Carla Pollastrelli

‘Art as Vehicle’: Grotowski in Pontedera
In this testimony, Carla Pollastrelli charts the main stages leading to Grotowski’s settlement in Pontedera in Italy and to the creation of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski. As the Year of Grotowski, supported by UNESCO, draws to a close, her words provide a fitting tribute to a man whose influence has surpassed all geographical boundaries, whether those of his native Poland, adoptive Italy, or place of temporary refuge, the United States. Carla Pollastrelli is the co-director of the Fondazione Pontedera Teatro. Pontedera Teatro. From 1986 to 2000 she was an executive of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski, which in 1996 was renamed the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. She has edited translations of Grotowski’s texts in Polish into Italian since 1978, and is the co-editor with Ludwig Flaszen of Il Teatr Laboratorium di Jerzy Grotowski, 1959–1969: testi e materiali di Jerzy Grotowski e Ludwik Flaszen con uno scritto di Eugenio Barba (Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, 1959–1969: Jerzy Grotowski and Ludwig Flaszen’s Texts and Materials and a Text by Eugenio Barba (Fondazione Pontedera Teatro, 2001; second edition, La Casa Usher, 2007), and the collection of Grotowski’s texts, Holiday e teatro delle fonti (Holiday and the Theatre of Sources, La Casa Usher, 2006).

WHY Grotowski in Pontedera? I am often asked this question. To be able to answer – from the Pontedera point of view, of course – I will try to outline some relevant facts that eventually brought Grotowski to start his work in Pontedera in 1986. Other than the long-term collaboration between the Centre for Theatre Research and Experimentation in Pontedera and the Laboratory Theatre in Wroclaw, and our determination, major political events in Poland here played a significant role. The first visits of Grotowski and the Laboratory Theatre to Italy date back to the 1960s, marked by two main events: the publication of Eugenio Barba’s book Alla ricerca del teatro perduto (In Search of a Lost Theatre, 1965) and the performances of The Constant Prince at the Spoleto Festival in 1967. Nevertheless, only in the 1970s did the impact become strong enough to initiate a wide and deep influence. This was due to the publication of the Italian edition of Towards a Poor Theatre in 1970 and to the Laboratory Theatre’s memorable participation in the Biennale Festival in Venice in 1975. Here, for almost two months, the Laboratory Theatre

carried out a complex programme, which included workshops, paratheatrical projects, work encounters with young Italian theatre groups, and twenty presentations of Apocalypsis cum Figuris in a converted gunpowder magazine on the island of San Giacomo in Paludo. The participation of the Polish Laboratory in the Biennale Festival marked the professional biography of a generation of theatre people, among them the young group that was part of the Centre at Pontedera. Several groups and companies came into being, while others disbanded. For many, it was like a new birth, a new life in the theatre. Paradoxically, all this happened a few years after Grotowski announced his exit from the theatre. The Centre for Theatre Research and Experimentation was born in Pontedera in 1974 on the crest of the wave of the independent theatres movement, and very soon it became the leader of this constellation of theatres. From its beginning, Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski were the essential references for the Centre, and even something like its domestic ‘gods’.

ntq 25:4 (november 2009) © cambridge university press


Two key words, which, today, are quite banal but which then were emblematic of the renewal of the theatre taking place, were directly drawn from Grotowski’s experience, inspiring the practice of many groups in those years. The first was ‘laboratory’, which referred to theatre (antibourgeois) outside conventional spaces, where a different relationship between actors and spectators existed, together with the necessity of working in an ensemble, where the process was more important than the result. The second key word was ‘training’ (the term used in English, of course), which referred to the practice of selfteaching – another notable term – by those young actors who did not have, or refused to have, an academic education. ‘Training’ also denoted an ethical approach to the work of the actor. In the spring of 1977, I landed in Pontedera at the invitation of Roberto Bacci, the director of the Centre for Theatre Research and Experimentation, whom I had met during the 1975 Biennale, where I was working as an interpreter for the Laboratory Theatre. My dowry consisted of the theatre acquaintances and contacts that I had made during my long periods of study in Poland. We carried out several projects with Polish theatres, artists, and scholars at the Centre. In particular, we established a strong, systematic link with Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre and organized workshops, seminars, and paratheatrical projects. In 1979, we presented Apocalypsis cum Figuris in Pontedera – the Laboratory Theatre’s last performance. At the same time, I worked on translations and publications as an authorized translator of texts by Grotowski, Ludwig Flaszen, and other scholars close to the activities of the Laboratory Theatre. In the summer of 1980, Poland compelled the attention of the entire world due to the extraordinary action of the independent trade union Solidarnosc (Solidarity). After the coup d’état of 13 December 1981 which imposed martial law, Grotowski left Poland and, after a short visit to Denmark, came to Italy at the invitation of the Centre in Pontedera. Here he was joined soon afterwards by the international group of the Theatre of Sources and 334

