Physical theatre

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Physical theatre street performance Mimart in performance Water.jpg
Physical theatre street performance

Physical theatre is a genre of theatrical performance that encompasses storytelling primarily through physical movement. Although several performance theatre disciplines are often described as "physical theatre," the genre's characteristic aspect is a reliance on the performers' physical motion rather than, or combined with, text to convey storytelling. Performers can communicate through various body gestures (including using the body to portray emotions).


Common elements

Certain institutions suggest that all physical theatre genres share common characteristics, although individual performances do not need to exhibit all such characteristics to be defined as physical theatre. Research into the training or "work" of physical theatre artists cites an amalgamation of numerous elements adopted as a means to further inform the theatrical research/production. These elements include: [1] |Devised]] origins, rather than originated from

Some practitioners, such as Lloyd Newson, [1] despite being the first company to incorporate the term Physical Theater into his company's title (DV8 Physical Theater), has expressed concern that the expression is now being used as a "miscellaneous" category, which includes anything that does not fall neatly into literary dramatic theater or contemporary dance. He is also frustrated that many companies and performers who describe what they do as physical theatre lack physical skills, training and/or expertise in movement. As such, contemporary theatre approaches (including post-modern performance, devised performance, visual performance, post-dramatic performance, etc.), while having their own distinct definitions, are often simply labelled "physical theatre" for no other reason than they are unusual in some way.

Dance that is of a theatrical nature can also be problematic. A dance piece may be called "physical theatre" simply because it includes elements of spoken word, character, or narrative. However, although it is theatrical and physical, it may not necessarily share anything in common with the physical theatre tradition.

Modern physical theatre

Contemporary dance troupe Bend and Snap, contemporary dance performance at Nazareth College Arts Center, Rochester, New York - 20090925.jpg
Contemporary dance troupe

A modern physical theatre has grown from a variety of origins. Mime and theatrical clowning schools, such as L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, have had a big influence on many modern expressions of physical theatre. Practitioners such as Steven Berkoff and John Wright received their initial training at such institutions. Contemporary dance has also had a strong influence on what we regard as physical theatre, partly because most physical theatre requires actors to have a certain level of physical control and flexibility. These qualities are rarely found in those who do not have some sort of movement background. Modern physical theatre also has strong roots in more ancient traditions such as Commedia dell'arte , and some suggest links to the ancient greek theatre, particularly the theatre of Aristophanes.

Another physical theatre tradition started with the French master Etienne Decroux (father of corporeal mime). Decroux's aim was to create a theatre based on the physicality of the actor, allowing the creation of a more metaphorical theatre. This tradition has grown, and corporeal mime is now taught in many major theatrical schools.

Daniel Stein, a teacher out of the lineage of Etienne Decroux, has this to say about physical theatre:

'I think physical theatre is much more visceral and audiences are affected much more viscerally than intellectually. The foundation of theatre is a live, human experience, which is different from any other form of art that I know of. Live theatre, where real human beings are standing in front of real human beings, is about the fact that we have all set aside this hour; the sharing goes in both directions. The fact that it is a very physical, visceral form makes it a very different experience from almost anything else that we partake of in our lives. I don’t think we could do it the same way if we were doing literary-based theatre.' [2]

Arguably, the point at which physical theatre became distinct from pure mime is when Jean-Louis Barrault (a student of Decroux) rejected his teacher's notion that the mime should be silent.[ when? ][ citation needed ] If a mime uses their voice then they would have a whole range of possibilities open to them that previously would not have existed. This idea became known as "Total Theatre" and Barrault advocated that no theatrical element should assume primacy over another: movement, music, visual image, text etc. He viewed each element as equally important, and believed that each should be explored for their possibilities.

Barrault was a member of Michel Saint-Denis's company, alongside Antonin Artaud. [3] Artaud has also been highly influential in shaping what has become known as physical theatre. Artaud rejected the primacy of the text and suggested a theatre in which the proscenium arch is disposed of to have a more direct relationship with the audience.

