Ryszard Cieślak (1937-1990), was one of the main actors of the Teatr Laboratorium. He joined the company in 1961 and worked there until the theatre’s self-dissolution in 1984. He performed in each of the Laboratorium’s performances, from his 1962 debut in Kordian onwards. Notably, Cieślak created the celebrated title role in The Constant Prince (1965) and the role of Ciemny (The Simpleton) in Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1968/69), and is considered to epitomise Grotowski’s vision of the actor. His work on training was documented by Torgeir Wethal in the Odin Teatret film Training at the ‘Teatr Laboratorium’ in Wroclaw (1971). In the 1970s, Cieślak was one of the leaders of the company’s paratheatrical projects. In 1977, he acted in Witold Leszczyński’s film Rekolekcje. In 1981 he directed Polish Thanatos [Thanatos polski], a performance created collectively by several members of the Laboratorium. He led numerous workshops around the world, and in 1983 and 1984, he directed in Pontedera (Italy), Århus (Denmark), and Albacete (Spain). From 1985-1989 he collaborated with Peter Brook on the Mahabharata, playing the role of the blind king Dhritarashtra. In 1990, he directed Ash-Wednesday at New York University. He died of cancer on 15 June 1990 in Houston. In 1994, Krzysztof Domagalik made the posthumous documentary Aktor całkowity (The Total Actor) devoted to Cieślak and his work.
This text was originally published in Polish as ‘Szaleństwo Benwolia’, ed. by Zbigniew Jędrychowski, Notatnik Teatralny, 10 (1995), 40-47; a special issue devoted to Ryszard Cieślak. The piece was based on Konstantinos Themelis, Rozmowa z Ryszardem Cieślakiem (A Conversation with Ryszard Cieślak), with the collaboration of Vassilis Lagos, Athens, September 1986. It was transcribed by Bruno Chojak from an audio recording in the archive of the Grotowski Institute, Wrocław. The full version of the interview with Cieślak by Themelis was published in Grotowski – Cieślak. Spojrzenia (Grotowski/Cieślak: Perspectives), ed. by Małgorzata Leyko and Maciej Michalski (Kalisz: Miejska Biblioteka Publiczna, 2010), pp. 69-90.
My childhood was very difficult, as I am a war child. I was two when the war started. What do I remember? I remember fear all around; I remember my parents’ fear. We had to hide and keep moving. At first, we were in a camp, and then we escaped with the whole family and found shelter in a monastery in Kraków. There we survived the war.
When the war ended, we returned to our hometown of Kalisz, which is one of the oldest towns in Poland. I started school there. Then I went to secondary school and did my matura.
Some children already start to recite poems and so on during their childhood – but it was never like that for me. Quite the opposite. I would rather hide under the table. No poems. It was my sister who preferred to do that. My path to the theatre was quite unusual. After the matura, I followed the herd and like my friends went to study at technical college. I had been studying for two years when I suddenly realised that it wasn’t for me. I felt that I had to study; it was a kind of life compulsion, but nevertheless it did make sense to me. If I didn’t study I would have been conscripted.
I was wondering what I could study and who I wanted to be. I thought of becoming a doctor or a psychiatrist. So, I applied to study medicine. In the meantime, I met some of my sister’s friends who said to me: ‘Listen, the exams for drama school are earlier than those for medicine. Why not try that?’
I was accepted for both. Which led to the next problem – what to choose? Being an actor or a doctor? In fact, my dream was to study film directing. In order to be a good director, I had to know what it meant to be an actor. So, I thought, I’ll complete the acting course and then go on to study film directing in Łódź. I finished drama school. I had some ups and downs while I was there. My little theatre rebellion began there, as I didn’t agree with the tutors who were trying to teach me how they used to act when they were young. I was fighting for the opportunity to give something from myself. This was my first encounter with the truth, my own truth as an actor, my personal truth. This led to various problems, to the extent that I was even nearly expelled.
I wasn’t a genius there, but let’s say I functioned reasonably within certain restrictions, so I was allowed to stay… I didn’t finish school but I met Jerzy Grotowski.
