Logo The Grotowski Year 2009
The Grotowski Institute
  • Polish
  • English
City of Wroclaw

Wroclaw European Capital of Culture 2016

the Ministry of Science and Higher Education
Exhibition "50 Years of the Laboratory Theatre"

Exhibition 50 Years of the Laboratory Theatre
12th–31st January
The Old Market Square in Wroclaw

Exhibition created by Barbara Kaczmarek (graphic design), Duncan Jamieson (revision of the English text), Toyotaka Ota (montage of the video presentation) and Grzegorz Ziolkowski (concept and text)

Grzegorz Ziolkowski 50 Years of the Laboratory Theatre

Fifty years ago, in 1959, Ludwik Flaszen and Jerzy Grotowski took over the Theatre of the 13 Rows in Opole and gradually transformed it into the Laboratory Theatre. In the 1960s – with the ensemble of actors, the architect Jerzy Gurawski and the artist and director Waldemar Krygier – they realised their conception of ‘poor theatre,’ most extensively articulated in Grotowski’s classic volume Towards a Poor Theatre, edited by Eugenio Barba (1968). This idea rejected an abundance of scenic elements and the dependence of theatre on literature, whilst emphasising the essential element of any theatre event – the intensified participation of actors and spectators in a shared space that is shaped anew for each meeting between them.  

Grotowski understood theatre as a place where a man [czlowiek] can search for the deepest truth of his individual and human condition. For Grotowski, theatre was a vehicle that transported the actors to a meta-daily reality. From this perspective, the actor’s role served as a scalpel, enabling the performer to reach the deeper layers of his or her personality, with the spectators as witnesses. At the same time, theatre was an encounter with oneself and with another human being – an encounter during which any pretence was obliterated. 

With Grotowski as the leader and artistic director and Flaszen as the literary director, the Laboratory Theatre performances focused on the great classical texts – by the Polish Romantic authors Mickiewicz, Slowacki and Wyspianski, as well as by Marlowe and Calderon – whose function in the collective consciousness was close to myth. Grotowski’s blasphemous and provocative productions – the action of Kordian (1962) took place in a mental asylum, Acropolis (1962) was transposed to the death camp of Auschwitz – consisted in confronting these myths and ‘vivisecting’ them. In their artistic journey, Grotowski and the ensemble moved from a conception of ‘farce/mystery’, in which mystery was penetrated by the elements of play and surprise, to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which aimed to actualise an experience of the ineffable. The culmination of this process was Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1968/9), based on texts from the Bible, Fyodor Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot and Simone Weil. In this work, the artists probed the relevance of the myth of Christ to their own lives.

Peter Brook called Grotowski ‘unique,’ because ‘no-one else in the world, […], no-one since Stanislavski, has investigated the nature of acting, its phenomenon, its meaning, the nature and science of its mental-physical-emotional processes as deeply and completely as Grotowski.’ The Laboratory Theatre was not theatre in its usual sense, but rather an institute for research into the domain of theatrical art, and the art of the actor in particular. This was accentuated by the change of name from the Laboratory Theatre of the 13 Rows to the Institute for Studies of Acting Method – Laboratory Theatre, soon after the group moved from Opole to Wroclaw in 1965. Grotowski’s actors were to strive to eliminate psychophysical blocks rather than to accumulate skills. Grotowski called this approach the via negativa, recognising that by means of this ‘negative path’ a human being could achieve ‘a total act’. Grotowski stated: ‘It is the act of laying oneself bare, of tearing off the mask of daily life, of exteriorizing oneself. Not in order to “show oneself off”, for that would be exhibitionism. It is a serious and solemn act of revelation. The actor must be prepared to be absolutely sincere. It is like a step towards the summit of the actor’s organism in which consciousness and instinct are united’. The most advanced realisations of this phenomenon were his work with Ryszard Cieslak on The Constant Prince (1965) and with the whole ensemble (Elizabeth Albahaca, Ryszard Cieslak, Zbigniew Cynkutis, Antoni Jaholkowski, Rena Mirecka, Zygmunt Molik and Stanislaw Scierski) on Apocalypsis cum Figuris. 

