Maja Komorowska is a well-known theatre and film actor, and pedagogue. She joined the Teatr 13 Rzędów (Theatre of the 13 Rows) in Opole in 1961 and collaborated with Jerzy Grotowski until 1968, with a break for nearly a year in 1964. After she left the Laboratorium, she worked with two Wrocław theatres: the Współczesny (Contemporary Theatre, 1968-1970) and the Polski (Polish Theatre, 1970-1972). In 1972, she moved to Warsaw’s Teatr Współczesny where she continues to work today. She has played numerous guest roles at other Warsaw theatres such as the Stara Prochownia (Old Gunpowder Store), the Scena Prezentacje (Presentation Stage), and the Teatr Dramatyczny (Drama Theatre) where she collaborated with Krystian Lupa on Thomas Bernhard’s performance Auslöschung – Wymazywanie (2001). Since 1982, she has taught in the Warsaw Akademia Teatralna (Theatre Academy). From 1970-1971 she started acting in Krzysztof Zanussi’s films Życie rodzinne (Family Life) and Za ścianą (Behind the Wall) which began her long-term collaboration with the filmmaker and her film career. She has appeared in many films by leading Polish film directors such as Filip Bajon, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Tadeusz Konwicki, Andrzej Wajda, and Krzysztof Zanussi.
This conversation was originally published as ‘W teatrze Jerzego Grotowskiego’, Teatr, 7-8 (2004), 19-27, and reprinted in Pejzaż – rozmowy z Mają Komorowską (Landscape: Conversations with Maja Komorowska), ed. by Barbara Osterloff (Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Errata, 2004), pp. 19-33.
Barbara Osterloff: In what circumstances did you join the Teatr 13 Rzędów in Opole? Did Jerzy Grotowski invite you or did you apply to join the company? The Teatr 13 Rzędów was then, in 1961, still barely known, although it had already had its first, important, and controversial premieres.
Maja Komorowska: I can’t quite remember, but I think Jerzy Grotowski sent me a letter with an offer to join the Teatr 13 Rzędów in Opole. I knew him from drama school, but more by sight, though perhaps we had spoken to each other a few times. It was a passing acquaintance and I didn’t know much about him.
Osterloff: But I suppose you had seen some of the performances of the Teatr 13 Rzędów before you signed the contract?
Komorowska: Yes, I went to Opole and had seen Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve). […] I cannot even say whether I liked this performance or not. I just knew that what I saw then was so different from everything I had seen before in the theatre – and that it reminded me of something, it was like I knew these images from previous dreams. Not long before I joined the Teatr 13 Rzędów they had done Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, but I hadn’t seen it.
Osterloff: Was the decision to join this theatre carefully thought-through or rather spontaneous?
Komorowska: I didn’t even hesitate, although I normally find it difficult making decisions. When I think about this now, I’m a bit surprised, but then I did not think that I was meant to ponder on it – I just felt that this was what I should do. And I made up my mind. I left behind Kraków and my husband, Jerzy Tyszkiewicz, who was still studying law there. We were apart for some time and used to meet on Saturdays and Sundays before he could move to Opole.
Osterloff: What was this beginning in Opole like?
Komorowska: Everything was new to me. The Teatr 13 Rzędów, Opole itself, which I didn’t know; and the fact that for a while I had to be there on my own and that I didn’t have anywhere to live. I went there with one suitcase and my wandering began. I stayed for a while at Urszula Czajkowska’s – at that time she wasn’t yet married to Andrzej Bielski, my colleague from the Teatr 13 Rzędów. I lived in various places and conditions; I sometimes had to spend the night sleeping on a sofa.
I remember once when it was very cold, nothing was heated properly, so Maciek [Maciej] Prus and I would go to Chełmek, a shoe shop on the main street in Opole, in order to warm ourselves. Of course, we had to try some shoes on, and we pretended that we were going to buy some… We would then take out our sandwiches in the shop, to eat in a warm place. When I think about that time now, I don’t know how all this was possible. But we were young then.
The Teatr 13 Rzędów was always at risk; one minute they would shut it down, the next they would extend our contract. When the theatre was going to be shut down, Jerzy Grotowski would call us to say that it was uncertain whether we would be able to continue working, because there was no money etc., etc.
Osterloff: Whom do you remember from the Teatr 13 Rzędów group?
Komorowska: During the period when I was there, there already existed a group of permanent members. The first people I met were Rena Mirecka, Zygmunt Molik, Antoni Jahołkowski, Zbigniew Cynkutis, Ewa Lubowiecka (for a certain time only), Andrzej Bielski, and then Andrzej Kulig and Mietek [Mieczysław] Janowski joined. There was also Waldek [Waldemar] Krygier (director and founder of Teatr 38), and – as I’ve already mentioned – Maciej Prus (he was there for a certain time only; I remember Maciek singing various arias to our little son). I think Ryszard Cieślak joined just after I did, or perhaps at the same time. I knew him from drama school in Kraków, as he’d also studied in the puppetry department; he was interested in photography and took beautiful pictures. I even thought he was going to go to film school to study cinematography. Perhaps Stanisław Scierski was the last one I met.
Maja Komorowska and Stanisław Scierski during rehearsals for The Constant Prince (1965). Photograph: Marek Czudowski, CAF/PAP.
Osterloff: How did your work in Opole start?
