‘Physical theatre’ clichés: What are they and how/ whether to avoid them’

Convener(s): Avye Leventis

Participants: Laura, Fiona, Helen, Anne, Amy, Sarah Maguire, Mark, Sally Christopher, Jan Lynn Goh, Heather Taylor

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

Began with two qualifications: first agreeing that ‘physical theatre’ is an unsatisfactory label, and that it encompasses a wide range of very different work. Secondly removing the pejorative aspect of the word ‘cliché’: that we’re interested in whether this work, as it has arguably begun to move more into the mainstream (sold out Complicite/ Punchdrunk etc shows) has developed a particular set of conventions, and where it can go next.

  • Does something have to be innovative to be good?
  • Cliché can be used productively for dramatic effect – referencing other shows
  • Why does the genre exist? A need to separate? Belong? A sense of revolution/creating something new, and then find ourselves having to name it? For the people who create the work it often doesn’t matter…
  • Do critics shape sense of clichés? Is a by-product of seeing a huge amount of theatre a sense of having ‘seen it all before’? Important to remember that new audiences often haven’t, and that can be magical.
  • Is it to do with a separation in training methods? Eg ‘Traditional training’ vs Lecoq
  • Creating a different vocabulary or a way of talking about what has been seen. Negative aspect is that can create expectations about new work.
  • When making work is it better not to know the clichés? Fewer rules enable artists to come at work from an entirely new perspective. Is consciously working within a genre ever useful/effective? Danger of labeling a company ‘physical theatre’ – more effective to allow the audience to be surprised.
  • In a very female-dominated discussion group is part of the perceived stigma attached to physical theatre that it is somehow feminine/effeminate? Frequently audiences have preconceptions which are then inverted/overcome by quality work.
  • In the best physical theatre form and content are entirely integrated; techniques are not gratuitous/superimposed but emerge from the subject matter and specific group of performers.
  • Where next? Physical theatre does eclecticism well. Inter-disciplinary work. More exploration of the borders between artforms/practices – circus, acrobatics, puppetry, dance ....
  • Mimefest has evolved (but actually noted there is no mime in it this year) and is throwing its net wider to embrace different artforms.
  • What is it that is attractive about this kind of theatre? ‘Worlds’. Different universes. Encourages flexibility of perspective in the audience – different ways of seeing.
  • Repetition isn’t necessarily cliché.
  • ‘Clever kleptomania’ – borrowing and re-combining material from other sources into new and exciting forms is entirely valid (and certainly not exclusively a feature of this kind of work)
  • Repetitions are frequently the result of the development of a specific language within a theater company/ensemble. Can either feel stagnant – a company not evolving – or can simply become a positive hallmark of a group’s work. Frustration with sometimes not having enough time to allow the process of finding a common language to emerge in the current time-pressured theatre environment (comparison with some European companies – eg Polish work).
  • Internationalization of ‘physical theatre’. Is part of the hallmark of the genre the fact that frequently creators have to begin physically for linguistic reasons. Exciting to see the cultural cross-pollenisation that it provokes.
  • Processes of working. How to come at work – through the head or through the body.