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Introduction to '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 action analysis ludic theatre play


Katarzyna Osińska is a professor at the PAN Institute of Slavonic Studies in Warsaw. She is a specialist on twentieth-century Russian theatre, with a particular focus on the studio theatre tradition. She has published numerous monographs, including Teatr rosyjski XX wieku wobec tradycji. Kontynuacje, zerwania, transformacje (The Russian Theatre Tradition in the Twentieth Century: Continuations, Departures, Transformations) (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2009). Her research interests also include contemporary Russian theatre, particularly the creative practice of Anatoli Vassiliev. She has published articles in the journals DialogDidaskalia, Literatura na Świecie, Pamiętnik Teatralny, and Teatr.

Anatoli Vassiliev has been a regular visitor to Poland and has maintained ongoing links with the Polish theatre community. During the UNESCO ‘Year of Grotowski 2009’, he spoke at two events: an international symposium in Kraków in March and for the theatre festival ‘The World as a Place of Truth’ in Wrocław in June.

At the festival he presented video of his production of Heiner Müller’s Medea Material (2001), performed by Valérie Dréville, and participated in two public meetings about his work. At the earlier conference in Kraków, entitled ‘Grotowski: The Solitude of Theatre – Documents, Contexts, Interpretations’, he spoke at length to an audience mainly comprised of theatre students about his artistic journey. The text accompanying this introduction was revised from the transcript of this meeting.

At the conference, I introduced Vassiliev and began the discussion by asking him about the regular contact he had with Jerzy Grotowski, and whether their exchanges had in any way changed Vassiliev’s perception of Konstantin Stanislavsky and his ‘system’. These questions triggered Vassiliev’s very personal account (here) of his memories of training and of his practical journey, of the influence of these two figures on his work, and his observations on the essence of theatre. Vassiliev’s work is comparatively little known in English-speaking circles; as Jonathan Pitches pointed out in 2006: ‘there is next to nothing published in English on his work, beyond some reviews of his productions in translation, an interview and a short section in Smeliansky’s book on The Russian Theatre after Stalin (1999)’. This situation has scarcely changed, despite Vassiliev’s ‘growing presence as a teacher and practitioner in the West’.[1] It is therefore necessary to provide some background information on his artistic trajectory here; in particular regarding the development of his relationships with the key figures of his talk – Stanislavsky and Grotowski – and the circumstances leading to Vassiliev’s emigration from Russia to France in 2006.[2] It is also worth noting that the central place that Vassiliev affords Grotowski in his thinking about theatre, as he outlined in his speech, is not widely recognised in the publications on his work to date.[3]

Stanislavsky has been important for Vassiliev from the very beginnings of his theatrical journey. Vassiliev initially trained as a chemist; however, in 1968, after graduating from university and undergoing his military service, he changed direction and began to study directing at the most famous Russian theatre school: the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS). His teachers were Andrey Popov[4] and Maria Knebel,[5] both from the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), and both former collaborators of Stanislavsky. Knebel’s contribution to the development and dissemination of Stanislavsky’s late work was particularly vital, as Sharon Marie Carnicke contends: ‘Without Maria Knebel, the full complexity of Stanislavsky’s last experiments with Active Analysis would have remained buried’.[6] In addition to having worked closely with Stanislavsky and continued to explore elements of his later work, Knebel had also collaborated extensively with Michael Chekhov.

Vassiliev not only studied under the tutelage of Stanislavsky’s former collaborators but also took his first, formative steps as a director at MAT, where as an intern he staged Osvald Zahradnik’s Solo for Grandfather Clock (1973) under the supervision of the actor and producer Oleg Yefremov. Several senior members of MAT performed in this production – actors who recalled the times of Stanislavsky, such as Olga Androvskaya, Mikhail Yanshin, Mark Prudkin, and Aleksey Gribov. The architect and designer Igor Popov – who remains a close collaborator of Vassiliev today – designed the set for this production. Further productions with senior actors followed, including with Innokenty Smoktunovsky and Maria Babanova, who is best known for her close collaboration with Meyerhold. At this stage Vassiliev was already focusing a great deal of attention on the auditory dimension of his theatre practice – on the manner in which the text was spoken by the actors and on their bodily relationship to the word.