Komorowska: At the beginning, we didn’t have any compulsory exercises. My first part was the character of Aglaya in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, directed by Waldemar Krygier. I was interested in this character and I remember that the performance was a good one. We performed it a lot, and took it to Kraków. Zbyszek [Zbigniew] Cynkutis played Myshkin. There were two versions of the performance, one with Nastasya and one without her. Ewa Lubowiecka played this part. When Ewa wasn’t acting with us, a chair was covered by a black cloth as though everything was taking place after Nastasya’s death. There was a table in the middle with some chairs around it; the spectators were situated on both sides. We performed around and at the table. Waldek Krygier came up with the costumes and they were like wonderful paintings. My costume was black, red, and white. On my head I had something that reminded me of the headpieces worn by Orthodox nuns.
At the beginning of the performance, I faced one section of the spectators (my back was turned towards the other half). I stood there and my laughter began and climbed gradually from being very quiet to the culminating moment when I said: ‘To welcome – shall I welcome him?’ [Przyjąć, ja mam go przyjąć?]. That’s how the performance started. Later on, we sat around the table. Antek [Antoni] Jahołkowski played the character of Rogozhin and Zygmunt Molik stood behind a chair and sang the aria ‘Ya lyublyu tebya Tatyana’ (I love you, Tatiana) from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. I remember how at some points we swapped places following the rhythm of a social dance, I think it was a minuet, so that each of us ended up sitting on a different chair, somebody else’s. I also remember the way we ate. Each of us did it differently, in a different rhythm – depending on which character we were playing and the state of the character at that time. Rogozhin ate greedily and spat. Myshkin had an attack whilst eating, at a particular moment his body shivered and he had convulsions. Zbyszek Cynkutis played the role beautifully. We performed The Idiot in such a small space, but so many things were going on. This performance kept me in suspense. As far as I can remember, I think the audience felt the same way.
Osterloff: And when did you begin the exercises?
Komorowska: The exercises began later. We did such a wide range of exercises, which were so different from what I had known at drama school. It is even difficult to compare them. For instance, at school, we’d be given an étude entitled ‘You’ve received a telegram that a relative has died’, ‘You’ve won the lottery’, or ‘Fire! Fire!’.
Rena Mirecka ran the plastiques work, which, generally speaking, was based on exercising the whole body. They [the plastiques] began with exercising your head, arms, hands, fingers and then your legs and hips. What were they like? Let’s say I was doing the hand or finger exercises. It’s simple to do; you just need to move them in a circle so that your hand bends as far as possible. If my fingers are directed downwards, they need to touch the wrist, as low down as possible. You need to overcome the resistance of the joints in order to achieve a lightness of movement and fluidity, so that it’s no longer an effort. Only from that kind of movement can you build a scene, which we needed to construct and which had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The associations and impulses were the starting point for this.
Maja Komorowska undertaking training exercises, 1965. Photograph: Zygmunt Samosiuk, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.
How did the acting études come out of these exercises? Based on the example of the finger exercise, I’ll tell you what happened in the particular stages of movement. When the hand starts going upwards, this is a moment which is associated – and this is very obvious – with, for example, a gesture of saying goodbye. This association depends on the moment when I stop the hand and how I frame the movement. If, for instance, I direct it to one side, we can imagine that we are giving directions to somebody; and you can make an étude based on this. And this is how it works with the whole body – you can begin the études from the movement of the head, the arms, the hips, or the legs.
The physical and acrobatic exercises led by Ryszard Cieślak, which were based on elements from yoga, have already been well described by others. But I want to mention one exercise. When we went to Sweden with The Constant Prince, I showed how a headstand – a purely gymnastic exercise – could become an acting étude. Obviously, a range of variants was possible. For example, my head is tired and it would be great to lay it down somewhere to rest for a moment. We can either support the head or we can search for the position that would be best for the head. This is happening here and now, so the searching needs to go on for some time. We still cannot find an appropriate position. So we continue searching. At last, I place my head on the floor or on the ground (and we put our hands there). I straighten my trunk slowly, but my legs are still in a foetal position, they are contracted. In the next phase, the legs slowly straighten. The most important thing is to find the moment in which your body is ready for the climax – to shoot your legs upwards as though you want to touch the ceiling with your feet. That’s how you achieve a ‘scream’ of the body, which Grotowski called ‘excess’.
Ryszard Cieślak doing a shoulder stand during training in the early 1960s. Photograph: Ryszard Cieślak.
But then you need to get out of it. How do we do that? What can the body feel? Is the body aware that it has just done something significant? Now, a new possibility emerges – to compose an étude of coiling oneself up. First, we release the legs, then slowly the whole of the body and then we reach the foetal position. If the body is really taking part in the search, it dictates the behaviour on its own. And when the whole process is executed well, the spectator does not notice any physical (technical) effort in the evolution. The étude is able to ‘pull in’ the spectator’s imagination.
We worked with Zygmunt Molik on voice exercises. They are also well described and anyone who is interested in this is able to examine them. For me, at that time, these exercises were both important and difficult. They were a discovery for me. I always had a rough voice: not very ‘nice’, objectively speaking. I had to work a lot in order to be able to do something with it; I had to learn how to use it. And the work on resonators was very helpful. But it was also something new for me.
