Every month, reviewer and writer Katy Darby takes her scalpel to a different aspect of theatre and peels back the layers to investigate what it is, how it works and why you should be interested in it. From physical theatre to puppetry, multimedia to musicals, Fringe to new writing and everything in between, there's something for every drama-lover in our Anatomy of Theatre.
Clue: it's not just that they've all been massive sell-out successes of the "kill to get a ticket" variety. Give up? They all involved a significant element of physical theatre - and that was what made them amazing. There, I said it.
Ray Newe, an actor involved in physical theatre for nearly 20 years, explains its unique appeal:
My experience of creating physical theatre largely centred round my times with Birmingham based company Stan's Cafe. I began working with them on Bingo In The House of Babel way back in 1994. Our work owed a debt to Impact Theatre company, whose former director Pete Brooks had lectured most of us at Lancaster University and aspired to the beauty of Forced Entertainment, whom we revered. Although there was a written text it was, in rehearsals at least, cut and pasted endlessly, its value more as collage fragments than as narrative.
Where traditional theatre privileges story and narrative, physical theatre celebrates spectacle and, often, effort (there is a positively masochistic streak in much physical theatre). Where traditional theatre strives to be meaningful, physical theatre is full of meanings. Steven Berkoff once told me that physical theatre 'is theatre as a means to imagination, not as a means to representation.
But for some people, putting "physical" in front of "theatre" turns them both into dirty words. Why is that? Well, here’s the story of a physical theatre sceptic who learned to stop worrying and love the form.
I remember vividly the first time I ever saw a piece of honest-to-God, no-other-way-to-describe-it physical theatre. I was 20, up at the Edinburgh Festival and thrilled to be right in the middle of this frenetic wonderland; a five-week, non-stop celebration of everything - and I mean everything - theatrical.
I was a volunteer usher at a Fringe venue, which involved taking tickets, directing people to their seats, and then standing at the back throughout the performance in case there was an emergency. No fag breaks, no toilet trips - you had to stay right there, on the alert, for every single minute from curtain up to blackout. This was a sheer pleasure when the show was good and sheer agony when it wasn't. So I moaned and grumped and pleaded when I was assigned to usher a new piece whose blurb described it as "physical theatre about modern relationships". Shudder.
Frankly, my young and somewhat narrow-minded self would rather have had her teeth pulled than watch A WHOLE HOUR of physical theatre. But a job’s a job, so into the auditorium I slumped, tearing tickets with a face of doom. The only set was what looked like a large climbing-frame made from scaffolding poles (this was in fact exactly what it was). My heart sank: this was going to be incredibly lame. The lights went down, and I braced myself for an hour of unspeakable, embarrassing tedium. Two actors entered; one male, one female, both in loose-fitting clothes as if rocking up for a lesson at Pineapple Dance Studios. Sigh. Roll eyes. And then they started to... well, do their thing. And it was... fantastic.
One of the hardest things about conveying the excitement and spectacle of physical theatre is that, like any (often) wordless artform, it's tough to describe; and when you try, you sound like a wanker. This is also probably one of the reasons why people are reluctant and sometimes even scared to engage with it: they think it's pretentious and they're afraid they won't "get" it. That was certainly how I felt, until I was literally forced to watch some.
This particular production was almost wordless, and the few words used were repeated, mantra-like, under different circumstances, with different emphases, like phonic poetry or vocal sound-effects; their meaning altered by the performers’ actions (see what I mean about sounding pretentious?) But the way the actors used their bodies - sliding in and around the minimal metal frame (standing in for a house, a prison, a playground) was amazing: these guys were immensely fit, for a start, and more to the point, even without words I understood exactly what was going on because it was communicated physically - by their bodies, facial expressions and gestures. But this wasn't dance: it felt more fluid, more dynamic, less formal and structured ... it was (hey, there's a phrase for it!) - physical theatre.
An hour later I emerged, full of enthusiasm and a nigh-on Disney-like sense of wonder, and immediately volunteered to usher the same show the next day. (One of the other great things about physical theatre, is that much like poetry and visual art, it doesn't rely heavily on plot - so you can get plenty out of a second viewing, and a third, and a fourth).
I must have watched that show five times over the next fortnight, and when the run ended I was gutted. I recommended it to my fellow volunteers and anyone who asked me what good stuff I'd seen so far - but as soon as I mentioned the words "physical theatre", they all made whisky faces and mumbled something about “not really my thing”. Their resistance saddened me: I too had felt like that before I'd seen the show, but now I was enlightened. Rather like developing a taste for wine (or indeed whisky), I felt that my genuine liking for physical theatre made me sophisticated and daring - but all it really did was strip me of a pointless prejudice and pave the way for some of the best shows I've seen since.
So what is so special about this hard-to-define (and even harder to sell) theatrical subgenre, where the performers use their bodies just as much as their voices - often more - and the spectre of mime is, in the minds of many punters, never far away? Gloria Sanders, an experienced actress with a number of physical theatre credits, says this:
There are a few major elements that to my mind make 'physical theatre' something that can be separated into its own style of theatre, apart from standard literary drama. In brief these are:
• a focus on the body rather than the mind
• usually using a devising process from one or more stimuli
I've worked on devised shows that began with a piece of text, but then weren’t afraid to stray away from it to find other ways of telling the story. Essentially, as a performer what you’re aiming for is to tell a story in a way that engages the audience. For actors who’ve always worked with text, keeping religiously to the written word, treating it as gospel and revering each comma and semicolon, the idea of exploring the physical language before the verbal can seem like a daunting prospect.
For the audience too - but if it’s true that 80% of all communication is non-verbal, why not use that immanent language on stage? Often, physical theatre has no script, as such: many pieces are devised or semi-improvised by the performers. It's innovative, subliminal, experimental (another dirty word, for some): there are fewer of the conventions of "real life" to recognise and cling on to. We all know what words mean - or at least we think we do - so being asked to understand and appreciate a piece in which words don't carry the bulk of the meaning can be downright frightening. How will it speak to us? What if we get it wrong - or the actors do? Gloria again:
The challenge is to find the specificity of the visual language. Verbally, there are a dozen different ways you can tell someone to 'have fun' or to 'get lost' but language can be twisted and euphemisms can confuse meaning. People's physical language is far more accessible, immediate, and can convey in a single gesture what might take an entire page of verbose rambling. There's a level of intimacy and honesty that I've found hugely liberating, because it's almost impossible to hide behind your own body the way you can hide behind words.
It opens up a wealth of possible choices for a performer, it expands the scope of communication between the performance space and the audience, and it allows the audience to listen and watch without the intellectual barriers that can sometimes arise through a particularly wordy explanation of a situation or relationship.
Amen to that, sister. After all, what's not to love about a theatrical form which can be appreciated and enjoyed almost as well by someone who doesn't speak the (verbal) language it's performed in; which shows rather than telling; which communicates on a different, and yes, sometimes a deeper level?
Physical theatre: there's nothing to fear but fear itself. And mime, obviously.