In reflecting on his later practice, Vassiliev has often referred to the influence of his tutors at GITIS and to the above genealogy, indicating that the most important source for his own pedagogy and research into acting has been Stanislavsky. This influence has remained, despite his search – almost since the beginning of his independent practice – for ways of going beyond the theatrical model intrinsically connected to the heritage of MAT, and beyond psychological realism. Emphasising his roots at each step, Vassiliev nevertheless searched beyond his formative training, treating the legacies of Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov as starting points for his own investigations (Chekhov’s influence can be traced in Vassiliev’s own adaptation of terms such as ‘theatre of atmospheres’, for example).[7] He ventured away from linear narratives, looking for what he called ‘open structures’; two landmark productions along this path were Viktor Slavkin’s A Young Man’s Grown-Up Daughter (1979) and Cerceau (1985), at the Stanislavsky and Taganka theatres – the latter at the invitation of Yury Lyubimov. At this time, Vassiliev engaged in a polemic against the Soviet concept of the performance as an integrated work, in which individual elements are subservient to a single dominant idea. According to this model, reality only exists on a ‘horizontal’ plane and constitutes a cohesive whole; however, Vassiliev began to abandon theatre based on linear series of ‘events’ and ‘situations’, and rejected the role of the director as author of an integrated ‘vision’.

It was during the 1980s that Vassiliev elaborated the principles behind a key shift in his later work. Along with Mikhail Butkevich, he rejected representational acting and began to develop a ‘theatre of play’ or ‘ludic theatre’ [in Russian: igrovoy teatr; in French: théâtre ludique].[8] As Vassiliev explained to his Polish audience in 2009 using a story about ‘exchange and swindling’,[9] this involved disrupting the ‘unfolding of psychological behaviours’[10] by placing the actor’s focus ‘outside’ the body and making the centre of the emotions an external ‘object of play’.[11] Certain notions emerged from his experiments in this direction. Rather than follow the Stanislavskian approach, in which the through-action moves from the Initial Event [ishodnoe sobytie] and its given circumstances towards the Main Event [osnovnoe sobytie], Vassiliev instead changed the emphasis for his actors: ‘[In] psychologically oriented theatre, it is the “Initial Event” that provides the motive force, whereas in what I term “theatre of play” [...] it is the “Main Event” or “goal” that provides the motive force’.[12] Vassiliev thus inverted the perspective, working in conscious anticipation of the Main Event, which his actors experience as ‘a kind of premonition’.[13] He also increasingly experimented with situating action within speech, investigating the potentialities hidden in the word through the autonomous language of ‘play’. In his ‘Reply to Stanislavsky’ (1995), Vassiliev would go on to state that: ‘The essence [of acting and theatre] lies in changing the subject of investigation. It’s not the state of the soul that is being researched but the “placing” of the spirit, so to speak. Action lies not in psychology but in the word...’.[14] These aspects all form part of his response to the kind of ‘paradox’ that he presented in his Kraków speech, in which he problematised an internalised, linear approach towards the culminating point of the action, and outlined his transition from psychological theatre to ‘theatre of play’.

In 1987, perhaps the most widely documented stage of Vassiliev’s work began. His staging of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author inaugurated the activities of his new company, the School of Dramatic Art, based in Povarskaya Street, Moscow. The name of the new institution, with its educational associations, points to Vassiliev’s belief in the necessity of continually re-evaluating acquired or habituated practices; indeed, the first years of the School’s activity largely took place in closed, ‘laboratory’ conditions. In later years, as a result of the explorations undertaken during this period, the company would go on to stage several productions that would bring Vassiliev and his collaborators international acclaim. In 2001, the School of Dramatic Art opened their new building – in an original architectural design by Vassiliev and Igor Popov – in Stretenka Street. The opening of the new stage not only promised extensive possibilities for Vassiliev’s school and theatre, but also prompted the beginning of a serious conflict with the Moscow authorities, who accused the director of inefficient and uneconomical use of its various theatre spaces – even though the theatre was legally established as a non-commercial studio. In 2006, this conflict eventually caused Vassiliev to leave the theatre he had founded, and to leave Moscow altogether. His final production at the Moscow studio was Don Juan is Dead (2006), adapted from works by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Francisco Goya, Manuel de Falla, and Ramón Delgado Palacios.[15] As Vassiliev comments at the opening of ‘The Solitude of Theatre’, his talk in Kraków marked the first time he had felt able to discuss these events in public since his departure.

Shortly after he founded the School of Dramatic Art, Vassiliev met for the first time another figure who had exerted a strong influence on his practice since his student days, and who also owed a significant debt to Stanislavsky: Jerzy Grotowski. (Vassiliev terms it that they shared a ‘forefather’ in Stanislavsky).[16] The first visit of Vassiliev and his ensemble to the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pontedera took place with a meeting on 25 February 1989, and the second meeting took place in nearby Vallicelle, on 2 May 1990. However, as Vassiliev explains, Grotowski’s impact had already been felt much earlier – from the period of his studies at GITIS, during which Grotowski’s researches served as a source of inspiration from a distance. By the time that Vassiliev met Grotowski in person, he already considered him as his ‘unofficial’ teacher and as one of his theatre ‘masters’.

