Martina Storani

You Are Someone’s Son [1]


      In his contribution to the book Teatro e Disagio, Piergiorgio Giacchè proposes a primary differentiation as a premise for his discourse on ‘social theatre’:

“Hypothetically – but also in reality – the range extends from theatre groups or experiences that experiment with encountering marginalisation strictly within their own poetics and objectives of artistic research, to theatre groups or initiatives (both managed and directed by actors) that place themselves ‘at the service’ of structures, entities and associations dealing with marginalisation”. [2]

      The Jubilo Association, established in 2011 in Poland as a result of a meeting of international artists and actors, corresponds to the first example provided by Giacché. The group was founded with the intention of pursuing theatrical research within specific contexts, with individuals marginalised by society, people with disabilities, etc., as well as those subject to deprivation of liberty. Notably, in 2014, Diego Pileggi, Agnieszka Bresler and other collaborators launched the Unlocking project in the Penitentiary No. 1 in Wrocław. The first seminars were followed by an ongoing workshop in the men’s section, which resulted in two productions: Reflection in 2015 and Cain in 2019. The objective of the performative work, albeit achieved after a long process, immediately demonstrates how this experience has little to do with those theatre interventions explicitly applied for the purposes of therapy, education or treatment. This first distinction gives those who study the Jubilo phenomenon the chance to set out their first points of reference: they acknowledge the positive effects of the theatrical activity on the lives of the people involved in the experience; however, this quality is inherent to theatre in general and does not represent the sole aim of the project.

            One might actually wonder whether the so-called ‘social theatre as such is not a derivative and applied form of the 20th-century utopia, whether it is not a new attempt to transcend that aesthetic concept of theatre as an end in itself, estranged from life, first denounced by Antonin Artaud and very relevant to this day. The attempt at reuniting art with life can therefore involve places of marginalisation and deprivation, in search of a connection with the chaos of existence and not with an ideal model of life itself. And if it is true that, as Artaud says, theatre is ‘born out of a kind of organized anarchy,’ [3] then perhaps these contexts of application rightfully represent a privileged space for theatrical research.

            First of all, Jubilo’s methodology highlights the importance of the actor’s development understood as physical and psychophysical training. Unlike the vast majority of theatrical practices in prison, which are mainly concerned with the narrative aspect, Jubilo focuses on the actor’s work: the rediscovery of one’s own body and the awareness of a possible correspondence between the body and one’s own emotional sphere. This way, action becomes a means of expression on a par with the word.

            Exploring historical roots of social theatre, one often refers to Grotowski’s paratheatrical phase and in general to the tendency to consider the value of the process over that of the outcome. This assumption, however, carries the risk of misunderstanding. Considering the value of the theatrical process does not mean denying the value of the result (on the contrary, the latter is part of the process itself), nor does it mean regarding the so-called ‘healing’ properties of theatre superior to its aesthetic significance.

            Grotowski himself describes the various stages of his theatrical exploration as a long chain of links:

“In my life I passed through different phases of work. In the theatre of performances (Art as presentation) – which I consider a very important phase, an extraordinary adventure with long-term effects – I arrived at a point in which I was no longer interested in doing new performances. So I suspended my work as constructor of performances and continued, concentrating on discovering the prolongation of the chain: the links after those of performance and rehearsing; thus emerged paratheatre (…). From paratheatre was born (as the link after) Theatre of Sources, which dealt with the source of different traditional techniques, with ‘what precedes the differences.’ In this research, the approach was rather solitary. (…) On the other hand, Art as vehicle is concentrated on rigor, on details, on precision—comparable to that of the performances of the Teatr Laboratorium. But attention! It’s not a return toward Art as presentation; it is the other extremity of the same chain”. [4]

            This extract clearly shows that the two poles of Grotowski’s explorations are, on the one hand, the performance and, on the other, research that renounces the outcome, or at least the presence of the spectator. However, when it comes to theatre in prison, the performance becomes a fundamental moment of closure of a personal process and of confrontation with the public; therefore, in the case of Jubilo, the links with the work of the great master can neither be found in the parateatre nor in the final phase of his explorations.

