Two years ago, during the Congress of Międzynarodowe Stowarzyszenie Krytyków Teatralnych (Associ... More in Warsaw, Europe directed its gaze towards Asia. The Thalia Prize was received by the outstanding artist of India, Kapila Vatsyayan, who addressed her message to artists and critics alike. She argued that real art requires much humility, sacrifice and work to create. Today, Asia is looking at Europe – the Thalia Prize Award is going to Eugenio Barba, the founder of Odin Teatret, who is a theorist, theater director and anthropologist; for years he was fascinated by Indian theatre and theatre of the Far East. I stress with satisfaction this deep intelectual, spiritual connections between our winners.
Unfortunately, Eugenio cannot personally receive a prize. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his Odin Teatret, which continuously from the very beginning has been directed by him. Just this phenomenon – lasting for half a century of work in an effort to create a unique, avant-garde international theatre, and who led his artistic exploration initially in Oslo, and for over 40 years in the small Danish town of Holstebro, would be enough to earn him the Thalia Prize.
And Barba is not only the director about 80 performances and the leader of a theater group, but he is a distinguished anthropologist of theater, the creator of an anthropological research center, the organizer of countless workshops and studies, a writer, the author of fundamental works of contemporary art in the form of directing and acting, among them the monumental work (together with Nicola Savarese) The Secret Art of the Performer: A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. He is also a tireless promoter of theatre, and also kind of an explorer and eulogist of the Jerzy Grotowski Laboratory Theatre. To him, Grotowski Theatre largely owes the beginning of their international recognition. I especially emphasize the international aspect of the activity of Barba, who is Italian by birth, and by elective affinity, a citizen of the world, Norwegian, Danish and a little Pole.
He probably would not have been a director, if not for a Polish film – Ashes and Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda. Barba recounts how this happened in his book memoir Land of Ashes and Diamonds: My Apprenticeship in Poland – Followed by 26 Letters from Jerzy Grotowski to Eugenio Barba. It is not difficult to figure out that the title of the book refers to the title of the film by Wajda. He saw this movie in Norway as a seventeen-year-old, after abandoning military college in Naples, and this is what made him decide to become a director: „It’s Andrzej Wajda who convinced me – he wrote in that book – to go to Poland. Or rather, because Wajda made his Ashes and Diamonds, I studied theatre in Poland. I watched the film in Oslo in the autumn of 1959. It was for me like a punch in the stomach. I watched it several times. How many times? Three, five, ten? The screen scrolled images of the Civil War, a desperate passion, a sense of honor and contempt for life, sensitivity to madness and weakness of human beings crushed by the cruel story.”
The title of the film needs to be clarified. It’s actually the title of a novel by the famous Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, bearing the motto of the outstanding line by Polish poet Cyprian Norwid of the Romantic period. Here is an excerpt of the motto:
“When our life is ashes, it will not
Be ashes through and through –
For under the ash will remain
A starry diamond.”
The novel Ashes and Diamonds focuses on the dilemmas faced by the young generation of the Second World War, soldiers of the underground Home Army, which fought during the German occupation of Germany, and then who were confronted with the model of totalitarianism imposed by the Soviet Union. Metaphorically, they were like a diamond, but the judgment of history would remain with them – ash. On the basis of this novel, a famous film was made by Andrzej Wajda, who belonged to the „Polish cinema school,” which flourished after Stalin’s death and the political changes that took place in the mid-50s of the last century. Barba saw this film and decided to go to Poland and study there. His first stop was the state theater school in Warsaw.
As a freshman, he visited the small city of Opole, where Grotowski worked at the time. Initially, the work of Grotowski did not impress him. And then – when he was a little disappointed in Poland – Grotowski (during a meeting in Cracow) offered him an assistantship in his theater. So, it was then that he started his three year adventure, which turned into undying friendship. A difficult-to-understand bond was established between them. Barba wanted to take care of Grotowski. But even though Grotowski was older by only three years – they established a relationship as a Master and Apprentice. The master was, of course, Grotowski.
