Theatre No Theatre
At the start of this new adventure, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Thomas Richards, son of the stage director, Lloyd Richards, the first Black American to direct on Broadway, a champion of Stanislavskian realism, and the Dean of the Yale School of Drama. I was also “essential collaborator” and apprentice of Jerzy Grotowski, experimental stage director from Poland, and one of the most influential theatre directors of the 20th century. Both men indisputably shaped my life as an actor, performer, director, writer, teacher and human being. After my 13 year apprenticeship with Grotowski, and since his passing in 1999, I have been the Artistic Director of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy, an integral part of the National Theatre of Tuscany, until I closed the Workcenter in January of 2022.
As a young theatre student reading Antonin Artaud's, The Theatre and its Double, I was intrigued by Artaud’s vision. I vaguely understood that a way might be found to reshape our usual relation with thought and logic, a relation which might be operating as a kind of prison for our perceptions. We may – I imagined – not only transform the performer through the experience of performing, but also arrive to “shock” the spectator through the act of theatre, back towards a more authentic and deeper channel of perception, finding a way to move beyond the confines of our everyday relations with language and narration: “to break through language in order to touch life…”*
*Artaud, Antonin, The Theatre and Its Double, Grove Press, 1958, p.13.
During my professional artistic life I have lived a paradox. At the side of Grotowski, I was instrumental in the founding, and later the development of what can be seen as a “practice,” an approach to performing arts that does not relate just to performative results. This approach strives for high artistic results and does not uniquely concern itself with those results. It's a kind of "theatre" in which a hidden intention lies relating to the possibility of a human being in action experiencing a flow of “joy,” so to speak – a kind of “blissfulness” – which can unfold in the act itself; a continuum of experiencing which may be lived simultaneously as a kind of loosing of oneself and a full-on discovering of oneself. Grotowski referred to this experience with the term “verticality;” I have used as well the term “inner action,” and in relation to this process, we have both used the term “transformation of energies.” Peter Brook, when speaking of Grotowski’s Workcenter performing arts research, coined the term “Art as vehicle:” a practice in which art becomes a vehicle for the “inner” development of the artist.
Work on ancient songs of tradition, stemming mainly from Afro-Caribbean and African traditions, has been at the core of this practice. Even though working on such songs has not been the unique axis of our creative endeavours, it has provided a basis for an approach to the “interiority” of the human being, and also for a long-term “work on oneself.”
The decision to engage in a practical investigation on songs coming from what might be seen as a kind of extended tradition branching out from Africa – a choice made by Grotowski before I started to work with him – was of great luck for me. My father’s family line arrived to North America from Africa, through the Caribbean, and Grotowski, who had developed relations with numerous traditions around the world, had spent seven years working in the Caribbean within a tradition in Haiti.
A Work on Song
Grotowski said that he travelled back and forth between Poland and Haiti so often that some people on the island thought he actually lived there, and that when present, there were two houngans (priests) with whom he was fundamentally associated, Maître Eleazar and Maître Gabriel. In 1984, when I first arrived to work with Grotowski at the University of California, Irvine, I was not aware that I would encounter traditional songs coming from the Caribbean, but these songs already held an important place in his work. My first meeting with Grotowski’s performing arts research was a kind of “homecoming:” a young man from New York City, half black/half white, having studied at an almost all Jewish High School, who had received an Ivy League education, encounters a kind of "lost Africa,” in California, through a white man, with a white beard, who was Polish!
A Part of the Story
A Redefining Within
At the Workcenter, while setting the foundations for “Art as vehicle,” we tilled a territory that existed beyond my known conception of that which normally gave “meaning” to my life; a redefining began within, while discovering a sense of existence that was for me as of yet unknown. A living “meaning" started to appear, which surprisingly gave potent and luminous answers to any sense of existential angst that I had as a young man. As a result of that palpable “joy,” I have remained engaged in this rigorous performing arts research all of my professional life.
“What precedes the differences”
It soon became apparent that not all the differences [between cultures] can be reduced, that we can't alter our own conditioning, that I shall never be a Hindu even if I am consecrated by the Hindus. In reality, we can't change our religion - in the sense of our background - because the unconscious language of our consciousness has already been formed. [...] When I looked at all the efforts made by the new ritual art and all the stupidities that stemmed from it, I realised that it was a kind of synthesis, taking elements from different cultures, and putting them together, in an attempt to create a new synthesis. That's the error. One can, however, move toward what precedes the differences.*
*Grotowski, Jerzy, et al. “‘Tu Es Le Fils de Quelqu’un’ [You Are Someone’s Son].” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 31, no. 3, 1987, pp. 33–44.
We have always worked outside of belief systems. The work aims at discovering the performative “tools” that can function across cultures, and thus the experiences which they may lead to, are potentially available to all. We do not reconstruct rituals from cultures from which the songs come, not wishing to attempt to graft ourselves onto existing traditions with all of the complexity of their specific cultures and belief systems, and we strive, in our globalised world, to avoid falling into the traps that can appear from creating easy synthesis. In this approach, performing has always been a means to explore and then articulate - through structured lines of actions – a road toward that which
"precedes the differences."
Thus the work has always been based upon rigorous artistic practice. The songs – whether they be the songs from Afro-Caribbean and African traditions which have been tested by us and selected over years in a laboratory-like situation, or they be songs hailing from the specific cultures from which the performers come – are approached as “sonic tools.” It is through craftsmanship, and arriving at the specific vibratory qualities of a given song (arriving at the vibratory qualities of a song is not simply a formal matter, it also relates to the effort that the doer makes to “look for” the song each time its melody is sung precisely), that the possibility may appear for the song to have a specific impact on the “inner” life of the person who sings. Hidden inner territories may be touched, awakened, a rising taking place, around and through the physical frame, and even above, awakening sources that are as if beyond the physical frame… A flowering of perception can occur, and energies may become present that are subtle, radiant and tangible.
