Grotowski’s Poor Theatre: A Theatre of the Body

Plaque showing the location of Grotowski's Teatr Laboratorium from 1965-1984, Wrocław, Poland.
Plaque showing the location of Grotowski's Teatr Laboratorium from 1965-1984, Wrocław, Poland.
Plaque showing the location of Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium, 1965-1984, Wrocław, Poland.

In the first part of this three-part series on the Rhapsodic Theatre and the Laboratory Theatre, I introduced the theological underpinnings of the Rhapsodic Theatre, associated with Karol Wojtyła and Mieczysław Kotlarczyk. In this second part, I will introduce the theology of Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, the theatrical concept which he explored in his Laboratory Theatre. In the final part, I will compare the two, to ask whether the two approaches can inform each other.

Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski described his mission as the creation of ‘a secular sacrum in the theatre…’[1] In Peter Brook’s preface to Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, Brook describes Grotowski’s work with the Laboratory Theatre as the search for ‘a new Mass’, noting that Grotowski’s ‘tradition is Catholic – or anti-Catholic; in this case the two extremes meet’.[2]

Grotowski’s definition of the theatre is ‘“what takes place between spectator and actor”’.[3] He writes that theatre ‘cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion’.[4] To focus in on this horizontal relationship between the actor and the spectator, Grotowski calls for a ‘poor theatre’, a theatre stripped of all superfluous elements, such as set, costumes, props, and make-up. He calls his way of proceeding a ‘via negativa – not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks’ to full expression of the spirit through the body, leading to a ‘“trans-lumination”’ in performance in which ‘the body vanishes, burns, and the spectator sees only a series of visible impulses’.[5]

The pinnacle of performance is the ‘total act’, the moment during the actor’s performance ‘score’ in which he completely reveals his self to the spectator. Grotowski writes, ‘In the most important moment in your role, reveal your most personal and closely guarded experience’.[6] The total act is ‘the act of laying oneself bare, of tearing off the mask of daily life, of exteriorizing oneself… It is a serious and solemn act of revelation’.[7] ‘If the actor performs in such a way, he becomes a kind of provocation for the spectator.’[8] ‘The spectator understands, consciously or unconsciously, that such an act is an invitation to him to do the same thing’.[9] As Grotowski continues, ‘This act could be compared to an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings’.[10] ‘[I]t is all a question of giving oneself. One must give oneself totally, in one’s deepest intimacy, with confidence, as when one gives oneself in love’.[11] ‘This is both a biological and a spiritual act.’[12] This ‘self-sacrifice’[13] of the actor’s entire being through the medium of his body in performance is, Grotowski writes, ‘the essence of [t]he actor’s vocation’.[14]

The total act is the source of the actor’s holiness. When Grotowski speaks of holiness, he is very clear that he means:

a ‘secular holiness’. If the actor, by setting himself a challenge publicly challenges others, and through excess, profanation and outrageous sacrilege reveals himself by casting off his everyday mask, he makes it possible for the spectator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration. If he does not exhibit his body, but annihilates it, burns it, frees it from every resistance to any psychic impulse, then he does not sell his body but sacrifices it. He repeats the atonement; he is close to holiness.[15]

The sacrifice of his own self, through sharing himself completely with another human being in a complete self-revelation, is an act of love that not only challenges the spectator toward an equal act of ‘self-donation’,[16] but is also an act which saves the actor. Grotowski writes that, ‘When you achieve this [total act] you will be pure, you will be purged, you will be without sin… It is a kind of redemption’.[17] This spiritual experience, this total act, is at the centre of Grotowski’s theatre. It operates as the Eucharistic presence in Grotowski’s ‘new Mass’.

Grotowski was an atheist, but his Eucharistic understanding of theatre as a self-gift which creates a bond of communion (and erotic union) finds echoes in Karol Wojtyła’s Theology of the Body. Theology of the Body draws a connection between the spousal meaning of the body and the divine self-gift which, through the Incarnation of the Word, unites humanity with the communal life of the Trinity. Can Theology of the Body be the door to a Eucharistic theatre theory which combines the physicality of Grotowski with the Rhapsodic Theater’s emphasis on the word?

Cole Matson is a third-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts. He is exploring the possibility of a truly Eucharistic theatre by putting the work of Jerzy Grotowski in dialogue with John Paul II.

[1] Jerzy Grotowski, ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’ (1964 interview with Eugenio Barba), Towards a Poor Theatre (London: Methuen, 1991), p. 49. Emphasis added.

[2] Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 12.

[3] ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 32.

[4] ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’ (1965 article), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 19. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[6] ‘Skara Speech’ (1966 lecture), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 196.

[7] ‘The Actor’s Technique’ (1967 interview), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 178.

[8] ‘Methodical Exploration’ (1967 article), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 99.

[9] ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 37.

[10] ‘Statement of Principles’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 212.

[11] ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 38.

[12] ‘Theatre is an Encounter’ (1967 interview), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 58.

[13] ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 35.

[14] ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’ (1967 article), Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 92.

[15] ‘The Theatre’s New Testament’, Towards a Poor Theatre, p. 34.

[16] Ibid., p. 38.

[17] ‘Skara Speech’, p. 192.

Image credit: Wikipedia user Heem will ihch (original source), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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