Coffeehouse Chronicles #170: Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards at La MaMa ETC
Moderator: Richard Schechner
Panel: Thomas Richards, Kris Salata, Jessica Losilla-Hébrail, Dominika Laster
Curated by Michal Gamily and Tomek Smolarski
Saturday, March 4, 2023 at 3pm ET
Tickets are Pay-What-You-Can from $11–$61
Free for La MaMa Members
66 East 4th Street, basement level
New York, NY 10003
Considered one of the most important and influential theatre practitioners of the 20th century, Jerzy Grotowskirevolutionized contemporary theatre. Beginning in 1959 with his early experiments in the Polish town of Opole and later with the Polish Laboratory Theatre in Wroclaw, Grotowski changed the way Western theatre practitioners and performance theorists conceive of the audience/actor relationship, theatre staging, and the craft of acting. This phase of his theatrical work, also called “poor theatre,” was the basis for one of the most influential theatre books of the 20th century: Towards a Poor Theatre (1968). After abandoning the “theatre of productions,” Grotowski continued to push the boundaries of conventional theatre, first in his paratheatrical work, and later in his performance research, which took him to India, Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere, in search of the traditional performance practices of various cultures (Theatre of Sources, 1976-82). This work led Grotowski to his identification of particular abiding elements of ritual traditions (Objective Drama, 1983-86). In the final phase of his work Grotowski explored the far reaches of the performance continuum, which he traced from “Art as presentation” toward what has been called “Art as Vehicle.”
Thomas Richards was born in 1962 in New York City. He began working with Jerzy Grotowski at the University of California-Irvine, and followed him to Italy in 1986, where he worked first as his assistant at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski, then went on to become a group leader, creator, director, and finally Artistic Director. In 1996, Grotowski changed the name of the institution to The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, because, as he indicated, the direction of the practical work had already concentrated itself in Richards’ hands. Mr. Richards, who holds a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from the University of Bologna, and the Ph.D. from the University of Paris, is the author of three books: At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (1993), The Edge-Point of Performance (1995), and Heart of Practice: Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards (2008). Following Grotowski’s death in 1999, Richards took over as director of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards and together with Mario Biagini he is considered Grotowski’s ‘universal heir’. As Grotowski wrote, “The nature of my work with Thomas Richards has the character of ‘transmission’; to transmit to him that to which I have arrived in my life: the inner aspect of the work.” In January of 2022 Richards closed the doors of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards and together with several ex-colleagues of the Workcenter opened the new Cultural Association, Theatre No Theatre, which has inherited its artistic existence directly from the Workcenter, since it is dedicated to supporting the new theatre research of Thomas Richards.
In January of 2022, Thomas Richards, apprentice of Jerzy Grotowski, closed the doors of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, of which he was Artistic Director for 23 years. In February of 2022, several ex-colleagues of the Workcenter opened the new Cultural Association, Theatre No Theatre, which has inherited its artistic existence from the Workcenter, as it is dedicated to supporting the new theatre research of Thomas Richards.
Thomas Richards (B.A. Yale University, M.A. the University of Bologna, Ph.D. University of Paris VIII) was Artistic Director of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards from 1999 to 2022. He began his apprenticeship with Jerzy Grotowski in 1985, and their work together developed until Grotowski’s passing in 1999. Richards arrived in Italy in 1986 with Grotowski, from the University of California, Irvine, where he had participated in Grotowski’s “Focused Research Program in Objective Drama.” In Italy, at first Richards worked as Grotowski’s assistant, but soon he became the leader of one of the work teams, and then Grotowski’s “essential collaborator.” Eventually, Richards became Director of the Research Program on Performing Arts at the Workcenter. Thomas Richards was a fundamental driving force in the research developed at the Workcenter that has come to be known as “Art as vehicle,” and in 1996, Grotowski decided to change the name of the Workcenter to include that of Richards, because, as he specified, the direction of the practical work already concentrated itself in the hands of Mr. Richards. Concerning Richards, Grotowski stated, “The nature of my work with Thomas Richards has the character of ‘transmission’; to transmit to him that to which I have arrived in my life: the inner aspect of the work.”
At the Workcenter, Richards was the main creator and doer of Downstairs Action (filmed by Mercedes Gregory in 1989), the creator and main doer of Action, and the creator and a doer of The Letter (formerly An Action in Creation and The Twin: An Action in Creation). He co-directed One breath left, One breath left – Dies Iræ, Dies Iræ and Dies Iræ: The Preposterous Theatrum Interioris Show; performative opuses created at the Workcenter inside Project The Bridge: Developing Theatre Arts.