      Let us try to consider the other pole of Grotowski’s work: art as representation and the experience of the Theatre Laboratory. A note to the Italian edition of his pivotal text, Towards a Poor Theatre, reads as follows:

“It is not a theatre in the common meaning of the term, but rather an institute dedicated to research in the field of theatrical art and in particular the art of acting. The performances of the Theatre Laboratory constitute a sort   of operational model that puts the research carried out in this field into practice”. [5]

            If the group involved in the Unlocking project were a professional company not related to the world of prison, it would easily fit this description. However, the context of imprisonment plays an important role with regard to the identity of this experience, and to completely disregard the actors’ existential situation would not be adequate. If we wanted to briefly define what kind of theatre Jubilo represents, the label ‘social theatre’ might sound appealing: although it is not a precise term, it would certainly not be inappropriate. Nevertheless, it does not fully convey the purely artistic dimension of the work.

            Marco De Marinis talks about an explosion of identity of the post-twentieth-century actor, claiming that one of the causes of this shattering consists in the ‘progressive disappearance of the clear distinction between professionalism and non-professionalism which existed in the past’. [6] The broad umbrella definition of ‘applied theatre’ [7] embraces a large number of initiatives operating in this interstice: often, the operators are professionals, while the participants, as in the case of prisons, have no theatrical training at all. If the definition of ‘social theatre’ does not seem appropriate, then the one of the ‘social actor’, proposed by De Marinis should certainly sound more convincing:

 “The social actor, being one of the present-day transmutations of the twentieth-century actor, not only reminds us of the incredible socio-anthropological incisiveness of theatrical techniques (or rather, of primary theatre) but also becomes the standard-bearer of provocative proposals of new forms of art and beauty, compelling us to see them even where laziness, conformism and fear too often prevent us from recognising them: in the other, in what is different from us, elsewhere. This way, the social actor brings about an unprecedented, portentous revival of theatre as a practice of otherness”. [8]

Perhaps then, the true distinguishing feature, regardless of labels and genres, is the specific relationship between the leader/director and students/actors, the pedagogical aspect of Jubilo’s work. After all, even Meldolesi identified pedagogy as an essential guiding factor among the multiplicity of experiences found in the ‘theatres of social interaction’. [9] In this sense, Jubilo’s activities can be positioned in continuity with the experiences of the great pedagogical masters of the 20th century who recognised the necessity of recovering the ethical dimension of theatre work.

            The main problem faced by the individual in prison consists in the excess of norms and rules, meaning that the proposal of a strictly standardised pedagogical approach would not be effective. Theatre, however, is not free of principles, so how are we to reconcile learning the discipline with the need to create a space for freedom? Although the concept of a theatre laboratory that openly emphasises the need for constant, strenuous training may seem like an oxymoron, this is precisely where we can find the link between the lives of prisoners and the work proposed. The concern for physical fitness and body culture is a cornerstone, almost a cliché, of the prison cultural background. The challenge for the leader lies here in the creation of a working group, in establishing relationships between the members, in turning the individual into the collective.

            In addition to this, Pileggi has to find the way to support each person in connecting their psycho-emotional sphere with their body, so that the process can be transformed from physical to psycho-physical. One of the greatest constraints is in fact represented by the social mask that everyone assumes within the micro-society of a penitentiary institution. [10]

            Perhaps it is not possible to give an exhaustive answer to the questions of whose legacy Jubilo has inherited or whose son this theatre is. But if we were to renounce the certainties of definition, we might be able to understand something that Grotowski said a long time ago:

“Voila, what was my attitude: I work, not to make some discourse, but to enlarge the island of freedom which I bear; my obligation is not to make political declarations, but to make holes in the wall. The things which were forbidden before me, should be permitted after me; the doors which were closed and double-locked should be opened. I must resolve the problem of freedom and of tyranny through practical measures: that means that my activity should leave traces, examples of freedom”. [11]

 Translation:. Alicja Grabarczyk


[1] This phrase refers to the title of a 1986 text by J. Grotowski, Tu es le fils de quelqu’un, in A. Attisani, M. Biagini (eds.), Jerzy Grotowski. Testi 1968-1998, Bulzoni, Roma 2007, p. 65. in R. Schechner, L. Wolford (eds.), The Grotowski Sourcebook, Routledge, London, New York 2013, p. 294.

