No more Grotowski : one afternoon at La Mama with Richard Schechner and Thomas Richards

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When he was asked to step on the stage and engage in the promised conversation about Grotowski’s heritage, he didn’t move at first, he started to sing instead. A woman seated next to him joined him, then a couple of other people scattered around the room did too. Gradually, a powerful song formed and the air started to vibrate around each of them. Some were getting rid of their clothes, especially the shoes, so that when they reached the stage they touched it with their bare feet.

I hate saying about theatre that it is magical; I usually believe it is more about reason and technique and craft. But it was definitely something magic about these persons singing together in an unknown ancient language, keeping a small distance from one another while looking each other in the eyes, intensely aware of every move this expanded multi-head body made. Arms open, palms of their hands facing towards their partners, in a protective gesture or maybe an attempt at connecting trough their fingers, they continued to sing with almost palpable joy, transmitting their excessive energy to the room and, at some point, starting to laugh, a weird result of this intense moments for those who were only witnesses.

Later on, when Richard Schechner, the best master of ceremony for this exquisite theatre encounter – the Coffeehouse Chronicles #170 at La Mama Experimental Theater in New York – asked Thomas Richards – the man who first started to sing –  how come they were laughing he explained it by describing his entire philosophy. He said that his intense connection created through singing is melting the exterior layers all human beings gather over time in their attempt to navigate social mores and advance their careers and live their lives as they are expected to do, and when the singers feel as close as possible to their very essence, facing their interior self, they are joyful, so they laugh. He described the process as similar to an amazing discovery and I remembered when I first took a glance at the Grand Canyon and felt breathless for a long minute then felt like laughing with joy. I wasn’t discovering myself, but one of the nature’s wonders, so intense joy was in order.

But what do all these have to do with Grotowski, you may ask?

While I started this recollection with the core of the meeting, in reality it was opened with an informative and heartfelt presentation made by Richard Schechner, one of the few people in the room who personally knew Grotowski (he made us raise hands). Also, he was one of the few who saw his productions live and the only one who assisted him with his first workshops in New York. Commenting on short videoclips of Grotowski’s exercises for actors and of some of his productions, Schechner prepared the mixed audience for what was to come, namely short talks by American scholars about the great Polish director’s heritage and the discussion with his designated heir, Thomas Richards. Son of theatre people, Richards is of mixed race, his father came from Haiti to become a reputed theatre professor at NYU, founder of “Eugene O’Neill Center” for theatre development, and his mother was an American actress and dramaturg, helping along with developing various theatre programs. All his life Thomas Richards grew up among famous theatre people, so when he met Grotowski and started to work with him in 1986, he was tempted to “take it for granted”, in his own words. It took him a while to understand that he has to prove himself every day and not in a dutiful dull office-job kind of way, but in a meaningful one. A road to discover his inner self was needed so he started walk on it and worked his way closer to the essence of “the process” something that was more important for Grotowski than the result, the production, THE THEATRE. Their relationship grew in the last 13 years of the great director’s life, years spent in Italy where he entered a phase of theatre rejection: he did not want to show the results, he wanted to go deeper into the process and discover the essence of human connections, of meaningful energy exchanges. Him and his chosen ones – “he had a homosocial group, in every phase of his career he had a favourite actor and, when he moved on, the last one was crushed after the total giving and taking”, Schechner said – were involved in a total experiment, body and spirit. But “why did he chose you to be his heir?” Schechner asked Richards. After meditating and smiling, Richards answered there is no way to really know but he supposed it was more than one thing: probably the appreciation of the fact that “he was doing the work”, possibly the fact they grew closer in those 13 years, or maybe because they shared Haitian roots – few people knew that Grotowski discovered he had ancestors in Haiti and, at some point in his life, he spent a great part of seven years on the island working with a vo-doo priest.

23 years after Grotowski’s death in Pontedera, Italy, and as many years of continuation of Grotowski’s work by the group led by Richards, the heir publicly explained that this work done under the label “Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowksi and Thomas Richards” is over and he/they moved on to another phase of their journey[1]. After extreme funding cuts in Italy – who needs experimental theatre anymore? – they were forced to find another place to work, so they came back to US and settled for now in Ohio. The new theatre group called Theatre No Theatre (no connection with Japanese Nô theatre) features Richards and long-time collaborators Jessica Lossila-Hebrail and Hyun Ju Baek, alongside other more recent acolytes, some of which were part of the demonstration at LaMama and in a production titled Han and included in this theatre’s program.

And what is left of Grotowski, one may ask? It was probably time to let his teachings – which in many ways are already part of the deeper stream of theatrical contemporary developments – officially become part of history. In this sense, no more Grotowski means let us talk/write/read more about Grotowski!

[1] The first anouncement was made in January 2022. More about this in TDR:


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