Physical theatre goes mainstream
Fifteen years ago, or more I was on the board of the physical theatre company the David Glass Ensemble. At the time, physical theatre was still emerging from the shadow of mime. But going to two rather different productions recently, it’s clear that physical theatre is now right in the mainstream.
Physical theatre has been described as
“incorporating physical and visual elements on a level at least equal to verbal elements [and] is more than imply abstract movement – it includes some element of character, narrative, relationships, and interaction between the performers, not necessarily linear or obvious”.
David Glass – as both performer and director – did much in the UK to popularise it. But his shows typically played in small venues such as arts centres.
But seeing both The Lord of the Rings onstage, and a production of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Lyric in Hammersmith, it is clear that physical theatre is now part of the normal theatrical repertoire. (I might have expected this in a mainstream musical such as Lord of the Rings, which also showed off some circus skills, but not in a text-led Brecht play).
And theatre has also borrowed from film the use of incidental music – to score speeches as well as punctuate scenes or action.
I think three (slightly different) trends are playing out here. The first, simply, is that people are used to absorbing more information than they used to, so theatre can be richer. The second is that people are more visual in the way they understand the world, and as a result theatre has had to draw on its more visual traditions, such as mime, physical theatre, and circus, rather than rely on the power of the text.
But the thirseems the most interesting. CGI has meant that while film can depict more fantastical scenes, it does this in a way which is much more literal than it used to. Theatre, in contrast, has used the techniques of physical theatre to become less literal, to draw instead on the imaginations of its audiences.