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The Solitude of Theatre


Anatoli Vassiliev Jerzy Grotowski Konstantin Stanislavsky Russian theatre School of Dramatic Art GITIS Moscow Art Theatre Andrey Popov Maria Knebel Michael Chekhov Soviet Union Mikhail Butkevich Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski & Thomas Richards Pontedera Grotowski Year 2009 ENSATT Moscow acting directing training physical actions action analysis ludic theatre play Poor Theatre


Anatoli Vassiliev is one of Europe’s leading theatre directors, researchers, and pedagogues. He trained at GITIS (the Russian State Academy of Theatre Arts) under the tutelage of Maria Knebel and Andrey Popov, before directing internationally acclaimed productions such as Cerceau (1985), Six Characters in Search of an Author (1987), and Medea Material (2001). Vassiliev founded the School of Dramatic Art in Moscow in 1987, for which he served as Artistic Director until 2006. He was head of the directing course at the National Higher School for Performing Arts (ENSATT) in Lyon from 2004 to 2008, and moved permanently to France in 2006.

This text was edited and revised from the transcript of a public meeting with Anatoli Vassiliev led by Katarzyna Osińska.

The meeting took place on 27 March 2009, on the Stanisław Wyspiański Stage at the PWST theatre in Kraków, as part of the ‘Grotowski Year’ conference ‘The Solitude of Theatre’. Vassiliev’s speech was a response to questions posed by Osińska regarding Jerzy Grotowski’s influence on his conception of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s system, and about the nature and development of Vassiliev’s relationship to Grotowski.


First of all, I have to tell you that I haven’t lived in Moscow for over three years. You need to be aware of this; I no longer practise in Moscow and I no longer live there. I was forced to leave my theatre, the theatre that I had created; I was forced to leave my actors, my repertoire, forced to take myself away from Moscow.

This is how it is. My whole twenty years of daily practice in Moscow finished like this. I had to exile myself from Moscow culture and to announce openly that I no longer wanted to participate in the theatrical life there, or to stage anything on Moscow territory.

I created several ensembles of actors during those twenty years. I didn’t just stage public performances but also performances that remained internal, ‘closed’ – that is, I didn’t only conduct a public artistic life but a laboratory one as well… And that’s not all… All of this theatre research led me to need to construct a new building, a special building for my theatre. I was the architect, together with my friend – my set designer and architect Igor Popov. This building was conceived for a totally different type of theatre. It wasn’t enough for me to leave repertory theatre and to create my own theatrical universe – it had to be more tangible than this. For this new theatrical world I would construct a new building. And three years ago, under terrible pressure from the Moscow government, I was forced to abandon it all.

Strictly speaking, I am not an emigrant, because I think emigration as such no longer exists – but I lead the life of an exile. I left for France. I became head of the Department of Theatre Directing in Lyon (at ENSATT),[1] my pupils have since graduated (with several shows included in the official programme of Avignon Festival in 2008), and I staged a new production at the Odéon theatre (based on the eighteenth-century French novel, Thérèse Philosophe). I also staged Euripides’ Medea in Greece at the ancient theatre at Epidaurus. A great deal has happened during those three years. I have conducted many educational programmes and seminars, in various countries – but always away from Moscow. And in August I decided to leave professional theatre altogether. I decided I would stop practising theatre and only go on with theatre education – that I would rather write books, texts…

I’m telling you about this because it’s important to know that whoever chooses a different kind of theatre is ultimately condemned to exile. They will be forcibly chased away from the country where they work, and not only by the state or city – they will be chased away by their colleagues as well. And the greatest danger here comes from the colleagues.

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

I am sitting here in front of you, and as I talk I can’t help asking myself whether I have any right to tell you all this, since I no longer practise theatre. All this is in the past, in my memory. Or perhaps I’m trying to conjure it away, to make it disappear – to disappear even from my memory. I prefer to remember less, maybe nothing at all, rather than to go on hurting my soul and my heart with all those memories. So I have to beg your pardon: excuse me if my words don’t flow smoothly. My speech will be uneven because I’m talking about this for the first time since I made my final decision to leave Moscow… Forgive me in advance.

