Friday, October 23rd 2009
Creative Insight: Physical Theatre
The term ‘physical theatre’ tends to conjure images of nothing more than crazy, hippy-types exclaiming ‘I’m a tree’ at the top of their voices. These people are alive and well waving their branches in the breeze, but physical theatre is much more than this and when done well is completely mind-blowing.
There is much debate as to how physical theatre started. A relatively new term (it has only been kicking around since the 1900’s – not long in the theatre world), even today it is often used as an umbrella term encompassing mime, contemporary dance, physical comedy, puppetry, mask theatre, acrobatics, circus skills and anything else that doesn’t easily fall into a typical genre. I tend to describe it as the telling of a story by primarily using the actor’s bodies rather than traditional means – some guy juggling dressed as a clown is not physical theatre! There may still be a script or it may be (more than likely) devised, but the outcome will still be highly visible.
Some believe that the form originated from mime. John-Louis Barrault started a revolution against the notion that all mime must be silent, utilising music and then voice within the physicality of the performance. One of his more famous performances was in the Children of Paradise:
Apparently our dearly departed Michael Jackson got the idea for the Moonwalk from Barrault’s performance in this movie.
It is widely acknowledged that physical theatre has been heavily influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht.
His ‘Epic Theatre’ was a reaction to the naturalistic style which prevailed in the early 1920’s. In epic theatre pieces, the audience are not encouraged to identify with individual characters emotions, but rather encouraged to engage in thought. Brecht saw the naturalistic ‘getting lost in the character’s emotions’ style as merely a means of escapism – nothing more than a latter day soap opera. He thought theatre could be much much more; a tool to make society think. It should be accessible to the working classes and audiences will be aware they are watching a play but will move along with it questioning, rather than ‘getting lost.’ He used surrealism to great effect to break the audience link with the characters.
His earliest use of epic theatre in one of his own plays was “The Life of Edward II of England”, but perhaps his most famous play is “The Threepenny Opera”
seen here randomly starring Cyndi Lauper…I don’t know how much Brecht would approve of this…
Actors would frequently ‘break the fourth wall’ and address the audience, a devise which hasn’t aged a day, now being used to great effect on television programmes with ‘to camera’ narrative. My favourite use of it is in Malcolm in the Middle, which also uses a great deal of surrealism making it very Brechtian indeed!
This surreal, non conformist style lent itself well to physical theatre and cemented the genre into the theatre landscape.
Physical theatre has also picked up parts of Eastern culture in its development – Noh, a form of Japanese music theatre was heavily drawn upon.
Theorists like Jerzy Grotowski took the highly physical training the Noh actors had to pass through and used it as inspiration for their physical theatre theories.
Grotowski was responsible for ‘The Poor Theatre’ theory, the idea that the actor’s voice and body skills should be the primary spectacle on stage. Grotowski removed everything that could distract the audience from the actor. No more elaborate sets, lights and sound. The relationship between the audience and the actor became the emphasis of the production.
In his actor’s workshops, which he called a laboratory, the focus was on the actor. He focused on stripping down the actor into his essential self. The techniques and exercises used in Grotowski’s laboratory required serious concentration and commitment. The actor needed to find the strength of his natural voice and body. The perfection of the techniques was not as important as the awareness of the process. The video below shows one of Grotowski’s laboratories in action. He obviously felt the need to strip their clothes away too…!
As it stands today, there are a number of successful physical theatre companies across the world, some of the most successful of which being in England.
DV8 started in the 1980’s when a group of dancers became disillusioned with the direction of most modern dance.
The Chotto Ookii Theatre Company are based in our very own Leeds, forming into 2005 but already doing really well and getting great reviews at the Edinburgh Festival. Visit their website here: Chotto Ookii Theatre Company
Then there is one of my favourite theatre companies, Forced Entertainment based in Sheffield who produce the most wonderful, thought provoking pieces. There website can be found here: Forced Entertainment
If you haven’t seen any physical theatre before I would urge you to. Granted, there is a lot of rubbish out there, but there is in any theatre genre, or artform for that matter. When it is done well nothing can beat it in my humble opinion!
Posted by Haley on Friday 23rd of October 2009 at 2:29pm