The Theorist, The Theory and The ContextI have chosen the theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski as the theorist upon whose work I base my solo theatre piece, titled Robin after its main character.
I have found that when a theatre production places too much emphasis on the physical trappings – costumes, sets, lighting, etc., a lot of the emotion of the piece is lost and the audience is distracted from the action, as was the case in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward I saw in September 2016. I thought it would be interesting to go in the exact opposite direction, which sparked an interest in the simplicity of poor theatre. Upon doing further research, I learned that Jerzy Grotowski created a style known as ‘poor theatre’. He considered theatre to be a means by which an audience is confronted with truths about human nature and society and the like, saying in his book Towards a Poor Theatre that “We try to escape the truth about ourselves, whereas in the theatre we are invited to stop and take a closer look.” He first fully realised his vision for poor theatre in his 1962 production of Stanislaw Wyspianski’s Akropolis. This continued in his 1964 production of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which did not use any props at all, only the actors’ bodies.
In addition, he seated audience members around the table of Faust’s last supper, creating a situation in which the audience was physically part of the action, the scene unfolding around them as though it were real. This, I felt, was an extraordinarily effective way to involve the audience in the action, and is a concept I decided to explore further. Lighting, sound effects, sets, stage makeup, and costumes were all considered by Grotowski to be unnecessary and even ill-advised. Lighting and sets less so than the others, and these are used in poor theatre, but are secondary to the performance itself. What Grotowski referred to as ‘rich theatre’ – that is, theatre that made use of these aspects – was, he felt, trying to compete technologically with film and television, which is a different medium entirely. All sound effects are made by the actors’ own voices, Grotowski’s actors being highly trained so as to be able to communicate any number of sounds using nothing but the voice. Costumes are generic and do not indicate character.
No trappings are as important as the connection between actor and audience. Grotowski is generally thought to be one of the greatest reformers of theatre in the 20th century. He graduated from the State Higher School of Theatre in Kraków in 1955, and went on to study directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts. Grotowski traveled extensively, and was greatly influenced by various East Asian techniques and forms of theatre. His debut as a director was 1957, with a production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs, at the Stary Theatre in Kraków. Towards a Poor Theatre, published in the 1960s, became a great influence in the world of exploratory theatre.In a way, poor theatre was a kind of rebellion against the increasingly-popular cinema as a form of entertainment.
In Towards a Poor Theatre, he referred to “…hiding behind a cameraman…” as one of the major blocks to cultivating a real emotional bond with an audience. He believed that confronting the spectator in as direct a manner as possible was the best way to communicate one’s intent within a piece. Stress was placed on the idea of genuine connection, and on encouraging real emotion within an act.
If the actor could allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable, emotional vulnerability – and, by extension, critical thinking concerning their own views – could be cultivated in the spectator.Grotowski believed in passivity as part of training. He said that if an actor was able to be still for minutes at a time it would enable them to concentrate better and assist the creative process.
He also believed that actors should not do things onstage just because it looked good – everything ought to serve a purpose. I have discarded the more intensive training methods, involving long hours of physical exercise and intense explorations of mental, physical, and emotional processes, mostly in the interests of time and the fact that this is a college project rather than a lifestyle choice. I am mostly focusing on the aspects that involve the removal of the physical trappings of theatre and the emphasis on creating a connection between the audience and the performer.Practical Explorations and Development of the Solo Theatre PieceIn order to create my solo theatre piece in the style of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, I had to look more closely at his practice.
I decided to focus on certain aspects of poor theatre, in particular the minimalistic production design, the unconventional staging, and the focus on creating a direct emotional link with the audience. I used my mindmap to structure my piece, examining how I would use things like character and staging, how I would seat the audience, and what impact I wanted to have, while also keeping a reminder of the lack of embellishments to prevent myself from adding anything unnecessary.MIND MAP The mind map explains the various aspects of the piece. The character I portray is a young non-binary individual, named Robin, who has experienced a great deal of frustration and grown bitter in the face of being surrounded by people who do not even really try to understand them. The first development of this narrative came with the planning, creating and development of my monologue.
The story line follows Robin trying to explain to a group of family members why they feel the way they do. During the carefully planned revelation of emotion Robin stops trying to be ‘polite’, and actually vents the frustration felt. The intent of this is to make the audience and therefore the family uncomfortable. In expressing all of this, Robin is forcing their family to see things from their perspective, and therefore comprehend their behaviour.
The intention of the character is to express their frustration at the world, and explain to the world why that frustration exists.I began writing the monologue in the style of a soliloquy expressing thoughts, emotions and after reading sections back I was able to edit and structure with knowledge of what direction I wanted the speech to go in. In order to do this effectively, I had to consider the aims and objectives of the character, and therefore the aims and objectives of the studied practitioner. Grotowski’s work forced the audience to face uncomfortable truths. Therefore, I endeavoured to achieve this in my monologue.
The character of Robin is nonbinary, and speaks from personal experience of social problems associated with identity. This assists in making the audience uncomfortable because it has only recently become a more widely-discussed topic. People often get defensive when gender issues are addressed, because society teaches us to categorise.
The ‘uncomfortable truth’ is that nonbinary people exist. People who cannot be categorised by society, and therefore cannot be placed into a societally-approved box. Faced with the ‘uncomfortable truth’ of a nonbinary existence, I therefore force my audience to go down one of two paths: they can remain closed-minded and ignore the issue being brought to their attention, or they can listen and empathise with both the fictional character and the real issue. I received feedback on my monologue halfway through the writing process. It was too personal at first, and therefore I had to adapt the piece to be more about a character than myself. I welcomed this feedback during the writing stage because it helped me analyse the importance of creating the right balance of emotional intensity. I cut some more personal sections of the monologue and this in turn further developed the character itself. The decision to make changes stemmed from the fact that members of the audience may have misinterpreted my artistic intention, or taken offence rather than being compelled to consider the issue put forward by the piece.