When people ask me about those first years, when I began to study theatre, I can only tell you that it was 1968, and about how things looked then… The whole atmosphere at our Institute, at GITIS,[2] was very strange – in fact, it was quite good. And when I say it was strange, it’s because it didn’t correspond to the political situation that existed then. It’s true, 1968 was when Anatoly Efros was hounded out of GITIS;[3] you know, this resulted indirectly from all those tragic political events at the time – primarily from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The political situation seemed like it couldn’t really be favourable or conducive to artistic activity – but this isn’t how it was at all! Our directing teachers (not only my own: I had a lot of friends in Yury Zavadsky’s class – in which Grotowski had earlier been a student[4] – and I knew what was going on there, and I also knew what was happening in Maria Knebel’s class, which I joined later) kept their doors closed to strangers, to spies, to people who didn’t belong – and they would try to shape us, to teach us the spirit of freedom. They didn’t limit us or curb our desire to be free. This was very important.

Those teachers, each master from the department could – in fact, every one of them did – achieve their own human act of courage. And that doesn’t only go for the masters who taught theatre directing – I can say the same about the professors who lectured on European literature, drama, or history of culture. I remember, we’d all come to attend a lecture at nine in the morning (for a theatre student this was very early!) and our professor, whose name was Igor Borisovich Dyushen, would take a text of Ionesco or Beckett from his bag – a forbidden text that he’d translated himself because he’d really mastered the French language – and instead of giving a lecture on Western literature he would just read us some new play. Ten years later he would pay a terrible price for this – he was put in prison. But I remember the flair and élan with which he did this in 1968.

I finished my first year at the Institute with two pieces of work, because as a future theatre director I had to show two études. These were two dramatic fragments, two little plays. One was based on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The second was based on an episode from Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry that dealt with the Soviet military occupation of the Polish and Lithuanian territories.[5] Don’t forget, this was 1968. My fellow students were using similar material. Well, perhaps, my works were more radical, more extreme…

The GITIS administration didn’t want to allow us too much freedom, but what could they do? We were already adults, all of us had been to university before. Before becoming a directing student at GITIS, I’d already graduated in organic chemistry from the University of Rostov on the Don and then worked in the city of Novokuznetsk. [Novokuznetsk] is a city in Siberia, a frightening place full of aluminium, coal, misery, and black clouds. I’d done my military service in Kazakhstan, with the Strategic Missile Regiment, located very close to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. For nearly two years I’d worked as a sailor in the Pacific. Who could have dared restrict my freedom? And my fellow students took the same attitude.

Eventually our class was divided in two. One group stayed with our previous teacher and the other was assigned to Maria Knebel. She took this group because she was in charge of the directing department at the time. And you know, one of the most important times I remember was when we were working in a small room – without a stage, without any kind of podium – and we were using the étude method. This method means that you study the action through a free searching for the action itself.[6] And I remember that from time to time we heard rumours about Grotowski, and I remember all the images that were bound up with this – because to the Russian ear there was almost some secret, mysterious cipher in the very name ‘Grotowski’. I got to see some of the posters and drawings from his theatre. I knew that at his studio the action took place directly on the floor of the space and not on the stage. I understood that there were other, different relations that occurred between the actors and the audience, between the actors and the spectators – and I knew that those spectators were always very few in number.

These were very simple, clear images – perhaps now we might even say that they were rather trivial. But the dominant theatre around us was all large-scale: magnificent sets on Italian stages, with spectacular performances created for large audiences. It was loud, glittering theatre – what we might call ‘rich theatre’ – and it was the only official theatre we’d ever seen. However, what we were trying to do in our little studio, in that little room – what we called ‘free searching’, ‘free exploration’, what we were being taught by our masters – provided us with a totally different image of the theatre. And then, suddenly, we found out that this different image of the theatre had a concrete name. This name was ‘Grotowski’. And since this person really existed, since this theatre had a name attached to it, our searches no longer seemed so fantastical – they somehow became very concrete; they were no longer something utopian but very, very concrete. It was important that there was someone engaged in this type of theatre who had a name, who had his own theatre group, who had his own performances – and although we couldn’t go to see them, we’d at least heard about them. It was all suddenly real.