At drama school, everyone was allowed to do their own small workshop alongside the compulsory student work. I decided to do something with a small group of people. Grotowski was teaching there in Kraków at that time. I was tinkering around with this [workshop] and Grotowski was assigned as my supervisor, which meant that he was to look after me. He said, ‘Go off and do it and when you know what it will be, contact me’. I had been working very hard on it, and after all that, I was proud of my idea, so I went to Grotowski. ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful’, he said, and then he changed everything completely, so I started to hate him. In the end, it was a small thing. I wanted to do a montage of love poetry and I imagined it in my own particular way. It was in ‘pastel shades’, because I was young then. But Grotowski already had fangs. Later, when I was in my final year, he appeared at the school with Ludwik Flaszen. This was because he had become a director of the theatre in Opole and was looking for actors. Grotowski remembered me because of this early project. He stopped me in the school corridor and asked whether I was free and would like to work in this… strange theatre. By that time, I had seen his first two performances, and wasn’t much impressed. So I said to him that I might take such a risk once I’d got my diploma. But obviously, I still knew that I wanted to do the film directing course in Łódź after I finished school. At the same time, I thought that the drama school, like all schools around the world, hadn’t really given or taught me very much. So, it made sense to stay in theatre at least for a year and see what it really means to be an actor, what it means to act properly, not just to work sporadically on various scenes and études like in drama school. But the answer I gave Grotowski was very ambiguous.
I got the diploma and suddenly I received a letter from Opole. This was amazing! The letter contained a contract signed by Grotowski. I carried this letter around for about two weeks, until one day I was partying with my friends into the early hours of the morning and when I went to a milk bar to have some milk and a buttered roll, I decided to sign the contract. So I did and I put it in the letterbox by the railway station.
In Kraków, I saw [the productions of] Shakuntala and Cain, which they [Grotowski’s theatre] brought from Opole. I have to say that I noticed something unusual in Cain. Despite the fact that the performance may not have appealed to me, there were certain ideas in it that, back then, I hadn’t encountered before in any other theatre.
It is worth adding that the theatre elite of that period were evidently against Grotowski. That was why I couldn’t make my decision straightaway whether or not I should go to these ‘madmen’ – as they were called: ‘those madmen who do headstands when they perform!’ I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s because I am a Pisces and I simply like taking risks. Risk has always followed me everywhere. I signed the contract because I thought that madness was better for me than conventional theatre. Just that. I signed the contract on the absolute understanding that I would stay there only for one year.
I arrived at Grotowski’s theatre in Opole. It was small, without a stage, quite strange. We started working on Kordian by [Juliusz] Słowacki. This was the first piece in which I took part. I had very small roles, comprised of various characters. I didn’t know how to link them together and what to do with them. I had to climb up onto some beds; everything was complicated and very strange. Then, for the first time, Grotowski provided me with some real help. I suddenly realised that drama school hadn’t taught me anything, that I had no voice – my voice was closed off. This was because of the teaching at the school, where they forced me to breathe in an unnatural way. I suddenly discovered all of my deficiencies and mistakes. This was my first encounter in work – in work with Grotowski.
Because I am an ambitious person, in a positive sense of the word, I felt I couldn’t leave until I had accomplished something.
From the left: Zbigniew Cynkutis, Ryszard Cieślak, and Andrzej Bielski in Słowacki’s Kordian (1962). Photograph: Edward Węglowski.
After Kordian we started working on Akropolis. Although I still only performed small parts, work on Akropolis was really interesting. As a result, I extended my stay at the theatre. Basically, I believed that I hadn’t accomplished anything yet. My resolution that I would do something and then leave didn’t work out. So now I thought to myself: ‘I will stay for another year in order to accomplish something, and then I’ll go’.
Ryszard Cieślak in the Teatr Laboratorium production of Wyspiański’s Akropolis in 1963. Photographer unknown.
During this first period, we didn’t have any exercises. The exercises started when Grotowski returned from China [in 1962].
