When it comes to acting techniques, everyone is aware of the big ones—Stanislavsky, Meisner, and Strasberg. They’re widely practiced, and have a devoted following among some of the most well-known stars of both today and yesterday. But there are other acting techniques, practices, and theories that exist, and just because they aren’t as well-known as, say, Spolin, it doesn’t mean they are any less valuable.
One such technique is that of Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theater practitioner who’s considered one of the founders of experimental theater. How could that not be crucial to any actor’s understanding of the craft? Though it isn’t practiced as a singular technique these days, Grotowski’s methods are inherent in many of the performances that you see (and, perhaps unknowingly, the ones you do) today. Here is your essential guide to the Grotowski Technique.
Jerzy Grotowski was a Polish theater director, teacher, and theorist. He took an unusual approach to acting, training, and onstage productions, and his influence continues to impact the theatrical form today. He’s one of the fathers of experimental theater as it’s understood in the contemporary arts. Grotowski was born in 1933 in Rzeszów, Poland. He studied acting and directing at the Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts before attending the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow.
He made his directorial debut in Kraków in 1957, helming a production of Ionesco’s “Chairs.” In 1959, he founded his own theater company in the small town of Opole. Throughout the 1960s, thanks to his theater company’s international tours, Grotowski gained acclaim as a theater artist—including in the United States. He was officially invited to work stateside some years later, and he left Poland in 1982. He both taught and directed productions in the States as well as in Europe for a few years, until he began to feel that his works and philosophies were being incorrectly applied. After living in America, he moved to Italy, and in 1985 he created the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pontedera, near Pisa.
There, for the next 20 or so years, he continued to hone his directing practices and theatrical philosophy. However, he mainly directed private productions that were not for public consumption. Grotowski died in 1999 in Pontedera.
Grotowski’s approach came through his directing and teaching work with small groups of actors. It also stemmed from his willingness to experiment with varied aspects of the form. He and his actors would push the boundaries of the spiritual, the physical, and the ritualistic. They would also challenge what it meant to be a performer versus a spectator. For this reason, his approach is considered to be foundational to today’s understanding of experimental theater.
Out of Grotowski’s practices, he devised what he called “poor theater,” which approaches a production by first eliminating all the parts of theater that can be considered “extraneous.” Poor theater entails little to no costuming, props, or elaborate sets. Instead, Grotowski relies on the abilities of the actors. Grotowski's technique also thrives in nontraditional theatrical settings (in other words, not a proscenium theater), especially spaces that place the action among the audience rather than at arm’s length. Essentially, it’s the opposite of commercial theater.
Grotowski’s approach is also very physical, relying on actors’ bodies to tell a story rather than using props or insinuating sets. This aspect, in particular, builds upon the philosophy of Bertolt Brecht before him. In addition to Brecht, the main influences on Grotowski were Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Building on Stanislavsky specifically, Grotowski requires all acting to be completely authentic, though more physical. He also adapted aspects of Stanislavsky’s emotion memory technique to his work with acting students.
Grotowski’s technique is linked to paratheater, meaning “beyond theater.” He believed that theater couldn’t be compared to television or film, and it should not try to do so.
The tenets of Grotowski’s technique include:
- Acting through focus and awareness:
Students of Grotowski are taught in hyperfocus, which helps them break free from mental blocks that keep them from reaching the full potential of their performing ability. Focus and awareness are also applied to physicality. Grotowski students are trained to use their bodies and voices so that the entirety of a text can be relayed using just movements and nonverbal sounds. The technique prioritizes physical and mental health—for the performer’s well-being, but also the sake of the performance. Grotowski’s school believes that the best possible performance can’t be unlocked without a level of inner peace.
- Human contact:
His teachings place huge value on real contact between human beings. His thinking was that the only way to develop meaningful connections—even those that are fleeting, as they are in the theater—is to be close enough to actually look and listen to one another. Grotowski also requires actors to be aware of their impact on other people.
Grotowski believed that the very first thing an actor should do is practice silence; he wrote that “the actor should begin by doing nothing.” He referred to this practice as “creative passivity,” and believed that in practicing silence on the outside, an actor would be able to attain silence on the inside, which could then be used to achieve intense creative concentration.
- Memory work:
Grotowski’s work with memory is most comparable to Brecht; both practices use emotion memory to recall an experience, remember the corresponding emotion, and then recreate that emotion as part of a performance. Grotowski’s practice is that the more honest the memory, the more honest the performance. It also states that actors can only discover themselves as people and performers through their most genuine memories.
Grotowski believed that the voice is an instrument just as the guitar or piano is. Grotowski students compartmentalize their different voices as though they belong to and derive from different parts of the body. Actors are meant to utilize the entire range of their vocal instrument—from the lowest register up to the very highest. For this reason, Grotowski students are some of the strongest from a vocal standpoint and can imitate sounds of all sorts, from animal calls to natural sounds.
- Physical training:
While physicality (or the lack thereof) is part of every onstage performance, Grotowski’s method pays particular attention to it. He believed that a person’s body can express anything anyone would ever need to know about them. Similarly, everything that can be felt or experienced is done through the body. One of Grotowski’s techniques focuses squarely on movement, which allows practitioners to control the smallest detail of their physicality—think a twitching eye or bulging vein. As a result, Grotowski students are some of the most skilled physical performers.
Today, Grotowski is not widely taught as its own technique. Instead, it’s part of a broader acting practice incorporating multiple approaches and theories. New York University once offered a Year of Grotowski class as part of its acting curriculum.
Grotowski’s method can be impractical. By the time his technique took shape, it was no longer even intended for audiences. It would be especially impractical as an actor’s primary technique. For this reason, you’d be hard-pressed to find any prominent actor today or from history who has ever been purely a practitioner of Grotowski. However, there are many advantages to incorporating it into your acting practice, considering what it can offer in terms of vocal, physical, and mental training.
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