One day, Jerzy Grotowski came up with the themes of the vocal études. I had never encountered such vocal études before. Everyone had to choose a few lines from a song and make an étude out of it. I chose ‘A z rana, z rana, pięknie ubrana stoi w okienku jak malowana’ (In the morning, in the morning, she stands at the window beautifully dressed and looks as though she has been painted). And with these words, through the melody, which was to be changed in various ways, I was to compose the story of a girl; I came up with the whole story. I understood then that it is not enough to invent something, but that this story has to be communicative. Again, I had to use my imagination in order to express the same words, to order them and accompany them with the melody so that they tell the story – without any bodily movement!
Firstly, the girl was young… everything was ahead of her, was waiting for her – so, at first, the words of this song had to seduce and attract others’ attention. And then the girl had a child and used these words and melody as a lullaby, but later, somehow, she became sad. So I had to express the same words in a different way – I had to reflect this sadness and ‘lack of movement’ by means of sound. At first, working on these scenes I had to provoke all these associations in myself, so that I was then able to translate them into a bodily language. The body had to remind itself what existed in the head, what we have encoded in our memory as an image.
Here I could tell you about many études. There were many, so many that I couldn’t even begin to count them. The work lasted continuously from morning till evening. The most important thing was to exercise your imagination. Sometimes Jerzy Grotowski gave us a theme; sometimes we found the theme by ourselves. We often used observations of the animal kingdom. For instance, Andrzej Kulig, whose nickname was Gaston (he later emigrated to Paris), and I did a sequence about horses. It was our idea – the youth of horses, their love and their growing old. A horse-human. It engaged our thoughts and associations. When we worked on the ‘youth of the horses’, there was a moment when the horses had to lie down on the ground. It seems a simple task, but – how to lie down? We didn’t want any normal kind of lying down on the floor. We searched for something different, we wanted it to be appropriately expressive and we wanted it to be visible. The faces/muzzles had to express what was important for us. But yes, when a horse-human lies down you cannot see its head…
We understood that we had to lie down at a certain angle. This uncomfortable position provided a tension, a form of expression and additionally it made our horses human. It appeared that when I lay down comfortably, there was no expression in my body, even though I would try to find tension in my hands and legs. These were discoveries for me. I still wasn’t aware of many things at that stage. For instance, I wasn’t aware of the potential of ‘framing’ – that is, to stop a movement at the most expressive moment. I remember there was one moment when a horse put its head on the nape of the neck of another horse; these horses were hooked on to each other – it was a moment of rest… of love…
We were looking for a way of showing the rebellion of the horses and we were thinking about how this rebellion was born. We wanted to find a moment in which the framing of the movement in this sharp and dynamic scene was really needed and when this framing would reinforce what we wanted to say. But we also had to think about what would happen after this framing – how would we get out of this stillness? I remember this holding of the movement in the scene of the horses’ rebellion as a wearisome physical experience. We put our bodies through a difficult test – it was like a kind of hara-kiri being performed on ourselves.
How much distance should there be between these horses? Sometimes they were some distance from each other, as if poles apart. And sometimes they had to be connected, almost one to the other. Sometimes they jumped to their feet at a full gallop and suddenly, while at the peak state of their wildness, they had to stop – and that was this moment of framing that I mentioned earlier. All the time we kept on thinking about the condition of an animal and of a person, and we searched for the point where these conditions connect. We worked on it for weeks. I was so engrossed in this that I didn’t even consider if anyone would like it or not. I wasn’t afraid, I just searched. What helped me? I used to close my eyes and see memories from my childhood, of horses and dogs. We presented this work on horses to Jerzy Grotowski. I was always scared of these presentations, but it appeared that our étude interested him. So we continued working on it.
There were various stories with these presentations. Sometimes we searched for two weeks, sometimes for three. We would then show this étude to Grotowski and he would say either ‘I believe’ or ‘I don’t believe’, ‘I don’t understand’ and then everything had to start from scratch. Occasionally, Grotowski would ask those who had watched the étude what the story was about and whether they had understood it, and he would listen carefully to their answers. Sometimes somebody said, ‘I don’t understand it, but I believe it…’ And if Grotowski agreed with this, we knew that it was possible to continue working on it; that there was some chance of improving this étude. But sometimes we did something that was completely unreadable and then the work was discontinued. Of course, Grotowski made these confrontations at a certain stage in our work on an étude. But he also did it during work on a performance. He used to watch all the performances; he never missed any. There were notes afterwards and everyone took them down: what the mistakes were, where something was untrue, where Grotowski didn’t believe something, etc., etc. Unfortunately, I don’t have these notes any more. Our work was never-ending.
Osterloff: You took part in the first version of Akropolis, from 1962. Can you please say what you remember of the work on this outstanding performance, for which Józef Szajna designed the set?
Komorowska: Unfortunately, as usual, I remember only some images, only scraps. I played Rachel. I associate Akropolis with work on the mask. And I remembered this mask because of Thomas Richards’ book, recently published in Poland, in which he describes his own struggles with the mask (how he tried to compose his facial muscles in the mirror). I will try to describe this using the example of my Rachel. The mask means keeping a single facial expression. But which one? What is the most important thing about any particular character? What should the face express? You need to form it, but this forming needs to come from the inside out. Who is Rachel in a concentration camp, in this march towards death? Which facial expression would be most appropriate to reflect what she is experiencing? And how to find it?