In Dr Faustus, I again played only small parts. But with this play a very important breakthrough moment happened for me. I decided to go to Grotowski and tell him that I had an idea, and that I would like to connect various episodes through one character, and that this character would be very strange and opinionated. As a result, this character was called Benvolio. Grotowski said: ‘All right. Is this what you want to focus on?’ (I cannot remember whether we already called each other by our first names or if we were still on formal terms). I said yes. And so we started working separately. After working with the whole group, he would work with me long into the night. And the group wasn’t even aware of what I was doing. That was how my input began.
The performance was arranged in such a way that Faust would welcome his guests: there were tables, as in a refectory, and Faust would present episodes from his life. This took place on the tabletops as though dishes were being served up. The most important part was a scene entitled ‘The Madness of Benvolio’. In this scene, when Benvolio was visited by demons, he would destroy all the tables. Each tabletop probably weighed about twenty-five kilos, since they were wooden and thick. I was tearing them off very quickly (and I had to be very careful because of the spectators sitting close by).
[Grotowski and I] worked on this and Grotowski worked with the group, and then he said to them: ‘I want to show you something. Ryszard!’ It was then that – for the first time – I felt something was starting to happen.
It was also then that Grotowski discovered my voice. He did something simple. He just showed me that I was breathing incorrectly, and said that I should take the foetal position and try to breathe like that. And then he asked me at first to make a single sound, then to sing. And I suddenly realised that the room was full of sound.
At that time, the group consisted of the following people: Rena Mirecka, Antoni Jahołkowski, Zbigniew Cynkutis, who was playing Faustus, Zygmunt Molik, Maja Komorowska, and Maciej Prus, who is now a director.
It turned out that during various activities at the Teatr Laboratorium – and this was probably good for me – I ended up breaking nearly all my bones. (When you are a pioneer, you take risks.) The first accident happened during Dr Faustus. Before Benvolio smashed up the tables, he did some kind of ‘tiger leaps’ – a moment of stillness and then a somersault. During one of these jumps, I placed my hand between the two tables and did a somersault. Four fingers got broken!
Later on, it was decided in Warsaw that a special cultural committee, which consisted of various prestigious personalities and academics, should decide whether or not this theatre should continue to exist. We were to show a performance as well as our training methods (by that time the training had begun). Although my hand was in plaster, ‘there was no other option but to perform’, I said. So I put on a black glove to hide the plaster. I did a test jump on the concrete floor and then we did the whole piece. My plaster broke into tiny pieces. I had to change it twice.
[Benvolio in Faustus]. Why do I talk about madness and demons? It was like an attempt to destroy my body, a bit like a kamikaze. There was thanatos, but no caritas whatsoever. There was no spirit in it. It was heading for destruction and towards a determination to do something at any price. This determination lacked any lightness; it was as heavy as a large animal fighting against something.
Slowly I started having doubts about wanting to leave this theatre.
We were playing Faustus in Łódź. At the same time, some kind of international festival was taking place in Warsaw, so Eugenio Barba brought some people to see us, and that is how our existence in the outside world began. (Barba had already worked with us on Akropolis.)
An important transition for me was Studium o Hamlecie (Hamlet Study) by Stanisław Wyspiański. We presented this performance about ten times. It was really a great piece, but people didn’t understand it. Sometimes we had just four spectators in the room… When we had five this was a good number. At times there were just two. Nevertheless, we continued to perform.
Grotowski discovered something in me that was more than just physical strength. The search for something more subtle began. But this wasn’t yet The Constant Prince. No, no.
Now I need to move on to the Prince. One day Grotowski brought in the text of The Constant Prince, which he’d adapted. He didn’t bring it to the group, but asked me to meet him in the café later that evening. He offered me the part. This surprised me. He said that it would be very, very difficult and that he imagined the ending of the performance with the Prince going into a real, live fire.
– Will you take this on, Mr Ryszard?
– But you’re aware, Mister, that we’ll be able to perform it only once?
A few years later, I found out that when Grotowski told Flaszen that he was going to suggest this role to me, he replied: ‘You’re out of your mind. He’s so wooden!’