This ensured that I was keeping to Grotowski’s ideals of poor theatre in terms of the content of the dialogue being the most important aspect.The next issue to address was the use of stage space. I wanted to create a personalised, intense environment, so I placed the audience in a close circle on the stage, the rest of the room empty. The actual audience of the piece stands in for the in-universe audience, Robin’s family, to whom they are talking.
By placing the audience in this direct and close position to the character, I aim to bring the issue closer to the audience and cause them discomfort, forcing them to inspect their own views. Placing the audience in the performance space helped to highlight the fact that they were a part of the issue as opposed to passive observers. I left the curtains open and the tube lighting on, so as to minimise the sense of performance.
This fits with Grotowski’s idea of personalising theatre space to fit the specific piece, and particularly with his suggestion that one way of doing this is to have the actors ‘…play among the spectators, directly contacting the audience and giving it a passive role in the drama.
..’.Through practically exploring my monologue in terms of facial expression, vocal tone, and body language, I was able to address the development of Robin as a character in whom the audience could emotionally invest. I portray Robin’s emotions with body language by darting my gaze around whilst making a point, as if searching for a connection; for somebody understands what I am saying.
I make hand movements that are the beginning of gestures, cut short and prevented from usefully communicating. I sit hunched to appear smaller towards the beginning, and then rise and begin to walk around as the character gets into the flow of talking and grows in confidence. My brow is often furrowed to show frustration, and I frequently squeeze my eyes shut and start to put a hand to my head to indicate trying to remember something or gather my thoughts. I turn around suddenly, at random intervals, to add a sense of unpredictability and therefore discomfort for the audience. When I eventually hold someone’s gaze, I hold it for long enough that it becomes uncomfortable for both me and, theoretically, them. When Robin’s thoughts return to the present, I plan to freeze, pause the action and remain completely still. I will look around before opening my mouth to speak, think better of it, shake my head and slump back down into a seat, staring at the floor and fidgeting. This will add a final note of frustration and discomfort as Robin is shown second-guessing the outburst and perhaps regretting it.
The intention of this final note is to make the audience think about the message I convey, and to consider their own bias in terms of the subject presented.I portray Robin’s emotions with vocal tone by starting quietly and hesitantly, to indicate that they are uncertain about how to proceed. This gives a sense of Robin trying to word things properly, having difficulty in trying to express themselves. Robin gradually becomes more emotive as the performance goes on and eventually is simply just venting. This is not achieved with a raised voice as much as through tone and content. I plan to stop mid-sentence right at the end, which I hope will give the impression of being emotionally exhausted by a sudden release of inner tension. In terms of costume, Grotowski believed that a costume ought not to illustrate or make the character stand out. Accordingly, I will simply wear my own clothes – items I already own, and similar to what I anticipate that it is likely the audience will wear.
This means that I will not stand out or look like anything other than an ordinary person, which ties in with Grotowski’s thoughts on the subject. Responding to FeedbackAfter sharing my work with my peers, I asked them for feedback. The general consensus was that I achieved my stated intention to a certain extent, in that they felt like part of the action, which added to the emotional involvement of the piece. One noted that it made the piece feel like ‘a dialogue’. The circle was close, which made the emotions in the piece feel more intense, as they felt they had no means of looking away – they had to face the uncomfortable truth.
It was also uncomfortable for me as an actor, as I was very aware of my peers and had very little space to move, which helped make the character’s sense of being trapped feel more authentic. It also meant, however, that I was unable to walk around as I had first planned. My peers seemed to react the way I intended them to. They commented on the emotional intensity of the piece and the fenced-in feeling generated by the circle. The use of natural lighting makes an audience see the piece as a conversation more than a performance, which was the intention, so I intend to maintain this element.
Following this feedback, I decided that, when performing the piece to my intended audience I will aim to create more room within the circle naturally whilst maintaining the intensity generated by having everyone sat close together. This could be achieved by having a larger audience, prompting a larger circle. In addition, I will aim to use more body language.Evaluation and Conclusion In terms of my performance, there were several things that did not go quite to plan on the actual day. For instance, I had planned to end slouched back in my seat, fidgeting with my hands.
Instead, I was leaning forward with my head in my hands. This, I felt, made the ending feel more defined, as it was a static pose that I could freeze in for several seconds before breaking character and indicating the piece was finished. It had the same effect of showing Robin second-guessing their outburst. I was also supposed to be shouting by the end, and then to stop mid-sentence. This I did not do, because I was nervous and I don’t like shouting, so I forgot. I feel that this neither particularly added nor particularly took away from the performance. Throughout the performance, I did manage to make uncomfortable eye contact with multiple audience members, but not as much as I had planned to and not for as long. I had overestimated how well I would be able to handle this discomfort, as I do not usually make good eye contact.
As the performance took place in the evening, I could not use natural light, but I did use the room lights rather than stage lights. This had the same intended effect of preventing the performance space from feeling like a stage. This effect was also achieved through not using the actual stage in the drama room, and instead creating my circle of chairs on the main floor.
I wore ordinary clothes rather than any kind of costume, so as to limit the divide between myself and the audience. In addition to this, I had no props, the piece being performed using only myself and my performance space. Reducing the staging to these elements made me think more deeply about my physical movements, facial expressions, vocal tone and so forth, as I was not concerned with the timing of lighting or sound, or with the use of props. Overall, I think the performance went relatively well.
There were a few things that did not quite go to plan, but on the whole, I think I managed to capture the elements of Grotowski’s theory that I put into practice by eliminating unnecessary aspects and focusing on audience connection.