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Jerzy Grotowski

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Editor: (Owen Daly) In the following essay William Shephard describes an extraordinary rehearsal session. It is, in my opinion, an extreme example of the openness and exploration that Grotowski's techniques engender. I was taken by it, not because it is something to be emulated, or an example of a representative rehearsal, but because it is an extreme occurrence, and because it is extreme, instructive. The specificity of the visions he saw were his alone, the process, the mechanics of letting go can be duplicated with intention and trust.
    I think that this is the fount from which the dynamic of Grotowski's work flowed and why it struck such a chord with people, especially those living in the arts.
    Mr. Shephard puts the event in context. In trying to understand it himself he helps the reader understand some of the various academic, psychological and theatrical currents active in the cultural and theatrical landscape at the time Grotowski's seminal works were formed.
William Shephard

The Insight

    Many years ago, I had an essential experience that profoundly affected my perceptions about acting and everything else for that matter.  It proceeded directly from my personal acting work, and there were numerous influences, both internal and external, which may have precipitated, or at least assisted, what occurred.   However, I confine myself to a minimum of background details and focus on the experience, itself, which eclipsed any rational attempts to explain it.

    The particular incident occurred in May of 1970 as I was concluding a six month stage, or apprenticeship, with Grotowski's Teatr Laboratorium in Wroclaw, Poland.   I had been the only acting candidate accepted for the period between January and June of that year and had worked with Grotowski and members of the company on a semi-regular basis throughout.   With Grotowski, in particular, I had worked on a series of monologues and etudes, or sketches, exploring text through my imagination and personal associations.   On the next to the last meeting we were scheduled to have, I entered the main work space at four in the afternoon and announced that I had nothing particularly prepared for the occasion, unlike most of our meetings where I had done extensive preparation beforehand.  There was a sense of our work in Wroclaw coming to a close, accompanied, on my part, with gratitude and appreciation for the work we'd done and the conversations we'd had.   Sitting on one of the benches, lining the perimeter of the room, he suggested I start with whatever came to me.   During our work together, I had gradually learned to stimulate my associative process by eliminating critical attention, causing myself to observe, edit, or comment on a particular action or association while it was occurring.

    Standing in the middle of the parquet floor, I gazed at a black wall at one end of the room. Immediately an association occurred. I saw a life-size figure of a woman in a tight, black, strapless cocktail dress and high heels from sometime in the fifties.   She was standing in profile, as if her image were being projected on the wall.   Her hair was short and black, and her face was heavily made up with dark red lipstick and eye shadow, giving her the appearance of a femme fatale.   There was something extremely seductive and, at the same time, alarming about her.   Then, all at once, she suddenly turned and looked directly at me.   It's as if the image was alive, though in a two-dimensional plane, and she was looking at me with a sardonic expression.   I reacted with shock and surprise but made a deliberate effort not to interrupt the association.   Next, the image moved away from the wall and glided toward me in two-dimensional form, like an image projected on a screen, closely passing the left side of my body. I stood completely still, and, as her image passed me, the woman gazed intently at me.  After it passed behind me, the woman's image appeared on my right side, passing me more quickly; then on the left again, with increasing speed.   I was temporarily overcome with the dizzying intensity of the moving images when they abruptly ceased.   She was standing right in front of me, inches away from my face in full, three-dimensional form!   I could feel her warm, lipstick-scented breath on my face.   My body stiffened with shock, and my breath came in gasps.   She smiled seductively, yet somehow also menacingly--then disappeared.   Instantaneously, my attention shifted from an extremely narrow, intense focus to an immensely expanded one.   I seemed to be standing before a vast landscape near an ocean, but it was unlike any landscape I had ever seen.   It seemed to fill the room and go beyond its boundaries in a panorama of brilliant hues--a pulsing, vibrating vision of intense colors that were almost nauseatingly alive.   In fact, the vision before me made me sick at my stomach.   Some part of me knew that I was still in the room with Grotowski; I could see him, sitting against the wall behind my left shoulder.   But I was simultaneously in another place, and the power of what I saw was staggering.   I was standing on a smooth, yellowish elevation or hillside, looking down on what seemed to be a coastal perimeter.   But what I had first taken to be an ocean seemed more like a limitless body of heavy, viscous liquid. It throbbed or pulsed in a way I had never known the sea to move, and it was bluish-red, almost purple in color.   The coastline was defined by a continuous stretch of dark, jagged shapes that suggested uneven tops of giant trees at the edge of a cliff, the strange ocean presumably meeting the land below.   The sky was bright magenta, and dense, bluish-white clouds seemed suspended in horizontal lines, like bands of heavy vapor along the horizon.