Mr. Richards was Artistic Director of the Workcenter’s project Tracing Roads Across (April 2003 to April 2006), supported by the “Culture 2000” Programme of the European Union, and also the Artistic Director of Horizons (2007-2009 – Wroclaw), a Workcenter project which culminated in the Zero Budget Festival (2009). In 2008, Mr. Richards created a new team at the Workcenter, the Focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle, with which he directed and conducted work on: The Living Room (previewed in 2009, premiered in 2010), L’heure fugitive (premiered in 2014), and The Underground: A Response to Dostoevsky (premiered in 2016). From 2016, he conducted as well the Workcenter Studio in Residence, with which he directed Sin Fronteras (premiered in 2017) and Gravedad (premiered in 2018). With both of these teams, Mr. Richards also created a new performance event called Songs of Tradition (premiered in 2019). As well, at the Workcenter, Richards directed the solo piece in Korean, entitled Han!.
Thomas Richards is author of At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions, published in Italian, French, English, German, Greek, Spanish, and Polish; The Edge-Point of Performance, published in English, Italian, German, Polish, and Greek; and Heart of Practice: Within the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, published in English and French. In January of 2022, Mr. Richards closed the Workcenter, and today he works for Teatro della Toscana – Teatro Nazionale, and his new performing arts research is supported by Theatre No Theatre.
Richard Schechner, editor of TDR, is the author of many books including Environmental Theater, Performance Theory, Between Theater and Anthropology, Performed Imaginaries, and Performance Studies: An Introduction. He has directed performances, led workshops, taught, and lectured in every continent except Antarctica. Among his many theatre productions are Dionysus in 69 (using Euripides’ The Bacchae), Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the immersive-devised Imagining O. He has been awarded numerous fellowships, awards, and honors, including three honorary doctorates.
Jessica Losilla-Hébrail was born in France. She studied performing arts for three years at the University of Nice where she received her Bachelors degree. She then spent the fourth year of her program in Finland, studying performing arts at the Turku Arts Academy. After her studies, she participated in various workshops and collaborated with different companies and artists in Europe. In 2008 she joined the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards and became a member of the Focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle. During her years at the Workcenter, she was a performer in The Living Room, The Underground and Songs of Tradition, all three opus directed by Thomas Richards, and was an assistant director on Gravedad, Sin Fronteras, and Han!. Over fourteen years at the Workcenter, Jessica has been performing, leading workshops and assisting Mr. Richards in workshops in numerous countries throughout the world. In 2014, she became one of Richards’ assistants. In February 2022, along with Hyun Ju Baek and Cécile Richards, both former members of the Workcenter, she founded Theatre No Theatre, a new cultural association supporting Thomas Richards’ research in performing arts.
Hyun Ju Baek was born in South Korea. Her career developed mainly as musical theatre actress for a decade in Korea. She traveled to London studying theatre directing and earned a master’s degree in Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. Before joining the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, Hyun Ju worked as an actress, director, and playwright in both Seoul and London. She wrote, produced and directed many theatre pieces including: Flatmates V Zombies (Tristan Bates Theatre UK, Camden People’s Theatre UK – a piece that won a fund of the Arts Council of England); Today And (commissioned by Kyunggi Cultural Foundation); and The Sound Factory (commissioned by the Pusan Cultural Foundation). In 2017, she participated in the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards’ Master Course, supported by the Korean Arts Council. After attending another pedagogic encounter with Thomas Richards in Hong Kong, she organized a theatre group: The association for Theatre Craft and Creative Process GB, and held the Seoul Work Encounter 2018, inviting to Korea the Focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle. The following year, she joined the Workcenter’s Focused Research Team in Art as Vehicle. Since 2019, Hyun Ju has performed significantly throughout the world in performances and performance events with the Workcenter and Theatre No Theatre.
Dominika Laster is Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of New Mexico. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University (2010). She is the Books Section Editor of TDR: The Drama Review (TDR) and Co-Editor of European Stages. From 2013-2015, Dr. Laster served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer in the Theater Studies Program at Yale University. She was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Performance Studies at Yale (IPSY) from 2011 to 2013.
Photo credit: Maurizio Buscarino