The Grotowski Notebooks: A Glimpse
by Lisa Black
Lillian Way thought she was at death’s door. But the door seemed to be attached to a faded-blue 1969 VW bug bumping down a dirt track. So maybe not? The terrain looked familiar though. She twisted around in the passenger seat to get a good look at her exit dust, and could just make out the peaks of Saddleback Mountain poking up from the swirling cloud of dirt.
So, she figured, the bug was headed west, out toward the twin mesquite trees. An Irvine Ranch cowboy must’ve inadvertently left the vehicle gate open, she guessed. Just like that one time back in grad school in the eighties. Will the metal oil drums still be there, she wondered? UCI art majors had set them up for nocturnal drumming sessions around the trees, which wore sharp cactus skirts so you couldn’t get too close. But their aroma got to you.
Still facing backwards, Lillian Way watched as her exit dust flashed a garish orange. Then each mote began to glow with a different local memory:
She saw herself seeing Patti Smith Group for the first time at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach right after Horses was released forty-seven years earlier. There were her friends a couple years later spinning 45s for her in a janky Costa Mesa apartment before driving up to LA to cruise around listening to Rodney on the Rock on the car radio or see bands they heard on the show at the Whisky, Madame Wong’s, Hong Kong Café.
In another orange mote her band was opening for the Nu-Beams at the Cuckoo’s Nest, the long-defunct club on Placentia. She wore an op-art printed dress and danced the rhythm-guitar parts she played on a blue Fender Mustang older than the Volkswagen.
Despite this cavalcade of OC peak experiences from way-back-when, Lillian Way’s back was cramping up so she faced front and rested her left hand on the gearshift knob. No way was she the driver.
The sky up ahead resembled the Cuckoo’s Nest backdrop of puffy white clouds against blue sky. Meanwhile, wild mustard reared up and over the Beetle on both sides, growing madly after El Niño amounts of rain.
She checked on her exit dust in the side-view mirror, hoping it still resembled the Webb Space Telescope’s Cosmic Cliffs photo. Sure enough, swirling orange billows still billowed, but then began to darken. In the mirror she watched as the wild mustard plants swallowed her exit dust from both sides, closing like a curtain meeting center stage.
“It’s curtains, all right,” she punned to herself. “But who will cut the mustard?” she asked out loud, then laughed until she snorted so violently that she feared her last breath had already been breathed.
Her eyes bugged out, willing another breath. The fields had a drought look to them now, just like that music scene eventually did. Bits of panic galloped around in her guts. She spied something red as she squinted southward into the low sun. Was that the Barn?
Just then the mustard weeds squeezed the Volkswagen so tight the door popped open and out she shot. As she flew, air blasted back into her lungs, at last. She was still breathing, so that’s good. Also good was that her descent toward the ground was slowing way down.
She landed with a light touch and then broke into a run, thoroughly unleashed, barely kicking up any dust. Without a trace of dread that she’d twist an ankle, she charged over
tumbleweeds, careened with wind gusts, skimmed the ground’s ups and downs, and raced in and out of cloud shadows. It felt utterly fantastic.
As she raced it occurred to her this recapitulation wasn’t really about the VW bug, the bands, or even Patti’s enduring inspiration. It was all about the land, this particular open space that had drawn her. Just as it had lured her great mentor Jerzy Grotowski in the early 1980s. She’d heard he was ensconced at UCI working with expert theater practitioners from around the world, so she auditioned and got into the MFA Drama program just to work with him. Yale and NYU had wooed the legendary Polish theater-maker after his defection, but the Barn and adjacent hilly fields won out.
That empty space was now thoroughly blanketed by high-cost housing all the way to the ocean. But once it was a place …
Lillian Way was running barefoot inside the Barn now as if in the fields but with silent feet, swooping through the currents she sensed there with her. Her strides lengthened, she let her impulses lead while adjusting to the slightest shift of the unseen presences running with her. They were individuals yet a herd, sometimes an animated flock of starlings morphing in flight, a river.