From left to right: Ryszard Cieślak, Maja Komorowska, and Antoni Jahołkowski in the first version of Wyspiański’s Akropolis (1962). Photographer unknown.
Sometimes I imagined that Rachel was sitting inside me, sometimes that I put Rachel on me like I would put a stocking over the top of my head, like a long sleeve. After many rehearsals and a great deal of reflection, I decided: I have fear in my eyes, but my mouth tries to smile, a kind of stuck-on smile. It is not strange that I came up with this, because, since I am afraid, since I have fear in my eyes, my mouth tries to overcome this fear and oppose it. My eyebrows conveyed surprise, which means they went upwards, but not like those of Zbyszek Cynkutis. He was so surprised that his eyebrows went right up underneath his hat, under the skullcap he had on his head.
And you had to keep the mask shaped like that; you couldn’t change it, from the beginning of the performance till the end. We worked on the mask only during rehearsing and performing Akropolis. Grotowski examined it, saw it, and it seems he needed such an experiment at that time. After that, we did not return to the mask. And I… I can say that to some extent this helped me in my subsequent work, especially during [Samuel] Beckett’s Happy Days. In the second part of the performance when only my head was sticking out of the mound, I could carefully control what my head had to express at a certain moment; I could hold and frame individual facial expressions.
I keep in my memory one more image from Akropolis – the last scene: all of us marching towards death. We are wearing sacks full of holes with some pieces of plastic and heavy lace-up boots, prisoners’ boots. I-as-Rachel was trying to walk as though I didn’t have these boots on, but rather was on tiptoes, as if in pointe shoes [from ballet]. My Rachel was walking to her death in the best possible way. Now, every time I put on lace-up shoes, I am unable to chase this image away. My memory always goes back to this march.
The final scene of the first version of Akropolis (1962). From the left: Maja Komorowska, Rena Mirecka, Zbigniew Cynkutis, Ryszard Cieślak, and Zygmunt Molik. Photographer unknown.
I remember the period of work on Akropolis well. I was expecting my baby. There were many iron pipes on stage and I had to be very careful not to harm the baby. When I fell onto these pipes, at the last moment I put my hands out beneath me… thankfully, I had strong hands… My part was later divided between two actors.
Osterloff: Soon after that, you left Jerzy Grotowski’s company – why?
Komorowska: Yes, I left. I thought that was what I should do and I didn’t know whether I would ever return. I went to Warsaw. It was certainly a difficult decision. My husband stayed in Opole. He had to because he worked there. In Warsaw, I lived with my little baby at my sister-in-law Maryna’s. I worked a bit in radio, a bit in the theatre. I did some choreography, for instance for a dance in [José-André] Lacour’s comedy Graduation Year at the [Praski] Teatr Ludowy (Praga People’s Theatre), in which Ewa Wiśniewska took part. Krysia Szantyr, my school friend from Komorów, helped me with this choreography. Having had the experience of working with Jerzy Grotowski, I made sure that the actors trained properly. Their pretending irritated me. I know that somebody even complained that I was too demanding and was wearing them out.
At that time, I passed the extra-mural acting exam at the PWST (Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Teatralna – State Higher Theatre School), just in case, in order to avoid problems later if I should want to get a job at a so-called ‘normal’ theatre.
After a few months, I received a letter from Grotowski with an offer to continue working with him. I thought that this phase was already closed for me. But I went back. I returned to Opole, although only for a short while, because then we moved to Wrocław. There were days in Opole when I had to train and didn’t have anyone to look after little Paweł (at first the exercises were at the theatre, later on in a space we used to rent). I’d walk there with my pram, get changed, and go and take part in the training. I would exercise and during the breaks I’d go out and check whether everything was okay with my child. I remember that this was difficult.
Osterloff: The theatre moved to Wrocław at the beginning of January 1965.
Komorowska: Yes. I have a memory from this time of moving from Opole to Wrocław: my husband and I packed all our belongings into a small pushchair-like buggy and we pulled this buggy to the railway station. From there we went to Wrocław.
At first, we didn’t have anywhere to stay in Wrocław, so we stayed in a hotel. For the whole of this time, our baby Paweł was in Laski, near Warsaw, with my sister-in law Olga Czartoryska and her husband Andrzej.
Our work in Wrocław was even more intensive and extraordinary than it had been in Opole.
Osterloff: Which members of the Teatr 13 Rzędów moved to Wrocław?
Komorowska: There was Rena Mirecka, Zygmunt Molik, Antek Jahołkowski, Andrzej Bielski, Ryszard Cieślak, Zbyszek Cynkutis, Stanisław (nicknamed ‘Stanley’) Scierski, Andrzej Kulig, and Mietek Janowski. I also remember Jurek [Jerzy] Gurawski, a wonderful architect who had a very particular sense of humour and was able to keep his distance at difficult moments, thanks to which he would often be able to release any tensions. Ludwik Flaszen was there of course. Many people from this group are no longer alive: Stanley Scierski is dead, Zbyszek Cynkutis is dead, Ryszard Cieślak is dead, Antoni Jahołkowski is dead, as well as Andrzej Bielski.
Osterloff: Who is still alive, then?
