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Jacek Zmyslowski and My Participation in His Projects

Several months ago Stefa Gardecka, my friend from Wroclaw who worked for many years at the Laboratory Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, sent me an e-mail. She wrote about her intention to collect materials and to prepare a book about Jacek Zmyslowski, who was the artistic director of paratheatrical projects at the Laboratory in years 1976 -81. Stefa invited me to answer a few questions about Jacek and about my participation in projects led by him. I did. Later on I heard from Stefa, that Jenna Kumiega, a theatre scholar who wrote about the Laboratory Theatre, is working on the new edition of her book and asked if it would be possible to translate texts about Jacek, so she may include some parts of this material in her new work. Luckily, Stefa and her son Piotr Gardecki agreed to help, and the four of us translated my short writing into English.


The text is about Jacek Zmyslowski, and it tells about my first paratheatrical experiences and how important these projects were for my thinking about theatre and growing as an artist.


Jacek Zmyslowski and My Participation in His Projects


My first meeting with Jacek was a formal conversation in preparation for The Vigil. The conversation probably took place in the room behind the office….or in the room above the performance space, I’m not sure. Jacek was kind, focused and inquiring. You could feel his profound attention. I remember he emphasised that my experience in pantomime was unimportant (by that time I had been active for a few years in amateur pantomime theatre in Bielsko, led by Tomaszewski’s mime-artist Witold Daniec). Better that I forget about any techniques which I may have picked up. Jacek introduced me to the rules of participation. Actually, he said that my participation was expected.  It was essential that I was ready to be part of the action. I don’t remember if he said much more about rules. Rather, he was leaving things very open, although he was also somehow warning against intellectualisation, attempts at rationalisation or “play-acting.” Unfortunately, anything I might write now would only be my imagined memory of this conversation.

The memories I have of my participation in the Vigils are similarly vague. I remember the moment of being led into the room for my first Vigil. There were already a few people there. A few were led in after me. Each of us was shown, by those leading, a place to crouch or squat down in the room.  When everyone was in, an air of expectation began to grow.  It started with gazes around, someone turned to look behind.  I didn’t know how many were leading, and who was participating and who was leading, except for two of them (probably) including Jacek.  Slowly people began to move. Since I didn’t know how many were leading, and I suspect the other participants didn’t know either, I didn’t know when an action came from one of the leaders, or whether it was a reaction, or an initiative of a participant. At first the actions were simple: someone got up, took a few steps, and crouched down again, someone carefully turned around.  Attention pervaded the smallest of gestures, was present in glances, and reactions. In time the actions began to grow and gain complexity, becoming more energetic and dynamic. Chains of actions and reactions emerged, growing organically, pulsating, intertwining. Compositions arose, or were created, in which people took part in pairs, in small or large groups. There was rhythm, dance, spontaneity and dialogue. There appeared sequences of incredible energy and trance-like features in which people were “flying”, transgressing the limits of their known physical expression. In these moments, the action of the group and of each of the participants seemed to be directed by some sort of intrinsic inner power of its own, an internal, indescribably powerful, bright impulse of incredible wisdom, which meant that, swirling in those para-acrobatic dances and actions, letting ourselves be led by inner nature, no limbs were broken. There were sequences of activity of extraordinary lyrical power, quiet, delicate and radiating sensitivity. Moments occurred when a participant slipped into something sentimental.  Then those leading, becoming aware of falsity and pretension, usually let this fade away by itself, or helped in bringing it to an end, tactfully indicating its inappropriateness. These tactful and very rare instructions or suggestions were very discrete, and usually unnoticeable by those not directly involved.  These were the ways the project was led – creating, nourishing, supporting, and in dialogue through action.

I am writing these words after nearly forty years. At that time I was a young man, eager for the world and any intense experience. Today, I have been through theatre school, training in a range of acting techniques, further paratheatrical experiences at the Laboratorium, work with Grot’s actors, workshops with Odin Teatret, Gardzienice, and a number of other theatre artists, as well as years of my own experience as an actor, teacher, acting coach, and a stage director.

The meeting with Jacek and his work was formative for me. These projects initiated me into the concept and praxis of authenticity of action, whether in daily or extra-daily life, particularly special, or theatrical. The practices and revelations, which Jacek and we participants gave ourselves and each other, remain important to me in my life, my theatre work, and my teaching.

I remember a moment from perhaps my first Vigil, when I was watching what was going on. As I remember it today, I think that in watching I was beginning to engage in some attempt at interpretation, and I began to see what was happening from the perspective of “what does it mean”. I had no notion of “what was going on”.  I “did not understand”.  Watching my own “non-understanding” I decided, or some internal programming inside me decided, to react. After all I had agreed to participate.  At that time I was strongly programmed by habits associated with my understanding of acting processes, in other words the need to interpret, and locate what I was seeing in terms of “what does it mean” and an action, or rather “play-acting”, in response to the interpretation of what I was perceiving.  I saw “incomprehensive”, I interpreted “I don’t understand”, and something inside me deepened that interpretation and suggested seeing a “threat”. Because if I don’t understand, then what…. ?  My reaction was to yell. I remember that to this day, although I don’t know to what extent that impression stamped on my memory is true.  Jacek was immediately next to me. In a moment he saw that I was “play-acting”, that my reaction was calculated, and I was distanced from it, that I was simultaneously the one who cried out and the one observing, but the cry was a response to my idea, and not to what was actually happening. He quickly brought me back to reality, indicated somehow that that was not the way. There was great warmth and concern on his part, some kind of care-giving, and also an ocean of trust. He acted extremely discretely, so that no-one else could judge me. I don’t know to what extent I understood then what was happening, but it was one of those moments when a door to understanding the intentions of leaders, and the worlds into which they lead, was ajar.  Imagining, or acting out the reaction to an imagined threat was not what it was about. After a while I was ready to join the action. Jacek was giving support, and gently showing me the direction. His authority was the authority of a friend, a wise and caring brother, leading into an intensive group experience, full of discoveries of one’s own nature and the nature of deep creative and life processes, and the ways to summon up and shape such special experiences.