You know, it’s very simple: even if the forest is extremely vast and dense, it’s enough for there to be a clearing with a tree-trunk for the rare birds to gather. Then the whole of the forest knows that such a place exists. [The forest] can’t become completely entangled with weeds and become a wilderness… because there is at least one place like this that really exists. Later on I kept coming back to this observation – I’m talking about theatre but this metaphor concerns a lot of other things – a small place, a little place that supports an entire culture. Monks in the desert who were capable of shouldering entire religions… I think that this non-public ‘desert activity’, concentrated somewhere beyond the limits of the ‘civilized theatre’, is, in fact, absolutely necessary for the theatre. And I am very grateful to all those people – I do not even remember all their names now – those people who conveyed to me the images of that theatre, which was then unknown but which so appealed to me. [...]

Anatoli Vassiliev speaking at the Teatr Lalek, Wrocław, 23 June 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

Anatoli Vassiliev speaking at the Teatr Lalek, Wrocław, 23 June 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

My initiation through that mysterious image of theatre in 1968 was something very strong for me. I embarked on my own journey, which I can tell you about. It was a long journey from 1968 to 1990 – twenty-two years, to be exact. I hadn’t met Grotowski before going to [his Workcenter in] Pontedera in 1989. It was only in 1990 that my production of Six Characters in Search of an Author played in Wrocław, in the same space as Apocalypsis cum figuris had been performed.[7] This twenty-two year journey had been my own path, which I walked alone. And it’s thanks to this path that I found myself performing in Wrocław. You see, it’s all quite remarkable. Teachers and pupils… What does it mean to be someone’s pupil? How do these pupils appear, how do they arrive? Perhaps it will be clearer if I speak about my own experience… After I first met Jerzy Grotowski, I began to meet with him more and more often – once there was even a press-conference organised just for the two of us: for Pan Jerzy Grotowski and me.[8] By that time I already felt myself capable of discussing theatre with Jerzy Grotowski.

I would put it like this: I myself chose Grotowski as my teacher. He never proposed this to me. Perhaps he never proposed it to anyone. I don’t know. I chose on my own. I understood that I had no other mentor apart from him. Because all the teachers I had before – they were already dead, I had no one left. And although I was quite mature then – not at all young, even – I could see very well that I couldn’t go on without a mentor. Afterwards, when I lost him, I was left totally alone – I had no mentor I could talk to, even in my dreams. This became a real tragedy for me. It doesn’t mean we used to talk every day. We didn’t meet often, but we met regularly. You know, Grotowski used to invite me to his office or to his hotel for private talks; Carla Pollastrelli would always help me organise these meetings with Grotowski. Even if these were short, this still meant some mutual exchange, some practice. In Volterra [in July 1996], Grotowski saw some of my work. It was Homer’s The Iliad. I was so embarrassed I couldn’t stay in the auditorium. I couldn’t watch my own performance or even stick around when it was over. I tried to hide away in my hotel room and didn’t want to come out. I felt so ashamed. But the next morning someone was sent to see me:
– ‘Grotowski wants to talk to you’.
– ‘Well, where is he?’
– ‘Downstairs in the lobby – he’s waiting for you’.
And so, Pan Jerzy Grotowski came to my hotel to discuss with me what he had seen.

As I say, they were short meetings. But from 1968 to 1999, when Grotowski died, I had a teacher, a mentor, someone to talk to. And this was very important for me.

Now something about my own journey, because I was sure then – and I’m still sure – that I really understood the meaning of what Grotowski did and said.

I want to talk about Stanislavsky. I studied under Maria Osipovna Knebel – who was a student of Stanislavsky and then became his teaching partner, a pedagogue – and I worked and rehearsed with several of Stanislavsky’s actors. And obviously I read his books and practised his method when I was a student. All of what I’ve recounted so far actually took place… But right now I’d like to entertain you with a little paradox. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about the paradox of theatre, but I prefer to consider it a paradox about exchange and swindling. Something from real life, let’s say. Two people meet in a town square in order to make an exchange. One of them wants to change some foreign currency notes with the other’s help. The transaction is completed, the happy client takes his money and goes away. Then he looks at the bundle of notes and realises that they’re worthless – fakes, with the real stuff placed on top. He realises he was cheated... He runs back to the square wanting to find the other guy, but the trickster has already disappeared.

