Transmitting Knowledge and Technique: Interview with Thomas Richards

by Steve Capra*

Thomas Richards met Jerzy Grotowski, one of the iconic figures of modern drama, at the University of California and then worked as his assistant in Italy at The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski. He became Grotowski’s particular protegé and in 1999 became the Artistic Director of the Workcenter. So prominent was he at the center that Grotowski changed its name to The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. Since Grotowski’s death in 1999, Mr. Richards has continued working with the techniques that Grotowski so famously developed and is considered Grotowski’s “universal heir.” The Workcenter was forced to close in 2022 and Mr. Richards co-founded a new company, Theater No Theater, to support his theatre research. He writes and tours extensively. His three books include At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions

In At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions you talk about Grotowski extending the work of Stanislavski. In the popular mind, even among theatre people, they’re not associated. Much to the contrary, many actors think of them as being alternatives to one another.

Grotowski drew my attention to a description of Stanislavski working. I don’t recall now what book it was from, but Stanislavski was doing an exercise on a chair. The person describing him said that just through the work on impulse to action, they saw Stanislavski transform himself into a tiger sitting on the chair. For Grotowski, this fragment, this description of Stanislavski was very important.

Impulse to action. Impulse was the focal point that Grotowski picked up from Stanislavski. Of course, he picked up the work on physical actions — “What is an action? What is an intention?” But the work on impulse is where he felt, “I, Grotowski, really see something that was crucial, in the end of Stanislavski’s life” — this exercise was from the end of his life — and carried that forward.

There’s a misunderstanding about Grotowski’s work. This misunderstanding often relates to body. When we look at the photos of Ryszard Cieslak in Grotowski’s production The Constant Prince[1], we see someone in conditionOlympian condition. There’s an idea that Grotowski did physical theatre. Grotowski used to laugh at that. When we see physical theatre, often we see a kind of theatre that loses sight of Stanislavski. The actor somehow becomes a dancer who speaks, not a human in a specific situation who does and acts according to Stanislavskian objective and intention. This is something that Grotowski never fully left.

Realism was his basis. From realism, which is a quotidian truth, he was looking to go into the most special human experiences and find a way that they could be incarnated on stage. When I went to work with him as a young man — it was not that I was doing dance theatre or physical theatre before, but I was trying to, as he said, “fly to the stars without a ladder.” Through contorting my body, through pumping my breathing, I was trying to do something extraordinary but ending up doing something forced and banal.

The work started that day when he said, “Oh, Thomas, please go get me my poncho,” which was across the room. And I just walked across the room and picked up his poncho and he stopped me and said “Yes, that’s it.” I said “That’s what?” He said “That’s acting.” I said “I was not acting.” He said “Right.”

And I understood something. It was so wild because this was the man who had helped Cieslak to arrive at this peak, this incredible peak of human experiencing on stage, who was telling me, “Just do your little actions. We start there.” That’s Stanislavski, isn’t it?

But certainly, didn’t Grotowski retain any idea of endowment and substitution — particularization — from Stanislavski?

Yes — but in maybe another context. When I started to work with Grotowski — but also in the time of the Polish Laboratory Theatre — the actors were not playing characters. What we understand as the “Stanislavskian process” in part has to do with “How would I, Thomas, behave if I were in the circumstances of Hamlet?” Slowly I step into the shoes of another person’s circumstances.

The Constant Prince. Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows – The Institute for Studies of the Method of Acting. After Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Juliusz Słowacki. Adapted and directed by Jerzy Grotowski. Set design (architecture): Jerzy Gurawski. Premiere of first version: Wrocław, 20 April 1965 (closed), 25 April 1965 (official). Pictured: Ryszard Cieślak. Photo: Laboratory Theatre/The Grotowski Institute Archive

We never work that way — and also in The Polish Laboratory Theatre back in the 60s and 70s he told me that they never worked in that way. The actors were always, he said, working on very personal and intimate moments in their lives, material from which the director would create the montage — or the image — of character in the mind of the spectator.

For example, in The Constant Prince, Ryszard Cieslak was seen by the spectator as a kind of saint who is tortured and somehow enters into an ecstatic state because he disassociates from the body. He’s in enormous pain, but the pain doesn’t touch him anymore. Then an extreme joy appears. Ryszard was never acting suffering. He was never even acting the Constant Prince. He was reliving a certain incredibly joyous moment from his life when, in his teens, he had his first amorous experience, in which there was an analogy to the experience of the Constant Prince — there was something extremely transcendental for him as a young man in this experience of love. Ryszard was never trying to behave as if he was in the situation of the torture of the Constant Prince.

