Towards a Poor Theatre” and in many other publications. https://grotowski.net/en/encyclopedia/gurawski-jerzy. In Apocalipsis cum Figuris audience was seated along three walls of the room, on the floor, no chairs. I found an interesting video of “Apocalipsis”. There were two reflectors. This video (link below) was recorded on the tour. The room was very different from the one in Wroclaw. I see there windows and some “stuff”. In Wroclaw it was empty space with covered, invisible windows. The walls were bare stripped of parget, naked bricks with the history of the building revealed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc9_DIem82M
          This recording is very peculiar. I did not know it existed. It looks like done with almost no audience. Probably was done not for public to see.

  7. Niamh Whitty says:

    Thank you this may have just saved my dissertation

  8. Samson says:

    I like his style of theatre

  9. Anele Cele says:

    This is very informative and I want to take some notes from this for my assignment, how do I reference from this?

  10. Mashell Ross says:

    at first i thought poor theater was made by poor people to make money then i read this page very informative

  11. Nothando Luthuli says:

    Very informative, thank you. these notes really assisted me in preparing for a lesson on Poor Theatre and Grotowski. Main points and ideas beautifully captured! My learners are enlightened.

  12. harry styles says:

    thanks for making my assignment easier mate

  13. del taco says:

    thank youuuuuuuu cheers mate

  14. daniel says:

    cheers bro

  15. dad says:

    Thanks heaps Justin, big help and lots of clear information.

    Cheers again.

  16. Namel Weeramuni says:

    I believe in great directors and have studied them, but I have my own theory of acting as actor/director for the last 60 years though I started as an amateur. It is an individualistic belief and confidence process. Acting in my view is the expression of lines in a play totally meaningfully and effectively that creates images that survives in the audience minds throughout in life. I totally believe that theatre is far superior to cinema and TV and its an art of the poor but rich what it conveys if its on humanity and on life. Theatre can be on any space and entertain even an audience of one if it projects theatrically on life humanely.

  17. mary says:

    please can you give me an example like physical exercise about his theoriez

  18. Observe your use of language. Do not engage in language that unconsciously instils poverty consciousness, A ‘poor’ theater is not an ‘impoverished’ theater. On the contrary. Theater can certainly ‘compete’ with cinema and TV. But according to its own terms of reference. Honor your own terms of reference. No matter that theater remains technologically ‘inferior’. Theater is humanly superior to cinema and TV. By definition. Beyond the audience – unlike cinema and TV – the living human is the very substance of theater. That makes cinema and TV humanly inferior to theater. And that, surely, is the point?

  19. maria says:

    How can I cite this page?

  20. Ananthakrishnan G S says:

    Holy actor ?

  21. Kanchan says:

    I have been doing that Justin. But I really need some concrete basis on these methods as I seek myself in the path of more of physical theatre (poor theatre/body movement/mime)
    Please guide me to take it to next level i.e from amateur to professional level.

  22. Sorry Kanchan. Wish I could help, but can’t on this occasion.

  23. Kanchan says:

    Thanks for the guidance,:)
    I have done that before and people do help me. But I was wondering if I should go for a technical learning for physical theatre and if yes please suggest me some good courses.
    I qm looking for a long run for it as a part of my life dream

    • Jacek Zuzanski says:

      I found that Anne Bogart work has some similarities. Also, there is Double Edge Theater which refers also in some ways to the tradition of Poor Theatre (but also to the work of Gardzienice Theatre which was founded by artists involved in “paratheatrical” work of Grotowski.

  24. Perhaps approach some local theatre companies with your ideas Kanchan and see what they say?

  25. Kanchan says:

    Hi Justin, an eye opener for me who has always been thinking my financial lackings as a barrier for theatre.
    Some times a lot of concepts come.across my mind and even I develop them in my mind as a performance. But I am going through a lot of pain in terms of approach and getting started as I am not a learned actor.
    Please guide me.

  26. Suni says:

    Thank you so much, this helped a lot with an assignment I’m doing.

  27. lucky says:

    Sir/mam I wanna learn the acting
    My no 9971718160

  28. Matt spillwoman says:

    i like cheese, also this is really helpful, it saved my life, thank you, btw i like cheese

  29. Alfredo says:

    Wao.. This is really really wonderful… I love this style of theatre..
    This post would be useful to me kos i was asked to do a close study of Grotowski theatrical practices and develop a four paper page….

  30. Andrew says:

    Theoretically yes anyone can voice act but it’s more a matter of can you voice act well. As a matter of fact sometimes when I’m feeling a little down on my abilities I imagine in my head of my performance fueled by study and passion vs a performance of someone who is only in it for a quick check and their name in the credits. My skills may be amateurish but atleast there is room to improve.

  31. PHILLIP MAPHUMULO says:

    i would like to thank the great thinkers or philosophers like JEZERY GROTOWSKI to bring change since change is reveals growth,multiplication and addition.I find it more intrestin when one is in the theatre where he or she hav to use magination.

  32. Stewart says:

    Thanks Justin. That is exactly what I did. I gave them Ted Hughes adaptation of Oedipus. Thanks again for your help.

  33. Stewart says:

    Do you have a script excerpt you have given to a Theatre Studies class to interpret using Poor Theatre?

  34. Rachael says:

    Please can you give a reference for the quotes used, I would like to cite it in an essay I am writing 🙂

  35. sandy says:

    hey this was very helpful but I would like someone to explain to me what this thing is about, im doing a drama assignment for Rebecca roth and she has explained nothing so im really just looking for a helping hand.
    please and thankyou

  36. saurabh srivastava says:

    I completely agree with this concept that howsoever theatre tries ,it can’t compete with the t.v. and cinema.. But in a reaction going to such an extreme that not even using appropriate costume or not even needing a text for a theatre performance , seems to be a bit of overreaction.

  37. ajaysah says:

    love this method, more study in grotowaski & search in video

  38. T.K.Agarwal says:

    The Grotovask’s work on Theatre is a milestone every theatre worker should go through this work,to enlighten themselves with new ideas

  39. I love Grotowski’s work – in part because as you say, it’s better to have minimal props in the room, which is great for under resourced schools!

    I find as a theatre goer, I don’t want the actors to tell me what they are feeling through words, I want them to SHOW me through their performance! I don’t need to see real beer in a glass, I want them to show me, and my imagination will fill in the rest. That’s what good theatre is about for me – the opportunity to use my own imagination, and have it sparked by something truly incredible.

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