A question to you: is it possible to act out this little event on stage? The story is very simple… but unfortunately, you can’t play it. There is a certain pre-condition for this to happen in real life: the client doesn’t know that he’s going to be deceived by the other guy. On stage, however, the situation is different, and this difference is crucial: the client knows in advance that he will be deceived by the other. And if he knows this, you can never play it as a real process! The only thing that remains is some illusion of the process. But this case of exchange and swindling is a classic case the world over, for the whole of the dramatic theatre. Nevertheless, it seems as though it’s simply impossible to act out this story on stage.

It’s the same with many other stories… That is, the real, authentic process cannot take place; at best it might be possible, as we say in Russian, to ‘show the process’ – to show the result, the imitation of the process, to present some illusion. And there are many schools and approaches to theatre that study this art of imitation. These schools are numerous and versatile. They have a broad range or ‘palette’ of ways to approach imitation. But it will always remain the art of imitation. This paradox tells us that in the dramatic arts everything that is related to the process itself is something mysterious, enigmatic, difficult – and at the same time something very natural, even if it remains hidden from the ‘uninitiated’. This paradox shows us that we need to overcome, somehow to eliminate the following contradiction: that the characters know nothing about the situation, about how it’s going to evolve, while the actors – that is, the real people acting it out – already know. It’s through this paradigm that I began to study the art of psychological theatre. But at the very beginning I still wasn’t aware of this paradox. First I had to be confronted with this helplessness, with the impossibility of creating a process – as well as with all the usual means that were used to present an imitation in the theatre. I had to be forced into doing something I hadn’t planned at all.

I really confronted this problem during the second half of my first year as a student at GITIS, as soon as I began to rehearse Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers. It was a short play but it raised a lot of questions for me. Then I embarked on my own long journey of research: what does ‘action’ actually mean? What are we supposed to do with this ‘action’, how can we provoke it? This was the beginning of my own personal life and my own personal journey in the theatre. And it was only at the end of this road that I started to notice and observe the same things as Grotowski – and I came to pretty much the same conclusions. Of course, my conclusions were still my conclusions. They were not exactly the same as Jerzy Grotowski’s ideas, but they were very similar. And it was at this point in my life that I suddenly found myself at the crossroads where we could really meet each other. And that meeting became possible thanks to Stanislavsky. After all, Stanislavsky was the first person who was able to define the object of that elusive art – the art of dramatic theatre. Every art has its own ‘object’: for music it is sound, for painting it is light and colours, etc. But what is the object of dramatic art? Can it be seen as a kind of synthesis, with all the other arts ‘entering into it’, so to speak, and forming its parts? Or, rather, does dramatic art have its own ‘object’ that distinguishes it from other arts? It was Stanislavsky who found and defined this ‘object’, who was the first to say quite clearly that the object of dramatic art is action. And so, eventually, that is what I began to study: action.

There is something else that I should mention here; after all, when we talk about ‘feelings’, about ‘emotions’ – those feelings need to be located somewhere, there needs to be a centre where all these feelings are concentrated. The emotions, they exist somewhere – you understand? I noticed that action always exists on three levels: in speech, in physical movement, and in the psyche. And depending on which level the action is inclined towards at a given moment, the principles of our work with it should change. For example, when we talk about action that exists on the psychological level we always mean emotions, feelings. And then we also say that this centre is situated ‘inside’ us, that it is located ‘inside’.

I started to work with this centre. It was the paradox that I told you about that was forcing me on, that was pushing me forward. And then I tried an experiment: I tried to shift that centre, to take what we usually call ‘emotions’ and put them ‘outside’, in front of me. And then to take what we usually call ‘images’ and place them out in front of me, in the same way. After some time, I discovered that it’s possible either to have this centre within the actor or to shift it and place it outside – you can either be inside the ‘shell’ or outside it. It’s almost as if now, as an actor, I have something that previously made up the ‘shell’ of my emotions out in front of me. When the centre is inside, theatre will necessarily be subjective, psychological; but the trick is that the centre itself can become an object. And then we could probably call this type of theatre ‘objective’. Somewhat later, I began to refer to these constructions as structures ludiques (‘ludic’ or ‘play’ structures). Now the ‘subject’ – that is, the actor as a person – enters into contact with the ‘object’, which is now located somewhere outside, beyond them… This does not mean that the emotions no longer exist or are less important than before; they remain real and active, but the actor’s whole attitude becomes somehow more detached. Our feelings, habits, and emotional reactions are regarded rather like an object – like a ball to toss, or a toy to play with – in an exciting game that is essentially shared by both partners, by both actors.