That’s just one example of how the actors of The Laboratory Theatre were not in a Stanislavskian way entering into the shoes of a character — or entering the circumstances of a character.

The Constant Prince. Laboratory Theatre of 13 Rows – The Institute for Studies of the Method of Acting. After Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Juliusz Słowacki. Adapted and directed by Jerzy Grotowski. Set design (architecture): Jerzy Gurawski. Premiere of first version: Wrocław, 20 April 1965 (closed), 25 April 1965 (official). From left: Rena Mirecka and Ryszard Cieślak. Photo:  Laboratory Theatre/The Grotowski Institute Archive

In my work with Grotowski, which began full-time in 1985, he was already no longer doing theatre. Ancient songs of tradition became the basic tool that we were working with. The work on these songs became a way of confronting an aspect of my identity in the body, in the voice, in action. But also to discover something that he was trying to teach me about the possibility of art functioning as an inner practice — meaning the line of actions and work on the songs becomes a tool of an inner awakening.

Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini in Action (1995), created by Thomas Richards. Photo: Alain Volut

That was the aim of his work, which he called ritual arts. He was aiming towards what he called objectivity of ritual. The phrase “art as a vehicle” was used by Peter Brook to describe the Workcenter performing arts research during the time of my apprenticeship, and Grotowski picked up on that name. In that work, there is no character. The character is you. You’re the doer, — you’re doing. There’s even no audience — there’s not even storytelling. There can be a kind of story, but the story is often an allusion or a metaphor for a particular kind of inner process. The Catholic mass — does that have a dramaturgy? Yes, to a certain extent it does. It has a story that’s being told, but it’s not theatre as we conceive of that.

So inside of our work, there was no element of dramaturgy so to speak, but there was precision and there was structure. The aim was not the consciousness of a spectator and taking the spectator on a journey, but taking the doers on an inner journey — as ritual might do — in some way energetically. Each song should awaken a certain energetic stream, so to speak, and that energetic stream should be lived by the doers. A kind of let’s say an energetic ladder is constructed.

Thomas Richards in Action (1995), created by Thomas Richards. Photo: Alain Volut

Inside of that, did we work in a Stanislavskian way? On a fundamental level, yes. A key to doing and repeating was Stanislavski’s method of physical actions. In the beginning of my apprenticeship he was having me read the book of Toporkov called Stanislavski in Rehearsal. Grotowski was speaking endlessly about what’s an action, what’s an intention, how to structure an action. “Please recognize when an action is dead. Recognize when it comes alive again in yourself and in your colleagues.” It was very Stanislavskian — to get us to repeat processes in action, daily. The objective was not storytelling, but living the experience of a kind of energetic ladder, so to speak, an experience that was there as a possibility if, in the pieces we had created, we accomplished our actions fully.

How have you extended Grotowski’s techniques?

There’s something in the question itself towards which I feel a need for a disclaimer. In order to create my artistic identity, I felt the need, as a young man, to take distance from my father, Lloyd Richards, director of realism, Broadway — a son trying to differentiate himself from his father. It happens a lot I suppose. I think many artists, as well, can feel that we need to differentiate ourselves from other artists, especially our teachers. Thanks to the quality of my relation with Grotowski, though, I don’t feel that way. That’s my disclaimer. I don’t feel that way. What he taught me was so profound that I simply have the deepest, deepest gratitude to him.

He was really an old man on the edge of death — he was dying when I was working with him. He was very sick. His doctors said he probably had two years left to live. He really only went from his house to the workspace and back. He stretched these two years into 13 years. He worked with me six days a week — really. We were rehearsing from 8 to 12 hours a day.

Thomas Richards and Jerzy Grotowski. 1994. Photo: Maurizio Buscarino

He’s passed me a knowledge of craft — and of leadership, how to confront the difficulties of leadership. To lead a group is quite difficult. He helped me through 13 years of guiding a group where he would not come to rehearsals. I had to lead the team, and he would come once a week more or less. But every day after rehearsal, I should go and analyze with him everything that happened, all the problems, what worked, what didn’t work. And I had to go back and resolve the problems with the team. He would work with me practically, individually, hours on end, and what I was learning, I had to pass on to the team. This was a very strong way of teaching. I’m grateful because what a master of that level is putting into an apprentice is craft, in the body and in the will.