Komorowska: From the group that went from Opole to Wrocław, there is only Rena Mirecka, Zygmunt Molik, Mietek Janowski, and me. And I hope that Andrzej Kulig, with whom unfortunately I lost touch, is also alive. He did so much good for me; I would like to find him. In Wrocław, we started guarding our space.
Osterloff: What do you mean ‘guarding’?
Komorowska: I mean it in the most literal sense, because we didn’t know whether they [the authorities] would want to take it back from us, so we took shifts, night and day. We protected our space, we really looked after it; we scrubbed it and washed it, all this had to be done precisely… because of the amount of exercises we did on the floor… a lot of our sweat soaked into that floor. We did the cleaning, we polished it, we prepared the space ourselves – it was hard work. We prepared the costumes – sometimes someone would help with the washing and ironing, but in principle we did everything by ourselves. It was an important experience. Up to now, whenever I leave a theatre, I always clean up after myself. This has stayed with me.
Osterloff: In Wrocław, Grotowski developed his idea of ‘poor theatre’. The Teatr Laboratorium was at the same time a laboratory and a research theatre, not only a place in which the actors and spectators would meet during the performance. The work on The Constant Prince began there; the production in which you performed for almost five years. How did you work on this piece?
Komorowska: Zbigniew Osiński and Eugenio Barba, among others, have already described this precisely.
Osterloff: But could you try to talk about it from your own point of view?
Komorowska: During rehearsals for The Constant Prince, Jerzy Grotowski worked with Ryszard Cieślak apart. We, the rest of the actors, worked separately. Do you remember that scene [with Cieślak] on the rostrum… that is preserved in the film recording? When the day came that all the rest of us were able to see it, I was shocked.
We all had long boots on, and I was Tarudant. Tarudant who fought… I was searching for associations with the animal world. At some moments, his fighting brought up associations for me with a cockfight. A cock… a fighting cockerel... Each of the cock’s movements in this heavy cloak and long boots became very apparent. The audience observed the performance sitting around the stage, on the rostra, as during a corrida, a bullfight – they were separated from the performing space by a high palisade, a kind of wooden ‘wall’. There was a rostrum in the middle. I remember a fragment of a scene with Antek [Antoni] Jahołkowski, when I was on my knees near Ryszard’s feet and Antek was lifting me up and hitting my face.
Osterloff: You performed with your face covered by your hair. Somebody has said that Jerzy Grotowski wanted you to cover your face with your hair because you were shapely and pretty…
Komorowska: …well, I prefer not to think of it in that way; perhaps he wanted to bring something out of me of which I wasn’t aware? The task we’re talking about was certainly very challenging for me. At the beginning my back couldn’t take it, even though I was young. To perform this part in a half-bent-over manner, unable to straighten up even for a moment, with hair falling down all over my face… At the beginning, I thought it was impossible. But I managed.
And suddenly, from that creature, a lullaby could come out, a warm and gentle lullaby… There was this whole aspect of gentleness, which until then had been hidden within this strange ‘bird’. Such a contradiction. I improvised this lullaby using the motif of ‘Ey, ukhnem’ from the Burlack (boatmen’s) song. This obviously became transformed. Why did I come up with this? Well, perhaps this effort, this hardship of being bent double, this hair covering my face, all of this evoked such an image of hard work.
In the foreground: Maja Komorowska and Ryszard Cieślak in the first version of The Constant Prince (1965). Photograph: Zygmunt Samosiuk.
We played many performances in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and I lost my voice in Stockholm. They took me to a clinic there, they ‘oiled’ my vocal chords and told me to murmur continuously before the performance, so that my vocal chords were in movement and my voice wouldn’t disappear. Someone wrote somewhere that I was singing an African lullaby…
I associated [this work] with the Pietà and I think this was how the spectators saw it when I took Ryszard in my arms like a mother, someone taking care. I remember one performance in Stockholm, when Ryszard had a dislocated or broken leg. Before the performances they would take him to the hospital for special injections, without which he wasn’t able to walk. At the end of the piece, I would almost be carrying him. Where does such strength come from? I didn’t have a voice and his legs didn’t work. I remember that the floor on which we were walking was wet… it was extremely hard work… I will always remember this. Yes, this was The Constant Prince.
Osterloff: Do you remember what it was like when you saw Ryszard Cieślak in this role for the first time? What was your reaction?
Komorowska: I was shocked, as I’ve already mentioned. But I believe most of all I was astonished. I felt I was watching something so intimate that I ended up bowing my head even lower, uncertain as to whether or not I should see it, whether it was really meant for me to watch. It was an unusual confession, a sharing of something most important – such a gift. Those rehearsals of Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak together were the period when a new Ryszard was being born. After The Constant Prince, the work on Apocalypsis [cum Figuris] started. I was working a lot once again. There were many études that led to the scene with the two women, for instance. I performed this with Rena Mirecka. We were going to visit a grave. Before doing this, we had to prepare, wash our feet, and get dressed. At first, we had white shirts on, then we put long black dress-coats over them; we were hurrying to the grave, each of us wanting to be first, to get as quickly as possible near the Oblubieniec (The Betrothed).
Of everything, this work was the closest to me in Grotowski’s theatre. Before the summer vacation [of 1967], we had a summary showing of this work and then I never came back to it.
