Physical Theatre: More Than Dancey Acting?

The stage: traditionally a foundation for acting, singing or dancing. Then, physical theatre came along and integrated the disciplines, the primary idea being that performers tell a story through physical means. What is it? Where does it come from? How is it put together? This month, Sophie Barnes unravels these questions


As physical theatre’s popularity grows, so does its following. This is owed to the increase in media interest, putting choreographers into the spotlight, including the likes of Matthew Bourne and physical theatre group DV8. The style has also attracted younger audiences as professional shows toured the UK, Europe, and beyond to bring physical theatre to the world stage.

The A-list of physical theatre continues to grow annually. Having first wowed audiences in the early twentieth century, classical practitioners such as Barrault, Stanislavski and Artaud pushed at boundaries and challenged tradition by establishing a distinct difference between mime and physical theatre. Barrault is of particular relevance; he rejected the idea that mime should be silent and made way for the dawn of a new performance style. This was known as ‘total theatre’ and went on to lay the foundations for physical theatre. It made way for future pioneers of postmodern physical theatre in the years that followed, with the likes of Motionhouse and Clod Ensemble bringing the style into the contemporary era through the use of social media.

The performance style is being introduced to a new generation of dancers as a major part of the A-level and GCSE Performing Arts curriculum, allowing  students to develop expression in performance. It also introduces boys to the marriage of theatre and dance, which can be off-putting on account of it being ‘too girly’. Physical theatre  requires no specific dance style from its performers – it is the freedom to express emotion in performance whilst integrating various acting and dance techniques.

Like every performance discipline, it is influenced by the whole world. Opera carries Italian influences, ballet carries French influences and physical theatre carries multi-cultural influences. The earliest origins of physical theatre can be linked across the Channel to the French development of mime and ‘clown schools’, particularly in Paris we all know and recognise the stereotype of the French mime. Either way, the mime is used to show emotion and expression without speech. Many of the French elements of this are still linked to physical theatre today.

There have also been influences from outside of Europe. For example, the Japanese ‘Noh’ theatre tradition uses every aspect of the stage and a ritualistic, dance-like movement style. Balinese theatre intrigued Artaud with its energy, use of space and unique make-up and costume. It is claimed that Artaud rejected using scripts in performance to dispel the metaphorical barrier between performers and audience. Artaud’s influence on physical theatre has led to performers having a more direct relationship with the audience.

Modern physical theatre also owes much of its movement to contemporary dance, in particular the work of Rudolf von Laban. Laban looked at creating movement for actors as well as for dancers, integrating three aspects of performing arts: dance, drama and music. Laban made it acceptable for others, including world-renowned Pina Bausch, to look into the relationship between dance and theatre.

You may not realise it when you are watching, but pantomime is a form of physical theatre. Its use of movement while acting or singing (or all three together) is a key feature of the performance genre.

So, what is physical theatre? There is no right or wrong answer to this question; physical theatre is simply the most bodily expressive style today. Remember, the next time you are shouting “oh no it isn’t!”, you are engaging with a contemporary form of physical theatre.



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  • “physical theatre is simply the most bodily expressive style today”

    How can we say this is true in comparison to dance?

    • It is using a lot of acting and dance, but dance without any particular limitations in terms of style and technique. Therefore, you could say it allows more freedom of expression.