Then also there’s what we can call yogic work that he was passing to me, which relates to the potential impact that a song of tradition can have on what I have referred to in my book Heart of Practice as “seats of energy” inside the human being, and how the voice, sonic resonance, work on songs of tradition and action, can become a tool for experiencing an incredible joy, a kind of transcendence.

You’re talking about literal resonance, literal vibration.

Exactly — vocal vibrations, sound. There’s a whole territory of the inner life of the human being as well. Emotion might be seen as vibration. It is also substance, which is such a strange thing. It sounds like mumbo jumbo, what I just said — but all we need to do is to sit on the subway here in Manhattan. If you sit next to somebody who’s in a negative state — he’s angry and you start to feel angry. The radiation of that person through his physical actions — shaking his leg, clenching his jaw and moving back and forth — you start to feel yourself getting pissed off. You move and sit at a little distant because that person’s inner life is around. We don’t end at the skin.

There’s not this father-son relation with Grotowski where I would say “I’m going to now construct my own identity.” He’s like a wise grandfather who left me an endowment, left me something that I should not waste, that I need to find a way to develop.

I am a man of theatre and I come from theatre. My father was a director, my mother a dancer, writer and dramaturg. My grandfather was a conductor of Broadway musicals — he was a musical director. Theatre is something that I’ve grown up in and I’m aiming toward it. So after Grotowski died, I knew I would need to bring the work that we do back towards theatre without losing this inner work.

In Tuscany, you never performed. You transmitted knowledge and technique from a teacher to a student. I think you also use the term transmit meaning to transmit almost a state of grace from the actors to the audience — almost like a Catholic sacrament.

In Pontedera, in Italy, did we perform for an audience? Very early on — already back in 1988, I believe — Grotowski started to invite people to see the work. Of course, it was very controlled, meaning there’d be one person coming, and then for three months not, and then three people coming — always by invitation — then two months not, and then five people coming.

From the moment that started, there were always people coming to witness what we were doing. What we were doing was extremely structured, more structured than any performance I’d ever been in. We called them Actions, the pieces that we created. So people were present.

Grotowski wished to transmit to me both craft and the practical knowledge about this inner process that can be awakened through work on ancient songs of tradition. Transmission was the key, which was witnessed in certain moments.

He spoke to me before he died, and he said “Yes, we’ve got to find for you the magnet,” meaning that which will pull me forward in the future, like a magnet after his death. He said, “Yeah, it’s clear. The magnet for you is theatre.”

Thomas Richards in Action (1995), created by Thomas Richards. Photo: Alain Volut

It was clear for him — for me as well — that when he died there would be a movement back towards theatre that I would have to try to figure out. Even in his text, From the Theatre Company to Art as Vehicle, he says at the end something like “If I thought that this kind of work could exist in the theatre, I might be tempted to try.”

In some way, he was foreshadowing that that’s what I would be trying to do. It’s what I’ve tried to do since his death.

But didn’t Grotowski intend for these techniques eventually to be presented to an audience — in the sense of teaching all nations?

He was a very practical person. He had limited energy due to his health questions and his main concern was to put my feet on the ground — in a good sense — to teach me something that related to craft and this inner process so to speak. Then it became important to invite people to test the quality of the work. As you said, might the spectator enter into a “state of grace?”

I don’t know if I would use that exact terminology, but Grotowski spoke about induction. Induction meaning that if you have an electrical wire with a current and you take another electrical wire without current and you bring it close, just because of the proximity a current will start to appear in the second wire. In the same way, if someone is living a very deep or very high inner process, through proximity and through induction, a spectator has the chance to perceive that process inside of themselves. As people started to come see the work in Italy, many would speak of this process that was in some way analogous to what I or other people were experiencing as doers.

Bradley High, Benoît Chevelle, Thomas Richards, Guilherme Kirchheim and Jessica Losilla-Hébrail in The Living Room (2016), dir. by Thomas Richards. Photo: Piotr Nykowski

Your impetus then has been to bring this work to an audience, to bring the work to the theatre.