Osterloff: The work you mention, as Professor Zbigniew Osiński has written, was called Ewangelie (The Gospels). And it was presented a few times. You played the part of Mary Magdalene, Ryszard Cieślak was Umiłowany (The Beloved). Apocalypsis cum Figuris later crystallised out of this performance.
Komorowska: Elizabeth Albahaca then joined the company [in 1968] and what I’d been doing before was divided between the two of us. I left Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre. Today, people often ask me why. I think it was the right decision. The decision was made by both of us [by Grotowski and me], as we both understood that I had to go and do ‘my own’ things. And this is all that I want to say about it. Besides, I think that Jerzy Grotowski had understood earlier than I did that I should ‘disconnect’ myself from the group and go and search on my own. He knew that I couldn’t devote myself totally to the Teatr Laboratorium – I was already a mother, and this had to have some impact on my choices and searches. And I had to try to make sense of it all.
Osterloff: Combining motherhood with work at the Teatr 13 Rzędów must have been extremely difficult, because even the rhythm of work in this group was very exhausting.
Komorowska: Yes. In Wrocław we would often work all night. Everyone could later go and sleep, but I was looking after my son. I wasn’t able to ‘switch off’ from my private life completely; I couldn’t just devote myself to work. Was it at all possible for an actor with a child to be in this group? I was thinking about this a lot, even in Opole. I decided to prove it was possible, due to my inhuman stubbornness. This stubbornness was necessary, because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to return to this group at all. You had to endure the work in Wrocław both mentally and physically. The work was exhausting, but I had done sports since my childhood, so I was fit – I’ve mentioned this already – and these exercises, the acrobatics, the handstands, and the headstands weren’t difficult for me. Paradoxically, this was a problem because they weren’t being engendered in me in the way that Jerzy Grotowski wanted them to be. I was doing headstands without any problem; my body was ready for it. I didn’t have to activate my imagination. I remember a remark Jerzy Grotowski made when he was observing the exercises: ‘This is not being born, it is already ready’. It’s true, it was ready. I didn’t pretend that I was searching for how to do a headstand, because I already knew how to do it. Of course, I could search and return to the moment when I’d originally learnt to do it, but I didn’t think about it at that time.
Later, Jerzy Grotowski came to see [Samuel] Beckett’s Endgame, in which I played Hamm; he also saw Bolesław Śmiały and probably Antigone as well. I remember when he came to Warsaw and was the only spectator of the film Za ścianą (Behind the Wall) because the screening had been organised especially for him. I also remember his warm letter, which he wrote after my book 31 dni maja (31 Days of May) was published. When, after many years, I met Jerzy Grotowski in France – and then in Warsaw and Wrocław – we could speak a lot to each other about all the good and the difficult issues.
Osterloff: How did Grotowski address you? Did you call each other by your first names?
Komorowska: At first, we addressed each other by our first names, because, as I said, we knew each other from drama school in Kraków. In Opole, I met Jerzy Grotowski one day at a milk bar and I suggested we should address each other in a more official way and call each other pan, pani (Mr, Mrs). He told me: ‘Maja, it will be confusing for you, it won’t work’. But I never made any mistakes. Only years later, when we met for the last time, in Wrocław, not long before his death, did we once again begin to call each other by our first names.
Osterloff: You have mentioned during many interviews and public meetings that the experience you gained during your work with Jerzy Grotowski hasn’t been wasted. Could we try to summarise this experience?
Komorowska: To put it briefly, thanks to this work my imagination became well exercised. I often describe it using this phrase, but I can’t find a better one. I learnt to focus and use my voice, managing to avoid all unpredictable obstacles. My body had already been well trained, but certainly, its fitness was reinforced by the daily exercises, which lasted for many hours. Later on, for instance, when filming Bilans kwartalny (Quarterly Balance), I had to do jumps, yoga, headstands, and trampolining – my body was still working even though I was already no longer young. My body was focused, ready for any effort, ready to jump. I think I still benefit from that time, from that experience.
Osterloff: Did you continue with this rigour after you had left Grotowski’s theatre?
Komorowska: No. Maintaining this level of rigour wasn’t possible, but I did prepare myself properly for each part that I played. I exercised mainly when I needed something specific for work. I used to start my day very early and finish late after the theatre performances, so there was no time for exercises. I used to have one premiere after another, then performances and rehearsals. I’ve worked a great deal.
Osterloff: We’ve said a lot here about the training of the body as an important element in Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre. It was a means to achieve absolute control over the body, this instrument of the art of acting. Through the training, the actors could reach the most profound layers of their spirituality in order to be able to express it later in the process of creating the theatrical signs. Please tell us what else influenced your future career – apart from the practical habit of undergoing this training – that you got from your experience with the Teatr Laboratorium? To what extent has Grotowski also shaped your understanding of theatre? These are important questions, because you are the only actor from Grotowski’s group who found a place for herself within a different genre, the genre of professional, literary theatre.