    I was overcome with fear, unable to tear myself away from what I saw.   I felt that what I was seeing was alive and could completely overwhelm me in an instant if I tried to turn away from it.   I was standing upright with my entire body shaking as if an electric current were passing through me.   Tears began streaming down my cheeks, and I remember crying out to Grotowski in English, asking for help.   Then, I cursed myself through my tears, realizing that he probably couldn't understand what I was saying.   I tried to translate my appeal for help into French but failed miserably, gasping and stammering incoherently.   I vaguely understood that Grotowski was saying something to me from the bench where he was sitting, telling me to "give myself--to make a gift of myself"--to whatever I saw.   My body seemed rooted to the spot on which I stood, but with considerable effort I began to move forward.   At first my steps were extremely tentative.   Then I felt the warm clay of the smooth yellowish hillside beneath my bare feet, and I began to walk down toward the strange, viscous ocean in the distance.   Then, in a flash, I found myself at seashore where everything was black and white and gray, like an old photograph.   I noticed a small child, about two years old, in the sand directly in front of me, wearing a cloth diaper and small, white sun hat.   The infant was crawling on its hands and knees toward the surf where the breaking waves sent foamy water rushing up over dark sand at the water's edge.   Suddenly, I the child, seeing the world through the child's eyes but experiencing what I saw with my adult mind.   Intense colors were all around me--blue, white, black, brown, gray, green; the sound of the surf pounding on the beach and the gulls overhead was almost deafening.   I was irresistibly drawn toward the sound and movement of the gigantic waves as they came crashing down on the beach.   I crawled to the edge of the dark sand, still glistening with foam, and watched the water being sucked back into the sea.   I had an irresistible urge to approach the ocean waves; so I crawled down the dark, wet sand and lay down on a spot well below the water line.   Then, as I watched, an enormous wave rose on the horizon and continued to climb, gathering its unstoppable momentum higher and higher.   It seemed to be swallowing the sky.   Finally the tension of anticipation became too much for me.   I closed my eyes, and the wave crashed down on me with a thunderous roar.

    The moment I was engulfed, I lost perception of everything around me.   After a few moments I came to myself on the parquet floor of the theatre laboratory.   All around me were little puddles of liquid--of sweat, tears, urine-I didn't know?   Grotowski was still sitting on the bench along the wall.   His face and body seemed taut with concern, but he hadn't moved from his place.   Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.   He seemed as surprised by the experience as I was; his face seemed pale and reserved behind his dark glasses.   After a few moments I came over, sat beside him, and we discussed what had happened.   He wasn't sure what my experience had meant, but the force and energy with which it had taken possession of me was undeniable.   He suggested that the key to my experience lay deep in my personal associations; only I could decipher its meaning.   Moreover, he suggested that I not discuss my experience with anyone else, that some things needed to remain secret.   At that point I was still a bit incoherent.   I had difficulty formulating my thoughts, speaking, or even thinking rationally.   Physically, though, I had an extraordinary sense of well-being; in fact, I felt envigorated.  I felt as though I had experienced something truly frightful and awesome, managing to come out of it in one piece.   As my mind gradually cleared, I remember thinking, "Who the hell cares about acting?   Who the hell cares about theatre?   And what the hell have they got to do with anything that's real?!"   What I had formerly accepted as reality seemed little more than a feeble veil of appearances. I had experienced something that made the entire rational-realistic basis of consciousness away like a flimsy, brittle mask.   I had been in at least two places, two realities, simultaneously, and consciously interacted with a presence that I could neither control nor resist.

    I was at a loss to make any rational sense of what had happened to me.  I could only surmise that, somehow, something in my work with Grotowski had propelled me into an altered state of consciousness for which I was completely unprepared.   Nonetheless, I was strongly compelled to discover how it happened, what my experience was all about, and where it was leading me.

The Exploration

    For those of us who have experienced it, there is something profoundly compelling and mysterious about the actor's creative process, an experiential factor frequently overlooked or disregarded by the practical demands of play production.   This experiential factor is unique to the individual actor; yet it seems to stem from sources common to all actors as human beings.   It does not originate with the playwright or director yet depends upon external structure for its articulation.   Its language tends to be more symbolic than informational.   It is carried along by the current of the actor's psychic associations and communicated on a transpersonal plane.   It is grounded in the body, in the psychophysical experience of the actor, and it transcends all distinctions of culture, society, philosophy, or religion.   It is simply impulse.   Of course, the actor's impulses are filtered through various social and cultural modes of perception, but, at base, they have the same organic origin.   Joseph Campbell explains it in this way:

The psyche is the inward experience of the human body, which is Essentially the same in all human beings, with the same organs, the same instincts, the same impulses, the same conflicts, the same fears. Out of this common ground have come what Jung has called the archetypes which are the common ideas of myths. (1988:51)

    Initially, these impulses are an aspect of the actor's creative work that exist apart from any practical considerations but which, taken together, constitute a voice that demands to be heard. In his definition of "creative myth" Campbell describes such a voice as originating from deep within the individual, a voice based upon experience rather than knowledge acquired from external sources:

