Jerzy Grotowski
Materials - Yevgeny Vakhtangov

Additional Contents

Editor(Owen Daly)>  We get email about Grotowski from time to time.

Q:   I am currently studying Grotowski and his "Poor Theatre" acting
>techniques.  I was wondering if you could e-mail me any
>information on his influences - most importantly Vakhtangov and
>how he influenced Grotowski.
> > >Thank you very much > > >R H


A:   My (Owen Daly) experience with Grotowski's techniques were experiential, not academic.  I can tell you what our rehearsals and performances were like. I can tell you what it felt like to visit and perform in Poland in 1969.  I can also relate what it was like to work with the Performance Group, another Grotowski influenced group in NYC.

     So to better address your question I called the director of Pillory Theatre, Dr. Jacques Burdick.   His opinion is that Grotowski would certainly have known about Vakhtangov who was active in the early 1900's.  In his personal discussions and correspondence with Grotowski, Dr. Burdick said that Vakhtangov's name never came up.

     When I asked Dr. Burdick about any similarities between Grotowski and Vakhtangov he recalled a moment in a performance of the Habimah Theatre he saw on tour in NYC in the early 1960's.  This group was formed in Russia and produced a performance of "The Dybbuk" by S. Ansky in 1922. Vakhtangov directed the original production.  In 1928 the Habimah Theatre company moved to Palestine and continued to perform the same production.  In the performance of "The Dybbuk" Dr. Burdick attended (of the same company, grown older) there was a section in the performance when the old rabbi is exorcising the foreign spirit from the young girl where the dramatic / physiological impact had the same qualities as he experienced with Grotowski's productions.

     This is a tenuous thread, but it feels true to me.  I experienced that there is a focus on the physicality and wisdom / knowingness of the body in Grotowski's work.  His impact, going beyond words and concepts, is felt by the audience as physical sensation.  Jeff Spolan describes this in his interview on the web site as, in one case, hearing the vibration of the performer's song in the base of his spine. This dramatic / physiological impact that Jeff experienced was quite real. He noted:
This is not an accident, nor is it a 'trick'."

     An email from  Robert Ellermann (who trained with Lee Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, among others, and was artistic director of the Cactus Theatre in Chicago, and taught with Bobby Lewis in Los Angeles) points out a more tangible connection:

>>The information you seek about Vakhtangov's influence on Grotowski is based on the fact that when Grotowski went to the old USSR to study at GITIS his main teacher was the great Vakhtangov disciple Yuri Zavadsky. Zavadsky was with Vakhtangov from 1916 or so until 1922. Look into Zavadsky and GITIS for your answers.
Robert Ellermann

     Indeed, in his book Grotowski and His Laboratory, Zbigniew Osinski writes:

     "Grotowski was enrolled in the G.I.T.I.S [State Institute of Theater Arts in Moscow] directing program from August 23, 1955, until June 15, 1956. Under the supervision of Yuri Zavadsky, he directed The Mother by Jerzy Szaniawski at the theater Institute. He was Zavadsky's assistant in the production of Zialpotov by L.G. Zotin, which opened on April 27, 1956 at the Mossoviet Theater. His professors left him free to accomplish his routine apprenticeship. He met Zavadsky ten years later in the hall of Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, where, during the season of Théâtre des Nations, the Mossoviet Theater of Moscow performed Gogol under Zavadsky's direction. The old man looked at Grotowski, took his glasses off, recognized him and opened his arms to him. (24) He also directed productions at the Mossoviet and Moscow Art Theater, and he studied the techniques of Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and Tairov"

More information about Vakhtangov's work and techniques and their relation to Grotowski's work :

     On a web page from Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg is quoted as saying, "If you examine the work of the Stanislavski System as made use of by Stanislavski, you see one result.  If you examine it in the work of one of his great pupils, Vakhtangov—who influenced our thinking and activity—you will see a completely different result.  Vakhtangov's work was skillfully done, his use of the Method even more brilliant and more imaginative that Stanislavski’s, and yet Vakhtangov achieved totally different results."

     Strasberg also says, "Vakhtangov says, 'If you had to do such and such a thing, as Othello does, what would have to happen to you, what would motivate you to do that?' In other words he places the aesthetic intention first and then uses the technique as a way of carrying out the aesthetic intention.   When that is not done, often even in Stanislavski’s productions, the work makes the reality descend to the level of the actor, rather than helping the actor to ascend to the level of the character."
( -broken link-)

     All of this does not sound like 'grotesque' Commedia, which would seem to more closely related to Meyerhold's work. has Vakhtangov 'bridging the gap' between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, "Yevgeny Vakhtangov tried to bridge the gap between Realism and the avant-garde"... by use of his '"outer technique"' ...  "While preserving a deep respect for the actor's art--something he learned from Stanislavsky--he brought bold gesture and vivid colour to his productions",5722,108434,00.html -broken link-

     This, to me, seems to make sense, given the reputation of Strasberg and Actor's Studio.