The work on the Prince started. It was very special work as Grotowski was working separately with me on all the monologues. The group did not take part in this; they didn’t know what I was up to. There were two streams of work. After a long time, Grotowski collided these two strands. It was great because the group had to react automatically and in the moment. If there was great astonishment, it was an astonishment that was honest, an absolutely honest reaction.
Work on the Prince changed my life and my worldview. Everything that I had said before had been uptight and fearful. And with this production, I suddenly realised that there is nothing to be afraid of, that everyone is as they are, and that there is no need to change ourselves completely, because we are good.
The two of us often worked through the night, in silence. I remember one such night. It was New Year’s Eve. Everyone else was having fun partying, but Grotowski and I worked for eight or nine hours, with him saying not a word. (He never said to me: ‘Let’s start Ryszard!’ He could sit there in silence for hours, almost motionlessly so as not to disturb me with the slightest noise.) I was improvising some words, because at that stage I wasn’t using the text. Only at the very end did Grotowski ask whether I remembered anything, tell me what I should remember, and remind me of my spontaneous utterances.
Grotowski did not want me to learn the text by heart, but rather just to read it over and over again until it was memorised. The more the script was read, the more that the fragments were remembered and incorporated into the performance. What I was remembering was what was really essential and truly important for me.
We found it together. Without Grotowski sitting in the corner as an ‘outside eye’, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Between us there was a kind of ‘voltaic arc’ – as we approached it, the light appeared.
Jerzy Grotowski and Ryszard Cieślak during rehearsals for The Constant Prince (1965). Photograph: Marek Czudowski, CAF/PAP.
The last monologue in the Prince was, or rather became – and I don’t like this word – ‘the famous’ monologue described by the critics. But the fact is that the spectators were reacting to it as though it was something special: ‘Yes, he talks about death, he dies, but this is a very strange death, cheerful, and delicate, the kind of death that illuminates’.
The last monologue is the dying monologue of the Prince. I was searching for a way to speak about the death that was to come, I was searching for this through the experience of the first real love of my life. At first, there is the fear of even touching another person and then there is the feeling of… flying up to heaven!
The two things clashing – Eros and Thanatos – provided a real explosion. It is a little complicated psychologically and from the outside could seem like a kind of trance. It is very difficult to explain this phenomenon. I need to start by explaining that everyone has a small ‘control point’ in their brain, just a tiny spot. I will give a real example: with her first child, a mother becomes very tired. The child cries all night, the mother doesn’t sleep. At last, the child falls asleep and the mother can fall asleep too, despite the unimaginable noise around her and maybe the bombs that are exploding. But when the child starts whimpering, she immediately gets up. This is that control point, which is paying total attention.
Of course, this phenomenon had its particular structure (but if there was only a structure, it would be dry) and every time there was a total focus, an entering inside. It wasn’t born straightaway; it took months for ‘the unconscious to start to become conscious’.
The work on the Prince gave me real knowledge about my body.
The period of the Prince was the period of the father. Grotowski, the father.
There were many twists and turns with Apocalypsis. It started with Grotowski planning to do Samuel Zborowski (1845), an unfinished play by Słowacki and a difficult play to stage. The text as well as the set (a huge cross) was already prepared. We started rehearsing and it was truly a collective work, arising out of an awareness of what might be possible after the Prince. But one day, Grotowski, despite the fact that he had been working on Samuel Zborowski for nine months, just said: ‘I see that this is going in a different direction’ (and this was Grotowski to a tee, this was what made him great). So, we started working on something that was called Ewangelie (The Gospels). We already had an international group of apprentices and they were also taking part in our quest. Ewangelie was finished as a piece and was performed just once, for friends. Then, Grotowski and I were invited to lead a training session at New York University. When the work started, I noticed that Grotowski was strangely unsettled in New York. One day he said to me that even though Ewangelie was finished, we ‘would start everything from scratch’ when we got back to Poland.