As a result of their meeting in Vallicelle, Grotowski and Vassiliev together established the ‘Slavic Pilgrim Project’: a training programme for young actors from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine co-run by the Workcenter and the School of Dramatic Art. The project was undertaken from 5 to 14 July 1991 in Volterra, along with public presentations of work by the two institutions. The Pontedera team subsequently visited Moscow several times, working at the school under the direction of Thomas Richards. The initial visits were low-key, with presentations of the Workcenter’s Action for selected guests only. The Workcenter’s last official visit to Moscow was in May 2001, at the invitation of Vassiliev’s School, with showings of their recent work within the Third International Theatre Olympics.[17]

Parallel to their collaboration with the Workcenter, Vassiliev and his School have had extensive contact with Poland and the Polish theatre community, also largely through the director’s practical interest in and connections to Grotowski’s work. In April 1990, the company performed in the former premises of Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre in Wrocław, presenting Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author at the inauguration of the Grotowski Centre – an experience to which Vassiliev makes reference overleaf. Since then, he has frequently journeyed to Poland (usually to Wrocław), where his visits have drawn considerable interest; among other engagements, he participated in a symposium dedicated to Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov (1993), and the School of Dramatic Art presented open rehearsals of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1993), Molière’s Amphitryon (1995), and Don Juan, or The Stone Guest and Other Poems by Pushkin (1997). Vassiliev later took part in a symposium ‘The Reception of Jerzy Grotowski’s Work in Russia’ (2000) and his theatre once again presented Don Juan – this time as a full performance. In 2011, Vassiliev returned to Poland once again, to conduct an extended laboratory-residency at the re-named and re-housed Grotowski Institute.[18]

Although, as he stated to some surprise in Kraków during his March 2009 visit to Poland, Vassiliev had quietly declared in 2008 his intention to depart from theatre productions and to focus on pedagogy and written research, it proved difficult to remain detached from his performance practice; in late 2009 his production of Marguerite Duras’ Entire Days Among the Trees premiered in Kaposvár, Hungary. The future is perhaps still undecided, but Vassiliev’s continued debt to Stanislavsky and Grotowski, and his emphasis on the exploratory research and uncertain course implicit in ‘laboratory’ theatre practice are clearly evident in the reflections that follow.

Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson and Dorota Kultys, with Adela Karsznia.


