What is Physical Theatre?
Here is a short video of Liam Rooke explaing physical theatre and what is required for actor training.
Physical theatre is primarily about storytelling. Every day we tell stories whether it’s through our voices, written down or through pictures. To be able to tell a story with our body through physical integration of the body and mind is a powerful tool. We can stand on stage and recite lines but there is so much more than that. To be able to connect with your body require precision, rhythm and responsiveness. As actors, when we integrate physicality into our performance we become immersed in it, creating a performance that is successful and entertaining. The human body is a dynamic concept that, in theatre, we take for granted. There is much to explore in the theatrical world with our bodies. Once we are connected with it, we create a stylized movement. Vsevolod Meyerhold was an imperative theatre director in the biomechanical elements of actor training. He developed a series of intense training techniques that brought the actor into their body and essentially connected the mind and body as one. Copeau was yet another successful theatrical director who created the notion of physical acting. His main theatrical intention was to create a program in which dictated the important notions of connecting with body. Both these directors and many others were a crucial part of actor training methods which sought to educate actors for centuries to come.
Why is it important?
When one is connecting with their body in performance the first question they think of is, why is it important? What is the purpose underlying their actor training? The answer is quite simple. In order to full explore the character and space around you, you need to become aware of the full capability of your body. To teach your body the knowledge it requires to master the art of physicality. It’s easy enough to give an actor a script and let them read off of it but what if they don’t know how to explore their character or the space they are given? Both Meyerhold and Copeau explored these issues with the resolution as simple as teaching the actors to know the full limits of their bodies, to be able to understand the fact that they have a character and a body and to know the link they both share. Meyerhold (2002) found a way “to teach the body to think”. To let your body lead you and to be kinesthetically aware of what’s happening around you. Copeau’s aim was to apply the principles of precision and spatial reasoning to theatre and successfully did this through his actor training.
History of Physicality in performance
Physical theatre has always been a means of expressing performance through the body dating all the way back to Ancient Greek times. Their main form of theatre was entertaining and expressing through their body. From then on, physical theatre has become a main intention in performances, using physicality to express things where words cannot or where words have no meaning. Overtime, things change. Physicality in performance has not changed. It still requires all of your body and the control that comes along with that. Yes, the different ways we use physical theatre have changed but it still remains the same in terms of its historical and contemporary context. Today, in a more contemporary context, Physical notions of theatre are more in-depth. More emotional aspects have been integrated into it. Not only does it require you to use your whole body, just like it always did, but we have to have a certain aspect of precision and control and that requires a certain aspect of emotion bringing psychological aspects into it. Through continuation of work by Gunter Titt, Betitina Falckenberg and Milan Sladek, these eventually became integrated as part of the theatrical training of physicality and was given a new name; Physical Theatre.
Hidden meanings of Physical Theatre
Physical theatre is essentially a gestural art testing what we as actors can create. The meaning behind physicality in performance varies and it’s important to know the difference. One type is essentially, slapstick and stage fighting. Many people confuse this with other physical performance elements. Yes, while this is a type of physicality in performance it is rarely the one we refer to when discussing actor training in relation to physical theatre. What we do explore when referring to physical theatre and the importance it brings to theatre in general is the idea of putting physicality into practice. To unify the body and mind together as one in theatre rather than reading text to tell a story, these two elements create a physical notion of storytelling rather than a verbal one. Bothe Meyerhold and Copeau explore the idea of physical storytelling rather than vocal storytelling. Physical theatre is best show raw. To be able to delve into the world of being at one with your physical self is much more educational and enjoyable.
Control. How important is it?
We are constantly in control of things. Whether it is in control of how fast we walk or who we socialize with. Some things however require much more precision and control. To use your whole body and to make everything is right so that you can produce a proper piece of physical theatre. If we weren’t in control of our body in theater, what meaning would that create? The audience would be watching a meaningless piece of theatre. Whereas, if a number of actors had rehearsed and knew the precision involved, physicality would have a much bigger meaning in theatre. To be in control of every action required of you is an idea that Meyerhold and Copeau both focused on. They made sure that the actor was completely in the room at the time, both mentally physically and emotionally. Once they were, this became easier for the actor know the limits and boundaries of physicality. To push themselves as actors and to be stripped back, without costume, props or setting. Just them on the stage expressing themselves in a physical sense. This is important to remember in order to completely to connect with yourself, your character and the audience.
