Physical theatre is a catch-all term used to describe any mode of performance that pursues storytelling through primarily physical means. There are several quite distinct 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 term “Physical theatre” has been applied to performances consisting mainly of:
Theatrical Clowning and other physical comedy
Some forms of puppetry
While performances based around all of the above could equally claim to be “Physical Theatre”, the key distinguising factor is a focus on narrative, character and storytelling. However, it is often difficult to draw a distinct boundary between what is and what is not physical theatre, and distinctions are often made quite arbitrarily by critics and performing companies.
Modern Physical Theatre has grown from a variety of origins. Mime and theatrical clowning schools such as L’Ecole Jaques 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. Eastern European practitioners have also had a strong influence on modern physical theatre, and both Vsevolod Meyerhold and Jerzy Grotowski are regarded by many as “fathers” of modern physical theatre. 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 dance 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
Modern physical theatre companies and practitioners in Britain include, but are by no means limited to:
Complicite, whose Artistic Director Simon McBurney studied under Jaques Lecoq
Trestle, famous for their “mask theatre”
Told by an Idiot co-founded by John Wright who also studied under Jaques Lecoq
DV8 a physical theatre company with very strong contemporary dance roots.
A good place to see excellent eastern-european physical theatre companies without travelling to Eastern Europe is at the Edinburgh Fringe – particularly at Aurora Nova@St Stephen’s, a fringe venue found in St Stephens church.