Poor Theatre vs. Dogma 95
an email conversation

Editor: (Owen Daly)   A student contacted me about the commonalities between the Danish film movement Dogma 95 and Grotowski's concept of 'poor theatre'.    I am not a cinephile and only have a vague acquaintance with Dogma 95, so I read the Wikipedia entry about that movement.  There does appear to be some commonality between Grotowski’s poor theatre and Dogma 95.

I'm a drama student and i recently came across the danish film style Dogma 95. I couldn't help noticing some similarities to poor theatre and was wondering if you have any thoughts on the subject. 
best regards Linda

Dear Linda,

            Grotowski stated that ‘spectacle’ was taking us away from the most important part of theatre, the immediacy between the actor and the audience.  This live presence is the fundamental difference between film and live theatre.  This stands as a significant difference between the two concepts.

            The impulse to simplify, to get down to the basics of performance, is a commonality between the two approaches. As to specific points:

  • Shooting on location (no imported props or sets)
    • The technology of film allow shooting on location, the requirements of theatre limit you to a theatrical space.
    • Grotowski’s theatre used carefully selected and considered props, often representative or suggestive such as a cloth cradled in an actress’ arms becoming a baby.  
  • Sound and image produced together
    • This is a commonality, more of a restriction for film where this is often not the case than theatre, although using ‘canned’ or other artificially created sound is widespread in theatre that Grotowski left behind.
    • The idea that the ‘authentic’ sound is more immediate and potentially powerful is a commonality.
  • A handheld camera
    • This is analogous to the seating arrangements at performances of Grotowski’s productions.  He got away from the traditional separation of the actors from the audience, designing his performance spaces to integrate the presence of the audience into the production.
  • Natural light
    • A divergence.  By definition there is no natural light in a theatre, but it is also a commonality in that Grotowski’s use of lighting was spare, with few lighting effects or tricks.
  • No optical work or filters
    • This is a commonality in that Grotowski’s actors worked without makeup, presenting themselves, their bodies without superfluous adornment.
  • No superficial action (murders, weapons)
    • This is a divergence.  Grotowski’s theatre was involved archetypes, invoking in the audience’s recognition the basic symbols and sounds that are recognized on a deep level.  The stories on which the performances were based were often biblical, of from the classics of literature and mythology.
  • No temporal or geographic alienation
    • This is a mixed bag.  The stories in Grotowski’s theatre were biblical or classical invoking distant places or times, but the presentation was immediate, real and in direct proximity with the audience.
  • No genre films
    • To expand on the temporal/geographic answer above, Grotowski’s work brought the classical/biblical themes into an immediacy of the here and now of live performance.  But it is a different here and now from everyday life.  Dogma 95 seems to want to more closely represent everyday life, Poor Theatre wants to present a sharper pared down performance at a real, yet symbolic, archetypical level.
  • No signature
    • Grotowski was the director and did not try to hide that fact, but he did not try to glorify it either.  He would have had a similar objection to the ‘auteur’ concept.

            There is an interesting parallel between the two theories, the need to simplify, to get back to basics, to become more ‘real’, but each is still within the architecture of performance, film in one case, theatre in the other.  In both cases, the actors are actors, what is being presented is a performance that was planned, rehearsed and in the case of theatre, repeatable.  Both ideas involve the inherent contradiction between reality and performance.

            Grotowski simplified to get to a deeper truth, a deeper level of communication; Dogma 95 seems to simplify to make the film appear more ‘real’.  Both look for ways to make the performance more ‘immediate’.

            An interesting extension of this comparison would be to include a contrast with the present ‘reality TV’ so popular today, but so thin, so shallow so much of the time.

Owen Daly



Additional Information on Grotowski

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