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What is Theatre For?

Editor: (Owen Daly) A student from Hull University in the UK emailed with the seemingly simple question, "What do you think Grotowski thought the theatre was for?"  I have tried to answer the question.

It is good to ask basic questions. They are often illuminating. 'What is theatre for?' is such a question.

From my experience, theatre was a priori. It existed and continues to exist and does not have to explain itself, so your question is somewhat 'new' to me.

Theatre is an instance of people getting together with a common or shared purpose. It is not dissimilar in structure to going to church. A religious service, especially the Roman Catholic mass with which I grew up, is a performance with settings, costumes, actors and audience.

A banquet is in many ways a performance. There is often a head table or head of the table to which primary attention is paid, but there is a more participatory construction to the event, food and conversation is shared and each participant has the option of taking the spotlight for at least a brief time. It is also more improvisatory and multi-focused than your typical play or church service.

So theatre is not an isolated cultural structure, but lies in a continuum of related human activities which include some recognizable structure, and people participating as 'doers' and 'observers'.

This would cover the range from the spectacle of Gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, to the structured improvisations of Commedia del l'Arte, to Shakespeare's plays, to the Vaudeville performance that balances twenty spinning plates simultaneously, to the modern spectacle of a World Cup Football match.

Grotowski did differentiate his concept of theatre from that of 'performance' and 'spectacle'. It is not just going through an animated presentation of a set piece, nor a presentation that captures the audience by huge effort or sparkling effects. When Grotowski talked about his theatre he stressed the individual actors, individuals trained and prepared to present something at once intimately personal and at the same time archetypal or universally recognized, often at a deep psychological level, by the audience. I would say it was a sharing of 'secrets' that the audience already knows at a deep level, but may have forgotten in the press of everyday events.

Grotowski's works were not considered 'finished'. Rehearsals continued after the 'opening', and the show would go through changes, phases, and re-openings as it evolved. This continued work of exploration between the actors and the director would, in my opinion, keep the work 'alive' and immediate.

I have recently been tangentially involved in a Broadway musical type production of "Some Like It Hot' and have had the opportunity to see the performance several times over two periods about a month apart. The actors wore microphones, the music was amplified, the lighting and sets were elaborate and complex, and thus had many of the trappings of 'spectacle'. Even though in theory the performance was 'set' by opening night it continued to evolve, due at least in part to the efforts of the lead producers of the show, who earlier in his career was a member of Pillory Theatre and worked along the lines of Grotowski. I was also drawn to the performances by something else, something beneath the lines, the singing and dancing. The individual actors were each in their own way putting themselves on display to the audience in their sincere efforts to make the production, and especially their part of it, work theatrically. To my eyes, there on stage, beneath the performance and spectacle were actors, real people, putting themselves on display in an effort to communicate something very basic to the audience.

So when you ask me what I think is the purpose of theatre, "What is theatre for?', I would answer that it is to provide a forum, a structure for people to interact in a special way, where there are 'actors' that are observed by the 'audience'. Where the actors purpose is to share something basic about the human condition, to touch the members of the audience by the simply and consciously acting out portions of themselves for the audience to see, hear and have a reaction.

I think Grotowski would have a similar, more refined take on your question. I think he would be able to far better than me put into words just what is being communicated and why we humans have continued to crave that enough to keep theatre alive in it's many forms and permutations over the past many centuries.

I would also direct you to a recording of Grotowski that was played at the memorial service in NYC in January of 1999 in which he spoke, among other things, of what he was looking for as he chose to make a career in theatre.

You might also look in the first chapter of "Towards a Poor Theater" where he says, "We are seeking to define what is distinctly theatre, what separates this activity from other categories of performance and spectacle... Our productions are detailed investigations of the actor-audience relationship. That is, we consider the personal and scenic technique of the actor to be the core of theatre art."

-Owen Daly 6/30/2004

Additional Information on Grotowski

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