When we use ‘psychological structures’ – where the very centre of our emotional life and of our actions lies within us and eventually prompts us to move – everything is defined by the past that pushes us forward, everything is determined by a chain of previous events or by our own emotive nature. Transposing this into a performance, the character becomes entirely predictable, and then – whatever intricate psychological details the actor might find – everything is already formed in advance, already shaped by the initial event; that is, by the circumstances and pre-conditions of a human situation presented at the beginning of the play. On the other hand, ‘play structures’ always orient us towards the culminating point, towards the concluding part of the composition. And this final point, this goal can only exist as a kind of premonition, as a kind of distant light which promises and beckons... Now it’s no longer the specific traits of a character that determine the journey but the real person (the ‘persona’) of the actor, which embarks on this adventure and wishes to play it out right to the end – whatever the cost.

After all these experiments I really moved forward in my understanding of Stanislavsky’s system, as well as in my understanding of the meaning of ‘action’. This was very important for me, because this method of working with action – this understanding of action and mastery of it – was actually proposed by Stanislavsky, who worked towards directing it. Later I started to read or hear about similar efforts – I was even able to see them in practice – and this experience brought me closer to Grotowski, even though I hadn’t been a direct disciple of his. On one hand, I was never ostensibly his student; on the other, I felt a true affinity with his work in my own practice. I am no stranger to his theatre. I am no stranger to it because we both have the same ‘forefather’. And Grotowski speaks about this very clearly in his text ‘Reply to Stanislavsky’.[9]

Well, I have my own ‘Reply to Stanislavsky’. It’s very simple: so long as we continue to concentrate on the centre within us, we are forced to imitate genuine process in the theatre. Because if we accept the paradox about exchange and swindling, we can never find a solution to this paradox of knowing and simultaneously not knowing. On the other hand, when we shift the centre to the outside, both partners have the same knowledge of the object of their game. And thanks to this knowledge, they can start to play with it – including playing with their respective emotions. Then the paradox can be resolved and overcome.

After some time, I finally formulated for myself the notion of two kinds of theatre. One I continued to name ‘psychological theatre’, and the other I named théâtre ludique (‘ludic theatre’, ‘theatre of play’). It’s difficult to express all this in a clear and logical way, which would require a lot of time. But I’d like to try to present something like a summary. First of all, I began to study ‘action’. I tried to pay specific attention to this idea, to this ‘entity’ in the theatre. Secondly, I began to study action on three levels: psychological, physical, and in speech. Finally, I began to use different centres: both inside and outside the person. And the centre that is shifted to the outside, this centre I called the objet ludique (‘ludic object’, ‘object of play’). To go a little further: when the object of play is the situation itself, everything remains concrete – the very substance of the game is concrete. However, the object of play can be something quite abstract – that is, the very nature of this object can change, it can be both concrete and abstract. And when you change the nature of the object, the level of this theatre becomes elevated, it reaches a higher degree. With this elevation, the theatre’s objectives – its very reality – become transformed: now we are dealing with something metaphysical. Because from here the object of play becomes some strange substance that no longer belongs to the physical world – it’s something from the realm of metaphysics. It’s no longer concrete but rather something abstract, conceptual.

This was the itinerary of my personal journey during those twenty-two years. And when I found myself in Pontedera, when I became a ‘witness’ to all those training exercises, when I was watching Action, I understood immediately that I was already prepared to take the same step – my own, personal step. It would be something different, perhaps – something apparently less provocative than the move made by Pan Jerzy Grotowski. But I thought: while I might not be able to go as far, I can do something along the same lines – at least I must try! And for my actors’ training I decided to choose something that would be closer to the Russian mentality. I looked for something other than the Afro-Caribbean songs [used at the Workcenter], for some archaic material that I could really deal with. Well, if you start from Russian Orthodox culture, then – via Byzantium – the roots of it go straight back to Ancient Greece! And so I started to use more of Plato (who I’d already used before) and to work directly on Homer and his epic texts…[10]