Yes, exactly. In doing so, we come face to face with different problematics. The first is that we need to become masters in storytelling because in theatre often there is an element of storytelling. But in art as vehicle, there was never really an element of storytelling.

Then the question over the years has become “How can storytelling go hand in hand with work on ancient song? Can it? How does it work? What story to tell?” This has led us to many experiments over the years — and to Han![2], which we are preforming these days at La MaMa. I heard Hyun Ju Baek, the actress, describing her own process the other day in the talk-back after Han! and she said “This is a kind of yoga for me to do this piece.”

Hyun Ju Baek in Han! (2023), dir. by Thomas Richards. Photo: Thomas Richards

She was extraordinary.

Yes, she’s quite extraordinary. In the performance, she’s in a process that has different levels. There’s an actorial level of transformation where she will transform — like a cloud transforms its shape in the sky — into grandmother, into mother, into herself, into narrator, and seamlessly pass back and forth between them. Then there’s the level also of vitality, the livingness of her actions, and what the songs that appear in different moments in the structure can do to her inner life, where the whole thing becomes a kind of game with energies. The whole performance becomes a kind of —

Hyun Ju Baek in Han! (2023), dir. by Thomas Richards. Photo: Thomas Richards

I understand what she says when she uses the term yoga. Yoga in the sense of she’s yoking her inner life to the moment. Her inner life is on the roller coaster of the moment. This enormous fullness will come and then this very subtle quality will be resonating after a given song and then the story will continue.

Hyun Ju Baek in Han! (2023), dir. by Thomas Richards. Photo: Thomas Richards

All this is around the subject of han, which is a complicated Korean concept that relates to suffering, and sacrifice, and hope, and soul, and the ability to be in the moment and what one does with the fire of one’s own suffering. As she lives the piece, it becomes like a meditation around the theme which is a true existential question for her in her life — and speaking to us about it and carrying us into memories about it, at the same time becoming the woman who she wishes to become.

So this, if we can call it a result, is in some way a combination of drama, storytelling, Stanislavski, Grotowski, and her own existential quest, and rising and falling energies.

Hyun Ju Baek in Han! (2023), dir. by Thomas Richards. Photo: Thomas Richards

Certainly, you based your work on Grotowski, but are also influenced by probably everything else you’ve seen.

Absolutely. I’m so influenced by my father. I grew up in the — I don’t know if you know the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center, which is in Waterford, Connecticut. My father, as I grew up, was the artistic director of its National Playwrights Conference. Almost every summer of my youth, I spent there listening to these “boring” analysis of plays. I would always want to play volleyball with the actors or play soccer with the actors. My parents would drag me out of the bed at 7:30 in the morning to go have breakfast at the O’Neill and then listen to what’s called critiques, where the performance that we’d seen the night before would be analyzed and analyzed and analyzed.

These critiques were extraordinary. The people who passed through there, the actors, the theatre critics, the directors and writers, such as Wole Soyinka, the Nobel prize winner, Athol Fugard passed through there as well. And there I was, a kid, not knowing that in my boredom, I was absorbing dramaturgic analysis — what works, what doesn’t work in storytelling. So now when we work on a piece, I see my father all over the place — inside myself.

Ah! — by the way, my father came to see one rehearsal in Italy. It was around 1994 in the second half of my apprenticeship with Grotowski and I was creating a new work, which became the culmination of my apprenticeship. My father saw a rehearsal and then I was in a meeting with my father and Grotowski. It was the first time that my father had met Grotowski. My Dad made a few comments about the work and Grotowski stole an idea — meaning Grotowski was like, “Oh, that’s a great idea. We’ve got to do this.” It was Grotowski who said, “Oh, your father, he really has a very high-level craft,” after hearing his dramaturgical analysis of our work — and also after hearing what he’d seen as a possibility, like a seed that was there but neither Grotowski or I had fully grasped its importance yet. So it was, in fact, from that conversation that we got the story/non-story that became a fundamental element of the new piece that we were creating.

Federico Ortiz-Cañavate, Thomas Richards, Debora Totti, Jakub Margosiak, Jessica Losilla-Hébrail and Kei Franklin in a work session on songs of tradition, led by Thomas Richards (2023). Photo: Theatre No Theatre

You have such an extraordinary relationship with your students while you’re working with them. You’ve written that Grotowski worked you very hard and that we need to be demanding of your students — but not too much. How do you get this extraordinary relationship with them where they can be totally engrossed in their work, and the same time relate to you in front of them?

