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The Polish Cultural Institute invited me to curate the YoG events in New York – and before accepting I asked myself “Who is Grotowski to me?” He was one of my teachers and I was one of his editors and propagators. I first became aware of Grotowski in 1963 when I translated from the French and published in 1964 in the Tulane Drama Review (TDR) Grotowski’s program notes for the Laboratory Theatre’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. Why would a Polish director working in the small industrial city of Opole write his program notes in French? Clearly he wanted to reach beyond Poland, through the Iron Curtain, to Western Europe. TDR introduced Grotowski to English readers. Even after the publication of Towards a Poor Theatre in 1968, TDR remained one of Grotowski’s main links to the English-speaking world.

Reading Grotowski wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to meet him – which I did in Montreal in 1967. The man I sat with at Expo ‘67 was the “early Grotowski,” a serious very pale creature in a dark suit wearing dark glasses and chain smoking while declaring in a high-pitched voice the principles of a new kind of theatre. A theatre of such intensity and austerity that its apostles called it “holy” and insisted that it be “poor.” A theatre stripped of all that was not absolutely necessary, intended not only or mostly to entertain but to enlighten.

Meeting Grotowski wasn’t enough either. I needed to work with him. I got that chance in October 1967 when Grotowski and Ryszard Cieslak, one of several great actors that Grotowski trained, offered a three-week workshop at New York University’s School of the Arts. The other members of the workshop were NYU graduate student actors. I was the oldest participant and, beyond doubt, the worst actor. But, oh, what I learned! About artistic discipline, performer training, and Grotowski’s famed “via negativa” – where one stripped away all externals physical, psychological, and even metaphysical. Leaving... what? I won’t say, can’t say – “essential” is much too weak a word. 

After that indescribably intense workshop, I met Grotowski only briefly on a number of occasions, sometimes publicly sometimes just the two of us. We met at NYU where the master came to lecture, in California at UC-Irvine where he was running the “Objective Drama” project, and in Europe first in Poland and later in Italy at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. The last time we saw each other was in 1996 in Copenhagen at one of Eugenio Barba’s ISTA conferences (International School of Theatre Anthropology). Grotowski was already frail and ill, but that did not tamp his intensity or dim his intellect. Grotowski’s eyesight was bad, his vision supreme. Now it is ten years after his passing and a half-century after the founding of the Polish Laboratory Theatre. Grotowski’s work is recognized as one of the 20th century’s great artistic accomplishments. Paradoxically, after 1969, Grotowski’s theatre took place outside the theatre. This work – “Paratheatre,” “Theatre of Sources,” “Objective Drama,” and “Art as vehicle” – are best described as “cultural experiments and explorations.” But both in the theatre and beyond, Grotowski is recognized as a great teacher and director alongside Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Artaud, and Brecht.

The YoG focuses on successive stages of Grotowski’s work bringing to the fore under-represented aspects and re-evaluating well-known aspects. Grotowski’s theatre often played to audiences of less than 100 persons, and sometimes as few as 30, because he insisted on a direct, personal, and
intense relationship between the performers and the spectators. He made attending his performances difficult – a kind of initiation rite, including showings and participations that were by invitation only. The few large-scale Grotowski Paratheatrical and Theatre of Sources events were relatively short-lived.

The intent of the YoG is to gather those who participated in Grotowski’s work, those who have studied it, and those who will be introduced to it in order to reflect on what Grotowski accomplished and to show today’s theatre artists and scholars who Grotowski was and why he is important today – not only for theatre, but for the broader arts world and society.

Participants from all phases of Grotowski’s multilayered career will take part, including Ludwik Flaszen and Rena Mirecka from the original Polish Laboratory Theatre, as well as Thomas Richards of the Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy, to whom Grotowski transmitted “the inner aspect of the work.”
The YoG brings together a large cohort of the world’s most important performance theorists and practitioners from Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the Caribbean.

It is more than twelve years since I saw him last, and forty-one years since I first met him. How do I remember him? As a mystery man in dark glasses, a hippie with wispy beard and backpack, a laughing skinny Buddha demanding raw beef for dinner, a weak human being old before his years. These are physical attributes. There is more, the essence of his being. Grotowski was a seer in the old, traditional sense. What remains is his intensity, focus, and wisdom.

Richard Schechner, Curator
New York, December 2008

Richard Schechner is University Professor and Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He is editor of TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies, general editor of the Worlds of Performance (Routledge) and co-editor with Carol Martin of Enactments (Seagull). His books include Environmental Theater, Between Theater and Anthropology, The End of Humanism, Performance Theory, The Future of Ritual, and Performance Studies: An Introduction. His books have been translated into many languages including Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Farsi, Hungarian, and Serbo-Croatian. He founded The Performance Group and East Coast Artists with whom he directed many productions that have been seen around the world. He has directed plays in India, South Africa, and China. In addition to receiving numerous fellowships and awards, Schechner is an honorary professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, Havana, and at the Shanghai Theatre Academy where in 2005 the “Schechner Center for Performance Studies” was inaugurated. Schechner first met Grotowski in 1967 and kept in contact throughout the years until Grotowski’s death in 1999. Schechner is co-editor (with Lisa Wolford Wylam) of The Grotowski Sourcebook (2001).

Dominika Bennacer, a native of Wroclaw, Poland, Associate Curator of Tracing Grotowski’s Path, is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Performance Studies, NYU. Her scholarly specialties include performance studies and Eastern European experimental theatre. In her dissertation Bennacer reconsiders contemporary theories of witnessing by examining the quotidian and ritual practices of Muslims in the United States in the context of post-9/11 detentions and deportations. She has articles forthcoming in Performance Research and TDR.

Andrew Bielski, YoG curatorial assistant, is an M.A. candidate in the Department of Performance Studies, NYU.

A Grotowski Chronology
Special Thanks