   In the context of traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience, or will pretend to have experienced, certain insights, sentiments, and commitments.   In what I am calling "creative" mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own--of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration--which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth--for those, that is to say, who receive and respond to it of themselves, with recognition, un-coerced. (1968:4)


    And how does the individual arrive at the point of having an experience of such "depth and import?"   For the actor, who is an inherently disposed to probe the nature of human experience, it is not the choices of casting and character made by others that are the most significant.   Rather, it is the role or roles chosen by the actor from within, the realization of which constitutes the fulfillment of the actor's latent creative potential or, to borrow Campbell's term, "Bliss"--that "which springs from the unpredictable, experience-in-illumination of an object by a subject, and the labor, then of achieving communication of the effect." (40)

    In 1970 I was pursuing a personal investigation into the Work of the Actor at the Theatre Laboratory of Jerzy Grotowski in Poland.   There, I experienced a precise, detailed approach to the actor's score--namely, elements of contact between the actor and the role which ultimately result in the creation of a third presence that is neither actor nor role but a unique recombination of the two.   Where this profoundly differed from conventional theatre practice was that the actor became the primary creative source rather than the secondary source of the playwright or director, and character" became a function of the actor's spontaneous creativity rather than an adaptation to a preexisting dramatic structure.   In addition, I experienced a key principle of performance work at the Theatre Laboratory: the conjunction of opposites, or struggle between spontaneity and form.   At times, the tension caused by this struggle produced a sort of creative vacuum which could then be filled by impulses and associations from the actor.   I had worked with associations as essentially physical actions based upon precise memories that were more body-centered than mind-centered. In other words, the emphasis in pursuing associations was placed on reconstructing the precise details of a personal memory to the best of one's ability, rather than focussing on its emotional content..   Under the proper circumstances these associations could achieve an evolving direction and significance of their own which the actor could follow through practical details.   This was an exceedingly daring proposition because it opened the door for something in the actor's work that came from a deep inner need or compulsion.

    When I began teaching acting at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, after returning from Poland, I began a theatre lab project and found myself referring to three distinct phases of the actor's work: the Actual, the Imaginary, and the Real.   At first, I thought the idea had come from some inner synthesis of my experience, but then I remembered that Grotowski had often used the words "actuelle, imaginaire, et real," during our work together.   As I understood it, the Actual referred to the phenomenal world as it normally functioned and appeared to be, the Imaginary referred to the ability of the conscious mind to conjecture or fantasize circumstances and relationships, and the Real--was an autonomous action, something that had a life of its own yet emerged through the actor, articulating itself through a series of signs or symbolic expressions.   How this became manifest for the actor, in practical terms, involved actively pursuing personal associations in the context of a structured e´tude or study, with or without a text.   At other times, the actors would work directly with a partner, stimulating the flow of body impulses by responding to the partner in a continuous series of physical actions, ranging from gross displays of aggression and defense to more subtle levels of response.   This often resulted in a psychophysical continuum, a spontaneous exchange of impulse on the actual plane, which allowed maximum freedom of expression while, at the same time, requiring intense focus or precision.   The aim of such work was to bypass the actor's critical attention, or tendency towards self-observation, and engage a much more reflexive, instinctual response.   Once this interaction took place on the actual plane, the actors would feed their spontaneously erupting impulses with whatever accompanying impressions or associations were supplied by their imaginations, vis-a-vis the partner, on the imaginary plane.   The third phase, the plane of the Real, occurred when the imaginary elements stimulated an autonomous dialogue between partners in which both participated but neither controlled, something that originated with the individual actors but achieved an organic consistency all its own.   From personal experience I knew this process was not without risk.   Therefore, I began consultation with various psychologists who were experienced in dealing with problems associated with creativity and their relation to other psychic processes.   They all concurred that any creative process which systematically sought to lower critical attention while producing free fantasies in the form of associations might be problematic if incompatible psychic contents emerged from below the threshold of consciousness.   One of the psychologists I consulted referred me to an essay of Jung's, dealing with something he called "active imagination" as a practical means of coming to terms with the unconscious:

   The method of "active imagination," hereinafter described, is the most important auxiliary for the production of those contents of the unconscious which lie, as it were, immediately below the threshold of consciousness and, when intensified, are the most likely to irrupt spontaneously into the conscious mind. . . . .The training consists first of all in systematic exercises for eliminating critical attention, thus producing a vacuum in consciousness. This encourages the emergence of any fantasies that are lying in readiness. . . . The meaning and value of these fantasies are revealed only through their integration into the personality as a whole--that is to say, at the moment when one is confronted not only with what they mean but also with their moral demands. (1969:68,78)

