by Marc Bauman
Physical Theatre is the craft of building theatre through physical actions,
characterization and stage composition. Physical Theatre uses as its primary
means of expression movement, dynamic immobility, gesture and a variety of
acting techniques. Text, music, costumes, and scenery are included in layers
selectively. The context in which all of these elements are blended is
determined by the message the performers wish to communicate.
The best performances tend to affect their audience viscerally and proceed
from instinctive rather than intellectual motivation. The seminal force of this
expressive art is dramatic action and so, at the heart of physical theatre, we
find the actor. However, not an actor who merely interprets, but an actor who
creates - that is, an "actor-creator".
Sometimes we will find our actor-creator performing solo, sometimes as
part of an ensemble. Sometimes their stories are linear, sometimes non-linear.
Performers and companies have drawn inspiration from several performing arts
disciplines including commedia dellarte, asian theatre, the silent film era,
vaudeville, clown and circus skills, mime, pantomime, street theatre,
improvisation, mask, puppet, avant-garde, experimental theatre and the visual
arts. The truth is there are so many examples of performers and companies using
physical theatre techniques that to limit there inspiration to the above
mentioned genres would be somewhat misleading.
There is one very important factor that links these genres, however. In
each case, the performer must possess advanced physical acting skills to carry
the craft on stage and to effectively communicate to an audience. This would
suggest that a high level of training is required beyond text analysis, scene
study, scansion, and voice training. Our actor-creator is an image-maker and
their qualities include those of a playwright, director, designer, technician, and
actor. They must have the ability to be both sculptor and sculpture. In short,
our actor-creator must be an artist, and an artist creates.
While reflecting on everyday experiences our artist confronts universal
themes. Life. Death. War. Peace. Love. Lust. Poverty. Hunger. Injustice.
Environmental issues. In short, all of the life transitions and social conflicts
that reveal our innermost desires, fears and ideas about the human condition and
the world in which we live.
As we approach the end of the 20th century, with the Information Age in
full bloom, it is truly amazing to think of how many performers, companies and
theatre schools can be "linked" back to the work and teachings of one
man - Jacques Copeau. During the early part of this century (1913-24 with an
interuption from World War I), he fought tirelessly against "cabotinage"
(what we would refer to as "ham-acting") in the form of his school,
the Vieux Colombier in France.
Students at the Vieux Colombier received a liberal education and an
incredible amount of physical training for the actor including mime, pantomime,
gymnastics, acrobatics, dance, improvisation (both verbal and non-verbal), and
A partial list of performers, pedagogues, theatre companies and schools
directly or indirectly influenced by Copeaus work and ideas includes Michel
Saint-Denis (Copeaus nephew and founder of the Old Vic Theatre Centre,
London, the National Theatre School of Canada and the Juilliard School, New
York), Jean Daste, Charles Dullin, Etienne Decroux (Founder of Corporeal Mime),
Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Lecoq, Jerzy Grotowski (Theatre
Laboratory), Eugenio Barba (Odin Teatret), Ariane Mnouchkine (Theatre du Soleil),
Theatre de la Jeune Lune (Minneapolis, MN), DellArte School of Physical
Theatre (Blue Lake, CA), Cirque du Soleil, and numerous individuals training
acting aspirants in colleges, universities and conservatories throughout the
United States and beyond.
What was the nature of this "spark that ignited the flame" of
physical theatre styles in performance and actor training throughout the entire
20th century? Perhaps it is best expressed in a letter Copeau wrote in 1944
titled "An Appeal to the Young":
"You are addressed on all sides; you are beseeched, flattered,
solicited, bribed, molested and exhorted, perhaps more than you are guided.
I see many of you suffering from not knowing where to begin, how to find a
balance, or what way to start working. Students complain that they receive
only vague instructions and lack the basics. And their teachers, their elders
and their leaders are sorry to find only an inconsistent clay to mould, minds
which are not sufficiently docile.
How I should like to help you! How I should like to find the words to
answer your questions, to enlighten your minds and warm your hearts!
I think you are placed between two dangers: the one of blindly and
radically repudiating what was said and done before you, and the other of
awaiting future salvation from some other effort than the one you will be able
to make on your own. Contempt and disgust for old disciplines is no less
perilous than hesitation and laziness in forming new ones.
I am neither a sociologist nor a qualified moralist. I am only a sincere
worker, a friendly adviser who does not claim to give advice except from his
own personal experience. For this reason, I can tell you two things. The first
is that no great change is valid, no great renewal is durable, until it is
linked to a living tradition, a profound native spirit.
The second is that, in order to bear fruit that is neither artificial nor
ephemeral, a renewal of this kind must begin with the human being. Without
falling back, without egoism, with as much modesty as ardour, it is primarily
with yourselves that you should begin, with lucidity, simplicity, seriousness,
application and courage. Try to be men, whatever your desires and aspirations,
the career you choose to follow, or the technique you intend to master. Do not
let yourselves get dried up, nor debauched, but apply yourselves with a will
to making a beautiful, solid, happy, courageous and adaptable human harmony
prevail in your character. You see, my friends, it is especially and uniquely
important, in the midst of such confusion, to sign a pact with your soul, and
to hold firmly to it. Do not smile too much at the gravity of my words.
Everything today is of an exceptional and implacable gravity. You have no
choice. Each one of you must, in your secret soul, be a hero and a saint for
You are probably saying that this takes us a long way from theatre and
devotion to theatre. Far from theatre perhaps, but not from the devotion I
think is needed, and will be for a long time yet, if we intend to make a new
spirit prevail. My language has hardly changed in thirty-one years, and has
often been ridiculed. Indeed, I have been able to observe too often that
theatrical mores have not changed very much. Even today I see theatre
threatened by the same evils, the same abuses and the same treacheries it
suffered from when I declared war on them a quarter of a century ago. We still
find arrogant stars, sordid intrigues and base literature in the theatre, and
I am afraid there always will be. Thus, it is another reason for increasing
the numbers of its defenders and for closing ranks; another reason for trying
to purify it, even if, and especially if, we do not flatter ourselves that we
Let us make an effort to acquire the craft and not let ourselves be
devoured by it. Actors, authors, critics, public: let us prepare a phalanx of
energetic theatre people with a healthy and elevated taste, full of fervour,
gaiety and severity. [...]
Therefore, respect for work, assiduousness and diligence, punctuality at
rehearsals, attention to minute details in preparation; in short, respect for
the public, and above all, faith in the young."
[From Devotion a lArt Dramatique, lecture at the Theatre Recamier,
Paris, 16 May 1944, published in Registres I, pp. 108-10]
As I travel around the United States giving acting and movement workshops
and residencies I try to apply Copeau's principles when working with students of
all ages. I have found, without fail, that the more I respect my students the
more they risk emotionally and physically. The results have been rewarding and
the growth has been continuous.
In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge a few of my former teachers
whose inspiration continues to guide, spark, and provoke me to persevere in the
face of political indifference: Marcel Marceau, Thomas Leabhart, Bari Rolfe,
Richard Seyd, Richard Rossi, and Eugenio Barba."risk and respect..."
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