A Theatre of the Actor-Saint: Osterwa’s Reduta

Following up on my previous posts on the Rhapsodic Theatre and Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, I would like to introduce a third Polish theatre company that was an inspiration to both: The Reduta Theatre.

The Reduta, founded by the Catholic director Juliusz Osterwa, was active from 1919 until the theatre was destroyed in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War. Osterwa, like his theatrical descendants Mieczysław Kotlarczyk and Jerzy Grotowski, used sacral language for the role of the actor. Polish theatre historian Kazimierz Braun writes that:

‘Truth,’ in Osterwa’s view, was the foundation for theater work…. Osterwa treated acting as a ‘sacrifice’ or an ‘act of redemption.’ The performance was for him a ‘sacerdotal sacrifice for the congregation.’ He referred to spectators as ‘witnesses.’ The ‘communion’ between the actors/priests and the public/congregation was his goal, and the ‘actor-saint’ was his ideal.

Braun identifies the following statement as Osterwa’s first ‘commandment’ of the theatre: ‘Theatre is a holy communion; creating theatre, you shall serve your brothers, your country, and God’.[1]

Members of the Reduta lived in community, wore garments similar to monastic habits, and treated theatre more like a ministry than a career. Besides producing performances, which took places on tour as well as at their home theatre, the Reduta ran an educational studio, and experimented with the development of their own acting technique based on performance as a spiritual practice.[2]

Osterwa was a supporter of the Rhapsodic Theatre at its beginnings, and an inspiration to its founders, who took up his focus on the repertoire of the Polish Romantics, his approach to theatre as a way of religious and patriotic service to the community, and his connection of theatre theory to ethics. The Rhapsodists also shared Osterwa’s Catholic faith, and the Reduta’s commitment to serve Christ through theatre.

As an atheist, Jerzy Grotowski did not share the same spiritual commitment that was at the heart of the Reduta. However, he took up the Reduta’s vision of the actor as priest, performance as sacrifice, and theatre as communion. Also like the Reduta, Grotowski’s actors lived and worked communally, dedicating themselves to theatre as a way of life.

Unfortunately, the Reduta Theatre was destroyed at the beginning of World War II. After the destruction of his theatre, Juliusz Osterwa wrote a manifesto calling for the founding of two religious theatre communities after the war:

Dal was to be a community of theater artists oriented toward service to society through service to art. A personal vocation to devote one’s entire life to theater would be a precondition for membership. Besides training, rehearsing, and performing in the productions, members would supervise community groups, teach acting, lecture, preach, and publish theater manuals. They would work within a cooperative structure, and their way of life would approach the monastic. Genezja[, or the Fraternity of St Genesius,] would be an artistic-religious order, a brotherhood of theater people, representing the next step up beyond Dal. Service to God, within the Roman Catholic Church, would be the first priority in Genezja and the basis of service to society, through the medium of theater. The monk-members would lead a monastic life, observing religious practice, training as actors, preparing performances with religious themes, and organizing church ceremonies in which they would participate as lectors, vocalists, and preachers.[3]

Sadly, neither of these ideas was tried, as Osterwa died shortly after the end of the war. However, these two communities provide ideal models for those who might wish to engage in theatre as a form of spiritual practice, especially from the standpoint of faith.

Grotowski still has his disciples, but the Christian descendants of the Reduta have become invisible.

Shall Osterwa’s line be resurrected?

Cole Matson is a final-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts, exploring the Eucharistic theologies of Jerzy Grotowski, the Rhapsodic Theatre, and the Reduta Theatre.


[1] Kazimierz Braun, A History of Polish Theater, 1939-1989: Spheres of Captivity and Freedom (Contributions in Drama & Theatre Studies, #64) (London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 137.

[2] For more on the Reduta and Osterwa in English, see Kazimierz Braun, A Concise History of Polish Theatre from the Eleventh to the Twentieth Centuries (Studies in Theatre Arts) (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003) and ‘Juliusz Osterwa: Polish Theater Reformer’, Balagan: Slavisches Drama, Theater und Kino, 1:2 (1995): 49-59. In addition, see Dariusz Kosiński’s upcoming book on the Reduta and Osterwa (title unknown). Almost all material on the Reduta and Osterwa is only available in Polish, so I am indebted to Profs Braun, Kosiński, and Artur Grabowscy for sharing material and information.

[3] Braun, History of Polish Theater, 20.

Image credit: “Juliusz Osterwa” – Wikipedia.pl (Source). Released by user Gapcior under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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