Barba discovered that Grotowski’s tiny group made one of the most important revolutions of theater: „Theatre is a flame that – to burn – needs wood: body and soul of the actor,” he wrote, watching the tedious work on the show Acropolis. „By abolishing the physical distance between the actor and the spectator,” wrote Barba, “Grotowski led, in the literal sense, the unity between the stage and the audience.” Barba decided to tell the world about these discoveries. He became the ambassador of Grotowski; when he was traveling around Europe, everywhere he went he talked about the Laboratory Theatre.
Grotowski’s theater was the basis of his poetic, artistic credo. He says this explicitly:
„During my years in the Theatre of 13 Rows, a vision arose in me of theater and the way of experiencing it intellectually and emotionally as a technique and creating aspirations. They provided me with the terminology, through which I was able to have a dialogue with myself and with my actors; this helped create the language – my, our, very personal and ephemeral, which went beyond clichés and obvious categories of discussion about the theater. I was the lucky chosen one. I met the master and seized the opportunity.”
It was his support he used during difficult moments. He would ask, “And how can I do it Grotowski?”
October 1, 1964 in Oslo, Eugenio Barba has founded Odin Teatret. He said to the actors that they were out to elect „future artistic revolution.” Already in February 1966, the year the Laboratory Theatre came to Odin Teatret, it was the first foreign trip taken by Grotowski. The Norwegian press was surprised – journalists and critics wondered why was there was so much mysticism associated with the Laboratory Theatre. Four months later, Laboratory came to Paris, to the Theatre of Nations. The success of Laboratory in Paris was largely due to Barba. His arrival in Paris was preceded by his numerous publications about the Laboratory.
In June 1966, Odin Teatret moved to Holstebro, Denmark; the Theatre received a grant of 15,000 dollars per year. Although the amount was small, Barba decided to take a bold step and, in 1968, he published under the name of Odin one of the most important theatrical books of XX century titled Grotowski – Towards a Poor Theatre, in English, with a circulation of 5000 copies. Of course, this was at the expense of Odin. After 25 years of effort, he was exhausted and nearly wiped out by a bankruptcy. “Grotowski’s book came out, when his performances were shrouded in legend.” Barba called it the New Testament Theatre.
In Odin Teatret, the last performance of Grotowski, Apocalipsis cum figuris, was staged in a black room. In order to adapt to the needs of Grotowski, the room ceiling was painted white. This room remains in Holstebro to this day.
Then roads diverged the artists; Grotowski stopped the practice of theater „because it was no longer able to meet the needs of transgression.” But Odin Teatret for many years became a place of training conducted by Grotowski and his actors, which allowed them to „casually put out a separate qualities and energies.” In this post theater period, Odin Teatret has become a refuge for Grotowski, and the „invisible master,” as written by Barba, “has become even more important for me.” Barba has remained closely connected to Wroclaw and Grotowski Institute until today. A few years ago Barba, as an artistic resident, prepared at the Grotowski Institute the premiere one of his latest work, Chronic Life, and this year, when Odin is celebrating 50 years of its existence, it was in Wroclaw where he spent the first week of September giving guest performances and workshops. When I informed Eugenio Barba that he had been awarded the Thalia Prize, he replied with unfeigned enthusiasm, I quote:
“I accept with pride the Thalia Prize and I want to thank you and your colleagues warmly. Although the Prize is given in my name, I am sure that you had in mind the whole of Odin Teatret which next June will celebrate its 50th anniversary. You all know that only the loyalty and creative spirit of Odin Teatret's actors and collaborators have brought about the results which have merited your acknowledgement.” Jerzy Grotowski said in conversation with Richard Schechner (one of the winners of the Thalia Prize) in 1984: “Barba makes performances, he writes and edits books, his theatre is a centre of theoretical studies, his International School of Theatre Anthropology is unique, his research into the methods of actor training is deep. And the first group of actors who joined him 15 to 20 years ago remains the same. New actors have joined, but the core is the same. That is a very rare phenomenon.” Since then, it's been 30 years, but other than that nothing has changed. This is who Eugenio Barba is. Tomasz Miłkowski