Komorowska: Certainly, I learned from him a way of thinking – starting from defining what the theatre is, what it can be, and what it is not. Jerzy Grotowski put an emphasis on what made the art of the theatre distinctive. For him, its core lay with the spectator-actor relationship. The performing space was also very crucial, since their encounter was to take place there. Architecture was important, not scenography. Jerzy Gurawski prepared a different spatial solution for each performance. The music was the sound we created ourselves – the sound of steps, props, breathing, the composition of human voices… Grotowski used to say that the power of the theatre is in subtraction, not addition. And this ability of the actor to undergo a transformation in front of the spectators’ eyes… I would like to focus here for a moment on the issue of the actor in Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre. Once, in Vienna, there was an evening dedicated to Jerzy Grotowski, where I met his group from Pontedera, and also Ludwik Flaszen. I spoke about my experience of working at the Teatr Laboratorium. In preparing for that evening, I went back to the book Teksty z lat 1965-1969 (Texts from 1965-1969) and I tried to realise what the most important thing had been for me, from the perspective of time, what had continuously helped my artistic work and what I had managed to transfer to my work in the so-called ‘ordinary’ theatre.
Grotowski taught me diligence: if the body is to be a sensitive instrument, without which real creativity by the actor is impossible, you need to exercise; you simply need to work. Of course, this is connected to concentration. I understood how important his thinking was: ‘a personal process which is not supported and expressed by a formal articulation and disciplined structuring […] will collapse in shapelessness’.
An important point for me was that spontaneity and discipline are not mutually exclusive but rather the opposite, that ‘far from weakening each another, [they] mutually reinforce themselves’; often a daily naturalness serves to hide the truth, so it is not about putting a mask on, but taking it off. For me, ‘The form is like a baited trap, to which the spiritual process responds spontaneously and against which it struggles’ is a remarkable sentence – I underlined this statement. I also marked the fragment: ‘Why are we concerned with art? To cross our frontiers, exceed our limitations, fill our emptiness – fulfil ourselves. This is not a condition but a process in which what is dark in us slowly becomes transparent’.
There is a great temptation to quote Grotowski. I don’t know anyone else who can speak about the theatre with such precision, who could search like that and question both himself and us. If I were to say which thought of Jerzy’s… of Jurek’s… of Boss’ (these are the various ways we addressed him and spoke about him) is the most important for me, it would be the following words: ‘Our entire body is one big memory. [...] The body does not have memory, it is memory. What you must do is unblock the body-memory’.
Fundamentally, everything that I am saying here is to do with approaching this memory. Constructing a form, impulses, and a score of signs has become for me a basis for thinking about the actor’s technique, and I try to pass this on to my students.
Osterloff: Have you also accepted the theory of the ‘total act’ – the idea of an actor who sacrifices themselves to the spectators?
Komorowska: You ask about the total act… Firstly, we would need to define what this is. If you read Grotowski’s Teksty z lat 1965–1969 carefully, it is possible to understand this notion, not through a single quotation, but in a wider context. What Ryszard Cieślak did in The Constant Prince was the total act, the sacrifice of himself, and without it there would be no Prince. The total act… it is difficult for me to speak about it.
Osterloff: Did you have any doubts?
Komorowska: Yes, from time to time.
Osterloff: What kind of doubts?
Komorowska: My life developed in such a way that I had a different hierarchy of the most important values. Instinctively, I felt that such a total sacrifice to theatre and to the spectators was impossible in my life. But I am saying: in my life. Although for the whole period of my stay in Opole and then in Wrocław I did try to prove both to myself and to Grotowski that it was possible to fit in my decision to become a mother with the theatre, and I managed to reconcile both of these aspects for some years. But would it be possible for a longer period? Probably not. Also I think – and this is confirmed by theatre history – that such searches cannot last for long. Jerzy Grotowski spoke about it himself; he felt that he had to go beyond the theatre, and that was what he did.
Osterloff: You moved from the Teatr Laboratorium to the Teatr Współczesny (Contemporary Theatre) in Wrocław. In the 1960s, [the latter] was also one of the most interesting stages in the country. Is that why you chose this place?
Komorowska: I don’t think I was aware of that. But there were some very important encounters for me that took place there. Above all an encounter with Jerzy Jarocki.
Translated from Polish by Justyna Drobnik-Rogers
- ^ Jahołkowski, Mirecka, and Molik were members of the first team, when Grotowski and Flaszen took over the Teatr 13 Rzędów and opened the new season on 1 September 1959. Cynkutis joined on 1 June 1961; Lubowiecka, who joined in the 1960/61 season, was in the company until 1 October 1962; Bielski joined on 1 May 1960 and left the group soon after the theatre moved to Wrocław in January 1965; Andrzej (Gaston) Kulig joined in September 1963 and left in 1965 (before the second version of The Constant Prince, premiere on 14 November); Janowski joined before the premiere of Dr Faustus on 23 April 1963 and left before the premiere of the third version of The Constant Prince (on 19 March 1968); Prus joined for the 1962/63 season; Cieślak joined on 1 October 1961; Scierski joined on 1 September 1964, as an apprentice. Komorowska herself joined on 1 October 1961. Eds.
- ^ Premiered on 22 October 1961. Eds.
- ^ Eight performances between 23 March and 8 April 1962 – five in Teatr 38 and three in the Krzysztofory Gallery. Eds.
- ^ In Russian in the original Polish text. Trans.
- ^ See, for example, Giuliano Campo and Zygmunt Molik, Zygmunt Molik’s Voice and Body Work: The Legacy of Jerzy Grotowski (London & New York: Routledge, 2010). Eds.
- ^ Premiere on 10 October 1962. Eds.
- ^ Thomas Richards’ At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (1995) was published in Polish in a translation by Andrzej Wojtasik and Magda Złotowska (Kraków: Homini, 2003). Eds.
