Interview by Barbara Osterloff and Tomasz Milkowski (excerpts)
Translated by Tomasz Milkowski and revised by Manabu Noda
Born in 1937, Maja Komorowska is the only actress who, even after leaving Grotowski, has kept on developing her remarkable career as an actress in theatre, film, and television. After graduating from the Faculty of Puppetry of the National Academy of Theatre of Krakow, she joined the Theatre of Mask and Puppet Grotesque in Krakow. After working there for a year, she moved to the 13 Row Theatre directed by Jerzy Grotowski in Opole, and then to his Theatre Laboratory in Wroclaw. She worked with Grotowski until 1968, where she starred in, among others, Juliusz Slowacki’s Kordian, Calderon’s The Constant Prince, and Slowacki’s Worker’s Oratory.
She signed with the Contemporary Theatre of Warsaw directed by Erwin Axer in the early 1970s. She is still working with this company. Even after leaving the Laboratory, her acting was, and still is deeply rooted in the experiences she had during the time she worked in Grotowski’s company. She played in, among others, Edward Bond’s Lear, Thomas Bernhard’s Boris’s Feast, Ernest Bryll’s The November Thing, and Slowacki’s Kordian. She also worked with Krystian Lupa, who won the 13th Europe Theatre Prize. Komorowska was awarded the prestigious Boy Prize by the Polish section of the IATC.
The interview was conducted on 1 April 2009 as part of the colloquium “Acting before and after Grotowski” that was organized in the framework of the 13th Europe Theatre Prize in Wroclaw. Barbara Osterloff is Professor of the Theatre Academy, Warsaw. She published her interviews with Maja Komorowska in The Landscape (2005). (TM)
Working with Grotowski
It was when I was focusing on puppet theatre after graduating from drama school that Jerzy Grotowski offered me a job at the 13 Rows Theatre in Opole. At that time I was enjoying working in the Groteska Theatre in Krakow. It was a beautiful period in the city, its culture teeming with life, so to accept Grotowski’s offer and leave Krakow was a tough choice, especially for someone who was married. I always take time when making a decision, but when I went to Opole for the first time and saw a performance in Grotowski’s Theater, my hesitation melted and I accepted the offer straightaway. I had seen nothing like it. It was a kind of theatre that made me think of my childhood, when we played theatre at home. It was also like a ritual. I don’t remember if I fully understood it, but it appealed to me. In this way my work with Grotowski began. I played in the first version of Acropolis, and later in The Constant Prince. The company moved to Wroclaw during the time we were working on The Constant Prince.
First, Ryszard Cieslak, Rena Mirecka, and Zygmunt Molik gave us a briefing, and only after then did we start to exercise our body, voice, and above all imagination. That period reminded me of what happens to children’s drawing — untaught children draw beautifully, and something is lost when they are tutored. It was all about regaining association with our physical memory. Grotowski used to say, “The body is memory.” We must work hard to recall all the physical associations within us, associations that are encoded in the body. What we have to do is to penetrate into that realm to retrieve necessary associations.
Dancing Rachela in Acropolis
Let me give you an example. It was when I was exploring the character of Rachela in Acropolis. Grotowski set the action in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. The Acropolis was the camp, this terminal point. The actors wore heavy boots, some carrying sacks wearing berets. It was then that Grotowski, for the first and last time, worked with us upon the facial expressions we should put on like a mask. Later this experience became the basis of my work in the so-called “normal” theatre. When I played the old woman or man in Beckett’s Happy Days andEndgame I made use of this experience, it became the root of my creations. In creating a role you must inquire who you are, what happens to you, and what kind of facial expressions are the best to express your thoughts and feelings. My answer was simple: terrified eyes with the mouth trying to smile. I decided to keep that characteristic contradiction in my facial expression all through the performance. The astounded look with the raised brows and terrified eyes formed a strange contrast with the bottom part of the face with a smile.