Eastern theatre traditions have influenced some practitioners who have then influenced physical theatre. A number of Oriental traditions have a high level of physical training, and are visual masterpieces. The Japanese Noh tradition, in particular, has often been often upon. The energy and visual nature of Balinese theatre fascinated Antonin Artaud and he wrote extensively on it. Noh has been important for many practitioners including Lecoq, who based his neutral mask on the calm mask of Noh. Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Jacques Copeau and Joan Littlewood have all been consciously influenced by Noh. Alongside contemporary western practitioners, certain Japanese theatre practitioners were influenced by their own traditions. Tadashi Suzuki drew partly on Noh and his students and collaborators have disseminated his highly physical training into the west. This has particularly happened through Anne Bogart's collaboration with him, and the simultaneous training of her actors in both the Viewpoints method and Suzuki training. As well as Suzuki, the Butoh Movement, which originated from Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno contained elements of Noh imagery and physicality. Butoh, again, has been influencing Western practitioners in recent years, and has certain similarities with Lecoq's mime training in terms of ideas (impression and consequential embodiment of imagery, use of mask, etc.)

Besides a gradual infusion of ideas from outside the Western theatre tradition, influences have arisen from within in theatre as well starting with Konstantin Stanislavski. Later in life, Stanislavski began to reject his own ideas of naturalism, [1] and started to pursue ideas relating to the physical body in performance. Meyerhold and Grotowski developed these ideas and began to develop actor training that included a very high level of physical training. Peter Brook influenced and developed this work.

Contemporary dance has added significantly to this mix, starting particularly with Rudolf von Laban. Laban developed a way of looking at movement outside codified dance, and was instrumental in envisioning and creating movement not just for dancers but for actors as well. Later on, the Tanzteater of Pina Bausch and others looked at the relationship between dance and theatre. In America, the postmodern dance movement of the Judson Church Dance also began to influence theatre practitioners, as their suggestions for movement and somatic training are equally accessible for those with dance training as those with theatre training. Indeed, Steve Paxton taught theatre students at Dartington College of Arts and other institutions.

Notable performers

Physical theatre companies and practitioners include:



Institutes and training programmes

See also

Related Research Articles


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Mask Any full or partial face covering, whether ceremonial, protective, decorative, or used as disguise

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Jean-Louis Barrault French actor and theatre director (1910–1994)

Jean-Louis Barrault was a French actor, director and mime artist who worked on both screen and stage.

Jacques Lecoq, was a French stage actor and acting movement coach. He was best known for his teaching methods in physical theatre, movement, and mime which he taught at the school he founded in Paris known as École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq. He taught there from 1956 until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1999.

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École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq is a school of physical theatre located on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. Founded in 1956 by Jacques Lecoq, the school offers a professional and intensive two-year course emphasizing the body, movement and space as entry point in theatrical performance and prepares its students to create collaboratively. This method is called mimodynamics. The school’s graduate list includes renowned figures of stage such as Ariane Mnouchkine of Théâtre du Soleil, Steven Berkoff and Simon McBurney of Théâtre de Complicité among others.

Étienne Decroux was a French actor who studied at Jacques Copeau's École du Vieux-Colombier, where he saw the beginnings of what was to become his life's obsession–corporeal mime. During his long career as a film and theatre actor, he created many pieces, using the human body as the primary means of expression.

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Corporeal mime is an aspect of physical theater whose objective is to place drama inside the moving human body, rather than to substitute gesture for speech as in pantomime. In this medium, the mime must apply to physical movement those principles that are at the heart of drama: pause, hesitation, weight, resistance and surprise. Corporeal mime accentuates the vital importance of the body and physical action on stage.

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Devised theatre - frequently called collective creation - is a method of theatre-making in which the script or performance score originates from collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble. The ensemble is typically made up of actors, but other categories of theatre practitioner may also be central to this process of generative collaboration, such as visual artists, composers, and choreographers; indeed, in many instances, the contributions of collaborating artists may transcend professional specialization. This process is similar to that of commedia dell'arte and street theatre. It also shares some common principles with improvisational theatre; however, in devising, improvisation is typically confined to the creation process: by the time a devised piece is presented to the public, it usually has a fixed, or partly fixed form. Historically, devised theatre is also strongly aligned with physical theatre, due at least in part to the fact that training in such physical performance forms as commedia, mime, and clown tends to produce an actor-creator with much to contribute to the creation of original work.

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  1. 1 2 3 Callery, Dympha (2001). Through the Body: A practical guide to Physical Theatre. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN   1-85459-630-6.
  2. Interview with Daniel Stein Archived 2003-06-20 at the Wayback Machine


Further reading