My presentation paper. (sorry my profound piece of inner-action art isn’t included)

HEART OF PRACTICE Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards



Thomas Richards (son of the famous American director and educator Lloyd Richards) was first met with Grotowski’s work in his senior year as an undergraduate of Yale University. Ryszard Cieslak visited with a brief two-week workshop. This blew Richards’ mind and compelled him to seek out Grotowski himself.
In the end, Richards’ was selected as one of nine actors to participate in Grotowski’s “Focused Research Program in Objective Drama” at the University of California, Irvine.
From there, Richards traveled to Pontedera, Italy with Grotowski in 1986 as his assistant and soon became the leader of one of the work teams, and then Grotowski’s “essential collaborator”.  Grotowski dedicated the last 13 years of his life to the transmission of his practical knowledge alongside Richards. He drove Richards to take on increasingly greater responsibility and leadership in the work, not only as primary ‘doer’ in the practice of Art as Vehicle, but also its leader and director. In 1996 the title of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski was now the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards.  Together, the two realized the process of transmission in the ancient, traditional sense of the word.
Although Grotowski died in 1999 at the end of a prolonged illness, the research of Art as Vehicle continues at the Pontedera Workcenter, with Richards as Artistic Director.


Normally in theatre of performance (or Art as Presentation) the actor works on the vision that should appear for the spectator. In fact, this is the director’s job: to construct the montage for the eye of the audience and is in fact not the duty of the actor. If all is executed correctly, a story or vision appears in the perception of the spectator. So the performance does not necessarily appear on the stage, but in the eye of the beholder. This is the nature of Art as Presentation.

At the other extremity of this long chain of performing arts exists the term which Peter Brook first coined in describing Grotowski’s final stage of work: Art as Vehicle. This line looks to create the montage not in the perception of the spectator, but in the artists who do. Art as Vehicle can be accomplished with or without an audience. Because the goal is the work on oneself.  Grotowski sees those involved in Art as Vehicle as ‘doers’ not ‘actors’ because their point of reference is not the spectator but the itinerary of verticality.

In terms of this verticality, think  of the ‘everyday level’ of one’s energy. In this verticality, one is aiming for the ‘higher level’, a more subtle level than that of the ‘everyday’ dense level. Once reached, this subtle energy, like rain, descends back down, infusing the density of the everyday level.  To achieve this verticality a well-constructed ladder is needed, with every rung being well crafted, otherwise the ladder will break. The ritual songs of the ancient tradition give a support in the construction of these rungs of the vertical ladder. This is the craft. But more on this later!

The major differences between Art as Presentation and Art as Vehicle lie in the seat of the montage. In Art as Presentation, the seat of the montage is in the perception of the spectator, and in Art as Vehicle the seat of the montage is in the doers.

Take the image of the two different elevators:
For Art as Presentation the image is of a big elevator in which all the spectators are in and the actor operates it. If successful, the performance transports the spectators from one form of event to another.
The elevator for Art as Vehicle is a primitive one, like a basket pulled by a cord with which the doer lifts himself towards the higher, more subtle energy in order to descend with this back down to the instinctual body. This is the external reality of ritual. If it exists, then the basket will move. This primordial elevator is a perfect image for the idea of verticality.
This elevator can function with or without a witness present. It’s not functioning for the spectator, rather it’s functioning for the doer.
“In Art as Vehicle the impact on the doer is the result. But this result is not the content; the content is in the passage from the heavy to the subtle.”  This journey of the vertical ascension and then descension: this is the INNER ACTION of the doer is  the doer’s primary goal.
Grotowski started off with Art as Presentation, and over the years of his research he has landed at the opposite extreme of this chain of performing arts, which is Art as Vehicle. In between these two extremes were his research in Paratheatre, Theatre of Sources  and Objective Drama. Grotowski recognizes the importance of Art as Presentation and has never tried to impose his research work on those who practice it. Both extremes belong to the same large family. In between them exist technical discoveries and artisinal consciousness- relevant to any member or even distant relative in this ‘performing arts family’.

