'Poor theatre' explores possibilities of art, lifts veil on humanness

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Mario Biagini is a genial, 49-year-old Italian theatre worker who's one of two designated successors to theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski. He's in Toronto with a troupe of colleagues to perform and teach at U of T. I know theatre worker sounds mundane but the term "The Work" appears often as he talks; it's spoken with reverence, the way hockey players say "The Game."

Grotowski, who died in 1999, is best known for advocating "a poor theatre." He meant it as a counter-challenge to the opulence of film. Theatre could never compete with film's spectacle but what it had was the live presence of actors, in a room, interacting and co-creating with an audience. So you make a virtue of spareness and build on it. That focus on the spare and alive spread everywhere, including Canada; now it seems obvious and easy to overlook.

Grotowski came of age, full of political idealism, in Soviet-era Poland. But he realized the regime would squelch any sign of the very ideals it trumpeted. So he turned to theatre which, as a restricted arena, received a leeway not given to more mass-based activities like film and journalism. And because the state paid the costs, you had resources to explore your ideas -- even more freely in rehearsals than performances. From that came Grotowski's "lab" approach to theatre. Still, when martial law was declared in 1981, he left Poland and never returned. He settled to do his work in Italy.

What gripped Grotowski, says Biagini, was "the simple fact of being human, of action, what is it to act?" This is either pretentious or deceptively simple. Not, What is the meaning of life? But what being human actually is. And what better way to explore that than in the act of acting, in performances, which reach back in time beyond recorded memory. English director Peter Brook says Grotowski found in the act of performance a way to lift the veil on humanness. It's the core that can be found in any life at any moment -- during, say, work!

It's important for the Great Ones to choose their successors carefully, because discipleship can be such a bore. If your work remains alive and growing, if it isn't to become repetitive and pompous, your main joy will lie in discovering the limits of where you've already arrived (like "poor theatre") and moving beyond it. Freud and Marx both said near the end that they weren't Freudian or Marxist. So Biagini tends to sound vague or at best aspirational when talking about Grotowski's legacy: the best must be yet to come.

At a post-show Q&A last Saturday, he said: "You know, tonight during the performance I looked out at the audience and thought, Is this important?" He's surely wondered that thousands of times, but each time it has to be fresh, less because there's no final answer than that each time you want to be ready to capture whatever answer might be there, then. We can all ask that about what we do, at any moment; it's part of being in a body, in a time, in a space. Ongoing querulousness is us. But while living a harried life, it's hard to keep in mind; that's one reason we value art.

True, art often fails to do the job. Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, said recently that art may have become a "historical term." What now goes under the name is more "an extension of the fashion trade and stock market." Think of young artists toiling to create weekly videos for YouTube and being grossly underpaid -- it must be hard to even recall why they do it.

But everyone's in that boat, artists and non-artists. Biagini says he hires actors largely in the hope they'll "remind me of what I want to do." He knows most people will never see the work he does. But it doesn't seem to daunt him. He feels it exists in some sense "underground," like most human achievement over the millennia, it whispers somewhere ready to be overheard: like the dormant but not defunct Oral Tradition, of which theatre has always been part; and unlike the brief era of recorded, sold and oversold formal art.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Dave Wilson/flickr

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