He is most famous for his methods on physical theatre, movement, and mime that he taught at the school he founded in Paris, L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq from 1956 until his death in 1999.
Jacques Lecoq came to theatre through an interest in sports. He began gymnastics at seventeen and through work on the parallel bars and the horizontal bar he came to see and to understand the geometry of movement. Movement of the body through space as is required by gymnastics was described by Lecoq as being purely abstract. He came to understand the rhythms of athletics as a kind of physical poetry that affected him strongly.
He attended a physical theatre college in 1941 where he met Jean Marie Conty, a basketball player of international caliber, and in charge of physical education in all of France. Conty's interest in the link between sport and theatre had come out of a friendship with Antonin Artaud and Jean-Louis Barrault, both well-known actors and directors. Conty's interests in theater would impact Lecoq, and eventually lead Lecoq to an interest in theatre.
Lecoq taught physical education for several years. He later found himself acting and a member of the Comediens de Grenoble. This company and his work with Commedia dell'arte in Italy (where he lived for eight years) introduced him to ideas surrounding mime, masks and the physicality of performance. During this time he also performed with the actor, playwright, and clown, Dario Fo.
In 1956, he returned to Paris to open his school, L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, where he spent most of his time until his death, filling in as international speaker and master class giver for the Union of Theatres of Europe.
Lecoq aimed at training his actors in ways that encouraged them to investigate ways of performance that suited them best. His training was aimed at nurturing the creativity of the performer, as opposed to giving them a codified set of skills. As students stayed with Lecoq's school longer, he accomplished this through teaching in the style of "via negativa," never telling the students how to do what was "right." The goal was to encourage the student to keep trying new avenues of creative expression.
His training involved an emphasis on masks, starting with the neutral mask. The aim was that the neutral mask can aid an awareness of physical mannerisms as they get greatly emphasized to an audience whilst wearing the mask. Once a state of neutral was achieved, he would move on to work with larval masks and then half masks, gradually working towards the smallest mask in his repertoire: the clown's red nose. Three of the principal skills that he encouraged in his students were le jeu (playfulness), complicité (togetherness) and disponibilité (openness). Selection for the second year was based mainly on the ability to play.
He also set up le Laboratoire d'Étude du Mouvement (Laboratory for the study of movement; L.E.M. for short) in 1977. This was a separate department within the school which looked at architecture, scenography and stage design and its links to movement.
Among his many students were:
- Annabel Arden, actress
- Annmarie Davis, actor, professor
- Ariane Mnouchkine, theater director and founder of Théâtre du Soleil
- Avner Eisenberg - performer ("Avner the Eccentric"), teacher
- Geoffrey Rush, actor
- René Bazinet, actor, clown, mime
- Glenys McQueen-Fuentes, clown, performer, professor, director
- Isla Fisher, actress
- Jonathan Becker, actor, teacher, and mentor
- Julie Taymor, director, designer, and choreographer
- Malachi Bogdanov, theater director and writer
- Mark Danvers-Heron, Actor, Dancer, Theatre Director
- Philippe Gaulier, teacher, actor, pedagogue
- Nancy Gold, Author, Performer, Teacher, Director
- Simon McBurney, actor, director, writer, Artistic Director
- Steven Berkoff, theatre director, actor and writer
- Toby Jones, actor
- Gates McFadden, actress, choreographer
- Peter Bramley, actor, teacher, theatre director, founder of Pants on Fire
- John Bolton, actor, theatre trainer, theatre director, writer, founder of The John Bolton Theatre School in Melbourne, Australia
- Francis Batten actor, mime, clown, theatre teacher, theatre director, psychodramatist, founder of The Drama Action Centre in Sydney, Australia
- l'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq - Paris
- LISPA - London International School of Performing Arts
- École LASSAAD: École internationale de théâtre - Bruxelles
- Ecole Philippe Gaulier - Paris
- Centre for training and creation in physical theatre MOVEO
- Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre - Blue Lake (USA)
- Atelier Teatro Fisico Philip Radice - Turin (Italy)
- HELIKOS Scoula Internazionale de Creazione Teatrale - Florence (Italy)
- Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training - Philadelphia (USA)
- International Laboratory of YINdeYAN: "Physical Theatre, Masks & Clown"
- Escuela Internacional de Creación Teatral y Movimiento Cabuia
- The School for Theatre Creators - Chicago (USA)