Seminal figure in avant-garde theatre leads York prof to Italy

York theatre Professor Lisa Wolford Wylam’s research on the pioneering Polish director, theoretician and educator Jerzy Grotowski has taken her to Italy this spring for a conference and a six-week residency with the Workcenter founded by Grotowski.

Grotowski (1933-1999) was a seminal figure in 20th-century avant-garde theatre. A founding father of the experimental theatre of the late 1950s and 1960s, he went on to help redefine the nature and purpose of theatre in contemporary culture. One of his central ideas was the concept of "poor theatre", focusing on the actor’s work with the audience as the primary and pivotal component of performance. Communicating viscerally through the voice and the body, the actor creates an active relationship with the viewer, who becomes part of the theatrical experience. Both actor and viewer are transformed in the process.

Right: A performance developed at the Workcenter called Dies Irae, directed and devised by Mario Biagini in collaboration with Thomas Richards and members of the Workcenter’s research team. The photo, taken during a 2003 performance of Dies Irae in Istanbul, Turkey, displays the visceral nature of theatre that follows Grotowski’s concept of ‘poor theatre’. The performers are Tan Pei Hwee (sitting) and Mario Biagini. Photograph by Cem Ardik.

Wolford Wylam has been studying Grotowski’s work for 20 years. She first started working with him in the mid-1980s at the University of California, Irvine, while she was working toward her MFA in dramaturgy from the university’s San Diego campus. There, she participated in his Objective Drama research program, which focused on the psycho-physiological impact of performance techniques on a person who was not raised within the belief structures or culture from which these performative artifacts emerge.

"The group I was working with focused mainly on songs from the Shaker movement in the US — religious songs that were traditionally performed in a context of ecstatic worship," said Wolford Wylam. "Working with that material did have a very powerful impact, one dimension of which was surely spiritual."

Grotowski established the Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy, in 1986 as a site for his research into the nature and transformative power of performance. His investigations into what he called Art as Vehicle explored how performance can serve as a tool for the performer’s inner development. In particular, Grotowski examined the transformative powers of songs linked to cultural traditions on performers who did not grow up within those cultures. He was especially interested in African diasporic rituals and their impact in this context.

Grotowski chose as his apprentice the performer and director Thomas Richards, son of the groundbreaking African-Canadian director Lloyd Richards. Grotowski worked closely with Richards for 13 years, transmitting all his knowledge and entrusting Richards with the responsibility for carrying on the Art as Vehicle project. In 1996, Grotowski changed the name of the Workcenter to the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards to mark the importance of this collaborative relationship.

Left: Mario Biagini (left) with Lisa Wolford Wylam at a Workcenter event in 2006 in Turin, Italy

Since Grotowski’s death, Richards has been developing a new work called The Letter as part of his ongoing research into Art as Vehicle. The literary source for the material is the Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas, a third-century Gnostic text describing the exile and redemption of the soul. Wolford Wylam is observing performances of The Letter during her residency as part of her research for an article on the subject.

The residency, called Project Workcenter, is a partnership between the Workcenter and Teatro della Tosse in Genoa. Each year, several artists from the Workcenter spend a month in Genoa working with young actors and theatre companies. The conference itself was a two-day event in April that included a series of films and talks about theatrical research.

At the conference Wolford Wylam spoke on a branch of the Workcenter’s research called The Bridge: Developing Theatre Arts, a project with the goal of creating entertaining theatrical performances that also retain something of the Workcenter’s core research on transformations that can occur within the performer.

Wolford Wylam worked with reclusive Grotowski recurrently during the last 10 years of his life, both in California and in Italy.

"I was incredibly fortunate in that he didn’t just admit me to his work, but also worked with me as a teacher in various capacities, including analyzing my writing with a sort of meticulous dedication. We examined my essays word by word in conversations that could literally go on all night," Wolford Wylam said.

"He knew that I was training to be an ethnographer, so during the times that I was in residence at the Workcenter, he was also teaching me what he knew about anthropology and ethnography, both in terms of giving me books to read and discuss with him, and sharing his own fieldwork techniques."

Grotowski’s ideas and work were the subject of Wolford Wylam’s doctoral dissertation (Northwestern University 1996) and remain the focus of her research and publications. She co-edited and contributed several chapters to The Grotowski Sourcebook (1996) and is guest editing and contributing to an upcoming issue of The Drama Review: The Journal of Performance Studies focusing on Grotowski and the Workcenter. In collaboration with Mario Biagini, associate artistic director of the Workcenter and Professor Antonio Attisani from the University of Turin, she is currently preparing a new collection of essays for Seagull Press called "Doorways: Performing as a Vehicle at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards".

"The culture of the Workcenter, the ways of working there, the level of expectation in regard to professional competence and the intensity of human effort, are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere," said Wolford Wylam. "I suppose that’s part of the reason I keep coming back."