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What is Physical Theatre?

Physical theatre tells stories through movement and the human body instead of relying solely on dialogue and naturalistic performance. There may be a script or narration, but the primary focus is on movement rather than words. It seems fair to say that physical theatre is the place where movement art, dance and drama meet. 

There are many creative approaches to physical theatre and it can be hard to pin down a specific combination of contemporary dance, expressive movement, spoken words, audience interaction, and improvisation that defines a production as physical theatre. Some productions contain carefully choreographed dance routines, while others rely on interpretation and improvisation at intervals or throughout the production. The only thing they all seem to have in common is that movement art tells all or part of the story. 

History of Physical Theatre

Physical theatre is older than pure drama and dance. When did the first person tell a tale through movement or communicate with an audience through gestures? Nobody knows. One can easily imagine hunter-gatherers gathered around the fire, enthralled by a story communicated in this way. Imagination apart, we do know that elements of physical theatre must have been incorporated into ancient Greek dramas. The art of clowning is also related to physical theatre and has similar roots.

In the twentieth century, we can identify Ettienne Decroux as having a strong influence on today’s physical theatre. He is the creator of corporeal mime as a means of story-telling and, since mime tells stories through movement, it’s easy to see its relationship to physical theatre. However, physical theatre differs from mime by incorporating sound – music, and perhaps a script. A student of Decroux’s, Jean-Louis Barrault was the first mime to challenge Decroux’s insistence on absolute silence during performances. 

However, it would be wrong to say that there is a single founder of physical theatre. It’s an art form that has evolved over the course of time and it continues to do so. 

Physical Theatre: a Combination of Techniques to Convey a Message

Among the most inspiring features of physical theatre, this multidisciplinary art is interpreted through performers’ and viewers’ frames of reference. By encompassing so many forms of dramatic art, performers can convey a stronger, more personal message to the audience, creating truly impactful and memorable theatre.

Physical theatre presents a challenge for artists that’s hard to resist. It requires superb physical control, and experience as a dancer is clearly beneficial. At the same time, it requires the use of facial expressions and a strong command of body language to communicate with the audience. All this occurs in a collaborative environment in which the relationship between actors and audiences is as important as movement and acting skills.

Top Physical Theatre Companies in the UK

Although the London-based physical theatre company, DV8, has closed down, its work provides a superb example of physical theatre with a cause. In its productions, it examines social and political questions using a combination of stylised movements, dance, music, and the spoken word. 

Its story is an interesting case-history of the development of its brand of physical theatre. Its founder, a dancer, became frustrated with the limits for expression in formal dance productions. Initially, the company explored stories without words before this too seemed limiting. In its heyday, it included dance, movement, performance art, music, and drama, pulling out all the stops to create performances that embrace every means of expression the company could put to work. The internationally acclaimed company has even captured its work on film. Examples include Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men and The Cost of Living

Frantic Assembly is still hard at work creating collaborative productions that have met with acclaim around the world. Whether they are interpreting classics or presenting new work, they attribute their success to the “Frantic Method.” Best of all, they offer training courses, including courses intended for existing artists and theatre professionals. Short on cash? You can still benefit from Frantic Assembly’s free digital resources. 

You should also check out Babel, a physical theatre company that stages productions and hosts creative workshops and training courses. Highly Sprung works primarily with children and the youth, creating memorable indoor and outdoor performances and hosting an annual physical theatre festival. Rounding off our examples of UK-based physical theatre companies, Gecko is definitely a company to watch. They offer training, a newsletter, and issue open invitations to audition for their latest productions. 

Balance Your Career With RSVP

It’s an exciting time to be involved in acting, and exposure to physical theatre is sure to round out your acting skills through its focus on movement. However, there will be times when you’re waiting for the “next thing” to happen, and not all of us have access to unlimited funds to cover the cost of further training – or even the cost of living. 

Choose a flexible, part-time career in a company that actively seeks to employ actors. We’re not a theatre company, but when you work with RSVP, you’ll appreciate the flexibility that we offer. Unlike other employers outside the world of theatre, we prioritise your acting career as much as you do: no more dirty looks when you need time out to perform, rehearse, audition, or train – only congratulations and support. Join our community today. It all starts on our Careers Page. See you there!


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