Jerzy Grotowski (August 11, 1933 - January 14, 1999) was a Polish theatre director and a leading figure of theatrical avant garde of the 20th century.
Jerzy Grotowski was born in Rzeszów in Poland and lived until the age of six in Przemyśl. During World War II, the family was separated: his mother moved with him to the small village of Nienadówka, while his father served as an officer in the Polish Army and was later stationed in England.
In 1955, Jerzy Grotowski graduated from the High Theatrical School in Kraków with a degree in acting. Soon after graduation he went on to Moscow to study directing at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS). During his stay in Moscow, until 1956, he learned about new trends in theatre pioneered by leading Russian figures such as Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold and Tairov.
After returning to Poland, Jerzy Grotowski expanded his studies in directing at the theatrical school from which he had graduated (1956-1960). During that period he moved to Opole where he took over the post of director in a local theatre.
In 1965 he moved to Wrocław where he established and led a theatrical company - Laboratorium - which was in itself very innovative but under the overwhelming influence of Jerzy Grotowski's personality.
He was the author of Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), where he declared that theatre should not, because it could not, compete against the overwhelming spectacle of film and should instead focus on the very root of the act of theatre: actors in front of spectators.
Jerzy Grotowski was a revolutionary in theatre because he caused a rethink of what theatre actually was and its purpose in contemporary culture. One of his central ideas was the notion of the 'poor' theatre. By this he meant a theatre in which the fundamental concern was the work of the actor with the audience, not the sets, costumes, lighting or special effects. In his view these were just trappings and, while they may enhance the experience of theatre, were unnecessary to the central core the meaning that theatre should generate. 'Poor' meant the stripping away of all that was unnecessary and leaving a 'stripped' and vulnerable actor. Applying this principle in his 'laboratory' in Poland, Jerzy Grotowski jettisoned all costume and staging and preferred to work with all black sets and actors in plain black rehearsal costumes, at least in the rehearsal process. He made the actors go through rigorous exercises so that they had full control over their bodies. What was important to Jerzy Grotowski was what the actor could do with his or her body and voice without aids and with only the visceral experience with the audience. In this sense he overturned the traditions of exotic costumes and stunning staging that had driven much European theatre from the 19th century. This is not to say that in public theatrical performances he completely disregarded lights and sets, but these were secondary and tended to complement the already existing excellence of the actors. Indeed he wrote:
By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. (Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre. Simon & Schuster, 1968, p.19)
To this concept of 'poor theatre' Jerzy Grotowski (an atheist) added the concept of the 'priesthood' or sacredness of the actor. When the actor entered the sanctity of the performance space, then a special event occurred, much like the Mass in the Catholic Church. It was in this space, in the holy relationship between the actor and the audience, that an audience was challenged to think and be transformed by theatre. In this sense, Jerzy Grotowski was one of the key figures in the development of political theatre in the 20th Century. His theatrical productions often contained political and social themes. The actor, depending only on the natural gifts of voice and body, could bring the sacred rituals of theatre and the themes of social transformation to the audience. The audience became pivotal to theatrical performance, and theatre became more than entertainment: it became a pathway to understanding.
Jerzy Grotowski always maintained that theatre could never compete with cinema and that cinema offered a different experience to theatre. He wanted to bring a theatre to an audience that was confronting, challenging and experiential. It was a theatre not based so much on image (as in cinema or television) but on the presence of the actor.
Jerzy Grotowski, as he wrote and published his work, became renowned and received numerous invitations to work in the most prominent drama schools, theatre companies and universities in Europe and America. Most of these he declined, preferring instead to stay with his actors in his small 'laboratory', in relative obscurity.