HEART OF PRACTICE Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards

The research work that is conducted at the Workcenter in Pontedera is focused on the line of Art as Vehicle.
The book is comprised of a series of conversations that took place over the course of a decade with Thomas Richards (Grotowski’s essential collaborator), each offering insights into the creative process of Art as Vehicle at different points in the evolution and development of the Workcenter research. Our very own Lisa Wolford Wylam conducts the first section: The Edge Point of Performance.
So let’s get straight to it!
I will start off by giving a brief description of the several ways in which the word ‘action’ is used in this book.
‘Action’ with a capital letter, refers to the totality of a performative structure. A work. An opus. They are the structures in which the inner action can be pursued (which I will get to in a moment).
Then, of course there are lines of physical action. The score of ‘doings’ that comprise a structure. These are similar and inspired by Stanislavski’s notion of physical actions. It’s not about how you feel, but what you DO that leads to that feeling.
The inner action is what Art as Vehicle is all about. This is referring to the process of energy transformation in performing with and around ancient vibratory songs.  Most of these songs are African or Afro- Caribbean in origin, and therefore in languages practiced by those cultures. This inner action refers back to the idea of verticality in which I was discussing earlier.
The word ‘energy’ is used in this work in terms of it’s qualities not its quantities. The transformation is regarding one quality of energy to another.
The ancient vibratory songs provide the tools necessary for the transformation of energy. Once their technical aspects are perfected (i.e. the syllables, melodies, temp-rhythms), the sonic vibrations created begin to touch and activate ‘energy seats’ within the body. The energy seats are like centers or gatherings of energy. One seat is located just above the solar plexus. When this seat is activated by the stream of life impulses created in the body through the use of these songs, it begins to open and become receptive. It’s as if a channel opens up and the energy moves to a seat slightly above it: the ‘heart’. Then, something may open up at the heart, and allow these energy pools to move up and up so that it is no longer related to the physical frame- it’s as if it is above the frame. The energy pools move from a denser level, traveling upwards transforming into something more sublet, light and luminous. Once it has touched and activated the highest source it’s as if a subtle rain descends and washes every cell of the body, infusing the denser areas with this subtle luminous energy.
This is the focus of Art as Vehicle; the inner action accomplished by the doer. It is not done with the spectator in mind. This is not to say that the inner action can only be accomplished when no one is watching. The point is to not let the inner action become secondary. It demands unbroken concentration on the part of the doer. There is huge danger in the doers mind to wander off, or for their attention to be broken with the knowledge of an audience. There is a huge risk of losing or falsifying this inner process. This work does not orient itself towards the spectator as objective. For the doers, the opus is a kind of vehicle for the work on oneself.
So, knowing that these opuses are not at all done for the spectator: is this theatre? Although there is no active participation, the witness is still observing a theatrical situation. They are observing a group of actors working on a precise, repeatable performative structure and also witnessing the inner action happening in the doers.
One thing that may happen for a witness (or for that matter, a scene partner) is the process of induction. Take, for example, an electrical wire with a current running through it; when you put a dead wire close to the alive one, traces of an electrical current may appear in that ‘dead’ one. So, as they are watching, witnesses might begin to perceive inside themselves something of what is happening in the doers (while in inner action). However, induction is NOT the objective! Also, one witness might experience induction while another may not- for various reasons. The value in the doers lies in the doing, NOT the fact that they are being watched. The Action can accept that someone is watching, but doesn’t depend on it.
Now, onto the image of the ladder. The practical knowledge of what all the different qualities of energy are serving in the doer goes hand-in-hand with the discovery of them; just like steps on a ladder (and keeping with the idea of verticality). One step leads to another, helping move the doer upwards, in the direction of the subtle ‘source’.
I think it is very important to discuss Richards’ notion of the paradox of the acting craft. It concerns two opposing forces, two poles: form/ precision AND stream of life (inner action). It is the force of these two poles working together that give a performance it’s balance and fullness. This is the paradox of the acting craft; only from the fight between these two opposing forces can the balance of scenic life appear.
Take the image of a river. Banks are needed to make a river. They give structure and form. They need a certain type of strength, different to that of the water, in order to channel it. Without these two strong banks, there would be no river, only a flood or a swamp. When channeled, the force of the water becomes even greater. The banks are the pole of form and precision, and the water is the inner action (stream of life).  Each owns a force that is very different from one another- but both are needed for a river to exist. There is freedom in the form. (This is a saying I personally live by in my day-to-day acting work.)
In regards to the research at the Workcenter, the banks would be the technical elements of the Action: the ancient songs, impulses, the score of reactions, the logic of the minutest actions, and the word/ text which is so ancient that it is almost anonymous. All the technical elements must be impeccably and precisely executed to provide the structure for the inner action to take place (the water to run through it). In the opus Action, much like in a performance of ‘theatre for presentation’, the structure is repeatable; it has a beginning, a development and an end, where each element should have its technically necessary logical place.
