The Labyrinth. In Search of the Grotowski Institute (an exercise in applying performance analysis)
OBJECTS have different LAYERS, different FACETS.
OBJECTS convey MEANINGS and invoke IMPRESSIONS.
Many of the ‘messages’ we receive are encoded in behaviour, in performed actions. We ‘read’ these ‘messages’ in the details of physical appearance, in the way people do what they do, in how space is arranged, in the way stories are told. Decoding these ‘messages’ is like putting the scattered pieces of a jigsaw together; it requires a patient observer, an intent listener. But the effort is rewarded by the joy of discovery, by a deeper understanding, and a fuller appreciation of an object’s complexity.
The QUEST: to consider the Grotowski Institute, as an OBJECT OF PERFORMANCE ANALYSIS; to look at it, listen to stories about it and to peer through the FRAMES in which it had been placed in order to decode the different MEANINGS laid over it and to better understand NARRATIVES that define it.
The Grotowski Institute, housed in part of the Rynek (market) in the main square in Wrocław city center, is a cultural institution which combines artistic performance-based work and scholarly research projects that correspond to the challenges laid down by Jerzy Grotowski’s creative practice.
REPORT OF THE ENCOUNTER
English; Theologian and actress; victim of profession.
Going directly to the point.
Sensitive; Respectful; actress; victim of profession.
Mapping out connections.
Source of knowledge; accurate, clear-sighted; analytical.
Putting the picture together.
Keeper of the Keys:
Head of maintenance for the Grotowski Institute;
aged around forty, solidly built; summer tan from
Egypt – a holiday destination proudly announced
by his t-shirt.
Keeper of the Archive:
Long white beard, dark clothing, elegantly phrased.
Polish. Being the only person still at the Institute
who worked with Grotowski (both during and after his
days in the theatre), he is the living memory of the
Professor at the technical university in Wrocław;
composed; analytical; elderly but energetic with a
twinkle in his eye. Devoted reader of Ode magazine
(for those unfamiliar with this iconic journal, the
banner of its website says it all: ‘the online community
for intelligent optimists’), and the New York Review of Books.
The Program Director of the Grotowski Institute.
Dominating presence but still approachable and
supportive; a keen listener.
Emerging from a story shared by The Keeper of the Archive; a
simple woman who attended a Grotowski production many
years ago in the Theatre of the Thirteen Rows in Opole, before
the company moved to Wrocław in 1965.
PROLOGUE: CURTAINS UP
As the curtain rises: Na Grobli
Na Grobli is the Grotowski Institute’s second studio at 30/32 Na Grobli Street, some two kilometres south of the Wrocław city centre; the beautiful multi-story building on a generous parcel of land beside the Odra river was originally built in the late 19th century. The building, shared with a local rowing association, underwent a major renovation in recent times. The Grotowski Institute opened the Na Grobli studio in April 2010, since which time it has been used as a performance space as well as a workshop and rehearsal studio.
[KEEPER OF THE KEYS]
The three Observers arrive at a remote location. The large building sits with its back to the street; a lego-like facade with its doors shut. The Observers knock at the large wooden front door. No one answers, despite clear signs of presence inside – parked bicycles are clearly visible through a small peep hole in the door. To the left of the door an open gate leads to a driveway running alongside the building, ‘inviting’ the observers to enter. With no response from those inside, the only choice is to explore the open gate. The Observers walk down the short driveway to an expansive, somewhat unkempt grass-covered backyard bordered by the decorative facade of what is clearly the ‘front’ of the building on one side and the Odra River on the other. Off to the right, among trees rustling in the wind are a number of what appear to be derelict wooden cabins. Directly in front of the Observers is a largish, two-story high tent, hardly big enough for a circus but certainly more generous in proportions than any vacationing family would require.
MESSAGE NO. 1
KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN
TAKE TIME TO OBSERVE
There are signs of unfinished renovation work around the building. The purpose of the tent is immediately evident as workers are busy dismantling lighting equipment, a wooden performance floor, and audience seating: the tent is clearly a theatre.
The Keeper of the Keys stands with authority beside a white van supervising the work being done. The Observers are noticed, but their presence is not acknowledged by the workers or the Keeper of the Keys, all of whom are minding their own business as they go about the task at hand.
