In Towards a Poor Theatre, we find a series of essays from Grotowski and various other authors, delineating the concept and practices of “poor theatre,” a type of contemporary experimental theatre that Grotowski developed as part of the Theatre Laboratory in Poland. In the foreword, we learn that the laboratory itself is much more than theatre; it instead seeks to delve into the mind of the actor and learn new ways of creating a unique and evocative production. One of the main emphases is placed on the actor and being able to break them of “acting,” or at least allowing them to see the true reason why they do what they do. They cannot simply rely on demonstrative actions and clichés, what they believe a character would do when reacting to a certain event. They must learn to challenge themselves and learn the truth behind the feeling, which they can then convey successfully to the audience. A true actor must not go through the motions and create a simulacrum of acting – they have to know, not think, that this is what to do.
In the titular essay, “Towards a Poor Theatre,” Grotowski begins by expressing his distaste for the label his work so often receives: ‘experimental’. He views that word as implying that the work is fleeting, a means to an end, something to be forgotten once the event is over. Grotowski also tells of the differences between the productions he creates at the Theatre Laboratory and what other people consider to be experimental: garish, demonstrative, clichéd performances that seem more like a cheap cabaret act than real theatre with a message. However, with the shows he creates, he seeks to connect the audience to the performer in a way that no one has ever attempted or succeeded with before.
Training is a big component to the craft of an actor, according to Grotowski – one of the biggest problems he seems to have with normal methods of acting is the artificiality of it, developing a set of stock reactions and character traits that an actor can lean on too much at times. This tends to limit the actor and make them run shy of their full potential, and can come about somewhat as a product of the actor’s own egotism and self-consciousness. With Grotowski’s methods, he seeks to strip bare all of the preconceptions an actor has and start fresh, which requires a complete humbling of oneself. As a result, the actor can reach a place where there is no stopgap or thought process between when something happens to the actor and when the character reacts. There is no time lost by the actor attempting to determine what the character’s reaction should be before performing it, and so it looks more natural to the audience. The actor enters what is known as a “trance” state, almost becoming the character, or at the very least, being completely and totally focused on the moment, the now, the immediacy of the performance. There is no time for second guessing or revision of your own work when you are on stage.
All of these principles count toward what Grotowski calls a ‘via negativa,’ which is a way of taking out the barriers that actors put around themselves or between what they are willing to do and what they are capable of. At the same time, it is not to be confused with just allowing the performance to run on instinct and feeling alone; instead, the actor training involved with poor theatre seems to serve the purpose of shaping those instincts and intuitions into a definite choice, but one that is informed by structure and sign.
As a consequence of these findings, Grotowski happened upon the very concept of poor theatre: the fact that, in light of the modern art forms of film and television, there is no way for theatre to be able to keep up with the type of pace and spectacle that those mediums provide, nor should it attempt to. This technique laughs in the face of contemporary theatre, what he calls “Rich Theatre,” a method that attempts to bring the aesthetics of film and television to the stage, incorporating screens and multiple perspectives to the production. The problem with Rich Theatre, according to Grotowski, is that these efforts are impossible, and even counterintuitive to what theatre should be in this day and age. Therefore, poor theatre was devised: a way to get back to basics and shake up the meaning and purpose of theatre to the modern world. Where stages and auditoriums were the norm, proponents of poor theatre create and use a new space for every single production.
With these new spaces, the audience can gain a whole new level of interaction with the actors, and be further included in the experience the performers are providing. Elaborate costumes and makeup are eschewed in poor theatre; so is sophisticated light schemes, opting instead for stationary light sources, keeping everything as simple as it could be. The absence of this theatrical frippery enabled the actors to challenge themselves further and portray everything about their character through voice, movement, interaction – giving them the chance to live up to their potential. This is not to say the most basic elements of costume and prop are not utilized, but instead of having them spell out their function and serve a single purpose, they could be put to great use as a great many things in the course of the play.
Poor theatre seeks to reinvent the very concept of theatre itself, especially in the face of a faster-paced, quicker-moving world, where attention spans are shorter and people can get away with not becoming as emotionally involved in a work of art, especially a play or performance. By stripping theatre down to the base elements of actor and script, and providing an inventive new way to involve the audience, it is possible for them to get excited about theatre again. One of the objectives of poor theatre is to place as little an emphasis on the technical side of the production; there could even be the barest of texts to accompany the actors and their movements. Grotowski’s belief is that the actor is everything to a production – as long as you have actors, you have everything that you need to put on the barest of shows. Everything else is either icing on the cake or even unnecessary to the whole thing.
Grotowski’s own productions speak to the concepts of poor theatre: his production of the play Akropolis ended up being the very first real instance of ‘poor theatre’ seen by British audiences, the same year this book came out. This and other productions made great use of the audience, including them in the actual shape of the space that the actors were working in; the actors would sometimes interact with and among the audience, creating an even thinner divide between the show and the spectator. This creates an interesting shakeup in the lives of the people watching the show, as people as a whole are more individualized than ever before, due to the fact that religion is no longer the primary force that unifies us.
I very much took to the concepts that are presented in Towards a Poor Theatre; Grotowski makes some very good points about the nature of theatre in today’s world, how its status as the prevailing art form of civilization has been usurped by television and movies. This makes it necessary for theatre to make its own changes, and due to the nearly limitless scope and ambition that televised media can present, the only way to go is backwards. Making theatre and performance as simple as possible, paring it down to the essentials – actor and audience, with the rest just being what you need to get by – is a fantastic way to go about putting on a performance, and allows the art to thrive through limitation.
To be fair, I still believe that there is a place for spectacle theatre, but perhaps not the place that it has right now. In today’s age, with Broadway shoving millions of dollars of set pieces, elaborate light shows, and loud, boisterous music at the audience, it can have a numbing effect. This is where poor theatre can fill the gap: providing something that the rest of media cannot – a contemplative but truthful portrayal of a work, and a way to shake the audience out of their seats and their disaffected outlooks. In an increasingly inattentive culture, practices like poor theatre must be implemented in order to grab that attention that is so often lost. By forcing them to interact with the work as a whole, they are being involved, and it can allow them to get something out of the performance by the end of it. This is a far cry from spectacle theatre, which tends to shove everything it has at the audience, who lets it wash over them without learning or realizing anything.
With the fascinating essays penned by Grotowski and his contemporaries, along with the in depth interviews where Grotowski gets to expand on his philosophy of theatre, Towards a Poor Theatre is the definitive tome for this new and exciting form of performance. If anyone in the theatre world benefits most from this work, it is actors – they are the most important, if not the sole, component of poor theatre, and Grotowski works with them closely to make them achieve the kind of artistic verisimilitude that is required for works of poor theatre. I highly believe that, whether you want to a practitioner of this style or just want to learn more about the art of performance, the insights that Grotowski has to offer are too intriguing to be ignored.