If she was at death’s door after all, it would be hilarious to find it back at the place where she’d felt most alive.
Sitting on the porch after the running session, she leaned against the Barn riffling through the three, dull-blue science notebooks that had numbered pages made of eye-ease paper she’d filled with Grotowski notes. There was one particular moment she wanted to reread before that giant breath she’d taken in flight from the squished blue car ran out.
It was weird to see right there on page 1 what it was all about, at least in some way: Performers “channel the stream of life, life in the body. Cannot have life in the material without life in the body first.”
At the Barn, this aspect of the work had taken the form of vigorous physical training that challenged your dexterity and stamina, all while you tried to remain aware of goings on in the world around you. These ensemble exercises aimed to awaken creativity lodged deep inside the body. Grotowski had been looking, she supposed, for forms that
“worked” for all the practitioners on his team, experts in performance traditions from their homes in Bali, Korea, Taiwan, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, as well as the students and dozens of others who’d sought him out to participate at the Barn.
Half the notebooks documented her second year of grad school when she had acting class with Grotowski on campus every Friday afternoon from one to five. That’s when she’d learned the essential craft of the actor is telling stories through action. “What can you discover that is not obvious in the text,” she’d also noted on page 1. That was her prime directive in every kind of performance she’d ever done, even with the group in Chicago that worked without a director precisely because one of the members had read something by Grotowski that repelled him.
What she’d encountered working at the Barn with Grotowski and his collaborators had been pure possibility, far beyond anything she could’ve conceived of on her own. There was something ancient about it, yet very much alive and in the present. The old knowledge arrived through the centuries-old expertise of the leaders, and was sparked by their desire to collaborate. The link between the two, she now hypothesized, was an intimacy with the natural world that fed her still.
“Found it!” The moment she sought was in notebook II, page 59, at the end of that on-campus class. She and her closest ally had asked to see the performance structure Grotowski’s core group had been making all year. First, they knew, they’d be participating.
The late afternoon session began out on a small rise doing the Motions as the sun slowly set. In this particular structure you stood in place, always perceiving, moving together as you slowly turned to the four cardinal points for three cycles of specific body stretching, strengthening and balancing—with a visit to nadir and zenith in
The Motions was not only difficult to execute but also to keep track of where in the complex pattern you were—such an exquisite way to take in the panoramic surroundings in the changing light.
Next, she and her friend got to observe the more raucous exercise called Watching.
June 7, 1986. After doing the Motions during sunset on a little hilltop, we’re sitting in a sandy wash hidden by scrub to witness the Watching. The five Watchers are wearing white, which made them easier to see as it darkened.
They squatted down low to start, immobile. I couldn’t see for sure, but I knew, having participated umpteen times myself, that at first only their peripheral vision was activated. Then their eyes began to move, observing, until their heads swiveled to see more. Seamlessly, they shifted weight just a bit, rotating their bodies in place to follow
their unbroken gaze.
Next, a leg crabbed out as the negative space between them shape-shifted, all while they maintained equal distance, balancing the space like a delicate boat on water. Soon they rose, making their way to and from the center of the space.
As it neared dusk, their swiftness appeared, intensified. They pulsed to the center and exploded out, in and out each time to a new spot. Swoop to center! Swoop to periphery! Swoop! Swoop!
At an invisible signal, because the leader was so good whoever it was, their movement curved about in half-moons, smaller toward center, larger farther out—as if the 5 of them were a single spider weaving a web: first the rays, then the semicircles.
All at once they ran, counterclockwise, at breakneck speed out at the circumference of the small clearing, rustling up a wind that pulsed past our faces on each circumlocution. One of them passed on the outside of the group in a burst of greater speed.
Imperceptibly at first, their circle tightened into a spiraling inward, velocity undiminished while ever winding in, until they touched the center wormhole and blew apart into individual stars.
The quiet air cupped the sound of their calming breath, their soft feet massaged the ground as they danced.