This was very rich, and I could mine other scenes or traces from the Vigil, but I’m not sure if that makes sense.  It’s hard for me now to disengage from an analytical approach, difficult also to place a fragment of a remembered scene or action on a time-line.  At that time I was not that capable of analysis, neither was it expected of me.  I leapt into these projects with complete faith, and was initiated by the leaders in a transformative creative process, in which we were all both sculptor and sculpture, voice and song, choreographer and dance, which grew from actions and gestures that were, with great subtlety, expressively and inspiringly articulated.

I participated in the Vigils several times.  I also took part in Tree of People and the Mountain Project.

I remember several important moments from the Mountain Project, doubtless because it was a unique project, and happened only once.  I was walking in the group led by Mariusz Socha and a dark-haired Frenchman, Francois Kahn. Before departure, Francois acquainted the group with the rules.  He spoke in French, and for a moment consternation reigned, before a long-haired bearded guy in glasses began to translate.  At that time, I didn’t realise that it was Grotowski.  Then we got into the van – why does it seem to me that it was a Ford?  And off we went.

While I was growing up I walked a lot through the mountains and forests, and have always felt good wandering along trails and through wilderness. There were many elements of this trek that were familiar to me.  At the beginning I thought: “what’s going on?  They really think that walking in the forest is such a revelation?” The silence introduced a meditative element, and I’m sure that most of us must have been faced with the churning of the thinking machine in our minds, as well as thoughts continually and obtrusively attempting to interpret, to understand what it’s all about.  This was going on now and again in my mind, but also the pleasure of moving through the forest and along pathless tracts was absorbing.  During the trek we were a group in name only.  I don’t remember the leaders inspiring any group dynamics.  Rather by their actions they modelled ways of moving or activity in relation to what was around us.  I remember a moment when we were struggling through undergrowth.  We didn’t walk in a line, one after another, which would have been natural and easier, but most of us, if not all, struggled through in our own way.  Verbal instructions were minimal, just a few words throughout the day.  There was pig-fat which Mariusz had got from the food store opposite the theatre, before our departure.  Eating pig-fat was an interesting experience.  I had never eaten anything like that before.  We didn’t talk to each other.  That was the rule.  About half-way through the trek, one or two people had had enough, and backed out.  One of the techniques was very slow pacing along a dirt track after the leaders.  I was not willing to deal with that.  I was charged full of energy, and the leaders moved in a premeditated way, step by step, at snail’s pace.  I resolved this by walking forwards and backwards at the end of the line.  Marek Musial, who was also in the group, had a similar “problem.”  He solved it by crouching down, waiting for the group to go some distance, and after a while catching up with them and crouching down again.  The trek also had exceptionally beautiful moments.  The most beautiful moment for me was the first sight of the Mountain.  Suddenly, all that laborious struggle through undergrowth took on real meaning.  We came out of the forest onto the fields and saw the Mountain.  It arose, solitary, like a volcanic crater above the flat plain.  It was a masterful introduction of an archetypal and unusually powerful image.  The landscape suddenly began to speak with double the force.  From that moment on, what happened around me, was less essential. The most important thing became imagining the goal ahead of us.  The project  took on a dramatic  dimension.  The image of the Mountain was so overwhelming that you couldn’t resist imagining some kind of mythical reality at its peak.  In the same way the trek itself took on mythical qualities.

We found Jacek in the Castle on the Mountain, together with dozens of others.  There were many elements in the activities there, which did not appear in the Vigils.  There was music, there were amazing songs; Jacek played the guitar; there were awesome drummers, a fire and magnificently prepared interiors.  The activities were in some way reminiscent of those in the Vigils, but richer in terms of rhythm and other elements.  There were also many more participants, and sometimes different waves of activity flared up in several places at the same time.  These were also interspersed with sleep or rest, especially when a new group was arriving, and when meals were arranged with care . I knew that Jacek was the leader, but his leadership was barely noticeable. Those leading worked very well as a team. On the Mountain, specific elements of creative experience intermingled closely with the communal living created there, with meals, rest and practical work.  This brought to life some quality absent in the Vigils, which only lasted a few hours.

Some years later, Grotowski distanced himself from the paratheatrical period of his work.  He did this in his characteristically definitive way. One occasion was in 1990 at a talk/meeting organised at the Film Studio in Wroclaw when he visited Poland for a few days.  He was critical both of himself and this period of the Laboratory Theatre’s work.  He spoke of the superficiality of the projects, of how hard it was for participants to transcend the power of stereotypical notions of spontaneous behaviour.  I was lucky to participate in projects from the last phase of the paratheatrical work, which were powerfully transformative.  Jacek was the artistic director of the majority of the projects I took part in.  I was a boy just setting out on a path of artistic development and theatrical work.  Together with his team, Jacek showed me ways of intense and profound research and investigation, and a practical experience of creative processes through psycho-physical activities and group activities, which transgressed stereotypes of what is known, and transcended the limits of our own possibilities.


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