When I was a student in the early 80s, Grotowski was already a legend, but particularly so within the Manchester University Drama Department, since our studio was one of a handful of spaces he had selected as a suitable venue for his company to perform in during their visit to England, and indeed his legacy remained in the very tangible form of ‘the Grotowski showers’, installed at the great man’s insistence.
I became curious about what had become of Grotowski after he had published his seminal ‘Towards a Poor Theatre’ in 1968.
In a drama periodical in the University library I found references to his ‘para-theatrical’ work in the mid 70s and was particularly fascinated by two descriptions and conflicting assessments of an exercise called ‘Outside-Inside the Beehive’ or just a ‘Beehive’.
In a nutshell, Grotowski would invite a group of people (not forgetting to include a fair number of western journalists and other reporters) to ‘work’ with him, then he would put them in a large dimly lit room and… well, that was basically it.
What would happen in the room, as I recall from the brief descriptions I read nearly 30 years ago, was that people would sit or lie or stand against the walls around the outside, and occasionally get up and walk around the centre area. This activity resembled the workings of bees in a hive, hence the title. The ‘work’ would continue day after day, with any discussion of its meaning or purpose forbidden, until after a week or two Grotowski would suddenly declare the ‘work’ completed and everyone would go back to their normal lives.
The reactions to this work were polar: either it was the most amazing spiritual experience or a complete fraud.
Then, in 2005, during a physical theatre workshop I was giving for a sixth form drama studies group, I suddenly decided to try out something new. I had been doing some work on peripheral awareness and choral improvisation, and I felt an essential need to get the students to both feel for the appropriate moment to act and also to observe a scenario for the missing element which they should then supply. So with a little bit of a preamble about Peter Brook’s coinage of the term the ‘Empty Space’ I asked the students to stand against the walls and when they felt ‘the call’ to enter the central space and ‘do something’. After about a minute, the first student entered the space, did something painfully self conscious and then walked out again, followed by a another and then suddenly two at once… and within about three minutes the group was improvising freely with multiple dramas springing into view merging and then dissolving… it was astonishing.
I repeated the exercise whenever I could, calibrating my introduction and observing the various results, usually starting from as little as possible, and adding various rules and stimuli, often setting the 50/50 rule (half the group in the middle and half watching at all times, and individually spending half of the time watching and half acting) and later introducing music.
Obviously what I was doing was really nothing like Grotowski’s work. In the context of a drama workshop I could seldom allow more than about 15 minutes for the ‘Beehive disco’, and while the students I was working with could hardly be termed trained performers, they often had some sense in which they understood the exercise as ‘performing’.
But the more I ran the exercise the more I began to see the emergence of common gestures, actions and interractions as well as occasionally startling moments of originality.
One particularly successful workshop was over a weekend session with some business people who wanted their presentation skills developed with some fun drama work. From a rather sullen and grey corporate bunch there suddenly exploded this joyful gaggle of grown up kids, skipping and grinning and dancing… and then occsionally breaking into tears… and comforting each other… and then playing again.
I wanted to run the work for longer and with more experienced performers. I wanted to combine it with other themes I’d been exploring, concerning the parallel mental states required for compelling performance in both martila and performing arts.
I wanted to experiment with inducing an audience (invited or paying) to quickly engage with and be drawn into the Beehive.
And I wanted to try to identify and chart the physical vocabulary and explore the possibilties of using it to create a theatrical presentation.
In one crucial aspect my experiments did seem to echo Grotowski’s development away from theatrical form – whenever someone began ‘acting’ as a character rather than being themselves, doing or playing as themslves it stuck out as being insincere and less interesting than the dramas which emerged out of their actual identity.
In 2007 I was fortunate to receive an Arts Council research & development grant and ran a 2-week project with 4 professional actors and daily guests, culminating in 2 public performances: Ecce Homo.
Daniel E. Cashman, ‘Grotowski: His Twentieth Anniversary’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 1979), pp. 460-466
Richard Mennen, ‘Grotowski’s Paratheatrical Projects’, TDR: A Journal of Performance Studies, 19, 4 (T68), December 1975: 58-69
Ken Carney, Steven Weinstein, ‘Wroclaw, the Paratheatrical Experiment: Two Experiences’, Alternative Theatre, 4, March-April, 1976: 2-3, 10