Magazine article American Theatre

Ludwik Flaszen and the Pragmatics of Grotowski: The Legendary Director's One-Time Partner Talks about the Secret Politics of the Polish Laboratory Theatre

Magazine article American Theatre

Ludwik Flaszen and the Pragmatics of Grotowski: The Legendary Director's One-Time Partner Talks about the Secret Politics of the Polish Laboratory Theatre

Article excerpt

"I am astonished that all of this happened during my life," says the short, white-haired man, peering into his steaming cup of tea as though he expected some revelation to materialize there. "I am trying to understand it all--everything that happened."

For the past 50 years, Ludwik Flaszen has lived and worked in the shadow of his one-time friend and artistic partner, the theatre director/guru Jerzy Grotowski. While the cult of Grotowski has grown apace since his death in 1999--notably in the "art as vehicle" projects that consumed the last decade of his life and continue to be explored at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy--the 79-year-old Flaszen has been largely ignored. But, in fact, had it not been for Flaszen, a critic and dramaturg, the work of the legendary Polish Laboratory Theatre--on which Grotowski's theatrical and post-theatrical legacy is largely based--might never have happened.


Now, sitting in the offices of the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw--the home of the company that created and performed the trio of works that are at the center of Grotowski's reputation (Akropolis, The Constant Prince and Apocalypsis cum Figuris)--Flaszen is attempting to set the record straight.

The Institute has braced itself for a "year of Grotowski," a series of high-profile international events marking the 10th anniversary of the director's death, which continue through the end of 2009. "There are many old people who are coming 10 these events." Flaszen observes with a laugh, setting his tea aside. "A lot of historians will breathe easier after we're gone, because the witnesses and participants of history are not wanted by people who write history. History is more confident the farther it gets away from the event."

Flaszen, it seems clear, is trying not only to reinsert himself into the history of Jerzy Grotowski, but into that of Poland as well.


Grotowski left Poland after martial law was declared in 1981, heading first to Haiti and Rome and then to the United States before finally setting up a permanent base in Italy. The director did return a couple of times to Poland, but the visits were brief, and--as Flaszen notes--"always incognito." After Grotowski died, it became known that he had designated Richards, an American and Mario Biagini, the Italian actor and associate director of the Pontedera Workcenter, as his designated heirs. For all intents and purposes, the director had turned his back on his homeland.


In a certain sense, Grotowski had rejected his heritage long before that. By the time he left Poland, Grotowski had already brought to a close--and more or less dismissed--his "paratheatrical" stage (the semi-ritualistic, participatory events, famously described by Andre Gregory in the film My Dinner with Andre, that Grotowski oversaw in the Polish forest outside Wroclaw); he was moving into the "theatre of sources" phase, in which he tried to locate theatrical/anthropologic examples of Jung's archetypes--rituals and performances that could represent the notion of a collective unconscious. He had also embarked upon a simultaneously spiritualized and authoritarian approach to the work. Fed up with theatre, he had begun to explore more completely the intersection between performance and religion.

Grotowski made it clear that he was not religious in the traditional sense of the word. Still, there was an ascetic quality to Grotowski's post-theatrical persona, exemplified by the physical shift that took place around 1970. Gone was the chubby, chain-smoking, dark-haired dude in a black suit and Ray-Bans; he had been replaced by a gaunt, monastic figure in flowing cotton and sandals, with long hair and a scraggly beard.

And though Grotowski remained suspicious of organized religion, he read about it voraciously and dabbled in performative aspects of ritual and the occult, ultimately finding a synergy between theatre and faith, even if it was only in the fact that both were on their way out. …

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