Poor Theatre Conventions

Jerzy Grotowski

Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) is best known for his intense actor training processes in the 1960s and 70s. At the Laboratory Theatre in Opole, Grotowski and his small groups of actors experimented with the physical, spiritual and ritualistic aspects of theatre, the nature of role, and the relationship between actor and spectator. Grotowski was a key figure of avant-garde theatre. His comprehensive acting system is probably the most complete approach to role since the work of Stanislavski.

Today, Grotowski is recognised as one of the great directors of the modern theatre and a significant innovator of the experimental theatre movement. His techniques are easily grasped by school students. Poor Theatre can be performed in any bare space, so school drama departments with few resources often find this style of theatre attractive.

Grotowski coined the term ‘poor theatre’, defining a performance style that rid itself of the excesses of theatre, such as lavish costumes and detailed sets (hence ‘poor’). Poor Theatre pieces centre on the skill of the actor and are often performed with only a handful of props.

As a director, Grotowski preferred to perform works in non-traditional spaces such as buildings and rooms, instead of mainstream theatre houses with traditional stages. Typically, the audience was placed on many sides of the action or in and amongst the action, itself.

Acting in the style of Poor Theatre places emphasis on the physical skill of the performer and uses props for transformation into other objects, sometimes of great significance.

Theory

  • notable influences on Grotowski included Stanislavski, Brecht and Meyerhold
  • most of Grotowski’s work focused on actor training
  • his was probably the most extensive actor training program developed since Stanislavski
  • the concept of Poor Theatre strips away all of theatre’s excesses
  • Poor Theatre is non-commercial theatre; the antithesis of modern-day blockbusters
  • Grotowski argued theatre could never compete with film and television, so it should never attempt to
  • few Poor Theatre works reached performance
  • those that did were often performed only once before a small number of spectators
  • the term ‘paratheatre’ is often associated with Grotowski (‘para’ meaning ‘beyond’)
  • paratheatre saw Grotowski experiment with actors in training programs and other non-performed works
  • Grotowski’s ‘paratheatrical’ phase is generally agreed to be 1969/70–1975/76
  • Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’ phase was between 1959 and 1970
  • 1975 marked the end of all public performances connected to Grotowski
  • Grotowski’s collected writings on theatre are published in ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’ (1968)

No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.19)

Scripts

  • Grotowski sometimes experimented with classic works, changing their setting for contemporary relevance

Movement & Gesture

  • physical movement was a key component of Poor Theatre performances

Space & Actor-Audience Relationship

    • traditional theatre spaces were ignored by Grotowski in preference for rooms and buildings
    • he saw little need for a traditional stage dedicated to acting or a purpose-built theatre for performances
    • Grotowski’s work involved an intense exploration of the relationship between participant and spectator
    • his aim was to eliminate the division between actor and audience, creating a communion between the two
    • actors typically performed with the spectators on many sides
    • particpants also performed in and around the spectators strategically placed amongst them in the space

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate  performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.19).

Stagecraft

    • Grotowski’s acting area was typically bare, with few props and no set
    • object transformation was a key aspect of Poor Theatre
    • after transformation, objects were often symbolic and/or of great significance
    • lighting typically flooded the acting area with no use of spotlights or focus areas
    • if used at all, ‘costumes’ would be anonymous, not identifying character (as with realism)

… one must ask oneself what is indispensable to theatre. Let’s see.
Can the theatre exist without costumes and sets? Yes, it can.
Can it exist without music to accompany the plot? Yes.
Can it exist without lighting effects? Of course.
And without a text? Yes. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.32)

Acting & Characterisation

      • the actor and his/her skills was at the core of all Poor Theatre performances
      • on occasions, performances used no ‘real’ props, but employed actors as props instead
      • actor training was intense over long periods of time
      • actors with egos had no place in Grotowski’s theatre
      • aim was for acting to be authentic, akin to Stanislavski’s system (but more physical)
      • Grotowski used a variation of Stanislavski’s emotion memory technique with his own actors

This act cannot exist if the actor is more concerned with charm, personal success, applause and salary, than with creation as understood in its highest form. It cannot exist if the actor conditions it according to the size of his part, his place in the performance, the day or kind of audience. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, p.262)

The pronunciation of ‘Jerzy Grotowski’ has often proved to be a little tricky. Here is the correct pronunciation of his name:

yerr-shjer grrotoffskee

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37 comments on “Poor Theatre Conventions

  1. I love Grotowski’s work – in part because as you say, it’s better to have minimal props in the room, which is great for under resourced schools!

    I find as a theatre goer, I don’t want the actors to tell me what they are feeling through words, I want them to SHOW me through their performance! I don’t need to see real beer in a glass, I want them to show me, and my imagination will fill in the rest. That’s what good theatre is about for me – the opportunity to use my own imagination, and have it sparked by something truly incredible.

  2. The Grotovask’s work on Theatre is a milestone every theatre worker should go through this work,to enlighten themselves with new ideas

  3. love this method, more study in grotowaski & search in video

  4. I completely agree with this concept that howsoever theatre tries ,it can’t compete with the t.v. and cinema.. But in a reaction going to such an extreme that not even using appropriate costume or not even needing a text for a theatre performance , seems to be a bit of overreaction.

  5. hey this was very helpful but I would like someone to explain to me what this thing is about, im doing a drama assignment for Rebecca roth and she has explained nothing so im really just looking for a helping hand.
    please and thankyou

  6. Please can you give a reference for the quotes used, I would like to cite it in an essay I am writing 🙂

  7. Do you have a script excerpt you have given to a Theatre Studies class to interpret using Poor Theatre?

  8. Thanks Justin. That is exactly what I did. I gave them Ted Hughes adaptation of Oedipus. Thanks again for your help.

  9. i would like to thank the great thinkers or philosophers like JEZERY GROTOWSKI to bring change since change is reveals growth,multiplication and addition.I find it more intrestin when one is in the theatre where he or she hav to use magination.

  10. Theoretically yes anyone can voice act but it’s more a matter of can you voice act well. As a matter of fact sometimes when I’m feeling a little down on my abilities I imagine in my head of my performance fueled by study and passion vs a performance of someone who is only in it for a quick check and their name in the credits. My skills may be amateurish but atleast there is room to improve.

  11. Wao.. This is really really wonderful… I love this style of theatre..
    This post would be useful to me kos i was asked to do a close study of Grotowski theatrical practices and develop a four paper page….

  12. i like cheese, also this is really helpful, it saved my life, thank you, btw i like cheese

  13. Sir/mam I wanna learn the acting
    My no 9971718160

  14. Thank you so much, this helped a lot with an assignment I’m doing.

  15. Hi Justin, an eye opener for me who has always been thinking my financial lackings as a barrier for theatre.
    Some times a lot of concepts come.across my mind and even I develop them in my mind as a performance. But I am going through a lot of pain in terms of approach and getting started as I am not a learned actor.
    Please guide me.

  16. Perhaps approach some local theatre companies with your ideas Kanchan and see what they say?

  17. Thanks for the guidance,:)
    I have done that before and people do help me. But I was wondering if I should go for a technical learning for physical theatre and if yes please suggest me some good courses.
    I qm looking for a long run for it as a part of my life dream

  18. Sorry Kanchan. Wish I could help, but can’t on this occasion.

  19. I have been doing that Justin. But I really need some concrete basis on these methods as I seek myself in the path of more of physical theatre (poor theatre/body movement/mime)
    Please guide me to take it to next level i.e from amateur to professional level.

  20. Ananthakrishnan G S

    May 28, 2017 at 3:50 am Reply

    Holy actor ?

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