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Searching for the Holy Actor

Jerzy Grotowski Revisited

I installed one of those thingamajiggies on my website that tells you what pages people visit. And was shocked that visitors couldn't get enough of Jerzy Grotowski.

What is it about this little-known polish theatre director and 'holy actor' advocate that makes people from all over the world fish for the lowdown about him? It couldn't just be that college students are trolling for assignment fodder. I've got articles about other famous coaches on my website too.

Then it hit me. We tend to dog-paddle, flap and otherwise stumble toward the truth in any way we can. No matter where we find it. It simply draws us in. And Grotowski's uncommon ideas about acting presentation and training are perhaps the purest manifestation of this theatrical truth that we have in the last half-century.

I came to Grotowski's teachings quite by accident when the children's theatre I was acting in hosted a summer-long training with a Grotowski-trained actor. My Dinner with Andre, the famous cult film in which Andre Gregory talks at length about his friend, Grotowski, was five years away. And Grotowski's visit to this country, when I was privileged to meet and talk with him, came few years later. I had once strayed into a temple in the Hollywood Hills and the presence of one of the few enlightened beings I've ever met, Swami Prabhavananda, sparked a personal awakening that has fed me to this day. I felt the same way when I met Grotowski.

I began to act to perfect the artistry. And stayed instead for the healing. And the heightened awareness. And the ultimate interconnection of body, mind and spirit. "The actor's technique, his art in which the living organism strives for higher motives," Grotowski said, "provides an opportunity for what could be called integration, the discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a totality of physical and mental reactions."

Today there seems to be less a striving for this totality and more a focus upon getting that elusive acting job. Cold-reading and casting director workshops abound and actor's art appears to take a back seat to audition craft. We used to live for the joy inhabiting the garments of a role. Now the joy seems to be in an impressive audition to booking ratio.

It made me wonder whether the job quest was artistically and creatively enough for actors these days. Have we forgotten that acting should be what Grotowski describes as " . . . an act of the most deeply rooted, genuine love between two human beings." "A total act" that "epitomizes the actor's deepest calling". I wondered, to paraphrase Nietzsche, if the holy actor was indeed dead.

Jeffrey Spolan described an actress singing a sad lullaby in a performance of Grotowski's company. "I had the sense of hearing the vibratory rate of the sound she was making at the base of my spine," he said. "Her 'song' was being heard through my back! It was chilling." He explained that Grotowski's work was "about archetype and how one can reach that level in performance."

When an actor strums this archetypal chord, he becomes "holy". According to Grotowski, "the actor, by setting himself a challenge publicly challenges others and through excess, profanation and outrageous sacrilege reveals himself by casting off his everyday mask, he makes it possible for the spectator to undertake a similar process of self-penetration."

Grotowski continually challenged himself and his actors by creating new innovative theatre forms. He also heightened self-penetration by breaking down the wall between actor and spectator in favor of communal rituals and group séances. These rituals went on sometimes for days in an attempt at a new form of interpersonal understanding based upon heightened bodily impulse and mental sensitivity.

Grotowski work is therefore not only a preparation for acting. It's also a preparation for life. Especially his rigorous corporel training that includes leaping over several people. Stephen Wangh explains that these "Tiger Leaps are a wonderful paradigm for all of acting. Ultimately your task as an actor is to allow yourself to come face to face with whatever is difficult for you, and thereby transform it." Or, as Grotowski says, "when you perform [the exercises] which you are usually not able to do because it seems impossible, you regain some trust in yourself . . . It is not knowing how to do things that is necessary, but not hesitating when faced with a challenge."

So when you can participate in a training that forces you way beyond your perceived limit, your acting leaps from cliché to confident. From dull to divine. And this confidence laps over into everything that you do . . . even your auditions. I fear that few crusade for the "holy" actor today. But finding that penultimate way to connect is why most of us started this journey in the first place. And the ability to express your unique truth is what really gets you the job anyway.

Actors need balance in training . . . not only training for auditions but training for their art. And don't forget that the best acting training also trains your soul.

The performing artist must be capable of risking all of himself. He must be willing and able to dissolve himself into the process of acting, to surrender; to "die" each moment and to be born fully each moment-David Feldshuh

By Jill Place
Article printed with permission from iActingStudios.com and Rick La Fond. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. - iActing Studios is a premiere provider of Online Acting Classes. They feature hundreds of hours of in-depth classes; hosted by professional instructors and coaches who've taugh some of Hollywood's most famous A-listers.