Then there was the question of how Rachela should die. My answer was that Rachela should die in as beautiful a manner as she possibly could in her heavy boots, because I believed in the artistic importance of contradictions. We should not try the sort of descriptive acting that you’d find in TV drama. Actors should behave like children, who are as actors always spontaneous and, therefore, magnificent, and it is only when we let our imagination go that extraordinary ideas come to mind. Grotowski often said that people behave differently in extreme fear, despair, or happiness. I was convinced that Rachela had to dance en pointe in her boots, so she died dancing.
The Constant Prince was a long journey spanning over many years. We began our physical training in Opole, where we did all sorts of exercises: yoga, gymnastics, calisthenics, and, of course, voice training. These are all part of the vocabulary taught in acting schools today, but it was a revolution then. We started by learning to adjust the voice. This was an area I knew little about. I didn’t know that you can modify your voice by using the chest and the back of your head as resonators. My natural voice is a little too harsh, but thanks to Grotowski I learned how to use my voice and improve it.
I am the only Grotowski actor who went on to work in the “normal” theatre, and the older I become, the more convinced I became that these exercises with Grotowski are useful. I remember one exercise that Grotowski invented. Each participant chose a few lines from some text or song. Each one of us was asked to tell a story using these lines but without moving the body at all. I decided to tell a folk song — “In the morning, in the morning, was the girl prettily dressed, as if with a new life blessed. . .” — using only my voice. It was a story of a girl from the very beginning of her life: first she is a young girl waiting for her beloved, growing up to be a woman expecting a baby, then a mother lulling her baby to sleep singing that song, and finally an old woman. It was a wonderful adventure I will never forget. Later I played Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. I was buried in the ground, first up to the waist, then up to the neck. My vocal training with Grotowski was immensely useful.
In Grotowski’s method, concentration was vital. We never talked before performance. It seemed strange at the beginning, but it meant that we must leave our lives behind the door. Also in Grotowski’s company we did everything ourselves. Before our exercises began we had to wipe the stage floor of our sweat. There were no stage hands, so we cleaned the theatre ourselves, and we prepared everything. Even now I am the last one to leave the dressing room because I simply have to place everything back in place myself. That’s the only way I know.
In the “normal” theatre
Thanks to the director Jerzy Jarocki, I went back to perform in the “normal” theatre. It was a huge change. I started in Różewicz’s play The Old Woman Broods. There is only one old woman in Różewicz’s play, but Jarocki chose to put three, and I was one of them. I appeared on stage in many skirts and hats, carrying a large sack, like an old lady prepared for her final moment. And then I concentrated, because I knew that I must concentrate (the school of Grotowski!), and my concentration was so intense that before I uttered any word Jarocki said, “Thank you, that’s enough. You performed everything. It is all over now.” I appreciated what my new director said with gratitude. I told everything without any word, and such was my professionalism that someone had to intervene.
I had to readjust myself in many ways. We performed without makeup in Grotowski’s theatre. And the proximity of the audience. As there was no marked division between the stage and the audience, in The Constant Prince spectators were everywhere around us. People were very close, as we often played among them though we didn’t look at them. Gurawski, the designer, constructed the space in such a way that it was different in every performance. In Acropolis and The Constant Prince, for example, the way Gurawski built the corridor, we actors had to play surrounded by spectators. But in the “normal” theatre, suddenly people were seated at a distance, so I had to wear a makeup. I also had to learn to use my voice in a different way to adapt to different conditions. It was very hard.
I don’t know what would become of our current theatre if Jerzy Grotowski were still alive. Maybe he would insist on the importance of the ritual. He always taught us not to duplicate TV and films, but things have terribly changed and nowadays TV and film acting dominates the stage. We didn’t use ready-made music. We created music ourselves, we created the sounds. We used nothing ready made. Grotowski believed that theatre must shed those things.
I think we like to quote Grotowski so often because no man talked in such a precise manner as he. His influence is still very strong, although few truly understand his teachings. When I sat as a juror in a theatrical competition I often saw somebody only tracing the surface of Grotowski’s technique. They must fight against such temptation. Grotowski was absolutely concrete in his instructions, and that is why I learned so much from him.
