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April 13, 2011

Theater legend Grotowski's legacy lives on at Stanford

Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor founded by pioneering director Jerzy Grotowski, finishes its residency at Stanford with a performance of 'I Am America,' based on the writings of poet Allen Ginsberg.

By Cynthia Haven

From a 2010 Workcenter performance of 'I Am America': Davide Curzio, Julia Ulehla, Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin, Cinzia Cigna, Timothy Hopfner, Marina Gregory, Agnieszka Kazimierska, Alejandro Tomás Rodriguez. (Photo by Fotocarascio)

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it's as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer's soul in a single line.

"Things can go very fast," said Mario Biagini, the charismatic and energetic associate director of Workcenter. "My approach is not to start gradually," he said. "It can happen right now, without long training."

The simple scene at Roble Gym has a complicated back story. It's the third workshop in the Stanford residency of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski. Last week, Stanford students and members of the community – including drama graduate student Chakrabarti – collaborated with the Workcenter performers for three workshops.

A performance and discussion

This week, the residency culminates with a performance of I Am America, based on the writings of poet Allen Ginsberg, at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Roble Gym Studio 38.

A panel discussion at 1 p.m. Friday in Pigott Theater will focus on Grotowski, the Workcenter and Ginsberg. Participants include Biagini, Stanford drama Professor Alice Rayner, Kris Salata of Florida State University, and Harris Feinsod, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Both events are free.

The Workcenter was founded in Pontedera, Italy, a quarter-century ago by Grotowski, a groundbreaking experimental director who, in Communist Poland, developed the "theatre laboratory" and "poor theatre" – that is, a theater that might forgo props, stage design, expensive lighting, costumes, potentially everything except an actor and an audience of at least one.

"He worked with us until he died in 1999," said Biagini, who trained with him every day for more than a dozen years. "Such love and such passion for the theater! It was the greatest adventure of his life.

"He was an artistic genius – at the same time a human being with deep respect for other people and deep love."

According to the noted English director Peter Brook, "No one else in the world, to my knowledge, no one since [Russian director and innovator Constantin] Stanislavsky, has investigated the nature of acting, its phenomenon, its meaning, the nature and science of its mental-physical-emotional processes as deeply and completely as Grotowski."

A lesson in learning and listening

The method works by "a complete stripping down, by the laying bare of one's own intimity [intimacy] – all this without the least trace of egotism or self-enjoyment. The actor makes a total gift of himself," Grotowski wrote in Towards a Poor Theatre.

So what did the hours of singing in Roble Gym last week mean? "I think that's the point – none of us really knew," said Bronwyn Reed, an undergraduate drama major. "It was a mystery. What I took away from it was a lesson in learning and listening, and being thrown into an environment where you're really out of your element. It was getting us to a place where we were emotional, open, receptive and humble."

Years ago, Brook refused to discuss Grotowski's workshop at all, because, "The work is essentially non-verbal. To verbalize is to complicate and even to destroy exercises that are clear and simple when indicated by a gesture and when executed by the mind and body as one."

Biagini agreed that the takeaway is self-evident. "My goal was to show the participants that action is literal. I can only do one action at a time. If the actor enters onstage, and crosses the stage to go greet someone, and he's thinking, 'Oh my God, my action was not good' – that's what the audience sees."

One of the performers at the workshop, Marina Gregory from New York City, said that Biagini "has an incredibly fine sense for what's alive." No surprise there – Gregory is Biagini's wife.

"We were already from the same family before getting married," Biagini joked. She met Grotowski as a child; she's the daughter of director André Gregory, of My Dinner with André fame.

"When I see something living, something starts to live in me. When I do this job, it helps me to live," he said.

Part of the search for something alive led to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg's fiery, apocalyptic visions. Timely, said Biagini, in a world of environmental catastrophe, terrorism and nuclear meltdowns.

"These times are interesting, peculiar. Every day something shows us that the future is completely unknown. It needed a practical reply," he said – a reply to "the arrogance of reality, the arrogance of life."

The workshop followed Biagini's private aims – finding a bridge from the group's longstanding work with the music of the African diaspora to the popular rhythms of Ginsberg and author Jack Kerouac, who were looking to jazz and blues to rediscover another kind of meter. He discovered "the inner logic" in African-American spirituals.

At the third workshop, Biagini instructs Chakrabarti, the drama student, not to pause between the response and her repetition of the sound. "The body of the sound should be there to the end." Unconsciously she takes a few steps as she sings, but he gently tells her "stay, stay" while tapping her feet.

"One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve," Chakrabarti said. "Mario replied, 'We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!'

"I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me."

Seating is limited for the theater event, I Am America. For reservations, email Michael Hunter.



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Michael Hunter, residency coordinator, (415) 994-1601,

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