Known paradigms of perception were transforming, day after day, as a kind of “inner” reshaping was taking place. Was an Artaudian vision coming to life through practice? It was impossible for me to deny that the qualities of sonic vibration that would often appear in work could function for someone coming from New York, Italy, Hong Kong, etc. It was as if a new kind of language began to appear. A language based on sonic vibration – brought to life through action – which could lead to experiences of such potency that they could be perceived not only by the person doing, but also directly by a person in the room, beyond the meaning of the song, beyond the logic of the songs’ poetic and metaphoric structure, and thus also beyond my habitual relations with language and communication. Over the years, the work has gradually opened a road in me which has been enriched by the appearance of heretofore unknown territories of perception and, step by step, the practical meaning of the term “a work on oneself” (a term which may rightfully be considered to be overused today) has come into greater focus.
A Vibratory Language
Some have viewed the process that has taken place over the years as the founding of a tradition. Lisa Wolford, a scholar who extensively studied Workcenter performing arts research, wrote:
This tradition finds its home, its sight of embodiment, in a dislocated interculture that is not African, Indian or Polish, and most certainly not Italian, despite the fact that the physical building where the work is done is located in a rural Tuscan village. To borrow a phrase of Joseph Roach, the practice of Art as vehicle constitutes a type of “displaced transmission," assembled from fragments of living tradition surviving in different locations and cultural milieux.*
I have carried forward and developed this performing arts research to this day.
*Wolford, Lisa, “Ariadne’s Thread.” General Introduction in Grotowski Sourcebook, Taylor and Francis, 2013, p. 18.
A Coincidentia Oppositorum
“To be or not to be… ” It’s not a finished sentence, but it’s anchored in memory. Is that because of its’ coincidentia oppositorum? Often, through a “thing's” opposite, we become more keenly aware of that “thing.” Is it through the awareness of non-being that life may have a greater chance to reveal a hidden dimension? Numerous spiritual traditions have valued the remembering of one’s death – memento mori – as a means to enhance the possibility of experiencing the vibrating and priceless nature of the eternal now.
I have turned 60 this year. Those who have passed this threshold may know quite well that at a certain moment the presence of death can become palpably vivid. It’s time for me to start a new adventure. Will I make a complete rupture with my older work? No. I will continue to search for a deeper practical understanding of how theatre – through developing a living relation with a kind of “non-theatre” – can venture into unknown and vivifying territories.
Theatre No Theatre does not belong to, or represent, any one style of performance. Theatre No Theatre strives to create from, and for, the artist in such a way that the artistic excellence that appears, serves the artist’s knowledge, understanding, and the possible appearance of that mysterious aspect of life that some have called “being.” Theatre No Theatre addresses the development of the craft for the human being and the human being in the craft. Theatre No Theatre dedicates itself to tradition and innovation, posing its attention on certain ancient traditions which contain performative elements, as if hidden within these traditions may exist elements that are transcultural, and thus potentially invaluable for human beings beyond the questions of nation, race, belief, language, gender. Such elements may not be found hidden only within traditions themselves, but also within an individual artists’ experiences, memories, personal histories, family histories. Theatre No Theatre considers the discoveries of great master craftsmen – such as Stanislavsky and Grotowski – to be paramount, since through our efforts in practice, these discoveries may become fundamental elements which fortify our craft today.
Closing the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards – my artistic and professional home for 35 years – was not easy. Many questions abound in my mind concerning how to go forward. I am now going forward thanks to ex-Workcenter colleagues who have founded Theatre No Theatre, and who have engaged to support my new performing arts research. I am aware that what has been passed to me by my Teacher, Jerzy Grotowski, and which I have developed with the invaluable help of others over the last 35 years, is of great value. With the help of close colleagues, I am setting the foundations for the next phase of my life and work.
Welcome to Theatre No Theatre!
List of Illustrations in A Background (from left to right): An Introduction: 1) Lloyd Richards, photo by Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images 2) Jerzy Grotowski, photo by Maurizio Buscarino, 1994 © copyright Maurizio Buscarino; A Longing: Antonin Artaud in the film 'The Passion of Joan of Arc', © Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images; A Practice: Thomas Richards, photo by I-Ling Chang; A Work on Song: Thomas Richards, photo by Roberto Giulioni; A Part of the Story: Maître Gabriel; A Redefining Within: Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini, photo by Alain Volut; “What precedes the differences:” 1) Hyun Ju Baek, photo by Leonardo Linares 2) Benoît Chevelle, Guilherme Kirchheim, Thomas Richards and Antonin Chambon, photo by Zsolt Eöri Szabó; A Road: 1) Workshop participant, Benoît Chevelle and Thomas Richards, photo by Tu Kai-Yen 2) Cécile Richards and Jessica Losilla-Hébrail, photo by Dani Coen; A Rigour: Thomas Richards, photo by Piotr Nykowski; A Vibratory Language: Jessica Losilla-Hébrail, photo by Piotr Nykowski; A Tradition: Bradley High, Benoît Chevelle, Thomas Richards, Guilherme Kirchheim and Jessica Losilla-Hébrail, photo by Piotr Nykowski; A Striving: Thomas Richards and Jakub Margosiak, photo by Theatre No Theatre