And everyone is lazy these days. If I did not exercise four, five hours a day, it wasn’t exercise. Exercise we did. We never interrupted our work. When we were working on The Constant Prince, we worked for hours on end. We met after each performance. I took out a pencil and put down what went good, what went wrong, and what was distorted. Grotowski was always judging our performances. It was a serious work demanding precision at any point in time.
During the work on the movie Katyn by Andrzej Wayda I came back to the same practice. You should be brave especially when you don’t know. When you talk with somebody, you don’t know how the conversation will end. I may be able to imagine the ending, a possible shape it may take, how it may be arranged, what it may look like, but that’s all. But if you are brave from time to time, if you have a good script, if you are concentrated enough, then you don’t have to know what the ending will be like. Yes, we used improvisation in our work, but it was not as simple as some youngsters may think.
Film and improvisation
I played in the first improvised movie that was produced in Poland, entitled Behind the Wall by Krzysztof Zanussi. We shot it in nine days and it was a process similar to jazz. We had the motifs of the talk for the very beginning and if the talk developed, we were supposed to expand it from that base. If the talk came to a halt, we would come back to the beginning. Some dialogues materialized while the camera was rolling. I had, for instance, a fish in the water. My movie partner, the great Polish actor Zbigniew Zapasiewcz asked me, “What is it?” “Well, a fish” said I. “What is it doing there?” “It’s swimming.” There is no use in writing down such a dialogue beforehand. But to be honest improvisation is one of the most precise forms of dialogue. You cannot do it ad hoc without detailed preparation. You must be ready and you must know what the purpose of the improvisation is. You must know how to begin it and how to end it, how to enter and to exit.
One of the important rules in art is that you must say no when you really must. In the movie Behind the Wall — a black-and-white film, I must add — I had to think about what kind of dress I should buy. I thought it should be a dress that I didn’t like. I thought about the color, the cut, and the length. In that horrible dress, which would put me in the horrible mood, I thought I could play my character in the horrible mood as faithfully to the script as possible, because every woman wants to look good. I put on everything that irritated me: awful boots, a cheap fur coat, and a shoddy handbag. Usually I would never use a handbag, because I don’t know what to do with it. In a word, I put myself in the most terrible state for me. In addition, the set was located in a claustrophobic space and I had as my partner the famous colleague Zapasiewicz (I was absolutely anonymous then), so I did not have to act. I naturally felt shy, lost, and sad, and I had no time to care about my part or my gestures. The situation made me do all that was prescribed in the scenario.
In another movie, The Family Life, I fought for a dressing gown. “Ah, the eccentric Komorowska,” they may have thought, “the actress with the experience of working with Grotowski.” Well, the character I played was a depraved woman, all right, but not so depraved as to readily show her naked legs. If she is to show them, it has to be accidental. So I thought I could let my dressing gown slide down when I sat down. It is this kind of small details that decide the truth of the part, and that is why I am always ready to fight about apparently trivial trinkets. After my years with Grotowski I know that I must help my imagination so that it can take its full flight.
In my last movie, Gallop I spent some hours riding on horseback. I am 72 years old but I have needed no stunt person to stand in for my part. I can still do a somersault, my body remembers it. Thanks to the training I had with Grotowski, my body is always ready to work. I’ve never used a double.
Down to the body again
The body is important but the mind is more important. The greatest benefit of working with Grotowski was that he taught us the right intellectual skill, the kind of thinking about the theatre which I think is the most important. I learned to analyze the text and ask the right questions like how I can seek myself, open up my memory, especially the memory of the body, what to tell and what to hide, etc. I learned them from him. Your teacher can broaden your boundary. Grotowski taught me to work hard. He taught me why we should work. “Why do we do art?” he asked. “Because we want to go beyond, released from our various restraints, to fill our emptiness and idleness, and to realize ourselves or, as I prefer to call it, to achieve a sense of fulfillment. It is still my frame of mind in doing any job. Good theatre is a process of hard labour, illuminating dark places.
And by way of conclusion, let me make another quotation from what Grotowski said: “Our body is memory. It doesn’t mean that the body has a memory; it is memory. One should unblock the body to unblock memory.”