Timeless Swarming Key

Watching is a physical theatre-exercise for ensembles, spawned by a collaboration between Jerzy Grotowski, Jairo Cuesta and the Irvine Group, in 1985. It aligns with Grotowski ́s effort to provide a detailed key for energy-transformation, which develops untamed acting on stage – to free the body to be radiant, translucent and personal.

Watching functions as a specified structure of collective actions, in which the ensemble lives organically in a manner similar to the swarming of birds, fish and deer. It is physically and creatively demanding and developing, involving work with every aspect of an actors performance in it ́s distilled form, be it classical, immersive or what-not: it is liberating, playful, providing a wonderful release of inspiration.

At first designed as a generous language beyond words and borders for holistic creatives to share within the living tradition of a powerful art-movement during the cold war, Watching lives in the body-instant, now, collective in-between, and hence this key is timeless.

Space and Something

Watching came as a precious experience during my first year at the Volkhochschule in Östra Grevie, Sweden, where I did my first two years of dedicated education within theatre. This was in 2002, a mere three years since the passing of Jerzy Grotowski , from whom some of the teachers at Östra Grevie had received personal experience. Jerzy Grotowski was central figure in an international movement of applied physical theatre, which bordered to asceticism and acrobatics as well as to spirituality and something some-what ideological. Focus in his work lay not on an actors technique, but on freeing the actor from inhibitions to spontaneous creative expression; a process of liberation which happened mainly through working with body and impulse. Early on in the process of his work, at the height of his international fame, Grotowski removed his focus from stage-theatre, declaring that “We live in a post-theatre age. What is coming is not a new wave of theatre, but something that will take the place occupied by it.” He then spent his remaining three decades of life, moving deeper and deeper into the question of the transformation of the actor – the human – itself, by means of gestures, sounds and personal images.

The experimentation increasingly took place in advanced, monastery-like laboratory settings, into which visitors would sometimes be invited to both watch and contribute with their personal presence and essence to the intimate situation at work: a description that easily can be applied to describe the group-exercise Watching itself.

Watching was developed out of a collaboration in California in 1985. At that time, work had been done for some years in the Czuwania-project under Jacek Zwyslowski, with exploring the relation between space, movement and body. It was a work based on the empty space only, the people who arrive, and their capacity to do something. Silence was a central element – no voice or verbal communication was needed to create different relations with people both known and unknown. But often it was difficult to “take the first step”. When Jerzy Grotowski and Jairo Cuesta came together in California, they began their work with answering this question of the first step, recalling the strategies of Zwyslowski ́s Czuwania-project. The result was something far more elaborate all together, and yet Watching is entirely based on the empty space, the people arriving, and their capacity to do – something.

Shared Language

Watching since then developed further, details in it ́s rules and structure grew into different variations. By 2002 the version that I learned, was entirely based on the common impulse of the group, and had no signified, visible leader (as it did have, in 1985), and this is the version that I teach today. Today, in 2021, Watching also seems to me, to be more-or-less forgotten, which I think really would be a pity – it was intended to be shared and practiced world-wide.

My own introduction to Watching in 2002, came under very fortunate circumstances, in that I then was member in an ensemble of students which worked together full- time. We were all brought into the regular practice of this exercise by the group of senior students that had already been practicing Watching for a full year; one year later, it was our turn to introduce the next ensemble of new-comers, and so Watching for us continued as a vital element of our shared process week by week for two years, giving us in full what it is intended to give.

Regular practice of Watching offers the ensemble a collective, heightened awareness of the creative potential in the moment; that stream of flow-in-possibility, through which the vital cues of every improvisation or solid-scripted scene is given life and coherence. Similar to a swarming flock of birds, a school of fish or herd of deer, the human ensemble share an awareness of where the “It” is, is not, and to where it can go, on a plane of apprehension which is before and beyond words, although strangely familiar in it ́s silence to us all whenever connected with.

To develop this awareness collectively is to equip the group with a strong, subtle medicine, to be brought onto the stage, a medicine which is just as strong if not stronger, when applied to an immersive performance-situation.

Equally so on the stage of everyday-life, regular practice of Watching brings a heightened awareness of what is subtly happening in our daily interactions, expressed in their tingling communications of half-conscious signals and signs, as well as of the movement and positioning of bodies, objects and potentials of change, in spatial

reality. Watching as a practice on part of Jerzy Grotowski ́s research, has roots in the almost mythical Bee-hiving sessions that took place on his initiative during long, time-less nights in secluded buildings in the forest, where people of various backgrounds acted out subconscious impulses by body and voice in waves of collective eruptions. A more contemporary cousin of Watching, is the well known Viewpoints of Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. As with Watching, Viewpoints develops the awareness (of position, movement, possibility, timing and so on) for the individual performer the ensemble taken aside. It is also easier than Watching to learn and maintain in practice (demanding no elaborate collaboration or regular meetings of the same ensemble, as does Watching to go deep), but Watching, once integrated in a group, becomes something much more powerful to manifest and experience.

So why is it not more widely known and practiced? I leave that question as an incentive to You, to make that same question obsolete. If you enjoy Watching and appreciate the potential of it ́s medicine, then please know that it was intended as a shared language to be spoken and spread: it is not a “product”.

Living Tradition

Jerzy Grotowski himself did not like the idea of a “Grotowski-system”, preferring as he did to view his own work as being part of a living tradition. He did not aim to develop or offer “techniques”, but wanted rather to “untame the actor”, freeing the performer from rigid technique, giving way to the holistic organicity itself. In that same spirit, did he seldom publish his findings in written form. The direct inheritors of his constant work-process have nevertheless treasured and contained the forms by which his approach continuously developed, and I would recommend any physical performer, dancer or movement-worker to explore what teaching is offered at those centers of work in the world today.

My own teaching here, consists merely of a potent fragment, a valuable finding developed somewhere along the way of this living tradition. A fragment, which I personally feel warmly about and believe worthy of practicing and passing on, as an outstanding creative manifestation in itself. In the sessions, I also apply other angles of the “Grotowskian” field, picked up from Stephen Wangh and Aole T Miller, for the warming up to and integrating of Watching.

May this medicine linger strongly in our streams.

Berlin, July 22nd 2021 // Peter Tommila, //

Written sources:
“Jerzy Grotowski” (James Slowiak, Jairo Cuesta), “An Acrobat of the Heart” (Stephen Wangh)

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