Posts Tagged ‘Jerzy Grotowski’

Dante, Grotowski, and the eloquent body

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
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Mario Biagini remembers visiting Florence’s cathedral as a child, and seeing, on the left side of the cathedral as he entered, the famous fresco of Dante, standing beside Mount Purgatory.  It made an impression, but it wasn’t an isolated one.  Beginning as a teenager in school, he remembers reading the Divine Comedy “beginning to end, so many times.”  Well, he was a Florentine, like Dante.

“I read it often for myself,” he said.  And yesterday, I became a beneficiary of all these years of exposure.

I spent a blissful hour in the morning listening to Mario – who is the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski – as he read the Inferno, Cantos V and XXII, to a Stanford humanities class. Being a Florentine helps, he admitted – Dante’s 14th-century Tuscan dialect is “what I grew up with – what I talked. This language didn’t change much.”

He doesn’t approve of the way so many people today read the lines, emphasizing the stresses – “as if it’s a quite stupid children’s game,” he said, noting instead that the verse “is rooted in living speech.”

Biagini is currently editing Grotowski’s collected works, which are planned for publication beginning this fall in Polish, Italian, French, and (we hope) eventually in English.  Biagini trained with Grotowski every day for more than a dozen years – Grotowski, who died in 1999, was the greatest adventure of Mario’s life.

At a drama class the day before, he had recalled working with Grotowski, a man with “an absolute rigor towards himself” and a “strong natural authority” – so much so that the action at a café or bistro would halt when he entered it, just like in the movies.

National prophet

The theater legend was a member of Poland’s communist party, and dressed the part, like an apparatchik – part of a “precise strategy,” said Biagini, because “his work was exactly the opposite.” He created not his own texts as much as bringing to life the great works from Poland’s Romantic period – the works of  Adam Mickiewicz, for example, who is almost Poland’s national prophet (though he, like Czeslaw Milosz, was Lithuanian-born).

At some point, the aging maestro concluded, “Theater is an abandoned house. There’s no life in it.” He  began to ask “what theater can exist without,” stripping theater down to its barest essentials.  He also focused on direct, one-on-one connections and interactions.

I’m grateful for a few things Mario said:  One of my pet peeves when I go to the theater is having some production that wants to “do” the audience.  I don’t want to “participate” – that’s why I’m in a theater rather than an encounter group.  And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated. Grotowski, he said, was suspicious of the performers putting themselves in positions of power that way.

I also resent theatrical experiments that do a lot more for the performers than they do for an audience. Mario recalled sitting through a deadly, mind-numbing three-hour performance. Afterwards, the performers told him they had never had so much fun making a production. He urged directors and actors to have compassion on audiences – it’s supposed to mean something for them.

Preparing for death?

“It’s not about how the actor feels,” he told a student.  Actors should avoid being sidetracked by their own emotions.  “Just do the job – like someone at a bank,” he said.  He impersonated a bank clerk weeping as he doles out the cash – distracting and unnecessary, he said.  Just count the cash.

“It’s not that subjectivity is not important,” he said. “But I can’t start from there. I’d just make something extremely self-indulgent.”

And here’s good advice for just about anything, though he was referring to acting: “Nothing ‘a little bit’ works. You have to pay for it. It’s very hard. 95 percent of the time what you try will not work out. 95 percent of the time you will not accept that it does not work.”

What do I remember the most?  The melodies that still come back to me today, after three hours of watching his workshops Tuesday evening.  The tunes are the result of Grotowski’s exhaustive investigation into the ritual songs from Haitian voodoo and the African diaspora; he sought relatively simple techniques that would be “objective,” having a predictable impact on the performers, regardless of their beliefs or culture of origin.

As I wrote almost a year ago when Mario visited with members of his Workcenter troupe:

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it’s as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer’s soul in a single line. …

“One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve,” Chakrabarti said. “Mario replied, ‘We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!’

“I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me.”

This time, however, Mario was more active – leading the cycles of song, prodding and coaching the students, stripping to the waist and joining the slow, ritual dance, his body a keen actor’s tool, and one as eloquent as any of the Rodin bronzes on the Stanford campus.

Mario headed today for Paris, and then … Shanghai? Italy?  His story is amazing: “When I met Grotowski, I was a shepherd looking more for adventure, not a career. I got my adventures – and later a career.”

Ginsberg: “America when will you be angelic?”

Thursday, April 14th, 2011
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They kept their clothes on.

One thing I learned from last night’s performance of I Am America was that 80 minutes of Allen Ginsberg is an awful lot of Allen Ginsberg.

Workcenter, founded on the principles of Jerzy Grotowski, performed I Am America, based on Ginsberg’s writing.  (I wrote about the Workcenter at Stanford here.)  Much of the script is taken from Ginsberg’s poem “America,” which begins “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing…”

America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.

…………………………………………………………………

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

See what I mean?  The show was high energy, the performers are vibrant and accomplished, the singing of the African diasporic songs are simply astonishing, but again … a little of Ginsberg goes a long way.

A little dab'll do ya...

Mario Biagini told me:

When I see something living, something starts to live in me. When I do this job, it helps me to live,” he said.Part of the search for something alive led to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s fiery, apocalyptic visions. Timely, said Biagini, in a world of environmental catastrophe, terrorism and nuclear meltdowns.

“These times are interesting, peculiar. Every day something shows us that the future is completely unknown. It needed a practical reply,” he said – a reply to “the arrogance of reality, the arrogance of life.”

Mario spoke to the audience after the small show, and told me something I didn’t know … or perhaps knew only peripherally, the way you know things in the back of your mind and then forget.  Ginsberg’s papers are at Stanford.  The library bought them, he said, for “a fabulous sum of money.” Where did it go?

“A lot of it went to taxes,” he said.  “A lot of it went to a very, very beautiful apartment in New York City.”  It’s now home of the Allen Ginsberg Trust.