We watched rapt, tingling, as still as the observing stones and bushes we nestled near. The firmament looked down, regarding us all from above.
We took in this extraordinary world, into which came a slight rustling, the crackling of a twig. A snort. Something white approached and then a horse’s face peered into the clearing lit by a nearby lantern. The animal watched the people in white. No opinion. No judgment. After a while it left. I felt all our hearts beat in our chests, filling the void left by the equine visitor. It had found something to nibble on a ways away.
The Watchers came together in pairs, broke apart; connecting and disconnecting. Eventually crouching down once again toward the beginning positions.
Though now everything was changed: the quality of the air, our attention, the galvanizing echo of the horse’s appearance.
When it was over, we returned single-file to the Barn’s porch in the dark. Swinging from three hands were the old lanterns that had been our only light. Not a squeak to be heard from the well-oiled lamps.
As Lillian Way closed the notebook, she considered the white horse. What had it been doing before it got curious about the Watching? Curiosity! That was it! About ten years ago she’d met one of those last Irvine Ranch cowboys. He told her you could train a horse to do anything just by utilizing its innate curiosity. Otherwise, he said, a horse will do absolutely nothing.
So she visualized the white horse just standing around at twilight, swatting flies. Maybe mesquite reached its nostrils, which flared with the scent until it had to tail-shoo another fly. All of a sudden the animal froze, on alert. Like that moment of suspension right before you realize you smell a skunk.
Lillian Way stood and struggled to sample the air against a rising terror, as she imagined the horse had. Soon a strange breeze arrived that ruffled her mane, sending shivers everywhere. What an odd breeze, she marveled. I’ve never felt one like it. Or was it a bad, bad breeze? Bolt? Bolt! Wait, though, something new had
appeared, so she reined in the urge.
Her bones felt a deep rumbling underground, even through her sturdy shoes, like a persistent, barely perceptible tapping on a tuning fork up her legs. She pricked her ears, trying to pick up any high notes. There! A location. Her head swung southeast … but then she balked.
When nothing untoward occurred, she started walking, then trotting, drawing more rapidly to the commotion just on the other side of some dense shrubs. Would it annihilate her? What the hell was it? When she couldn’t take it any longer she snorted then plunged through, cracking branches and sending bugs flying until her
head poked into a clearing.
Lillian Way was half horse, half herself. She saw the humans in white flit like moths; she saw herself watching the humans then looking up at the horse’s illuminated face.
As the animal got bored and wandered off for a graze, Lillian Way reached for her notebook to write it all down. She’d practice the sequence of actions over and over, developing the curiosity aspect even further, until her body had each detail memorized. But she wasn’t on the porch.
Once again she found herself in a VW bug, this time a black 1961 model like the one her dad had bought new. She was sitting in the middle of the backseat with both arms outstretched, holding an assist strap in each hand, ready for the ride ahead no matter how driverless. The Beetle was making its way northbound on the 405
toward the Valley where she was born. As the taste of hose water filled her mouth, she wondered what color her exit dust would turn. Smog? No. Green, like the Gulley.
She’d once made a journey action in the Barn that re-created the Gulley traverse. So yes. Hopefully Gulley and garden hose green.
Lisa Black was born in Los Angeles but found her most influential theater mentors in Orange County: Lee Shallat-Chemel and Jerzy Grotowski. She earned her MFA at UC Irvine in Drama, and has worked on new plays with Chicago’s Theater Oobleck; toured in original solo and ensemble-devised performances throughout Europe and North and South America; and considers North American Cultural Laboratory in Highland Lake, NY, a theatrical home. She is soon off to help create some theatrical shenanigans to celebrate NACL’s 25th anniversary. Until its untimely demise, she proofread Orange County Weekly’s dead-tree edition and wrote the arts column Paint It Black. Lisa’s first work of short fiction appeared in Santa Monica Review last spring. She is working on a longer nonfiction version of The Grotowski Notebooks and hopes to finish a short performance early in 2023.