The Grotowski Institute: First 30 Years

Jarosław Fret
Director of the Grotowski Institute

Jarosław Fret—founder and leader of Teatr ZAR, theatre director and actor; director of the Grotowski Institute; curator of the theatre programme of Wroclaw: European Capital of Culture 2016. In 1999–2002 he carried out a series of expeditions to Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, conducting research in the oldest forms of religious music of Eastern Christianity. In the following years together with members of Teatr ZAR he organized expeditions to Athos mountain in Greece, Sardinia, Corsica, Armenia, Turkey, Israel. Director of five performances: triptych Gospels of Childhood, Armine, Sister, and Medeas: On Getting Across. He lectures and leads work sessions in Poland and internationally. originator and coordinator of numerous Polish and international projects within the Grotowski Institute, including Theatre Olympics Wroclaw 2016, the UNESCO-declared Grotowski Year 2009. His efforts led to the opening new locations of the Grotowski Institute: Na Grobli Studio (2010) and Centre for Performing Arts Bakery (2019).

The Grotowski Institute is a municipal institution combining artistic and research projects that respond to the challenges laid down by the creative practice of Jerzy Grotowski, as well as documenting and disseminating knowledge about his work. Established in 1989 by the authorities of Wroclaw, it is dedicated to protecting the intangible heritage of theatre art.

The Grotowski Institute’s principal base is the historical home of the Laboratory Theatre in Przejście Żelaźnicze in Wroclaw’s Market Square (Rynek). It houses the Grotowski Institute’s Archive, the Laboratory Theatre Space, the Ludwik Flaszen Reading Room, the Office and CaféTHEA (an open theatrical “Hyde Park”). In 2010, the Institute received a second home, the Na Grobli Studio, located in the former building of the Wratislavia Rowing Association. And let us not forget Brzezinka, the Institute’s forest base, situated is an isolated building near the village of Brzezinka, 40 km from Wroclaw, where we run a long-term programme of research residencies for artistic groups from all over the world.

Finally, in April 2019, a new space, the Bakery (Figure 1), opened at 62–70 Księcia Witolda Street. This professionally set-up theatre studio space houses the Centre for Performing Arts. We celebrated its opening by co-producing Peter Brook’s new production, The Prisoner (Figure 2), which marked the first 30 years of the Institute’s international presence during which we proposed and completed hundreds of projects, including the UNESCO-designated Grotowski Year 2009 and the theatre programme of the European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016 (including the Theatre Olympics, Poland’s biggest theatre festival).

Figure 1. Centre for Performing Arts Bakery. Photo by Tobiasz Papuczys.
Figure 2. The Prisoner, performance by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. Photo by Tobiasz Papuczys.

Before all that, in early 1965, Jerzy Grotowski moved to Wroclaw with his Laboratory Theatre, starting a new chapter of his creative journey. As never before or after in history, a city offered an unknown theatre artist the unique chance to set up a research centre in the field of acting craft rather than a repertoire theatre. Then, once again, Grotowski renamed his theatre, calling it the Actor’s Institute. Over the span of a few years, he and his company created only two performance pieces: The Constant Prince (based on the Calderon play) and Apocalypsis cum figuris (based on a compilation of excerpts from Simone Weil, Thomas S. Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the Gospels). Hailed as masterpieces of twentieth-century theatre, both pieces changed the European philosophy of theatre thanks to Grotowski’s ideas on theatre and acting and his understanding of the human condition and the role of the artist in post-war Europe. Grotowski’s theatre became artistically independent and, as Peter Brook stressed, the Polish director was the first performing arts practitioner who answered T. Adorno’s question about whether it was possible to create art after the Holocaust. This happened in Wroclaw, a city that paid a special price in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Soon, in the early 1970s, Grotowski left the theatre and established a new domain he called “active culture” or paratheatre. His artistic strategy or rather anti-strategy was not “to arm an actor but to disarm a human.” He started to change not only spectators’ opinions but also people’s lives.

While developing a programme for the European Capital of Culture in 2016 we embraced the idea of an ecology of culture. We were guided by the belief that, like all natural resources such as water and air, everything we have in the field of culture we have (paradoxically) received not from our ancestors but “from future generations, for safekeeping.” In the future, we will have to render an account of the tangible and intangible legacy that has passed through our hands and on which we have left our mark. I believe it is a great lesson that theatre offers us. Theatre is a truly immaterial art, which material leaves no trace but is deeply rooted in the memories of meetings, raptures, illuminations. Now, while preparing for the time when Wroclaw (in 2021, jointly with Shanghai) becomes the ITI/UNESCO Capital of Performing Arts, we think of theatre as a truly ecological art, which helps create a home and protect the quality of human communication in its countless forms. What is more, theatre art is waste-free art. Trying to reach the audience, my voice leaves no physical trace—it lasts only as long as it is heard.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.11