More About My Dinner With Jerzy

Part One.  I’m referring to the legendary Polish theatre director that few people know about unless they, 1) are bonafide theatrical experts or, 2) saw the electrifying movie “My Dinner with Andre.”  In the movie two actor friends meet in a restaurant and discuss a life-changing trip one of them took into a forest with an experimental theatre prodigy whose name I could neither pronounce nor remember.  Years later, I moved to an off-the-grid hideaway in the canyons outside of Los Angeles.  My landlords were a brilliant couple named Marian and Murray Barnett.  Marian was formerly the administrator of Julliard’s School of Drama, working with renowned John Houseman of the Mercury Theatre (producer of Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds”).  Murray, a house painter, was seemingly the underachiever of the family, until learning that he was once a distinguished Shakespearean actor who ventured off into a forest with an experimental theatre prodigy.  Yes, the same prodigy and the same forest from the movie “My Dinner with Andre.”  The name I didn’t know then was now etched into my consciousness, Jerzy Grotowski.  Exposed to Grotowski’s revolutionary new concepts in experimental theatre, Murray was so transformed he saw no further reason to perform Shakespeare and instead turned to a life of house paint, ladders, and buckets.  Me, I was going through creative transformations of my own, having left the world of Madison Avenue and tossed my hat into the Hollywood maelstrom, head swirling from a nasty divorce, separation from children, sporadic income, isolation, loneliness, fighting an urge to chuck it all, flee to Tahiti, write a book about a man gripped by depression, alienation, disdain for the American way of life, overwhelmed by an inescapable sense of purposelessness, rootlessness, frustration, fear, financial ruin, philosophic destitution, moral decay, and, again, loneliness.  After two years of unremitting mental torture, I moved out of the canyon, back into town, and started successfully writing comedy scripts for hit television shows.  So much for the mysterious capabilities of the human brain.  My next batch of time?  A cyclone of ups, downs, twists, curves, dead-man drops as only the Hollywood rollercoaster can dish out; deals, no deals, script assignments, script cut-offs, TV shows, shows cancelled, pilot pitches, movie pitches, play-or-pay contracts, Force Majeures.  Then a newspaper headline, “Jerzy Grotowski Arrives in Southern California.”  I read on.  The famed experimental theatre director would soon begin work on phase one of his Objective Drama Project.  Cultural institutions around the world competed to become home for Grotowski’s project, however, only one, the University of California, Irvine, would agree to his stringent demands.  UCI would build Grotowski a yurt, fly in ritualistic practitioners from around the world, house them, feed them, ask no questions, make no demands, give Grotowski one hundred percent autonomy, no performances, no personal appearances, no lectures, no interviews.  The article ended with an enormous surprise.  The Grotowski project would be managed by the former administrator of John Houseman’s drama division at the Julliard School, Marian Barnett.  The entertainment industry was buzzing with anticipation.  Movie stars were jockeying for position to meet with the theatrical legend, pulling every string they had, the mightiest strings on earth, to no avail.   Nobody but nobody was granted an audience with Jerzy Grotowski, save for one hapless soul utterly unqualified, “Gary, get your butt down here.”  It was Marian Barnett on the telephone.  “We want you to meet him.”  Down here meant Laguna Beach, California, Marian and Murray’s new home.  The streets of Laguna, normally a quiet beach community, were teeming with ritualistic practitioners that Jerzy Grotowski had flown in, Sufi dervishes, a Yaqui shaman, a Balinese monkey chanter.  At the Barnett’s new house, Marian and Murray were filling me in on details of yurt construction when he arrived at their back door.  Jerzy Grotowski entered with a presence that seemed to suck the air straight out of the room.  He stood, black crumpled suit, disheveled hair, patchy beard, thick eyeglasses, staring at me, wondering who this stranger was.  When Marian introduced me, Grotowski sat at the kitchen table, trusting that I would do him no harm.  He sliced into the steak dinner she’d prepared for us and began talking business as if I wasn’t there.  Grotowski expressed troubles he’d confronted raising extra money for their project.  He admitted that generous offers were pouring in from movie stars and producers in Hollywood, ready to write sizeable checks, however, with unacceptable quid pro quos.  In exchange for their money, the Hollywood bigwigs wanted personal meetings, complete with photographs.  Then there were patrons of the arts who wanted Grotowski to join them at dinner parties and discuss the truth about art.  Grotowski sighed, “People demand the truth but most never try to grasp the truth.”  There was a pause as Grotowski sliced his steak.  Naively thinking that the subject was now open for conversation, I uttered to the theatrical icon, “What I learned in advertising is this.  More important than the truth is the perceived truth.”  Grotowski’s reaction?  He rose and strode out the back door.  Awkwardly, I looked at Marian and Murray, they looked at me, we shrugged, I exited into their guest bedroom and fell into a deep, comatose sleep.  At midnight I felt someone shaking me.  It was Murray Barnett, “He’s back. He wants to see you.”  Groggy, I stumbled into the kitchen to find Grotowski sitting at the table, primed and energized for oration, “Thinking about what Gary said.”  I took a seat between Marian and Murray and for eight hours listened to Jerzy Grotowski tell us about his truth, sitting for weeks in a jungle at the perimeter of a primitive village before they allowed him to enter and study their rituals, about Nazis that obliterated his Polish neighborhood, about bad actors’ bags of tricks, about performance archaeology, about Catholic rituals, voodoo rituals, about trying to discover the DNA of creativity, a concept he repeated with wonder, “Imagine.  The DNA of creativity.”  At eight-thirty a.m., Grotowski rose from the table, thanked Marian and Murray, and headed for the back door.  Abruptly, he turned and, though he’d never asked me one question about my life, focused his massive attention my way and issued a directive, accenting every word with commanding intensity, “Gary.  Never.  Ever.  Write for money.”  Satisfied, Grotowski disappeared into the Laguna morning.  My hosts Marian and Murray stared at each other dumbfounded, then offered to me, “In all the time we’ve spent with Grotowski, this is the first time we’ve heard him give someone career advice.”  Never ever write for money.  Grotowski’s imperative echoed loudly as I drove back to Los Angeles, reverberated as I tried to sleep, and haunted me the next day when a producer called to offer me a script assignment on a sitcom I’d heard about but never seen.  Soon two voices pounded in my head.  My agent: “Gary, this will pay your rent for four months.”  Grotowski: “Gary, never ever write for money.”  Who would I listen to?

“More About My Dinner With Jerzy, Part Two,”