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|Editor: (Owen Daly) Grotowski's death in January 1999 brought out a number of reminicences. Often presented in the nature of a tribute, they give, I think, a great deal of insight into Grotowski, who he was and how he worked. This one, by Robert S. Currier was originally published in CALL BOARD in the San Francisco Bay area.|
Monologue: My Dinners with Jerzy
by Robert S. Currier
A great and good man passed away in January in Pontedera, Italy. Jerzy Grotowski, 65, will be remembered as the most significant theatrical innovator of the second half of the 20th century, as Stanislavsky is recognized for the first half. His revolutionary work between 1958-1975 with his Polish Laboratory Theatre swept like a wildfire after the publication of Towards a Poor Theatre in 1968:
"We do not want to teach the actor a predetermined set of skills or give him a 'bag of tricks'...everything is concentrated on the 'ripening' of the actor...by a complete stripping down, by the laying bare of one's own identity.... The actor makes a total gift of himself. This is a technique of the 'trance' and of the integration of all the actor's psychic and bodily powers which emerge from the most intimate layers of his body and his instinct."
In 1983 my friend Robert Cohen, then Chair of Drama, invited me down to my alma mater to work for the U.C. Irvine School of Fine Arts helping create Jerzy Grotowski's Objective Drama Project. Jerzy was at U.C.I. as opposed to dozens of other institutions in the U.S. and Europe that were courting him for a reason all of us in theater can understand. Money. One generous member of an old Hollywood studio family was putting up a large chunk, no questions asked, and U.C. was willing to hire Grotowski as a Full Professor, (with medical benefits) and myself as aide-de-camp. Jerzy, always quick to puncture inflated titles, re-dubbed me: "Bob is the Nya Nya." And happy I was to be his Nanny.
As has always been the case in my life in the theater, tasks multiplied beyond the scope of any sane job description. Jerzy had no car, not to mention a license, so I became his chauffeur. He spoke four languages, English not among them, so I became his translator and English teacher. Of course, I helped him with shopping, laundry, cooking, finding an apartment in Laguna Beach and building bookcases in said apartment (where, as fate would have it, Dick and Pat Nixon had spent their honeymoon!). I found cafes open late at night where, as his English rapidly improved and he grew to trust me, he would do more of the talking while I, increasingly and eagerly, listened.
A highly educated, deeply sensitive and complex man who had suffered much, he had a childhood out of his friend Jerzy Koszinski's novel A Painted Bird. His personal history was not something he talked about readily, but some nights around the Hour of the Wolf, after enough Armagnac primer, he would begin telling me harrowing tales of his youth.
He was born in Rzeszow, Poland and was six years old when Germany blitzed his homeland on September 1, 1939. His family listened to the news on the radio and he remembered hearing his parents talking at the table late into the night. His father left before dawn, ending up in Paraguay years later. Jerzy never saw him again.
Subsequently, one day the Nazis stormed into their village and shot and killed everyone in every other house. They slaughtered the families to their left and right and drove off. Jerzy asked his mother why they had been spared and "she said, I will never forget the way she said it...she said, 'Is not our time.' " His best friend next door had been shot in the stomach. "It took him two days to die." Fearing more of the same, Jerzy's mother moved him with his brother, Kazimierz (who later became a professor of nuclear physics) to their aunt's farm in the country. There, surrounded by nature, steeped in Polish Catholicism, (his uncle was Bishop of Krakow), Jerzy began to have religious epiphanies. He had "a personal relationship with Jesus" and "I cannot remember how, but I talked, really talked with the animals." He used to sleep out in the barn, by choice, under the feet of a cow with whom he talked a great deal.
In his Roy Orbison horn-rimmed glasses, Einsteinian hair bristling, in the same rumpled charcoal suit he'd worn for weeks, whistling softly to himself as he shuffled around the Nixon apartment at 3 a.m., he would pour me a little more brandy and mumble things like "The Poor Theatre...always very expensive..." in a Polish accent thick as his glasses. It was bizarre beyond words. Nothing in my California life had prepared me for the likes of this amazing, disheveled genius. I was in awe.
The Objective Drama Project was the third phase of Grotowski's work. Unlike his first phase, the Laboratory Theatre which produced a number of performances before an audience at the Theatre of Thirteen Steps and led to the publication of Towards a Poor Theatre, the O.D.P. was almost pure research. Having traveled the world studying primitive cultures from India to the Phillipines, East Africa to Haiti and South America, Grotowski was now ready to reproduce and codify ancient rituals which produced something akin to "the trance state." When he explained this to me, in halting-but-rapidly improving English, I repeated a comment I had once heard by Krishnamurti: "If you say Coca-Cola a thousand times extraordinary things will happen, but it doesn't mean anything." Grotowski laughed and shot back, "But it does mean something." And that something, in a nutshell, is what the Objective Drama Project was setting out to discover. Results? Unlikely.
Raising money to finance "research" of ancient rituals (including "Caribbean rituals," our euphemism for Voodoo) for a project which named no opening night nor promised any kind of production at any time, proved problematic. No press release or Sylvie Drake (Los Angeles Times) interview could be released before Jerzy had quizzed me on the exact meaning and nuance of each unfamiliar English word. Jerzy would not lead anyone on. His reputation, integrity and belief in his work were unimpeachable. Some people had seen Louis Malle's film My Dinner With Andre in which Jerzy's friend Andre Gregory recounts one of Grotowski's all night, para-theatrical workshops in the woods. Anyone seeing the film comes away with a sense of astonishment and wonder at this mythical magician, this High Priest of the avant garde, Jerzy Grotowski. The film became one our best fund-raising tools for the O.D.P.
One of my last duties in 1984, before the money ran out, was to build "a circular building" for Jerzy's research. As luck would have it, an old friend, David Raitt (son of John, brother of Bonnie) had a yurt business up in Mendocino county. He came down with a crew and we erected a beautiful 36' diameter yurt, which Jerzy loved and filled with candles. I believe it is the only Mongolian-style yurt on any U.C. campus, and was well-used for Jerzy's 48-72 hour marathon sessions: "First, you will expect something to happen and when nothing does then you will get bored and lose all your expectations and maybe then...something real will start to happen."
You had to love the guy, a unique modern prophet and truly radical creative artist, looking for the origin of the creative impulse, looking for God in man. Peter Brook said it well: "The intensity, the honesty and precision of his work can only leave one thing behind. A challenge. But not for a fortnight, not for once in a lifetime. Daily."
The last time I saw him, before taking off on some Grotowski-inspired globe trotting of my own, I think he sensed it was our final farewell. His entire life had prepared him for separation. He expected nothing more. As I turned to leave he called, "Bob...never will I have a better Nya Nya."
Robert S. Currier is artistic director of Marin Shakespeare Company in San Rafael.
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