Grotowski’s ideas and his approach to work with the actor received worldwide recognition, and the performances of Acropolis, The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis triumphed in countries such as France, Holland, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Mexico, UK, the USA, and Yugoslavia.

In 1970, Grotowski announced his decision to abandon theatre and to refrain from making further performances. He stated that words such as ‘performance,’ ‘theatre’ and ‘spectator’ were dead for him and he devoted himself to investigations in the domain of ‘active culture’. The aim of this research was the incarnation of the idea of Holiday – the fraternity that occurs between human beings when, as he put it, ‘a man does not reject himself and does not impose himself’. Together with the Actor’s Institute – Laboratory Theatre (the institution adopted this name in 1970), he pushed the boundaries of theatre in the paratheatrical projects of the 1970s, which were directed mainly by his principal collaborators. These included: Cieslak’s Special Project (1973), Flaszen’s Meditations Aloud (1974), Jacek Zmyslowski’s The Mountain Project (1977) and The Vigil (1978), and Tree of People by Cynkutis and the group (1979). Here, the separation between actors and spectators vanished, creating a shared domain of meeting. The main premise of this phase of work was a search for the conditions through which a human being can ‘disarm’ – that is, throw away social masks and act truly and with the whole self – and fulfil his or her individual, creative potential.

At the beginning of the 1970s, several new members joined the group, including Zbigniew Kozlowski, Teresa Nawrot, Irena Rycyk, Wlodzimierz Staniewski (who later founded the Centre for Theatre Practices ‘Gardzienice’) and Jacek Zmyslowski. An important role in this phase was played by Zbigniew Teo Spychalski – Grotowski’s former apprentice and assistant during the theatrical period – who coordinated the work of the International Studio, which was addressed to foreign participants.

The University of Research of the Theatre of Nations, organised on a grand scale in the summer of 1975 in Wroclaw and its environs, was an unprecedented event in the history of the Laboratory Theatre. It allowed a great number of people to access the work of the group. In the University programme were public conversations led by Grotowski with artists such as Eugenio Barba, Jean-Louis Barrault, Peter Brook, Joseph Chaikin, André Gregory and Luca Ronconi, as well as film presentations, work demonstrations and consultations. However, the most important elements of this project were the practical, paratheatrical stages, which were, according to Tadeusz Burzynski, ‘a great field of collective research’. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Grotowski explored ritual techniques connected to various source traditions. Working in his Theatre of Sources project (1976–1982) with an international team of collaborators and participants, representing different continents, cultures and traditions, Grotowski aimed at examining ‘techniques, archaic or nascent, that bring us [those actively involved] back to […] organic primary experience of life. Existence–presence’. His approach in Theatre of Sources made Grotowski amongst the first to theorise the intersections between theatre and anthropology.

In the early 1980s, part of the ensemble of the Actor’s Institute – Laboratory Theatre attempted to return to performance practice with the project Polish Thanatos. Incantations (1981) which, in Burzynski’s opinion, facilitated the experience of ‘a timeless archetype of Polishness in its – heroic and clownish – totality’. 

In the end of 1982, during martial law in Poland, Jerzy Grotowski decided to remain abroad, thus bringing to an end his activity with the Laboratory Theatre. In 1984, the remaining founder members made a resolution to dissolve the theatre. Their decision was formalised later that year, on 31st of August.

After twenty-five years of activity the Laboratory Theatre – having revolutionised the philosophy and practice of acting, the treatment of text, space, props and lighting, as well as the professional ethics of the theatre – passed into history. However, it left an indelible mark on world theatre and it is difficult to imagine contemporary dramatic art without reckoning with the achievements of the Laboratory Theatre. Neither can the significance of the paratheatrical projects – which constituted a utopian attempt to reject dishonesty in human relations – be restricted to the period in which they occurred. The challenge of shaping and actively participating in culture continues for future generations. Finally, Theatre of Sources not only opened new phase of Grotowski’s personal research but drew attention to the pressing issue of the erosion of traditional cultures – a consequence of the progression of modernisation. It simultaneously touched on a central problem for every human being – the responsibility of determining one’s identity as an individual and as a representative of culture.

December 2008

English translation revised by Duncan Jamieson