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Thomas Richards - The Jerzy Grotowski Workcenter

Thomas Richards was a young student at Yale University when he first encountered the work of Jerzy Grotowski. Little did Richards know then that he would go on to become what the Polish theatrical guru would later describe as his 'essential collaborator', let alone take charge of Grotowski's work and legacy as artistic director of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards following his mentor's death in 1999.

As the Workcenter, founded in Pontedera, Italy in 1986, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, Richards and his collaborators and co-producers at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance bring a short Grotowski season to Edinburgh, where the director's production of Stanislaw Wyspianski's play, Akropolis, first introduced western audiences to his work at the Festival in the late 1960s.

“It blew my mind,” Richards says of his initiation into Grotowski's methodology that went on to change his life. “When I was at Yale we were introduced to Ryszard Cieslak, who was Grotowski's main actor, and who led a workshop with us. That was when I learned about working through the body as a physical instrument in a way that opened me up to Grotowski's work.”

Grotowski visited Yale a few weeks later, with Richards going on to work with him extensively on what he describes as something “beyond theatre” on a method he describes as “objectivity of ritual,” which, for a young man of Afro-Caribbean descent half familiar with his heritage “woke something up in me that was like hearing my grandmother sing, and which opened up a potential for performance that went beyond just getting a message to the audience.”

As Richards worked with Grotowski more, he discovered a world as far away from the conveyor belt of the repertory system and commercial theatre as he could imagine.

“In the beginning when I worked with him I didn't know there would ever be a production,” Richards says today. “We would work on a piece five or six days a week, but only after a year would a small group of people be invited to watch our work, and that was done in a way that we had to confront why we were doing what we were doing.”

The Workcenter's Edinburgh programme consists of a mix of live performance, film and workshops. Richards will direct three works; The Living Room, The Underground – A Response to Dostoyevsky, and L'heure fugitive. The latter of these will be performed in French by Cecile Richards. As well as a historical retrospective of the Workcenter presented by Richards alongside a day long workshop, there will also be presentations of documentary film footage of two of Grotowski's key works, Akropolis and The Constant Prince. Introduced by Italian theatre director Carla Pollastrelli, the footage marks Grotowski's road to international recognition, with Akropolis dating from 1962 and The Constant Prince in 1965.

While Akropolis first showed the west what Grotowski was capable of, it was the publication of Towards A Poor Theatre, the director's seminal tome on theatre-making first published in 1968, that really set the world alight. The book, which argued for theatre that went beyond realism to create what might now be regarded as total theatre became required reading for anti-establishment theatrical explorers ever since.

“It completely changed peoples ideas about their approach to theatre, as is the case with great mentors,” says Richards of the book, “but as is also the case it created misunderstandings and myths, which is why it is important to bring our work to Edinburgh and other places and explain it. The idea of poor theatre revolutionised theatre on many levels, and we can still see those effects on theatre today. Grotowski saw that for theatre to be serious, it had to do something beyond TV and film, and had to strip things down to what is essential, which is the actor and the audience.”

One of the key tenets of Richards' work with Grotowski at the Workcenter was the idea of the artist as a vehicle. This was a phrase introduced to Grotowski by Peter Brook, the British theatre director who similarly deviated from the mainstream to explore a more holistic approach to theatre making. As ever with Grotowski, it goes beyond theatre itself to work towards a deeper way of being.

“It's giving a place for the human being inside art,” says Richards, “which is extremely loving in a way that lets you say things in a different way to conventional theatre today. If you look at theatre techniques like Indian dance and Noh theatre, there is an aspect or a part of their process which takes into account the fact that it is human beings who are making the art.

“It's not just about becoming famous, but literally involves a kind of inner evolution, so different things open up inside the performer, and your craft becomes a kind of self-knowledge in terms of what you need to aim for in life as an actor. In this world where human beings are objects, the Workcenter is an outpost to try and transcend that.”

The Living Room, August 18-21, 11.30am; Presentation of Film Documentation of Jerzy Grotowski's Akropolis, August 23, 5pm; Presentation of Film Documentation of Jerzy Grotowski's The Constant Prince, August 24, 11am; L'heure fugitive, August 25, 5pm; The Underground: A Response to Dostoyevsky, August 25-26, 8pm; Thirty Years of the Workcenter: A Retrospective, August 27, 4pm; The Actor/Creator – Workshop, August 30, 10am-5pm.
www.summerhall.co.uk

The Herald, August 19th 2016

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