a concept created by Ludwik Flaszen to describe the fundamental characteristics of Grotowski’s performances beginning with Akropolis. Its most basic definition appeared in Flaszen’s commentary on this performance:
The poor theatre: using the smallest amount of fixed elements to obtain maximum results by means of the magical transformation of objects, through the props’ multifunctional ‘acting’. To create complete worlds using only the things to hand. […] This is theatre in an embryonic form, in the process of being born, when the awakened instinct of acting spontaneously selects appropriate tools for magical transformation. The driving force behind it is certainly a living being, the actor.
On the other hand, in the definition presented by Grotowski in the text ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, this form of theatre emerges as a result of a process of reduction, with the theatre performance cleansed of all unnecessary elements. Ultimately, the only indispensible components of the theatre appear to be living people – the actor and the spectator together with that which takes place between them. In effect, theatre work is shown to be above all work with and on the actor, which results in, among other things, all means of expression (the design, music, lighting, space) again becoming intrinsically connected to the actor’s deeds. At the same time, the core of the poor theatre is shown to be the search for the deepest truth of the actor’s deeds and working towards the realisation of the total act. The concept itself was most commonly understood as a formulation describing the rejection of complex means of staging evident in the ‘rich theatre’ with which it was contrasted – this was a theatre of ostentatious and luxurious staging which (in Grotowski’s view ineffectually and vainly) attempts to keep up with film and television in producing spectacular illusions and stories.
Once Grotowski had achieved global fame, and following the publication of Towards a Poor Theatre, the concept of ‘a poor theatre’ became a particular synonym for the experiments he was carrying out but ultimately the term ended up as a formulaic cliché. The concept was also subject to numerous reinterpretations and displacements (for example, the poor theatre as a theatre of the poor, i.e. those subject to economic and political oppression). To this day it remains the most recognisable term associated with Grotowski’s theatre.
Ludwik Flaszen, ‘Dziady, Kordian, Akropolis in the Teatr 13 Rzędów’, in Ludwik Flaszen, Grotowski & Company, translated by Andrzej Wojtasik with Paul Allain, edited with an introduction by Paul Allain with the editorial assistance of Monika Blige and with a tribute by Eugenio Barba, Holstebro – Malta – Wrocław – London, New York: Icarus Publishing Enterprise, 2010, p. 78–94.
Jerzy Grotowski: Towards a Poor Theatre, in Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre Holstebro, preface by Peter Brook, Holstebro: Odin Teatrets Forlag, 1968, p. 15–25.