     Grotowski, in an article written in 1965 and published in his book of the same name published in 1968, "Towards a Poor Theatre" mentions Vakhtangov as one of his influences.
"I have studied all the major training methods of Europe and beyond. Most important for my purposes are: Dullin's rhythm exercises, Delsarte's investigations of extroversive and introversive reactions, Stanislavski's work on 'physical actions', Meyerholds's bio-mechanical training, Vakhtangov's synthesis."

     The link between Grotowski and Stanislavsky is defined more fully defined by Grotowski in Towards a Poor Theatre.   Lee Strasberg (Actor's Studio, NYC) makes reference to this:
     "A contemporary [to B. Brecht] Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, made the most thorough effort to rediscover the elements of the actor's art. Although he credited Stanislavsky with having posed the most important questions, he was not satisfied either with Stanislavsky, who let natural impulses dominate, or with Brecht, who was too much concerned, Grotowski felt, with the construction of the role. To Grotowski, the actor is a man who works in public with his body, offering it publicly. The work with the actor's instrument consists of physical, plastic, and vocal training to guide him toward the right kind of concentration, to commit himself totally, and to achieve a state of "trance." The actors concentrate on the search for "signs," which express through sound and movement those impulses that waiver on the borderline between dream and reality. By means of such signs, the actor's own psychoanalytical language of sounds and gestures is constructed, in the same way as a great poet creates his own language."  ( -broken link-)

     My take is that Grotowski departed from Stanislavsky in a direction not indicated by Vakhtangov, nor Meyerhold and Brecht.

     In a biographical sketch of Hanna Rovina, an original member of the Habimah Theatre the following glimpse of Vakhtangov's directorial effectiveness emerges:
"Under Vakhtangov's direction, Rovina reached one of her artistic peaks, playing the part of Leah in An-ski's "The Dybbuk" (then entitled "Between Two Worlds"). The atmosphere at rehearsals is recalled by Chaim Nachman Bialik, who had translated the play into Hebrew. "Habimah's acting overwhelmed everyone who came within its orbit...perhaps it was the ecstasy stemming from some spring of invisible fire..." " ( -broken link- )

     Is there a relationship between this 'ecstasy' of Vakhtangov's direction and the 'state of "trance"' described by Strasberg in Grotowski's actors?  If so, it may be a key to  understanding of the effects felt by Dr. Burdick at the Habimah performance in NYC in the early 1960's that felt the same to him as Grotowski's performances in Edinburgh in 1967-68. 

     "Trance comes up in Grotowsi's "Towards a Poor Theatre" article as well.
"The actor makes a total gift of himself. This is a technique of 'trance' and of the integration of all the actor's psychic and bodily powers which emerge from the intimate layers of his being and his instinct, springing forth in a sort of 'trans-lumination'."

      These ecstasy / trance states could also be just different, independent means to a similar end.  Grotowski had an interest in 'Hinduism and yoga' in his early life which preceded his interest in directing.    See ( ) which presents Margaret Croyden's reporting of Grotowski's memorial service in NYC on January 14, 1999.  Read Grotowski's taped remarks that were played at the opening of that service.

      They go, in part, "When I was young I asked myself what would be a possible job that would enable me to look for the other one and myself, to look for a dimension of life that would be rooted in what is normal, organic, even sensual, but that would go beyond all this, that would have a sort of axis, another higher dimension that would surpass us. At that time, I wanted to study either Hinduism, to work on the different techniques of yoga, or medicine, to become a psychiatrist, or dramatic art to become a director."

     In relating Grotowski's early history Jennifer Kumiega writes in The Theatre of Grotowski:
    "According to the Polish writer Kazimierz Braun, ill health again interrupted Grotowski's studies, and it was in order to recuperate that he made his first journey to Central Asia, spending two months raveling there in 1956, This was his first direct contact with the East, but it was evidence of a fascination that had been engendered during his childhood. He had at that time become acquainted with esoteric literature, and during his higher education in Cracow he made contact with those working in the area of Eastern philosophy, and participated in organized meetings and discussion groups. It was an interest that he also brought to bear in later years, in ways both manifest and implicit. Subsequent visits to the East were to culminate in 1970 in a six-week solitary odyssey through India and Kurdistan which had a profound and transformative effect on him and his work."

    Like Stanislavsky, Grotowski investigated the mechanics and internal dynamics of performance.  Starting from a base including Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Brecht, Vakhtangov, Dullin and Delsarte, my judgment is that Grotowski went his own way, as much influenced by the inner states and knowledge made available through his exposure to 'Hinduism and Yoga', as by the theatrical culture preceding him.  Grotowski's work is related to Vakhtangov in some similarity of results obtained in performance, and thanks to Robert Ellermann, we have one clear link, the work Grotowski did with Vakhtangov's student Yuri Zavadsky in the USSR at GITIS in 1955-1956.

Owen Daly, revised May 5, 2005

     A personal note: I find the parallels between Grotowski's approach to theatre and Yoga to be compelling. I have expanded upon this topic in Grotowski and Yoga. -ogd


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