More About Another Dinner With Jerzy

Part Two. Actually, there were two dinners with Jerzy. The second came two years after eating steaks together in Marian and Murray Barnett’s kitchen when the venerable Grotowski issued his resolute missive to me, “Gary, never ever write for money.” I took what he said to heart. Until then, every penny I’d ever made came from one simple, consistent formula, “Your words. Our paycheck.” My first professional writing job came when I was still in college. The sports editor of the local daily newspaper read articles I wrote when I was sports editor of our school weekly. He hired me to work on his rewrite desk, knocking out one-inch blurbs about high school basketball games for a dollar an hour. Also in college I was hired by the school’s communications director to write press releases about students’ special achievements, mostly jocks but occasional academic award recipients, certainly not me. After graduation, already with wife and child, I was hired by a nationally known chain of five and dimes. For two years I pounded out ads for motor oil, cheap clothing, kitchenware, literally anything a person could wear, fix, eat, wash, spray, or throw away. Then it was up and away to big-time advertising. In my spare time I photographed friends and family acting out spec commercials I wrote, then I glued the photos onto home-made storyboards. My portfolio made the rounds until I was selected to be a copywriter at a major New York advertising agency. Dozens of TV commercials and print ads later, I was off to Hollywood, being hired relatively quickly to write scripts for sitcoms, hour dramas, pilots, and screenplays. Over the years, I was paid for writing hundreds upon thousands of words, and had many ancillary titles bestowed upon me: Copywriter, Copy Supervisor, Creative Group Head, Vice President, Creative Director, Screenwriter, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Creative Consultant, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Executive Producer. Yet here was the rub. If people that hired me had so much admiration for the words I wrote, why is it that nearly every script I handed in went through endless rewrites and revisions until most final drafts resembled not one iota of what I delivered on day one. That mess of creative sabotage was certainly at the root of Jerzy Grotowski’s message to me, “Gary, never ever write for money.” He knew, as I knew, that continuing on this professional writing path would lead to total annihilation of whatever natural talent was left in me. The day after meeting Grotowski I received a phone call from a producer offering me a script assignment on a sitcom. My agent thought the money was good, but Grotowski’s voice was drowning him out. Frustrated, confused, I called a level-headed friend, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright with no compromising credits to his name. He considered carefully my dilemma before lending advice, “Don’t you have alimony payments?” “Yes.” “Don’t you have child support?” “Yes.” “Don’t you have car payments?” “Yes.” “How are you going to pay them?” “I’ll get a job.” “Doing what?” My friend didn’t wait for a response, “Gary, you’re not qualified to do anything else. You’ve been a professional writer your whole life. With all due respect to Mr. Grotowski, who I admire greatly, I’d take that sitcom assignment before someone else gets it.” Two years later, having been paid by Universal Studios to write a screenplay, having been paid by 20th Century Fox to work on one their TV shows, having been paid by NBC to write a pilot, I noticed a headline in the local newspaper, “Jerzy Grotowski Finally Coming to Hollywood.” That article, and many others, heralded news that the celebrated recluse had finally accepted an invitation to attend an ultra-private dinner given in his honor that would be attended not by A-listers, but A-plus. Soon I received a phone call from Marian Barnett, “Have you heard about the party?” I answered, “It’s in all the papers.” Marian announced, “He wants you to come.” “Murray?” “Grotowski.” “Why?” “I haven’t a clue. But here’s the plan. I’ll drive him up from Laguna. We’ll meet you in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn off the 405. Grotowski and I will transfer into your car and you’ll drive us the final mile to the party. That’s it.” Three nights later there we were, me, Marian Barnett, and Jerzy Grotowski, driving in complete silence until we approached a mansion. The valet parkers were a bit surprised to see the guest of honor arrive in a grey Honda Accord, dwarfed among rows of Bentleys and Rolls. Marian stepped out first followed by Jerzy Grotowski who signaled me to join them. The three of us walked in tandem past lines of celebrity sycophants, all clamoring to shake the master’s hand, all mumbling under their breath about me, “Who the hell’s that guy?” The host of the party