    Jung cautioned that active imagination was not without its dangers and should be employed, if possible, under expert supervision.   One of the lesser dangers was that persons working with this method would get caught in the sterile circle of their own complexes from which they were unable to emerge in any case; another might be that, although authentic contents may be produced, the individuals might develop an exclusively aesthetic interest in them and become stuck in an "all-enveloping phantasmagoria;" or, in a much more serious vein, the subliminal contents would have such a high energy charge that they might, when given an outlet by active imagination, overpower the conscious mind and take possession of the personality.   How, then, could one avoid these pitfalls, while maintaining a creative discipline?   Jung's idea of active imagination seemed to suggest that the contents produced by this method were not important, in and of themselves, but only how they became integrated with the individual personality as a whole, not only in their meaning but also in their relation to the individual's basic human values in a moral sense.   For the actor, this meant creatively transforming the contents produced by active imagination from a personal to a transpersonal or "character" plane of symbolic action; therefore, discipline and intentionality on the part of the performing artist became critical.   The process began with a period of creative formulation where the actor's associations, through e´tudes, were continually "varied and increased until a kind of condensation of motifs occurred. (84)   Then, it would be up to the artists who produced these motifs to organize them into some recognizable pattern and, ultimately, shape the overall expression into a unified whole.   Some basic problems in this type of performance remained:   What dramatic structure was suitable for this associative, psychophysical approach, and how could the actors avoid being trapped in the labyrinth of their own neuroses and complexes?   There was an authenticity and power to this type of work that was unmistakable, yet how could it be communicated to an audience?   Like a riddle, the solution lay in plain sight but could not be apprehended with any logic other than its own, intrinsic rationale.

    Over the years, certain characteristics of this work have become apparent in my experience.   The first of these is that every actor has a particular range of actions, or character motifs, unique to the individual.   These motifs are derived from basic elements of the actor's being, the psychic substrata found in the psychophysical experience of the actor, which are then filtered through the personality or outward expression of the individual.   They subsequently emerge as movements and gestures in the actor's work the significance of which becomes apparent only after extensive practical investigation.   All this before a word is ever spoken.   The character motifs are expressed through gestures which are more symbolic than descriptive or mimetic.   Moreover, they are characterized by extreme states of being: love, hate, desire, triumph, despair--all in some larger, allegorical drama which transcends the particular context to embrace a timeless field of conflict.   As Campbell puts it:

The art required is to make sounds, words, and forms, whether of base or noble provenance, open out in back, as it were, to eternity, and this requires of the artist that he should himself, in his individual experience, have touched anew that still point in this turning world of which the immemorial mythic forms are the symbols and guarantee. (1968:94)

    Artists are the carriers of essential experience who not only translate, but also transmit these experiences to others, and myths have traditionally evolved as the expression of complex truths about the adventure of being alive. (1988:5)

    Words, alone, are not enough.   There are a multiplicity of meanings in these symbolic expressions, some of which can not even be expressed by language.   How then can we approach the question of mythic experience and its expression in performance?   Such an expression requires a resonant language of sound, movement, gesture, and words that speaks not simply about things but with them and through them--a poetic expression, "letting the Word resound behind words." (1968:93)   It must touch upon human experience that is universal and speaks across human boundaries in a timeless, cosmic cycle of action, destroying and recreating itself over and over again.   For its expression, it requires a suitable structure that resonates with meaning beyond superficial appearances and surface conflicts.   A logical starting place would be the wealth of mythological symbols compounded in our cultural heritage of intermixed traditions, from the dawn of human civilization to our projections of an imminent destiny in the far reaches of outer space. (94)   The more mysterious, the more suggestive, the more compelling these structures are--the more they possess a poetic resonance that lend themselves to exploration by the actor.   However, this exploration must be undertaken with honesty, humility, and appreciation for the structure's mythic potential.

    Ultimately, such an expression requires artists who are capable of transforming their own essential experiences into articulate, disciplined works of art--performances which will evoke the experience of the spectator/witness and carry it into the realm of the mythic, to "what can be known but not told." (1988:163)   But we must first recognize that mythic expression cannot be merely invented; something essential needs first to be experienced, then communicated.   We can no longer clothe ourselves in the mythic symbols of cultures for which we have no authority.   Rather, we must discover our own bliss, the "experience-in-illumination of an object by a subject," the concrete expression of an inner truth which can only be known through the body in the moment of experience.


Campbell, Joseph.
1988 The Power Of Myth. Betty Sue Flowers, ed. New York: Doubleday.
1968 The Masks Of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Viking Penguin.

Jung, Carl G.
1969 The Structure And Dynamics Of The Psyche. Trans. R.F.C. Hull,ed.
William McGuire et al., 2nd ed., vol. 8 of The Collected Works Of C.G. Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Copyright William Shephard, 2000, All rights Reserved.

William Shephard discusses his work with Grotowski in another Essay, 'Finding the Real'

Additional Information on Grotowski


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