A doer’s series of actions and thoughts have to be completely structured, without any holes in between- like a prayer, in it’s continuity, which is like oil that never breaks or bubbles.
Jumping onto another subject: the blocks that can arrive in a doer’s inner work. Early on in childhood, we are all subject to different experiences that can teach us that a certain desire is ‘bad’ or that an aspect of one’s self is not ‘correct’ depending on our relations with our family, society, religion etc. We can try to hide them or pretend they don’t exist, but they keep creeping up saying, “here I am! I’m real and not going anywhere! Deal with me!” These inner blocks have a way, over time, of physically manifesting themselves in the body’s musculature system. They can end up restricting the breathing and will have an effect on the quality of vital force a person can engage. With time and work, the relationships with these blocks can change, and one can become more open and receptive. (I relate this work specifically to what we are doing in voice and movement here at York; becoming more aware of our personal blocks and habitual tendencies; dealing with them so our channel can become more open, more receptive without limitations).
In terms of ‘personal feelings’ in the work: it is fundamental to aim for good work not good feelings. The doer’s job is to serve the work. This implies honesty, which is not back patting and easy flattery. Honesty does not necessarily lead to ‘good feelings’. With honesty, judgment appears. The point is never to be nasty or cruel, but to give critical feedback to a scene partner about what you witnessed. Serve the work. As Grotowski said, “it’s not the time for honey, it’s the time for work.”  We at York, and hopefully every other reputable theatre school, can really relate to and live by this. ‘.‘You gotta call it like you see it!’
Tandem is the special contact that can happen between two doers. Basically one is passive, and the other active. There is always a leader in a song, but that doesn’t mean that the doer ‘following’ is passive, but is rather assisting and going with (which also has an active engagement quality).  The ‘leader’ begins to have a vital mobilization occurring in the solar plexus; the sonic vibrations touch and begin to activate that energy seat ( inner action is happening). Then, by induction, the ‘follower’s’ energy seats are touched and awakened too.
In terms of working with memory, there is a danger in trying to remember the memory- especially the emotion linked to the memory. Stanislavski soon realized that while doing the ‘emotional memory’ work problems arose and he re-oriented his actors towards what he called ‘physical actions’. He focused their attention not on what they were feeling but on what might concretely have been their line of doings in those circumstances.  One can’t force emotions. Emotions are independent of our will.  The work is to focus on your doings.
There is a great quote from Sonia Moore’s The Stanislavski System: “ The ‘small truth’ of physical actions stirs the ‘great truth’ of thoughts, emotions, experiences, and a ‘small untruth’ of physical actions gives birth to a ‘great untruth’ in the region of emotions, thoughts and imagination.”
The research at the Workcenter focuses on specific, precise, repeatable lines of action (of doings), down to the most minute detail.
Then there is the notion of ‘memory bridges’; these can help in the score of physical actions. To give an example of a memory bridge, Grotowski once saw a certain organic walk appear in Richards that he wanted to catch and develop. So, he invited Richards to remember a moment in his life where he walked like that. Richards proceeded to recall a specific memory of visiting his father in the hospital and now this acts as a ‘ memory bridge’ to that certain walk that Grotowski first called out.
How does one know when the work works? How does one ever know it will move a witness? One can never know. All one can know is that it might have an affect because it is real.  However, just because it’s real, doesn’t mean a witness will perceive it. The group at the Workcenter is in a constant process of interrogation, searching together. Part of the knowing is that one must know you can never be sure, but over time, a certain awareness can develop.
Now, for a quote from Lisa’s book The Grotowski Sourcebook:
“Richards compares the Art as Vehicle work to that of the Bauls: the yogin-bards of India whose spiritual practice takes the form of songs and dances that can be appreciated on an aesthetic level.  He suggests that the Bauls, by means of their ritual songs, accomplished “something that was like performing, but it’s not just that they were doing theatre…What they were doing really was related to the work with their teacher, to this something ‘inner’”. The practice of the Bauls serves as an analogy for Art as Vehicle; it highlight’s the ambivalent nature of spectatorship.”
Although the work of Art as Vehicle seems perhaps slightly foreign and ‘sacred’ to us here who are so focused on Art as Presentation, there are some fundamental things we can take from this research. The idea of freedom within the form. The image of the river; with the strength of its banks and of its water channeling through it. The idea of a precise, repeatable score of doings, which when perfected, can allow for the freedom of energy transformation within the body. Theatre that is alive with a vital, uninhibited force. There would be huge benefits for us here to stop expecting fast easy results, and to take (or should I say be supported in taking) the time to plant the seeds. Creativity happens when one has the time to discover that which they don’t already know. Keep asking questions. There is something to be learned by not depending on an audience. I’ll end with a quote from Peter Brook: “There is a living, permanent relationship between research work without a public and the nourishment that this can give to public performance.” We could learn a thing or two from the practice of Art as Vehicle.


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