This path towards Apocalypsis that led us through Ewangelie and Samuel Zborowski was something very important. When we returned to Poland, Grotowski announced this ‘Job’s message’ to the group. Everyone broke down completely. We started working on something unknown. Until one day, Grotowski said that this should not go towards Ewangelie and the life of Christ as previously intended, but towards Christ’s return to earth. At that point we still didn’t have a title.
But we had an idea. The work together began. We had about seven hours of different ideas for Apocalypsis, but we didn’t yet have any texts – apart from a range of very short pieces that we ourselves had come up with. One day Grotowski put all this in order and we showed it as a performance that lasted for about seven hours and twenty-five minutes. A wealth of material. Grotowski was selecting and putting it together in the manner of a montage, as if it were a kind of filmmaking: ‘This can’t stay in, this is rubbish, this is good...’ We lost a few great scenes that didn’t have any logic. Then we started looking for texts. Grotowski said that everyone should try to find something according to their feelings [about the work]. Antoś [Antoni Jahołkowski] found the famous [fragments from] Dostoevsky. With Grotowski’s help, I discovered the Eliot. The other texts included Simone Weil and the Bible. And that was how Apocalypsis came about. It was a breakthrough moment for our whole group, in the same way that the Prince had been a breakthrough for me earlier.
Ryszard Cieślak in Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1979). Photograph: Maurizio Buscarino, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.
[A piece of advice for the young actor who would like to follow in our footsteps.] It should be a via negativa. One should avoid copying Grotowski’s aesthetics. One should avoid copying what I was doing – I have seen people doing that. This was truly mine. It is crucial to try – whatever the cost – to ask yourself the question of how to be honest. This is the priority: to be honest in your work.
Everything didn’t always go well at the Teatr Laboratorium. We had moments of breakdown. I had moments when I wanted to leave, even during the good days. It is very easy to say to yourself: ‘This is difficult and I can’t do it’. This is death. Trying means to live. Apart from that – and it is hardest when you are looking for the way – it takes time to find this and no one can teach you how to do it. It has to come of its own accord.
At the Teatr Laboratorium, we didn’t work like actors who go on stage. We worked like miners. I don’t regret it. If I were to start again, I would do the same thing.
Now that the Teatr Laboratorium no longer exists and Grotowski is a long way away, I need to mention two things. I don’t want to speak only about the encounter with him, but also about how I feel about him, despite the fact that he is far away in the United States and I am in France, Italy, or in Poland. Wherever I am, I always feel the presence of this man very strongly. And if I have any problems, he is the first person I think about. This helps. That’s not all; a few times during our meetings he told me: ‘Listen, you have had some problems recently’. ‘How do you know? You weren’t here’, I asked. ‘But I felt it’, he replied.
To me, Grotowski is a very important person who gave me, I don’t know, almost everything in my life. He is one of those people I can ask about everything and I believe that whatever he advises me is right and true. He doesn’t give advice simply to get rid of you. If he doesn’t have an answer, he asks for one day. Then he comes back with a piece of advice that is absolutely to the point.
At the beginning, Grotowski was my director. Then he was a father who taught his child his first steps. And later? He remains my brother to this day.
Translated from Polish by Justyna Drobnik-Rogers
- ^ The final secondary school exams in Poland. Trans.
- ^ Ryszard Cieślak literally said: ‘I completed it’. The facts are not clear. Later in this section he says: ‘I didn’t finish school’ and ‘I got the diploma’. Cieślak was one of eight graduates of the Puppetry Department of the PWST (State Higher Theatre School) in Kraków in 1961. He took part in the final performance, but probably did not get a diploma (certificate of completion). Eds.
- ^ A milk bar is a state-owned and -run canteen common during communist times, where inexpensive food could be purchased. Eds.
- ^ Shakuntala, after Kalidasa, was presented as an erotic drama in two acts. It premiered in the Teatr 13 Rzędow on 13 December 1960. The Teatr 13 Rzędów visited Kraków from 8 to 15 January 1961, presenting Shakuntala and Mystery Bouffe. Cain was a grotesque or mystery play based loosely on the eponymous drama by Byron. It premiered on 30 January 1960. The theatre presented Cain as well as Orpheus in Kraków from 1 to 4 March 1960. See Zbigniew Osiński, Grotowski i jego Laboratorium (Grotowski and his Laboratory) (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1980), pp. 70 and 84. See also Zbigniew Osiński, Grotowski and his Laboratory, trans. and abridged by Lillian Vallee and Robert Findlay (New York: PAJ, 1986), pp. 39, 50, and 51. In this abridged version of the Polish book, most, though not all, details are mentioned. Eds.