- ^ Komorowska played Winnie at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw. The premiere of the performance directed by Antoni Libera took place on 30 November 1995. Komorowska revived this role there in November 2008. Eds.
- ^ On 1 November 1962. Eds.
- ^ The performance, directed by Jan Bratkowski, opened on 3 May 1964. Eds.
- ^ Ewa Wiśniewska (b. 1942) is a famous Polish actor known for her many roles in film, television, and theatre. She has worked at various repertory theatres in Warsaw. Trans.
- ^ Komorowska re-joined the group with the new season, on 1 September 1964. Eds.
- ^ Zygmunt Molik died on 6 June 2010, in Wrocław. Eds.
- ^ The theatre was meant to work in the space of the old Observant abbey at 5 Bernardyńska Street in Wrocław, but was temporarily located at the old market square in the space of the Dom Związków Twórczych (House of the Creative Unions), which became its permanent location until its self-dissolution in 1984. Eds.
- ^ Actually it was Ludwik Flaszen who coined the term. Eds.
- ^ In fact, the work on The Constant Prince started in Opole. Calderón/Słowacki’s play first appeared in the repertory plans for the 1963/64 season. In a letter to the local authorities dated 21 May 1964, Grotowski wrote about the beginning of work on the new premiere. In his book, Zbigniew Osiński wrote that in the letter addressed to him dated 7 June 1964, Ryszard Cieślak mentions: ‘[…] we prepare The Constant Prince’. See Osiński, Teatr ‘13 Rzędów’ i Teatr Laboratorium ‘13 Rzędów’, Opole 1959-1964. Kronika-Bibliografia (The Theatre of the ‘13 Rows’ and the Laboratory Theatre of ‘13 Rows’, Opole 1959-1964: A Chronicle-Bibliography) (Opole: Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej w Opolu, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Opolskiego, 1997), p. 159. Eds.
- ^ When Komorowska left the company at the beginning of 1968 Zygmunt Molik took on the role. Eds.
- ^ Komorowska appears to be referring to a motif from the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’, roughly equivalent to ‘Yo, heave ho’. Eds.
- ^ This scene is included in Krzysztof Domagalik’s film Sacrilegious Rite, Abounding in Sorcery (1980), shortly to be published by PTP. Eds.
- ^ Komorowska started to work at the Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław on 1 March 1968. Eds.
- ^ In fact, once only, on 20 March 1967. Eds.
- ^ Directed by Jerzy Krasowski at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław, with a premiere on 17 February 1972. Eds.
- ^ Bolesław Śmiały (Bolesław the Brave) is Stanisław Wyspiański’s play, directed by Helmut Kajzar at the Wrocławski Teatr Współczesny. The performance opened on 2 March 1969. Komorowska played the character of Krasawica. Trans.
- ^ Directed by Helmut Kajzar at the Teatr Polski in Wrocław and with a premiere on 15 May 1971. Komorowska played the title role. Eds.
- ^ Za ścianą (1971) is a short feature film by Krzysztof Zanussi. It took the Grand Prix and won the Best Actress prize for Maja Komorowska at the San Remo Film Festival in 1971. Trans.
- ^ The book was published in Warsaw by Tenten in 1993. Trans.
- ^ A milk bar was a state-owned and -run canteen common during communist times where food (not always of the best quality) could be bought quite cheaply. Eds.
- ^ Bilans kwartalny was a 1974 feature film directed by Krzysztof Zanussi. Trans.
- ^ The book contains Jerzy Grotowski’s texts as well as articles by Konstanty Puzyna, Tadeusz Burzyński, and Zbigniew Osiński in the appendix. See Jerzy Grotowski, Teksty z lat 1965-1969. Wybór, ed. by Janusz Degler and Zbigniew Osiński (Wrocław: Wiedza o Kulturze, 1989; expanded edition 1990). Eds.
- ^ Jerzy Grotowski, ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, in Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. by Eugenio Barba (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 15-25 (p. 17). Eds.
- ^ See Grotowski, ‘He Wasn’t Entirely Himself’, in Towards a Poor Theatre, pp. 85-93 (p. 89). Eds.
- ^ This is a paraphrase from Grotowski’s text ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’, p. 17. Eds.
- ^ Ibid. Eds.
- ^ Ibid., p. 21. Eds.
- ^ Jerzy Grotowski, ‘Exercises’, trans. by James Slowiak, unpublished manuscript, pp. 164 and 165. Boss is an affectionate term for Grotowski used by his close collaborators. See Gardecka’s and Mirecka’s pieces for further comment on this. Eds.
- ^ Grotowski stated in his Paris lectures in 1997 and 1998 that the actors should not make a sacrifice to the spectators but to something that transcends themselves. The recordings of the lectures are available under the title La lignée organique au théâtre et dans le ritual (The ‘Organic Line’ in Theatre and in Ritual) (Paris: Le Livre qui Parle, 1998; audio cassettes or mp3 CD). Eds.
- ^ Jerzy Jarocki (1929-2012) was one of the most acclaimed Polish theatre directors of the post-war era. He is especially famous for his performances of Polish contemporary drama (e.g. the plays of Tadeusz Różewicz, Sławomir Mrożek, and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz). Jarocki was also a pedagogue who taught directing at the drama school in Kraków. Trans.