The main thing that creates relation is trust. Trust cannot be manufactured; trust is born naturally from competence. If I’m competent, someone may trust me. It’s not guaranteed — they may not. The main thing for a teacher is to know what you’re doing. If you don’t, go on a search to learn. It’s through a search to learn that you will become either a teacher of something or not — [laughing] which is also okay!

Hyun Ju Baek, Thomas Richards, Jessica Losilla-Hébrail, Jakub Margosiak and Federico Ortiz-Cañavate in a work session on songs of tradition (2023). Photo: Theatre No Theatre

What an immersive experience it must be to work with you there in Tuscany! The way Judith Malina and The Living Theatre worked in Tuscany before they came back here.

Yeah, it is. Some creative explosion is happening now that is so beautiful. As you know, we’re struggling for money. There have been funding cuts in Italy recently. Many extraordinary actors are like, “Okay, let’s work for no money now. Let’s work for nothing.” There’s a spirit that’s amazing. It’s also part of the reason why I started to work with Grotowski — I felt in that ambiance of work, I could learn. I had some space to learn. The work is about craft, and about the learning of craft.

Jessica Losilla-Hébrail and Thomas Richards in a work session on songs of tradition (2023). Photo: Theatre No Theatre

I think we’ve started to touch it in this conversation — both you and I. You’re coming from The Living Theatre, and I’m coming from work with Grotowski. Around the world, theatre groups are almost disappearing — they’re becoming a thing of the past. The work that you’ve seen in Theatre No Theatre (www.theatrenotheatre.com)[3] is part of a kind of rebirth, a company is appearing which has deep roots from the Workcenter to Grotowski to The Laboratory Theatre to Stanislavsky. It’s being born in this new world — which has even gone beyond television and film now into internet, and even towards artificial intelligence, this world in which digitalization and mediated relationships is so important. And yet our work is based upon human contact.

Ettore Brocca and Thomas Richards in a rehearsal of The Inanna Project (2023). Photo: Theatre No Theatre

Here and now.

Here and now.

In light of the fact that there were film and television in the world, can theatre ever have the importance it had for Ibsen’s audience, Shakespeare’s audience?

At the end of the ’50s, maybe early ’60s, Grotowski analyzed that for theatre to survive, thanks to television and film, it would need to try not to be television and film. If it did, it would be the death of theatre. The only way was to develop that which cinema and TV did not have, which is face-to-face human contact. That’s where he set out on his journey.

Also, this is one of the reasons why he went away from realism, in my understanding. Because he was like, “Okay, we cannot, on stage now, thanks the cinema and television, only repeat realistic scenes — because it will not be enough.” People can get that in film. People can get that in television. We need to find the highest, most special, most unique moments in life and find a way that the performance becomes a catalyst that these experiences are lived by the actor face to face with a live audience.

This is where the whole idea of the poor theatre, the total act came. It became almost a spiritual parkour for the actor to be working with him. It’s that spirit also that attracted me to work with Grotowski, and it’s that spirit which really carries me forward also today.

Thomas Richards on tour in the USA (2023). Photo: Jessica Losilla-Hébrail

There can be kinds of theatre that work, and they’re imitating cinema. I see this. They now have big screens on the stage. So not only is theatre theatre, but it is theatre and cinema simultaneously. It should be theatre, cinema, and internet also. We should do a lot.

Okay, maybe it can be, but for me — I don’t know. There’s still something… Grotowski used to say, he’s not avant garde, he’s a retro garde. He would say, “The discoveries are behind me. I’m going back to find them.” That’s great. I feel something of the same.

February 28, 2023


Endnotes

[1] In 1969 Grotowski directed a highly praised production of The Constant Prince, by Calderon De La Barca, with the actor Ryszard Cieslak.

[2] Mr. Richards had just presented this solo production, which he directed, in New York.

[3] Mr. Richards’ new theatre company. 


*Steve Capra has worked extensively as actor, director, producer, most notably for Judith Malina and The Living Theatre. His plays have appeared in New York and the U.K. His book, Theatre Voices, contains interviews with leaders in the American and British theatre. His reviews are found at www.newyorkcritic.org.

Copyright © 2023 Steve Capra
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