Gnomes, hard at work in Wroclaw, Poland
At about 1 a.m. Friday morning, in a bar in Wroclaw, Poland, where dozens of American guests for the international theater festival honoring Jerzy Grotowski had gathered to decompress after a full day of panel discussions and theater-going, UCLA Live's director David Sefton spread the news that Michael Jackson had just died. There were no TVs blaring, as one would expect in most U.S. bars, so the news was not public knowledge. Sefton had received word over his Blackberry, and the shock of the news from L.A. manifested itself among the Americans in a sudden softening of what had been boisterous conversations. A woman I was speaking quietly starting singing “I'll Be There.” The tone wasn't glib at all. Rather, it was in appreciation of a pop meteor that had sinking in the firmament for some time, and had finally crashed.
Peter Brook, this afternoon at the Lalek Theater, Wroclaw
The festival honors Jerzy Grotowski, one of the most un-pop theater practitioners of the 20th century who died ten years ago. In a very good panel discussion on the significance of his work, New York-based
director-writer-performer Valeria Vasilevski and the artistic director of L.A.'s Odyssey Theater Ensemble, Ron Sossi, spoke of their first-hand experiences with Grotowski, of his attempt to use theater to
find metaphyiscal truths through laboratory experiments with actors, pushing the limits of what their bodies were capable of. The intensity took on cult-like proportions as Vasilevski described rehearsal rooms being locked, until a designated break. Until then, there were no bathroom breaks or cigarette breaks. She described one woman who broke her collar bone during a rehearsal and was vomiting in pain, but was
nonetheless not permitted to leave.
Olga Petravoka of L.A's ARTEL ensemble – a proponent, during an earlier discussion, of rigor in training — questioned the need for such extremes. The Grotowski training intensely strain s the body, but the situation Vasilevski described sounded sadistic.
But Vasilevski was describing rather than defending the cruelty, as well as Grotowski's philosophical insistence that the ornaments of success – or even of playing in front of an audience — intrude upon the search for purer truths.
left to right: Kathleen Cioffi, Ron Sossi, Beth Hogan and Valeria Vasilevski
“In 50 years, I will be a long forgotten corpse, Grotowski said. “So what is the weight of your applause? What is the importance that you recognize the importance of my work – as a corpse? Production can be an excuse for one's self. I did something, therefore I was someone. Suppose you make a product which becomes fashionable but reveals nothing. But it plays a long run and others believe that you are productive. Consequently so do you. But it is not true. People begin to expect you to make something again. you must make something that the journalists will like so that they will write about it. Then you must make something for them to write about. This is how people with reputations transform into clowns. This is the menacing meaning of the word “production.” It is not the production which is bad but certain concepts of production connected with a consumer society.”
Later that day, Peter Brook, speaking before a packed house of Theater Lalek, described Grotowski's vision. “He lived with a secret horror of being cheapened by success. He was engulfed in a monastic practice that could be shared with very few people.”
Brook said that we live in a world where much of what is successful is also very good. Where is the tragedy in that? he asked. The form runs into a brick wall of self-satisfaction.
If everyone is satisfied, Brook concluded, audiences and critics and practitioners “have lost that constantly unattainable ideal of . . .how much further it's possible to aspire.”