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Grotowskis Influence on South African Theatre

Essay by review  •  February 2, 2011  •  Essay  •  953 Words (4 Pages)  •  1,217 Views

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Jerzy Grotowski has been noted for being one of the most influential figures in 20th Century theatre. His avant-garde approach to performance and execution paved the way for many important theatrical works. Of note is Woza Albert, created by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon. This satirical look at Apartheid South Africa took to heart many of the theories and ideas that Grotowski explored in his writing and theatrical works.

Woza Albert is a what-if scenario that plays out the second coming of Jesus Christ in Apartheid South Africa. It deals with the injustices of Apartheid and the Afrikaner government through ingenious humour and pathos. The entire case is made up of only two male performers that serve as multiple allegorical figures for the various types of oppressed people during the Apartheid era.

The creators of the play looked to Polish theatre director Grotowski for the inspiration to pull off what could have been a very extravagant theatrical experience. Instead, what took place was an intimate play-off between audience and performer that resulted in a much more profound experience for both parties involved. This is in fact a direct philosophy of Grotowski in that he was known for pioneering the technique known as �Poor Theatre’, a style that can be directly applied to Woza Albert.

Grotowski’s notion of Poor Theatre was that the performer’s concern was with the audience, not the stage design or lighting or any type of special effects. He summarizes it best in the quote: �By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, communion.’ What he is saying here is the idea is to create a �pure’ space for the actor and thus allow for the audience to be affected and reflect on the performance. This can be seen through the execution of Woza Albert in that there are only ever two performers onstage, with minimal stage setups and no special effects at all.

Grotowski wanted the notion of Poor Theatre not to relate to the a lack of funds or anything like that, but more along the basis that �Poor’ meant a vulnerable actor, stripped of everything that was unnecessary to the performance, even if that included a lack of wardrobe (Woza Albert’s cast mostly stays shirtless with long pants). This contrasted �Rich Theatre’, which Grotowski called a theatre of spectacle and one that tried to emulate film and television. As a result, Grotowoski believed theatre should create its own essentialities without trying to emulate something it could never be.

Thus, with Woza Albert, there is a definite awareness of what it is and what it is trying to communicate to the audience. The Grtowskian principles are in place and perfectly reflect his notion of Poor Theatre. An example is in the subtle wardrobe changes, with an example being how the two actors represent the government by wearing red clown noses. It is small touches such as the above that allowed for a much stronger dynamic to be created onstage, as the audience is constantly forced to focus not on the extravagant set designs or spectacular wardrobe, but rather the performance itself and what the actors are trying to communicate to the audiences.

Grotowski managed to overturn the theatrical conventions of 19th Century European theatre with his outlandish ideas on what theatre should represent.

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