- ^ Premiered 13 February 1962. See ‘Ryszard Cieślak (1937–1990). An Annotated Chronology of Life and Works’ in Notatnik Teatralny, 10 (1995). This Chronology also contains more information about further Teatr Laboratorium premieres in which Cieślak performed.
- ^ Premiered 10 October 1962.
- ^ The Tragical History of Dr Faustus premiered on 23 April 1963.
- ^ It is not entirely clear what Cieślak is referring to at this point but it must relate somehow to Benvolio’s character as it appears in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) and his role as a benevolent peacemaker who asserts his views. Eds.
- ^ See Zbigniew Osiński, Grotowski and his Laboratory, trans. and abridged by Lillian Vallee and Robert Findlay (New York: PAJ, 1986), pp. 77, 79, and 80. Eds.
- ^ The text in square brackets appears like this in the original Polish publication. Eds.
- ^ The Teatr Laboratorium was in Łódź from 8 to 18 June 1963. Eugenio Barba was in Warsaw at the 10th Congress of the International Theatre Institute (ITI). This episode is described in a number of publications. See, for example, Zbigniew Osiński, Grotowski and his Laboratory, p. 76. Eds.
- ^ Premiered 17 March 1964. See Zbigniew Osiński, ‘Raporty kasowe Teatru Laboratorium 13 Rzędów. Opole 1964’ (Box Office Reports from the Laboratory Theatre of the 13 Rows, Opole 1964), Notatnik Teatralny, 4 (1992), 81-83.
- ^ The Constant Prince premiered on 20 April 1965.
- ^ Cieślak is referring here to 31 December 1964.
- ^ See Jerzy Grotowski, ‘On the Genesis of Apocalypsis’, trans. by Kris Salata, Re-Reading Grotowski, ed. by Kris Salata and Lisa Wolford Wylam (=TDR: The Drama Review, 52.2 (2008)), 40-51 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/dram.2008.52.2.40>. See also the interviews elsewhere in this volume with Stanisław Scierski (pp. 91-94) <http://dx.doi.org/10.15229/ptpcol.2014.voices.10> and with Teo Spychalski (especially pp. 151-54) <http://dx.doi.org/10.15229/ptpcol.2014.voices.18>. Eds.
- ^ An open viewing on 20 March 1967.
- ^ Their stay in New York was from 6 to 30 November 1967. [This was at NYU, organised through Richard Schechner. Eds.]
- ^ [Closed] Premiere: 15 July 1968. [An official premiere took place on 11 February 1969. Eds.]
- ^ The text in square brackets appears like this in the original Polish publication. Eds.
- ^ In November 1983, on the occasion of the workshop Labirinti (Labyrinths), Cieślak, with Simona Morini, wrote and published an article entitled ‘Minatori’ (Miners) in Italy in 1984 in Teatro Polacco: identità di una cultura. Progetto di studi e cultura teatrale (Polish Theatre – its Cultural Identity: A Theatre Studies and Theatre Culture Project), (Bologna: Assessorato alla Cultura di Comune di Bologna – Centro Teatrale Roselle, 1984), pp. 24-26. The text was published in Poland as ‘Górnicy’, trans. by Anna Górka, Didaskalia, 73-74 (2006), 98-99, and reprinted in Świadomość teatru: Polska myśl teatralna drugiej połowy XX wieku (Awareness of the Theatre: Polish Thinking about Theatre in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century), ed. by Wojciech Dudzik (Warsaw: PWN, 2007), pp. 402-06.
- ^ In August 1986, Grotowski moved with three assistants (Pablo Jiménez, Thomas Richards, and James Slowiak) from California to Pontedera in Italy. Eds.