The physically articulate actor
Physicality in theatre cannot be something is part of another ideology. It is a notion in which the actor must discover themselves on their own. To be in control of the movement and how they can connect with their body to convey the message they are exploring. This is something that Nick Hern (2002) explored in his article on The Physical Articulate Actor. He found that is the actor is both psychologically and socially involved in their character; physicality is much easier to fathom. Hern (2002) also explored the notion of the ‘artist and the instrument’. The idea that you as the actor are the artist and your body is the instrument. As an artist, if you don’t have a finely tuned paint brush you aren’t; going to create meaningful art. It’s the same with theatre. If you don’t completely know the full capacity of your body and what it is capable of in physical theatre, you are going to create meaningful theatre. You are going to know the full extent in which your body cane explore and create. The actor must be in control, ready to create (Hern, 2002).
What does it teach us?
Physicality in theatre teaches us how to express ourselves more effectively express ourselves. To do this requires many techniques and skills. It isn’t about standing on the stage with an already polished piece of theatre. It requires rehearsal and training. Physical theatre is an expressive art form in which your heart, body and soul are all incorporated together into instruments in creating physical meaning in performance. Actor training essentially explores the physical and emotional truth in the actor. To discover the essence of the character and who you are as an actor. Jonathon Pitches (2003) found that there are a number of skills required in order to successfully understand biomechanical training. Balance, Efficiency, Expressiveness and responsiveness are just a few to name in order for successful physical actor training.
Both Meyerhold’s and to an extent, Copeau’s actor training involves copious amounts of Balance. Pitches (2003) found that for balance to work in actor training it tests the actor’s ability to think about the body’s limits in terms of staying balanced. To know its full capacity and to think about what that involves. Meyerhold forces this by making his actor training unnatural for example making your feet parallel where they want to be 90 degrees (Pitches 2003). Copeau on the other hand, makes things natural and more representational. By incorporating emotion into physicality Copeau helps to understand what it is to be able to completely connect with our body.
The main rule for an actor is, never waste your space. You have an entire stage to utilize and explore and the sooner you discover the physical capabilities of your body, the sooner you can understand how efficient it is to explore the space you have been granted. (Pitches 2003) explored the notion of the actor needing all of their physical ingredients at their command. In order to do this, actor training is in order as it helps them develop these skills.
As an actor, we need to continuously be aware of our surroundings and what is happening with our bodies. We need to be able to find stillness in the all the chaos acting rehearsals and performances bring. To be able to come into our bodies and ask ourselves what it is that makes our bodies connect with the character and on stage. Actor training helped achieve this by creating a level of intimacy within yourself so that you found the source of your physicality and your let your body do the rest.
Every time an actor stands on stage, they are expressing themselves. Whether it is emotional or physical expressive interest we are continually doing it. Actor training helped emphasized this. To help us understand that there is much to explore. The director essentially gives the actor an objective and it is up to the actor to put meaning in it and express to the audience. Meyerhold and Copeau both helped to remind actors what it is they are on stage for by bringing them into their bodies and making it easier to express themselves in ways that they never thought possible.
Veesvelod Meyerhold and Jacques Copeau
Meyerhold and Copeau are two very diverse theatrical directors however; they explore the same set notion. The physical ways in which we can explore our body in theatre. Meyerhold believed in expressing the way the body can be used through biomechanics. So he put this into use through biomechanical training. Copeau on the other hand explored the more theatrical way in which we can use our bodies. To incorporate text while exploring the limits of our body. Meyerhold was a presentational actor, believing in presenting an idea such as the way we can work with precision and discipline to create physicality with our bodies whereas Copeau was far more involved with the representational aspects of physicality and the actor training that comes along with it.
Here is a video of Meyerhold’s biomechanics. As you can see, theres is alot more involved than just standing on stage and performing.
Time to close the curtains.
In some ways, without physicality in theatre there wouldn’t be any meaning. What would be the purpose? If an actor was to sit on a chair and recite characterized lines they would at some point have to include gestures of some kind to add meaning to the performance. Even if in their words, there was meaning and emotion it would add more emphasis if the character incorporated physical elements into it. To put into action the elements of actor training that they have learnt. For their body to be immersed in the action and to know its place in the process of acting. These skills all come under the idea of biomechanics. This was Meyerhold’s and Copeau’s intention. With both completely different theatrical directors however extremely similar intentions. To create a way to utilize your body in performance. To make actors realize it isn’t just about reading lines off of a piece paper, that there is more physical elements involved. Both Meyerhold’s and Copeau’s work will always remain an important aspect in biomechanical actor training. They will always remind us as actors, that it is important to find the limits our body can endure in performance and remind us why physicality is important in theatre.
March 10, 2002 — April 07, 2002 © 2002
Chambers, Colin, ed. The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre. London: Continuum, 2002.
Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Book, 2001.
The Articulate Body: The physical training of the actor. Nick Hern books, London (2002)
Vsevolod Meyehold. Jonathan Pitches (2003) What are the basic skills acquired through biomechanical training?