had flown in a musical ensemble from Africa, thundering native drums, that only added to Grotowski’s discomfort. A waiter added two more place settings on either side of Grotowski, and we sat at a long dining table filled with big name movers and shakers. Grotowski nibbled at his appetizer then rose from his seat. The room went silent as Grotowski graciously delivered, “I am very honored that you would greet me so generously. I have spent many years in the jungle, and the past two years in a yurt. In there I am working with a group of ritualistic practitioners. Together, we are discovering the DNA of creativity. I’m afraid I must be up early to continue my work. And so, I bid you adieu, and again, thank you so much for your generosity.” Then Grotowski motioned to Marian and me, prompting us to escort him out of the mansion for his early exit, back into my Honda, and off to Lawry’s The Prime Rib, where Jerzy Grotowski, elated at being free, laughed and joked during dinner, seemed entertained by many things I said, and offered me a hearty farewell when I dropped them off at the Holiday Inn parking lot. It was the last time I saw either Grotowski or Marian for another year. The newspapers now were talking about a special evening at UC Irvine. Jerzy Grotowski was so thankful that the college kept its promise not to interfere with his work that he decided to deliver a special lecture for UC professors, students, and a small group on the guest list identified as “Friends of Grotowski.” I was hoping I’d be included, and I was, but extremely curious. Would Jerzy Grotowski stand in front of a huge audience, talk for three minutes, then thank everyone for coming and leave? On the contrary. Jerzy Grotowski delivered a breathtaking speech, relating tales of his early work as a director of live theatre, his creation of an experimental laboratory searching for deeper forms of acting and expression, his conception of what he termed “Poor Theatre,” eliminating scenery, music, all “circus effects and mechanical decoration,” leaving nothing more than the audience and the actor. He told of eventually losing interest in performance and setting out to see what could be removed in order to find the essence of theatre. After two hypnotic hours, Grotowski ended his lecture by thanking the University of California, Irvine for their valued support during the past three years. He then offered to shake hands with everyone in the theatre. Marian, Murray, and I stood at the end of the reception line and waited our turn with the other Friends of Grotowski. When I finally reached him, Grotowski smiled and began to mouth the words, “Gary, never ever…” I finished his thought, “Write for money.” It took a few more years for me to reach that goal, writing for popular television shows, landing a movie script then a lucrative development deal, but I finally saved enough money to load my dog into my car, drive past the studios, and say, “That’s all folks.” At the time of my departure, I was still something of what they call a hot commodity, certainly warm enough to generate years of writing assignments. In Hollywood terms, there was still plenty of money left on the table. My agent was perplexed by my decision to leave the business, and he tried his hardest to keep me in the fold, “You’ve done well. But now you can start making some real fuck-you money.” My response, “Well I’ve got the-heck-with-you money and that’s good enough for me.” I moved back East and began a quiet life, working invisibly on pet projects, living, as my wife calls it, the life of a ghost. For a while I’d get phone calls from my agent, “CBS wants you to take over one of their shows. I told them you’ll pass. But I’m legally obligated to present you with the offer.” In time, after turning down several big-money writing jobs, I never heard from my agent again, as well as anyone I ever worked with at any studio. It’s been twenty-nine years since I left Hollywood. During that time, I’ve written five stage plays. For free. Umpteen stories, short and book length. For free. And a slew of these More Abouts. For free. Jerzy Grotowski died several years ago. I have no interest in the afterlife, devote little time to wondering about what comes after death, I don’t try to contact anyone deceased. I’ve never heard a peep from my parents now gone, nor any childhood friends, schoolmates, former coworkers, or people I played with. However, on at least one occasion I did hear this, “Hello, Gary, it’s me, Jerzy. I’m so glad you finally took my advice. You seem at peace since you stopped writing for money. Creative people are far more content with no outside interference. By the way. I’m up here living in a yurt. Still working on the DNA of creativity. Marian and Murray Barnett are up here helping out, as well as several interesting souls I think you’d enjoy. One day you’ll join us. It’s a good group. Friends of Grotowski.”