Poor Theatre Conventions
Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) is best known for his intense actor training processes in the 1960s and 70s. At the Laboratory Theatre in Opole, Grotowski and his small groups of actors experimented with the physical, spiritual and ritualistic aspects of theatre, the nature of role, and the relationship between actor and spectator. Grotowski was a key figure of avant-garde theatre. His comprehensive acting system is probably the most complete approach to role since the work of Stanislavski.
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.
- 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
- few Poor Theatre works reached performance
- 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)
- 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).
- 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)
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: