What Is Physical Theatre?

Physical theatre is a form of theatrical performance that tells a story primarily through stylized physical movement instead of dialogue or music. Physical theatre draws from various influences in different performing arts disciplines, such as mime, commedia dell’arte, and contemporary dance. All types of physical theatre emphasize storytelling through the human body. There are different viewpoints about what qualifies as physical theatre and how it differs from other forms of theater or performance, such as dance or puppetry.

Theatrical performance

3 Characteristics of Physical Theatre

Here are three elements employed by physical theatre companies in their performances:

1. Audience participation:

Many physical theater companies tear down the separation between audience and performers by extending the boundaries of the stage past the traditional limits of the proscenium (the arch that frames the performers on stage). Others adopt Bertolt Brecht’s “breaking the fourth wall” technique by directly addressing the audience through movement or encouraging audiences to interact with the actors.

2. Devised performance:

While physical theatre emphasizes movement over dialogue, some physical theatre practitioners find inspiration from elements of plays or spoken word performances. Devised performances emphasize improvisation and collaboration and sometimes use a text as a jumping-off point. For example, the UK physical theatre group Frantic Assembly uses elements of plays by William Shakespeare, Abi Morgan, and others in their productions.

3. Interdisciplinary elements:

Physical movement is at the heart of physical theatre, but the art form also adopts elements from other contemporary theatre disciplines. Actor and director Steven Berkoff’s practice of “total theatre” incorporates dance pieces, improvisation, and the actors’ physical skills to create innovative productions, while the UK theater company Complicité incorporates visual art in the form of film projections into their award-winning plays.

3 Types of Physical Theatre

Modern physical theatre takes many forms. Here are three types of physical theatre:

1. Clowning and mime:

Theatrical clowning and mime focus heavily on actor training and physical movement. Many of physical theatre’s leading proponents studied these disciplines, including Steven Berkoff, who received physical training at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France, and actor Étienne Decroux, who developed a variation on the traditional mime art form called “corporeal mime.”

2. Contemporary dance:

Both physical theater and dance theatre share the idea of storytelling through physical movement. Choreographer and director Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre is an example of a company that experiments with dance as a form of physical theatre.

3. Noh

A form of traditional Japanese theater, Noh uses dance, stylized physical movement, and music to tell stories. Japanese Noh features an open stage that invites connection between the performers and the audience. Its use of visual elements like masks influenced physical theatre performer Jacques Lecoq’s use of a neutral mask to teach students to emphasize their physical performances.

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