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Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is a Theater Laboratory?

Grotowski wanted his theater to be like the lab of Niels Bohr that his older brother Kazimierz once worked in,
a place for continuous exploration.

History of a theater laboratory

Claims for laboratory status in the theatre really began in the early decades of the twentieth century. Before that, there were clearly pockets of actor training in the West which were both investigative and systematic — Ian Watson traces the genesis of actor training back to the early 1700s in Britain and in France to 1786, with the birth of the Royal Dramatic school in Paris. But it was the late nineteenth century’s love affair with science and technology which spawned a new scientific rhetoric in the theatre, a development begun by Delsarte’s proto-behaviorist study of actors’ emotions. Delsarte’s work may have been criticised for its mechanistic approach but it heralded a new interdisciplinary language for actor training, a language which drew on the common associations of the scientific method: rigour, objectivity, systematic interrogation.

The laboratory in Russia

This language was never more embedded than in the Russian tradition of actor training; in Stanislavsky’s system (and in the ‘sub-systems’ of Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov and Richard Boleslavsky). From his first experimental Studio in 1905, to his final project, the Opera-Dramatic Studio, Stanislavsky’s preference was to develop a research culture outside of his main institution, the MAT. These satellite activities allowed Stanislavski a creative space to work with young actors and were designed to share what he called "the results of ... research into stage techniques". Increasingly, the research agenda was uppermost in his thoughts, and that agenda was couched in scientific terms.

The Opera-Dramatic Studio, Stanislavski's final project was to be the laboratory he called for in his essay, October and the Revolution ... He made it quite clear to the young actors and directors he gathered around him that there could be no question of gearing their work to performance; it would be done for its own sake, as research.

In Meyerhold's work, the appropriation of scientific terminology was both explicit and calculated. Indeed, of all Stanislavski’s pupils, his is the most emphatic use of an interdisciplinary language, fusing theatrical 'laws' with scientific laws — Huntley Carter called Meyerhold's actor training system, biomechanics, "the science of motion in acting". Meyerhold was founder of GITIS, the State Institute for Theatrical Art, an umbrella organisation which was responsible for the training of some of the key practitioners of the twentieth century, including Grotowski.

From Meyerhold's perspective, GITIS grew out of his attempts to realise an "exemplary model" of revolutionary theatre. Meyerhold's vision was of a mutually supportive, interactive organisation incorporating a stage, a workshop and a training school in which: "the discoveries in the workshop would affect the training in the school as well as what was exposed on the stage" in a three-fold symbiosis.

Everyone learned — students and teachers alike. It was a laboratory for working through the foundations of a new aesthetic.

GITIS was to be: A place unique in the planet, where the science of theatre is studied and drama is built. Exactly: 'science' and not 'art' — 'built' and not 'created.' Clearly for Meyerhold, the laboratory walls extended much further than the building in which he was working — the Zon theatre — for the experimental attitude he was adopting at a local level was reflected on a much grander scale — the huge social experiment of the October revolution itself. Central to this commitment to science was the emphasis on outcomes — the impact science had on the people. Such an emphasis may in part explain the popularity of the machine as a ‘symbol of the new age of mechanical and scientific industrialism’, as Carter puts it. The machine stood for productivity, for the benefits technology can bring a new society. Thus, the work of the laboratory was not seen in isolation. The laboratories of the Russian revolution fed the technological advancement of the society, the electrification of the country, for example. From a theatrical perspective, Meyerhold's work at GITIS established the same principle. The experimental findings in his workshop informed the presentations on the stage — the 'product' of a theatre industry.

The Threefold Model

Firstly, Meyerhold’s ‘exemplary model’, devised in the early 1920s, to be contrasted with Stanislavsky’s secluded investigations in the Opera Dramatic studio which set the stage for later instances of process-dominated practice such as Grotowski’s and Anatoly Vasiliev’s. With such work, there is no imperative to disseminate the research findings beyond the walls of the laboratory, no measurable outcome.

Secondly, Meyerhold’s model sees research as part of a wider picture. His laboratory shared with some of us that old fashioned notion that teaching is an integral part of research. It then extended that idea to incorporate research and teaching into the making of an original creative act — a performance.

Thirdly, is the related issue of outcomes. It is interesting to note that some ninety years ago in the new Soviet Union the research agenda was still pre-occupied with outcomes! The context is clearly a mechanistic one, related, as I have said, to the necessity to produce. But for Meyerhold it nevertheless promoted a dynamic symbiosis of original workshop research, pedagogy and performance.

The engine room of this triangular research model was the experimental workshop, described by Maria Valenti in recognisably research-oriented terms:

The students were not required to present preconceived conclusions, but were expected to find new paths, along with Meyerhold and his colleagues, to create new concepts of theatre.

What I believe is striking about this model is that, as a self-sustaining form, all areas of this symbiotic triangle feed into Meyerhold’s agenda of innovation, not because they are in themselves research but because the environment in which the activity is taking place, the wider picture, is essentially research-centered. And by that I mean:

· it stimulates originality and creativity
· it is underpinned by a set of theoretical principles
· it is designed to test the validity of those theoretical principles and to feed those findings back into the loop
· it utilises an organic system of dissemination.

In this holistic framework it is not necessarily the ‘instance of practice’ which is under scrutiny but the surrounding research environment. Research, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

please visit for more on Artel's teaching as research portion of our laboratory

The above excerpt is from a speech on practice as research given by Jonathan Pitches, author of Science and the Stanislavsky Tradition of Acting
The opening line is from The Grotowski Sourcebook, eds. Schechner and Wolford

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