A figure appears momentarily in the second floor window, observing the Observers with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
The Observers feel they have entered a private zone, where their presence is tolerated but not expected to last. They decide to leave; but before decisions become actions they approach the somewhat intimidating Keeper of the Keys. They explain their purpose tentatively. To their surprise, the Keeper of the Keys offers to show the Observers the interior of Na Grobli.
MESSAGE No. 2
MAKE THE EFFORT TO
YOU WILL BE REWARDED
Pause: a scene change
The curtain rises for a second time
THE GROTOWSKI INSTITUTE – 'MAIN SEAT'
[KEEPER OF THE ARCHIVE]
Headed for the Grotowski Institute, the Observers return to the main square that marks the centre of the city. Passing a brightly coloured mural, they enter one of several narrow alleys in the center of the Rynek (the former town market) in the middle of the square: the Grotowski Institute is at the heart of the local universe! Yet despite (or because of) its location, the Institute is ‘hidden’ in plain sight among the cluster building that make up the Rynek. It is not easy for a newcomer to the city to find; it is equally obscured to many of the local residents who when asked for directions more often than not reply, ‘Instytut Grotowskiego? Nie, nie wiem’ (the Grotowski Institute? I don’t know).
MESSAGE No. 3
(Echoes Message No. 1)
The first door on the left in the alley leads to the original part of the Institute. It is a three storey building, (originally residential) which used to hold the Wrocław Art Association. The cloakroom and all important archive are located on the brightly-lit ground floor. The tall, white-bearded Keeper of the Archives dressed in black cannot be ignored. Sitting just inside the entrance to the building next to a long coat rack populated with empty metal hangers, he greets everyone entering the archive or making their way to the stairs leading to the upper floors. This yellow staircase leads to another brightly-lit reading room on the first floor, then to the Apocalypsis room where Grotowski presented his productions during his days in the theatre on the next floor, and dressing rooms on the top floor above that.
The Observers are told by the Keeper of the Archive, who has accompanied them on their exploration of where the stairs lead, that the two top floors of what was then the Wrocław Art Association were once remodeled with the intention of providing a bar for non-drinking writers – a noble ambition doomed to failure that left the rooms sitting empty for several years. In keeping with the old adage that ‘one’s failures are often another’s opportunity’, the empty bar, with little in its future suggesting patrons, allowed the Grotowski’s company to adopt the space as a theatre in 1965.
The Apocalypsis room is quite small, with dark wooden floorboards (these are laid over the original floor which was ‘too hard to practice on’, as the Observers are told by the Keeper of the Archive who is keen on explaining every detail); the walls consist of raw red brick (‘originally plastered and painted black’); the ceiling is painted black (‘it was originally white’); and there is a single window (‘it originally had four’) covered with blackout blinds. The room and the floor above currently house an exhibition of impressive black & white photographs from Italian performances of the Apocalypsis cum figuris.
The former Arts Association building is only one part of the Institute today. But, the Observers, discover than even though the rest of the Institute is literally next door, there is no way to pass from one building to the other. In order to move between the buildings, it is necessary to return to the alleyway and continue walking along the alley in the direction you entered (passing the tables owned by a café occupying the building immediately adjacent) and enter either the administrative office (the third door on the left) or the cinema/studio space (the following door).
MESSAGE No. 4
THERE IS ALWAYS
MORE TO FIND
And so... THE OBSERVERS HAVE ENTERED THE LABYRINTH.
The physical experience of locating the Grotowski Institute becomes a metaphor for the Observers’ experience of it: if you want to look for the Institute, you will find it; and it takes effort to observe, analyze and understand what you discover once you are there. Your frame of reference determines your ‘path within the labyrinth’, which in turn affects the meaning you construct from your experience.
EACH OF THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE OFFERS A DIFFERENT FRAME THROUGH WHICH TO OBSERVE THE INSTITUTE.
THE FRAMES OF THE KEEPERS
The curtain rises
The Keeper of the Keys offers the Observers a functional framing of Na Grobli that would otherwise have escaped their attention. For him, the Grotowski Institute is primarily a material, physical object to be maintained. He informs the Observers of the precise number of rooms on each of Na Grobli’s floors, the function of each space, and the arrangements that have been negotiated with the academic sports association for the shared use of the building. The floors reserved for the theatre artists, for example, are located directly above a rowers’ training pool. This insight into the multiple uses of the building introduces yet another unexpected frame: the dual nature of performance housed in a building that nurtures both the creative expression of the theatre artist and the competitive drive of the rowing champion.
