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Monday, October 15, 2012

This Week in BAM History: Jerzy Grotowski, October 1969

Old, wise Grotowski

Forty-three years ago this week the course of American theater was permanently altered when Jerzy Grotowski landed in New York. For his first stateside visit, Grotowski and his Polish Laboratory Theatre presented under BAM’s auspices three of Grotowski’s most iconic productions: The Constant Prince, Akropolis, and Apocalypsis Cum Figuris (which in fact was the last piece Grotowski professionally directed, before he turned his attention to paratheatrical research). Many of the big players (and future big players) in New York’s avant-theatrical scene came out to see the enigmatic Polish genius at work, including members of the Living Theater, a young Robert Wilson, and Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre fame (which is the most widely circulated discussion of Grotowski’s work to date).

Grotowski’s early work radically reconfigured traditional theatrical space by placing audiences at the center of the action. (A similar configuration will be seen in Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies in this year’s Next Wave Festival, November 16—18.) Grotowski’s productions were rarely performed in traditional prosceniums but instead in cathedrals, classrooms, town squares, and in a variety of natural settings across Europe. Originally the Polish Lab Theatre was to perform at BAM and in the Hanson Place Central Methodist Church, next door to BAM, but when Grotowski arrived he felt the spaces wouldn’t work. Ever-exacting, Grotowski found the Washington Square Methodist Church in the Village to be a more suitable space for his ritualistic excavations of the psyche.

Young, hep Grotowski

We’ve posted before about some of Grotwoski’s eccentricities, and how some of his behavior led to clashes with BAM’s then-president Harvey Lichtenstein, the man who was responsible for bringing Grotowski to New York. We’d like to share another exchange between Grotowski and Lichtenstein. After Grotowski’s run at BAM, Lichtenstein sent an incensed letter to Grotowski, as he felt insulted that Grotowski failed to show up for an uptown soiree Lichtenstein co-hosted in Grotowski’s honor. After telling Grotowski that he was “most disturbed and deeply shocked,” Lichtenstein wrote:
It seems to me that when your major sponsor in this country has arranged a party for you and your company, then there is an obligation to be there at a reasonable time, no matter what. Indeed I was so deeply disturbed, that I myself did not behave very hospitably to my guests.
Grotowski, in turn, replied with a two-page letter reflecting on the philosophical principles of the Polish Lab Theatre, asking, “Do you believe that a reception is what makes a theatre artistic and [that it should] be given priority over work?” He then closed his letter by stating that he leaves such questions for Lichtenstein to ponder, “as I personally refuse to go on with this sterile and useless discussion.”


(On a happier note, this slight kerfluffle occurred at the beginning of a long-lasting friendship, and Lichtenstein remained a vocal supporter of Grotowski till the end.)      

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