by the company of the Laboratory Theatre. For several months in 1982, in spite of the prevailing precarious conditions and the uncertainty of his future prospects, Grotowksi carried out his activities in Italy between Pontedera, Volterra, Rome, and Santarcangelo. Our collaboration and friendship strengthened during that crucial and dramatic period. Towards the end of 1982, Grotowksi decided to ask for political asylum in the United States. It was only in the autumn of 1984 that he was able to travel to Italy again, and it was quite natural for us to propose that he create a base for his work in Pontedera. In December of the same year, together with Roberto Bacci, we had preliminary talks to assess the possibility of establishing an institute directed by Grotowski, with full artistic independence; the Centre was to ensure the administration, logistics, and organization, as well as adequate space at Grotowksi’s personal disposal. Our proposal was a kind of carte blanche offered to a great master by a small theatre with limited resources. Eventually, in August 1986, we started the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski. It was not meant to be a drama school, or a workshop, or a training centre, but a creative institute for the continuous education of artists who were responsible for themselves, and where the elements of artistic craftsmanship were a vehicle for individual development. This was not easy at a time when the idea of the product and the image common to business predominated even in the arts, and the idea of research only seemed to make sense when applied to the market or to technology. So, in the beginning, there were Grotowski, Thomas Richards, and a few collaborators who, at different times, subsequently left the Workcenter. There were also sessions in which participants for the long-term practical programme were chosen. Young people came from all over the world. One of the first to appear was Mario Biagini, who is now the associate director of the Workcenter, with Thomas Richards as its director. We, in the Centre for Theatre Research and Experimentation, knew little more than that. Of course, we were aware that this was a new phase in Grotowski’s artistic trajec-

tory, and he himself often stressed that this was the last: in any case, it continued for almost fourteen years. We were also aware that transmission was an important aspect of this last phase. It was not until after one year of activity that Peter Brook, with a brilliant flash of intuition, defined the research developed at the Workcenter as ‘Art as Vehicle’ – meaning that the work-opus is a sort of vehicle for work on oneself. We thought we understood: words were known to us. They were ‘transmission’, ‘tradition’, ‘individual development’, ‘work on oneself’. In actual fact, I have the impression that we were like ants sitting on an elephant. We were fascinated by the evocative power of Grotowski’s texts, talks, and lectures, but often did not understand that certain formulations had to be taken literally and not like a sort of great metaphor. It did not dawn on us that tradition was not simply a matter of knowledge or a model to be referred to, but that it was transmitted directly from one person to another through research and practice. It became usual to compare the Workcenter to a kind of hermitage – and this

especially in the beginning. Yet, the retreatlike situation of the Center was due, on the one hand, to the demands of the work and, on the other, to Grotowski’s health. His illness dictated a sort of complex ritual in his relationships and his rare public appearances and comments. Only two years after the Workcenter had started could we witness, together with a few other invited people, the nature of the work. As far as I am concerned, it was a shock – the shock we feel when we are confronted with absolute rigour, impeccable craftsmanship, a discovery of the potential encoded in the human being’s organic presence, and with an unknown form of art. For fourteen years, Grotowski was, for the Centre at Pontedera, like a hidden heart, pulsing and radiant. When I think back to the circumstances that led to setting up the Workcenter, I believe that our merit lay in our contribution to creating the necessary conditions that allowed the master in exile to build a bridge to the future. Translated from the Italian by Carla Pollastrelli with Maria Shevtsova