Grotowski and I between two worlds

This is a long story, based on many different levels, but I’ll briefly talk about it here. I come from Southern Kurdistan, called Northern Iraq. From the land of dismembered bodies, the land of socially and politically repressed bodies. From under the reign of power of the dictatorial government of Saddam Hussein, which annihilated bodies, or I should say, Kurdish bodies.

Enough of it to for a boy, who started out early in theatre, to constantly think about the destruction of the body. Later, during my studies at the Theatre-academy of Baghdad, I profoundly extended my research of the body to all its dimensions. That’s why people totally became “bodies” for me. From then on, Grotowski became of great significance to me. I grew up in a Kurdish generation of the eighties, on whom Grotowski’s view of the human body had more influence, than Karl Marx, Michel Foucault or many other names, which accounted for a different world-outlook and a critical point of view on religion, culture, politic and the arts at that time.

For me, Grotowski meant an attempt to stop producing obsolete values and give birth to a new human body. I lived in the town Sulaimanyah, Southern Kurdish region, which is surrounded by mountains, and I had only two sources of energy: the first came from behind the mountains, the Kurdish revolutionaries, who sacrificed their bodies every day
to safe my life. The second was in the inner city, where I attempted, with the help of Grotowski’s body-world point of view in my own vision theatre, to resurrect those bodies.
This is how Grotowski did not merely mean the “exercise of the cat” to me, not just purely artistic techniques, but the quest for the being of the body, individual and existence. In other words, the body became the sincere center of my work and my way of thinking, in this process. This is where my question about the “Present body in space and time” developed. This was the first level.

The second level: Us Kurds are very close to our songs. Most of our ancient history wasn’t handed down in writing, but in song. That meant the origination and development of countless song and vocal techniques in our culture. Up until today, there are many rituals in Kurdistan, with various different ritual singing techniques that are of enormous interest to me.  

When I, together with Nigar Hasib and some others, founded the Kurdish Experimental Theatre Ensemble in the town of Sulaimanyah, South-Kurdistan, I implemented old songs and vocal-techniques for a basic structure in my theatre projects, such as in “The Hairy Ape” by Eugene O’Neill, “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, “Marat Sade” by Peter Weiss and in other research projects, based on Kurdish epics and mythologies.

My work consisted of intensive research and of a long search, primarily for dissolution of the separation between performers and spectators, in order to reach a new level of communication between the two, which would create the possibility for a “Present Body in Time and Space”. For the continuous and deepened research of this present body, we built a common-room theatre in addition to our playhouse. This development had its origin in the Kurdish “Diwachan”, a common room that no one is excluded from.

In our common-room theatre the audience was only an arms length away from the performers. Both could feel each other’s breath, sweat and odor, sometimes they could even touch each other. The common-room theatre was a return to our own cultural sources and was also influences by Grotowski's theatre philosophy. 

The effectiveness of the common-room theatre convinced me, that the undoing of the secrets of the theatre and its persistent game of hide and seek would only become possible through a solemn act. To me, solemnity meant a “Body-being”, existence, self-expression and the Self.

The third level: After eight years of war between Iraq and Iran, the use of chemical weapons against Kurds and the attempt by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to destroy the Kurdish identity, my new concept, the “Cave-project”, emerged in 1989, as a result of long work and intensive involvement with self-expression and the being of the body.

During that phase, I started my “culture-physical concept”, with which I hoped to supersede mere representation in theatre. Songs were at the center of this research. Songs as a source and the involvement with ancient songs and vocal techniques brought about the impulses for self-expression. This process, of course, had a lot to do with me as an individual and with my own identity. At that time, in 1989, I had no precise idea of the work at the Grotowski Work-center at Pontadera, Italy (art as a vehicle), because from the mid-eighties on, we were cut off from the rest of the world, due to the Iraqi-Iranian war.

The “Cave-project” as culture-physical concept, was the search for own methods. This project was a practical examination, researching of the body and the voice, situated between Kurdish performance culture and Grotowski's world-view. It was the search for the solemnity in us. I chose the “Anishki Cave” as my research-center. That place, a cave, was of great significance for the memory of or identity.
I looked for other ways of performing, using archaic gestures and ancient ritualistic, Kurdish singing and vocal techniques. We looked for solemn impulses within ourselves. Bodies and songs were valued as the right source of that solemnity.
My main goal was to find a new relation between movement, voice and life. That means that eliminating the separation between art and life, between aesthetical and quotidian valuations.
For me, the theatre became more than just artistic work to produce shows. It was a kind of confrontation with life and the world, which became a way of life; similar to the way we continue living now, at the Lalish Theatre-laboratory in Vienna, Austria.

Due to the gulf-war in 1991, we had stop to the cave-project. After the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the ensuing American war against Iraq and the mass flight of the Kurds the same year, Nigar Hasib, our one-year-old son Sharo and I, made our way to Vienna, Austria. The other members of the ensemble were scattered across different countries, some had become victims of the war.

When we arrived in Vienna, in 1991, we again worked on songs, started another experimental theatre ensemble and toured through Europe. In 1998, after years of research projects, Nigar Hasib and I founded the Lalish Theatre-laboratory in Vienna, as an experimental center for theatre and performance-culture. The old Kurdish, Zoroastrian guttural and vocal techniques: “Siatschamana” and “Hore“ comprised the main part of our research.

At the beginning of the nineties, we had a first personal, “methodical” encounter with Sigmund Molik, one of the great actors and members of the former Grotowski Theater-laboratory. Between 2003 and 2004, we also had methodical exchanges with the Work center of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richard in Vienna and then in Novisad, Serbia. In 2005, in collaboration with the Grotowski-Center in Breslau, Poland, we held a lecture-demonstration of Kurdish Rituals and Lalish research projects as part of the Centers anthropology program. During the same year, with the support from the Grotowski-Center, we also took part in an international methodical exchange at the14th ISTA- International School of Theatre anthropology.

Shamal Amin
Vienna, Austria, 2003
Excerpt from: “Thus spoke the solemnly celebrating“;
A theatrical manifesto by Shamal Amin, all rights with the author.
Translated into English by Hans Echnaton Schano, theatre director.