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

In all of my training exercises I began to work primarily on action in speech, on action in the word. In every single word. After that visit to Pontedera in the 1990s, I embarked on something quite drastic myself. All the inner work and all my classes were now concentrated on the same theme: action in speech. In fact, I found that it was due to the ‘play structures’ that we could find verbal mechanisms with their own, specific functions. I began to see that in ‘ludic theatre’ the content is usually transmitted through the oral intonation itself. Thus, in order to eliminate the ordinary, ‘horizontal’ intonation, we must first of all discard the normal, trivial accents of everyday speech. Only in this way can we hope to arrive at the primordial force of speech as ‘pure energy’, as a kind of phonic substance that can be found at the very origins of our world. Together with the actors we worked out a special technique based on mastering one’s breathing – a technique that is somehow strangely close to certain oriental practices. Thanks to what we called ‘affirmative intonation’, we tried to find the energy that starts to unfold in speech, that begins to affect us directly – both actors and spectators, even against our will – over and above the usual, ‘tame’ meanings of ordinary words.[11]

And it’s only thanks to this work that I was really able to approach Dostoevsky. Because there, in Dostoevsky, I completely renounced psychological action, action on the emotional level. Everything started from the Word… I began working on poetic drama, drama in verse: Pushkin, Lermontov, as well as French poetic drama – primarily Molière. Then I changed the subject matter completely, I began to work almost exclusively on mysterial theatre. The whole repertoire changed. I staged the Lamentations of Jeremiah, an Old Testament text. We did extensive work on Pushkin’s Don Juan – extensive, incredible work. And we staged The Iliad, which I later took to Volterra.

But you know, as soon as I began that serious, fundamental work – which was something so important for me personally – I immediately found myself in deep solitude. Because this new theatre I was engaged in, this theatre no longer spoke the audience’s language! This was the first major problem. The stage language was no longer immediately shared by those in the auditorium. And it was no longer the language of the critics, of the Russian theatre theorists. They kept repeating: ‘Your actors can no longer speak Russian. This isn’t proper, normal, everyday Russian intonation. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern the words. We can no longer follow the plot straight away. In short, we can’t grasp anything, we can’t find anything familiar to cling on to… We can’t perceive the psychology of the characters because your actors do not show us everyday life. We’re losing what we’ve been so proud of: the normal existence of ordinary people. We don’t understand what’s happening on the stage’. But you see, at that moment the very nature of the dramatic action changed. It changed because the action itself changed. That is, my theatre – the theatre I’d been trying to create during those recent years – renounced psychological realism, renounced what we call the ‘emotions’. This theatre began a totally different sphere of activity; it was a different work, a different life… And leading this life I felt very close to the master I’d chosen as my teacher – I felt very close to Grotowski.

It was difficult to make quick progress because I would try to create ensembles of actors, these ensembles would reach their peak, their summit, and then I’d start losing my actors… And I’d have to create new ensembles… I was losing the productions we’d created, simply because you can’t keep your actors shut away in a theatre, in a rehearsal space forever. It was impossible because all around – beyond the walls of the theatre – there was some other, ‘normal’ life going on. And although whatever I did in this small rehearsal room was somehow strong enough to reach the farthest ends of the world, at the same time it was too weak to linger, too weak to survive, because everyday life – ordinary city life – was stronger than the life of the theatre. Here I was, with all my efforts to create a totally new theatre, and I was ultimately forced to abandon it all – to the extent that I tried to crush all my desires to do this theatre, the theatre to which I’d given twenty years of my life. I’m speaking about this during this conference because, above all, I want to tell you not about success but defeat. I think that the whole of history of the theatre is formed for the most part from such negations, from such defeats. Not the noisy, brilliant, or flattering publicity surrounding great premieres – but mostly the inevitable defeats that accompany the real growth, the real development of the theatre. [...]

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

Anatoli Vassiliev at the PWST Theatre, Kraków, 27 March 2009. Photograph: Francesco Galli, courtesy of the Grotowski Institute.

