Physical theatre

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Physical theatre

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Physical theatre is used to describe any mode of performance that pursues storytelling or drama through primarily and secondarily physical and mental means. There are several quite distinct but indistinct traditions of performance which all describe themselves using the term "physical theatre", which has led to a lot of confusion as to what the definition of physical theatre actually is. The means of expression, seem to be primarily physical rather than textual, often with emphasis on musical elements. Several things that many of these various Physical Theatre traditions share is a collaborative devising approach to theatrical development and creation: various groups , such as DV8, Frantic Assembly and the Forced Entertainment all use differing but nonetheless devising-based processes.

Some analysts believe that physical theatre was influenced by Bertolt Brecht. Dympha Callery suggests that despite the problematic use of the definition of physical theatre, some common characteristics may occur - though she stresses that these examples should not be seen as either exhaustive or that all are necessary all the time.

These include:

  • Work is often devised, rather than originated from a pre-existing script (an exception to this would be the troupe Shared Experience, which focuses on making contemporary reinterpretations of highly literary plays including A Doll's House by Ibsen and War and Peace by Tolstoy).
  • Work has inter-disciplinary origins - it crosses between music, dance, visual art as well as theatre.
  • Work challenges the traditional, proscenium arch, performer/audience relationship.
  • Work celebrates the non-passive audience.
  • Work utilises the imagination of the audience in conjunction with the imagination of the performers.[1]

Problems with defining physical theatre

The definition of physical is very hard to trace. This is partly to do with multiple origins, and partly to do with the fact that very few practitioners themselves are comfortable with the definition. In the book Through the Body, author Dymphna Callery suggests that the phrase originated more as a marketing term to describe anything that does not fit within commercial literary theatre. Indeed, there is a lot to support this: so called Physical Theatre companies often do not share any defining stylistic characteristics other than that they do not make commercial theatre based on "Staged Literature."

Many practitioners, such as Lloyd Newson,[1] express a resistance to this term because they feel that physical theatre is used as a "misc." category 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, is often simply labelled "physical theatre" without reason other than because it is unusual in some way.

Another problematic area is dance that is of a theatrical nature. Often a dance piece will call itself "physical theatre" because it included elements of spoken word, character or narrative and therefore be theatrical and physical, but this might not necessarily have 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, and 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 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). Etienne 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 now grown and corporeal mime is 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 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."[2]

The point at which, arguably, 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, deciding that if a mime uses their voice then they have a whole range of possibilities open to them that previously would not have existed. This idea became known as "Total Theatre" and he advocated that no theatrical element should assume primacy over another: movement, music, visual image, text etc. being viewed as equally important, and that each should be explored for their possibilities. Barrault was a member of Michel St.Denis's company, alongside Antonin Artaud.[1]

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, in term, influenced physical theatre. A number of Oriental traditions have a high level of physical training, and are highly visual. 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 highly physical training has been disseminated into the west by his students and collaborators. 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, in term 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,[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. This work influenced and was developed further 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 at 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 buy doxycycline . Indeed, Steve Paxton taught theatre students at Dartington College of Arts and other institutions.


  1. ^ a b c Callery, Dympha (2001). Through the Body: A practical guide to Physical Theatre. London: Nick Hern Books. ISBN1854596306.
  2. ^ Interview with Daniel Stein
  3. Heddon, Deirdre; Jane Milling (2005). Devising Performance: A Critical History. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN1403906629.

Further reading

  • Artaud, Antonin; Theatre and Its Double
  • Bogart, Anne; The Viewpoints Book
  • Brook, Peter; The Empty Space
  • Callery, Dympha; Through the Body: A practical guide to physical theatre, Nick Hern Books, London, 2001
  • 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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