Jerzy Grotowski was an innovative theatre director and theorist whose approaches to acting training and theatrical production have significantly influenced theatre today. He was born in Rzeszow, in South-eastern Poland in 1933 and studied acting and directing at the State Theatre School in Krakow and in Moscow. He debuted as a director in 1959 in Krakow with Eugene Ionesco's play Chairs and shortly afterwards founded a small Laboratory Theatre in 1959 in the town of Opole in Poland. During the 1960s, the company began to tour internationally and his work attracted increasing interest. As his work gained wider acclaim and recognition Grotowski was invited to work in the United States and he left Poland in 1982. Although the company he founded in Poland closed a few years later in 1984, he continued to teach and direct productions in Europe and America. However, Grotowski became increasingly uncomfortable with the adoption and adaptation of his ideas and practices, particularly in the USA. So, at what seemed to be the height of his public profile, he left America and moved to Italy where he established the Grotowski Workcenter in 1985 in a town near Pisa called Pontedera. At this centre he continued his theatre experimentation and practice and it was here that he continued to direct training and private theatrical events almost in secret for the last twenty years of his life. Suffering from leukemia and a heart condition, he died on January 15 at his home in Pontedera.
In his influential publication Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), Grotowski explained the focus of his work in the Laboratory Theatre and outlined the following agenda:
We are seeking to define what is distinctively theatre, what separates this activity from other categories of performance and spectacle…our productions are detailed investigations of the actor-audience relationship. (11-15)
His experiments investigated the suggestion that the actor is the core of theatre art and he used the term ‘poor theatre' to explain his desire to explore and utilise basic dramatic elements that could enhance communication between actors and audiences. Like the theorist Artaud, he noted that theatre has its own language and that this form of language is quite distinct from the words of a text. He argued that dramatic literature offered only a framework for actors' explorations of themselves and that theatre only had meaning if it could enable actors and audiences to transcend stereotyped visions and conventional or habitual behaviours and responses. In many ways, he saw theatre as a spiritual process that could enable the discovery of truth and compassion and he wrote that he hoped that his work would enable personal and social transformations.
Since Stanislavski, no one had investigated the nature and meaning of acting as deeply and systematically as Grotowski. The experiments and exercises he and his company developed focused on elucidating connections between mental, physical and emotional processes and his methods are still used to inform many contemporary theatre theories and training programs. He called the theatre space he opened in Opole a laboratory because he saw it as a centre of research but, unlike other centres of research, he argued that poverty is not a drawback and shortage of money is not an excuse for inadequate performance. His ‘poor theatre' style of drama was very popular during the 1960s and 1970s and was imitated by a variety of theatre troupes around the globe that are still in operation. Despite the fact that he worked with an exclusive community of theatre actors and audiences during the last twenty years of his life, his experiments have had a profound influence on the development of contemporary theatre throughout the world.