[2] ‘In ipotesi – ma anche nella realtà – si va da gruppi o esperienze di teatro che sperimentano l’incontro con il disagio rigorosamente all’interno della propria poetica e dei propri fini di ricerca artistica, a gruppi o iniziative sempre di teatro (e gestite e dirette da teatranti) che si mettono «al servizio» di strutture, enti e associazioni che si occupano del disagio’. P. Giacchè, Censire il teatro: il valore delle eccezioni, in: I. Conte, I. Fabbri, B. Felici, V. Minoia, C. Paretti, E. Pozzi, G. Testa, S. Viali (eds.), Teatro e disagio. Primo censimento nazionale di gruppi e compagnie che svolgono attività con soggetti svantaggiati/disagiati, b. m., s.n., 2003, p. 15.

[3] A. Artaud, Il teatro e il suo doppio, Einaudi, Torino 2000, p. 168. A. Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, Grove Press, New York 1958, p. 51.

[4] A. Attisani, M. Biagini (eds.), Jerzy Grotowski. Testi 1968-1998, op. cit., pp. 95-97. T. Richards, At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions, Routledge, London, New York 1995, pp. 120-121.

[5] ‘Non si tratta di un teatro inteso nella comune accezione del termine, ma piuttosto di un istituto dedito alla ricerca nel campo dell’arte teatrale e in particolare dell’arte dell’attore. Gli spettacoli del Teatro Laboratorio costituiscono una specie di modello operativo in cui vengono messe in pratica le ricerche svolte in questo campo’. A note to the Italian edition of Towards a Poor Theatre – J. Grotowski, Per un teatro povero, Bulzoni, Roma 1970, p. 11.

[6] M. De Marinis, Dopo l’età d’oro: l’attore novecentesco tra crisi e trasmutazione, in Culture Teatrali, no. 13, 2005, p. 8.

[7] Cf. P. Taylor, Applied Theatre/Drama: An e-debate in 2004: Viewpoints, in RIDE: Research in Drama and Education, vol. XI, no. 1, 2006, p. 93.

[8] ‘L’attore sociale, come una delle trasmutazioni odierne dell’attore novecentesco, non ci ricorda soltanto l’incredibile incisività socio-antropologica delle tecniche teatrali (o meglio, del teatro primario) ma si fa anche alfiere di provocatorie proposte di nuove forme di arte e di bellezza, costringendoci a vederle anche là dove la pigrizia, il conformismo e la paura ci impediscono troppo spesso di riconoscerle: nel diverso, nell’altro da noi, nell’altrove. In questo modo, l’attore sociale attua un inedito, portentoso rilancio del teatro come pratica dell’alterità.’ M. De Marinis, Dopo l’età d’oro: l’attore novecentesco tra crisi e trasmutazione, op. cit., p. 25.

[9] Cf. C. Meldolesi, Un essenziale fattore di orientamento, in I. Conte, I. Fabbri, B. Felici, V. Minoia, C. Paretti, E. Pozzi, G. Testa, S. Viali (eds.), Teatro e disagio, op. cit., p. 19.

[10] The institution of prison falls squarely within the already famous definition of the ‘total institution’ developed by Erving Goffman: ‘A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.’ (E. Goffman, Asylums. Le istituzioni totali: i meccanismi dell’esclusione e della violenza, Einaudi, Torino 1968, p. 29. E. Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Routledge, London, New York 2017, p. 11.). Before him, in the 1940s, Donald Clemmer had theorised about the impact that the nature of prison life has on the prisoner, who is subjected to a process of depersonalisation due to the ‘universal factors of prisonization’: ‘we may use the term prisonization to indicate the taking on in greater or less degree of the folkways, mores, customs and general culture of the penitentiary. (…) (T)he influence of these universal factors are sufficient to make a man characteristic of the penal community and probably so disrupt his personality that a happy adjustment in any community be becomes next to impossible.’ (D. Clemmer, The Prison Community, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1940, pp. 299-300).

[11] A. Attisani, M. Biagini (eds.), Jerzy Grotowski. Testi 1968-1998, Bulzoni, Roma 2007, p. 66. J. Grotowski, Tu es le fils de quelqu’un, in R. Schechner, L. Wolford (eds.), The Grotowski Sourcebook, Routledge, London, New York 2013, p. 294.