Finally I want to say a few words about my interpretation of the notion of ‘poor theatre’. You know, perhaps it will be a bit surprising for you, but the Polish language has two words meaning ‘poor’ that are also quite close to the Russian. Not just biedny, but also ubogi – ‘miserable’, ‘the lowest of the low’.[12] In this latter term [the version used by Grotowski], the Polish and Russian ears discern something else as well: u-bogi, u Boga, someone who is close to God, someone for whom God is the ultimate refuge. Teatr ubogi means a theatre that has found its last refuge in God; almost like a miserable and humble person who has finally found shelter. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew, 5.3). ‘Poor theatre’ as a theatre for those who are poor in spirit – that is, for those who are always looking, always searching for that Spirit… always searching for something that was lost… I think that my whole theatre practice was probably just such a journey, in search of the lost spirit. It was my own journey, my own path, which began from Stanislavsky. And I’m glad I made it at least some of the way – at least those ten years until Grotowski’s death – together with my mentor. Always in search of this lost spirit.

So, in spite of all the defeats, I am happy.

Thank you.

Initial version transcribed and translated from Russian by Olya Petrakova-Brown; text subsequently revised by Anatoli Vassiliev, with the translation revised by Natasha Isaeva.


  1. ^ ENSATT: École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre (The National Higher School for Theatre Arts and Techniques). Unless otherwise stated, all footnotes are by the PTP editors.
  2. ^ The Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, Moscow.
  3. ^ Anatoly Vasilyevich Efros (1925-1987) was a Russian director who worked principally at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre (from 1967 to 1984). Throughout the 1960s he had courted controversy with unorthodox stagings of plays such as Chekhov’s The Seagull (1966) and Three Sisters (1967), following which he was removed from his directorial position at the Lenin Komsomol Theatre and his teaching position at GITIS.
  4. ^ Grotowski had been a student of Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) during his studies in Moscow, from 1955 to 1956. Zavadsky – an actor, director, producer, and pedagogue – studied under both Stanislavsky and Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and was head of the Mossoviet Theatre from 1940 to 1977.
  5. ^ This occupation took place during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 to 1921.
  6. ^ Vassiliev is referring to the method of ‘Active Analysis’ (or alternatively ‘Action Analysis’) taught by Maria Knebel (1898-1985), after Stanislavsky’s development of the technique from 1934 to 1938. In this approach, the actors discover their action through études, ‘exploring the dynamics of human interaction through improvisation’ (Sharon Marie Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009; 2nd edn.), p. 3).
  7. ^ The Laboratory Theatre production of Apocalypsis cum figuris had its official premiere on 11 February 1969 in Wrocław (now the Grotowski Institute).
  8. ^ Pan’ in Polish is a formal mode of address; in this case the phrase is roughly equivalent to ‘Mr Jerzy Grotowski’.
  9. ^ Jerzy Grotowski, ‘Reply to Stanislavsky’, trans. by Kris Salata, in Re-Reading Grotowski, ed. by Kris Salata and Lisa Wolford Wylam (= TDR: The Drama Review, 52.2 (2008)), 31-39 <>.
  10. ^ For an English-language discussion of Vassiliev’s work on Plato, see Jonathan Pitches, ‘Towards a Platonic Paradigm of Performer Training: Michael Chekhov and Anatoly Vasiliev’, in On Acting, ed. by Phillip B. Zarrilli and Bella Merlin (= Contemporary Theatre Review, 17.1 (2007)), 28-40 <>.
  11. ^ While developing his verbal technique, Vassiliev began to distinguish three basic intonations in speech. The first was ‘narrative’ intonation, which is most often used in everyday exchanges – a trivial, rather flat or ‘horizontal’ intonation generally used to convey simple information and common emotions. The second was ‘exclamatory’ intonation – a somewhat artificial, ‘theatrical’ intonation that rises upwards to indicate points of emotional climax. The third was ‘affirmative’ intonation, directed downwards and used to convey elusive, metaphysical meaning. Vassiliev observed that ‘affirmative’ intonation often arises of itself when dealing with poetical texts, but he considered that it should also be worked on and elaborated through a dedicated process of ‘verbal training’ closely linked to the breath and to finding the ‘inner rhythms’ of perception and action. Trans. (N.I.)
  12. ^ In Polish, Grotowski used the term teatr ubogi when referring to his conception of ‘poor theatre’; for example, the Polish edition of Towards a Poor Theatre is entitled Ku teatrowi ubogiemu.

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