  1. ^ Jonathan Pitches, Science and the Stanislavsky Tradition of Acting (Abingdon, Oxon, and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 167. I would like to thank the PTP editors for assistance with materials from English and French.
  2. ^ Vassiliev’s presence in France was already well-established before he left Russia; for example, he had already headed the directing course at the National Higher School for Performing Arts in Lyon (from 2004 to 2008) and staged several notable productions, including the controversial Medea Material, which was presented at Avignon in 2002. (On the latter, see Krzysztof Warlikowski’s comments in ‘Life in a Cemetery’, elsewhere in this volume (in the print edition, pp. 93-108, p. 103). Eds.)
  3. ^ One recent exception is the conversation between Vassiliev and Maria Shevtsova, ‘Studio Theatre, Laboratory Theatre’, New Theatre Quarterly, 25. 4 (2009), 324-332 <>, in which Vassiliev speaks explicitly about Grotowski as a mentor.
  4. ^ Andrey Alekseyevich Popov (1918-1983): actor, director, pedagogue. Son of Aleksey Dmitryevich Popov, a reputable director and actor who was a member of the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre. Later, as artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre, he attempted many theatrical reforms in conjunction with three of his young directing students: Anatoli Vassiliev, Boris Morozov, and Yosif Raichelgauz. He taught at GITIS from 1968 to 1983, and also took a role in co-developing Stanislavsky’s method of active analysis with Maria Knebel following Stanislavsky’s death.
  5. ^ Maria Osipovna Knebel (1898-1985): actor, director, pedagogue, and long-time member of the Moscow Art Theatre. Knebel was also the academic editor and author of the introduction to the first Russian edition of Michael Chekhov’s writings, and has published several books in Russian containing extensive discussion of active and role analysis, as well as written portraits of the greatest actors of the MAT circle. (Knebel’s volume on active analysis was adapted by Vassiliev and translated into French as: Knebel, L’Analyse-Action, ed. by Anatoli Vassiliev, trans. by Nicolas Struve, Serguei Vladimirov, and Stéphane Poliakov (Paris: Actes Sud, 2006). Eds).
  6. ^ Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus: an Acting Master for the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon, Oxon, and New York: Routledge: 2009; 2nd edn.), p. 5.
  7. ^ For more on this concept in Chekhov’s work, see ‘The Atmosphere and Individual Feelings’ in his To the Actor (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 47-62.
  8. ^ Mikhail Butkevich (1926-1995) was a theatre director and professor at GITIS. For further details of this work, see his K igrovomu teatru: liricheskii traktat (Towards a Theatre of Play: A Lyrical Treatise) (Moscow: GITIS, 2005).
  9. ^ See Vassiliev, ‘The Solitude of Theatre’, elsewhere in this volume (p. 266 of the print edition).
  10. ^ Vassiliev, Sept ou huit leçons du theatre (Seven or Eight Lessons in Theatre), ed. and trans. by Martine Neron (Paris: P.O.L. and Académie Expérimentale des Théâtres, 2000), p. 111.
  11. ^ As Pitches notes, ‘There are similarities [here] with Chekhov’s idea of the Imaginary Centre – which may, through the imagination of the actor, be moved all around the body and, indeed, outside for a cerebral, airy character. More important, though, is the connection between Vasiliev’s ludo technique and Chekhov’s notion of the Higher Ego ... both practitioners are looking for a mechanism to distance the actor from the personal, the material and the emotional’. See 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 (pp. 38-39) <>.
  12. ^ ‘Odpowiedź Stanisławskiemu – wywiad z Anatolijem Wasiljewem’ (Reply to Stanislavsky: an interview with Anatoli Vassiliev), in Katarzyna Osińska, Studio w rosyjskiej kulturze teatralnej XX wieku. Wybrane zagadnienia (The Studio in Russian Twentieth-Century Theatre Culture: Selected Issues) (Warsaw: Semper, 1977), pp. 89-100 (p. 96).
  13. ^ The Solitude of Theatre’ (pp. 259-60 of the print edition). On this inversion, see also: Katarzyna Osińska, Teatr rosyjski XX wieku wobec tradycji. Kontynuacje, zerwania, transformacje (The Russian Theatre Tradition in the Twentieth Century: Continuations, Departures, Transformations) (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2009), pp. 271-317; Polina Bogdanova, Logika Peremen – Anatolii Vasil’ev: Mezhdu Proshlym i Budushchim (The Logic of Transformations – Anatoli Vassiliev: Between Past and Future) (Moscow: NLO, 2007); Stéphanie Lupo, Anatoli Vassiliev: Au coeur de la pédagogie théâtrale (Anatoli Vassiliev: Towards the Heart of Theatre Pedagogy) (Vic la Gardiole: L’Entretemps, 2006); and Stéphane Poliakoff, Anatoli Vassiliev: L’Art de la composition (Anatoli Vassiliev: The Art of Composition) (Arles: Actes Sud, 2006).
  14. ^ Vassiliev, ‘Odpowiedź Stanisławskiemu’, p. 96. It is worth noting that Vassiliev was already stressing in the late 1980s that he was not interested in historical, social, or psychological perspectives in the theatre, and had placed his focus elsewhere.
  15. ^ Currently, Vassiliev’s long-time collaborator Igor Yatsko serves as artistic director of the School.
  16. ^ See ‘The Solitude of Theatre’ (p. 268 of the print edition).
  17. ^ Further details of Vassiliev’s encounters with Grotowski are available in Polish: Zbigniew Osiński, ‘Dwa Spotkania moskiewskiej Szkoły Sztuki Dramatycznej pod kierunkiem Anatolija Wasiljewa z Jerzym Grotowskim’ (Two Meetings of Anatoli Vassiliev’s Moscow School of Dramatic Art with Jerzy Grotowski); and ‘Zapis spotkań Jerzego Grotowskiego ze Szkołą Sztuki Dramatycznej z Moskwy, kierowaną przez Anatolija Wasiljewa’ (Transcription of the Meetings of Jerzy Grotowski with Anatoli Vassiliev’s School of Dramatic Art), ed. by Zbigniew Osiński; both in Pamiętnik Teatralny, 1-2 (2001), 257-264 and 265-294.
  18. ^ Vassiliev’s work went ahead mainly at the new Institute buildings in Na Grobli Street in Wrocław. Eds.

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