While the Keeper of the Keys walks through the building explaining its various functions to the Observers, as if conducting a group of fellow technicians on a tour of the facility, the Observers become acutely aware of the contrast between his casual, matter-of-fact manner and the silent reverence that the Observers feel the space requires – an impression underlined by the songs coming from rehearsals taking place in the adjacent rooms. Is this observation reasonable or are the Observers merely victims of their profession as actors?
On returning from Na Grobli to the location in the Rynek, the Observers encounter an entirely different frame, but one presented in a similarly proprietorial tone. The Keeper of the Archive gives an account of the Rynek site that is equally preoccupied with the technical details of the physical building, but in relation to their significance for the artistic work created within it, rather than their functionality. He refers to the space as nienaruszalna – a word that is often translated as inviolable in English, but which can have an almost reverential quality in Polish, describing something that cannot ever be touched, trespassed upon or disturbed. The Keeper of the Archive believes that the artistic activity performed in the building gives it a special, lasting quality that has transformed it into a sanctuary of sorts. This respectful attitude coheres with that held by the Observers.
EXPERIENCE OF THE AUDIENCE
The curtain rises
Having encountered multiple frames within the Institute, the Observers feel that the ‘Experience of the Audience’ has to be examined. As limited by time as this examination is, the Observers again uncover two contrasting perspectives (how many more are there to be discovered?):
The FIRST perspective: provided by Keeper of the Archive who, in talking with the Observers recalls the impressions of a Grotowski theatre production by the Lady Offstage, whom he describes as ‘an uneducated spectator’ who was a chance visitor to the Theatre of the Thirteen Rows in Opole. A direct quote from Keeper of the Archive paraphrasing the Lady Offstage seems most appropriate: ‘I did not understand a single thing, but it was such a strong experience that I cannot forget it, even today’.
The SECOND perspective, provided by The Rationalist in his office at the Technical University, couldn’t have been more different than the first. He attended a performance of Apocalypsis cum figuris – almost forty years ago, the Observers are informed. For him the performance, while emotionally engaging, was an ‘artistic brainstorming session’. He remembers it as a continuous exercise of constructing and re-evaluating competing interpretations of what he ‘participated in’ (rather than simply ‘saw’). In his own words, ‘You either engage or you have to leave’; there was no other way of experiencing it for him. To his mind, this was a theatre made by skilful craftsmen for the intellectual elite.
For the Rationalist the company’s conscious appeal to the elite was exemplified by the removal of audience benches from performances of Apocalypsis cum figuris. The second time the Rationalist attended the production he noticed that the benches placed against the walls he and other audience members sat on during the first performance, had been removed. According to the Rationalist, this was done to increase the acting space and further limit the (already limited) numbers of spectators attending a performance; while at the same time removing any hint of comfort for spectators who were also challenged by the more immediate presence of the actors around them.
To the Observers’ surprise, The Keeper of the Archive contradicts the Rationalist. He explains that the reason the benches were removed was to allow more spectators to attend each performance. With the intent of allowing more people into each performance, the decision was actually driven by practical considerations rather than aesthetics.
The Observers are so reminded:
MESSAGE No. 5
STAY ALERT AND DO NOT GO FOR OBVIOUS TRUTHS
UNCOVER THE TRUTH
CONTINUED TRANSFORMATION OF THE LABYRINTH
The curtain rises
It is the Passionate Academic, who has till now remained off-stage, that provides the most pertinent frame through which to view the Institute: the frame of time. The Passionate Academic argues that while preserving the GROTOWSKI HERITAGE, the Institute must not become a museum; it must be a LIVING INSTITUTION, one that encompasses theatre practice and theory while conducting on-going research into the fields originally explored by Grotowski.
The curtain begins to close,
as it does...
AN EPILOGUE OF SORTS
The Passionate Academic points out, ‘Grotowski was a shaman/trickster’. A warning: expect blind alleys inside a labyrinth dedicated to a shaman/trickster.
The Observers learned that lesson too: all who enter the labyrinth, have to unravel their own Ariadne’s thread; there is no single pathway that everyone must follow.
If there is a general rule about negotiating the labyrinth, it is simply: keep searching, keep working.
FIND YOUR OWN WAY THROUGH THE GROTOWSKI LABYRINTH AND YOUR JOURNEY WILL HELP YOU DISCOVER YOUR OWN MEANING.
AN END... OF SORTS
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