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Physical theatre is a genre of theatrical performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means. Several performance traditions all describe themselves as "physical theatre", but the unifying aspect is a reliance on physical motion of the performers rather than or combined with text to convey the story. In basic sense, you talk through hand gestures, body language, thought track and many more physical features.
Dympha Callery suggests that all physical theatre shares some common characteristics although each individual performance need not exhibit all such characteristics to be defined as physical theatre. Her 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:
- Devised origins, rather than originated from a pre-existing script
- Inter-disciplinary origins - it crosses between music, dance, visual art as well as theatre
- Challenging the traditional, proscenium arch, and the traditional performer/audience relationship (also known as "breaking the fourth wall").
- Encouraging audience participation. It can mean any thing that is done physically through a performance.
Some practitioners, such as Lloyd Newson, express a resistance to this term because they feel that physical theatre is used as a "miscellaneous" category, which is classified for anything that does not fall neatly into a category of literary dramatic theatre or contemporary dance. For this reason, contemporary theatre including post-modern performance, devised performance, visual performance, and post-dramatic performance, while having their own distinct definitions, are often simply labelled "physical theatre" without any reason other than because they are unusual in some way.
It is also problematic that dance is of a theatrical nature. A dance piece will be called "physical theatre" because it includes elements of spoken word, character, or narrative; it is theatrical and physical but does not necessarily share anything in common with a potential (and nascent) physical theatre tradition.
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 level of physical control and flexibility. Those 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 tradition started with the very famous 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.
"I think physical theatre is much more visceral and audiences are affected much more viscerally than intellectually. The foundation of theater 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."
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. 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. 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 in order to have a more direct relationship with the audience.
Eastern Theatre traditions have influenced a number of 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 been drawn upon a lot. Antonin Artaud was fascinated with the energy and visual nature of Balinese theatre and 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.)
As well as ideas outside of the western theatre tradition creeping in gradually, there is a tradition from within Western theatre, too, starting with Stanislavski. Stanislavski, later on in life, began to reject his own ideas of naturalism, 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. This work was influenced and developed by Peter Brook.
Contemporary dance has added to this mix significantly, starting particularly with Rudolf von Laban. Laban developed a way of looking at movement outside of codified dance and was useful in looking at, and creating, movement not just for dancers but for actors too. 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 a dance training as those with a theatre training. Indeed, Steve Paxton taught theatre students at Dartington College of Arts and other institutions.
Modern physical theatre companies and practitioners include:
- À Point Theatre Company
- Bridges Arts Group
- Chicago Fusion Theatre
- Chickenshed Theatre Company
- Chotto Ookii Theatre Company
- Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre
- Double Edge Theatre
- DV8 Physical Theatre
- Theo Adams
- Antonin Artaud
- Pina Bausch
- Steven Berkoff
- Anne Bogart
- Wolfe Bowart
- Kate Champion
- Alan Clay
- Adam Darius
- Étienne Decroux
- Carlo Mazzone-Clementi
- Philippe Gaulier
- Thomas Leabhart
- Jacques Lecoq
- Petra Massey
- Matt Mitler
- Lloyd Newson
- Gavin Robertson
- Bill Robison
- Daniel Stein
- James Thiérrée
- Steven Wasson
- Vahram Zaryan
- Pablo Zibes
- Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre
- Callery, Dympha (2001). Through the Body: A practical guide to Physical Theatre. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN 1-85459-630-6.
- Interview with Daniel Stein
- Artaud, Antonin; Theatre and Its Double
- Barba, Eugenio; Beyond the Floating Islands
- Bogart, Anne; The Viewpoints Book
- Brook, Peter; The Empty Space
- Clay, Alan; Angels Can Fly, a Modern Clown User Guide
- Cross, Robert; Steven Berkoff and the Theatre of Self-Performance
- Decroux, Etienne; Words on Mime
- Felner, Myra; Apostles of Silence: The Modern French Mimes
- Grotowski, Jerzy; Towards a Poor Theatre
- Hodge, Alison (ed.); Twentieth Century Actor Training
- Leabhart, Thomas; Modern and Post-Modern Mime
- Lecoq, Jacques; The Moving Body (Le Corpes Poetique)
- Marshall, Lorna; The Speaking Body
- Meyerhold, Vsevolod and Braun, Edward ; Meyerhold on Theatre
- Oida, Yoshi; The Invisible Actor
- Stevenson, Darren ; A Case for Physical Theatre
- Suzuki, Tadashi; The Way of Acting
- Wright, John; Why Is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy, Nick Hern Books, London, 2006
- Allworth Press; Movement for Actors
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