Isn’t All Theatre Physical?

In the strictest sense – yes, because it involves bodies watching other bodies perform. As Peter Brook famously said, in the opening of his seminal book The Empty Space, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is required for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

For centuries, men walked across bare stages – with large physicality, large voices and, often, masks to help convey character, situation and emotion to spectators who might be sitting hundreds of feet away. Eventually they were joined by women on stage. And, some time after that, by scenery.

One can say all that changed when motion pictures came along, but the shift was far from immediate. Silent films are full of physicality, often expressive gestures left over from 19th century theatre, designed to convey meaning to the back row. It was when the talkies arrived, and the camera learned to capture close-ups of the human face, and reveal the smallest flickers of internal emotional states, that performers appeared to start acting from the neck up.
There has been a shift in clowning as well. The jester was the one person in a royal court who could speak truth to power. He had the license to tell the king that the monarch himself was a fool – but he also had to sing and gambol and entertain for all he was worth. His descendant, the stand-up comedian, merely needs to pace the stage with a microphone, and sometimes offer up an impression or two. And those who are speaking truth to power now, the late-night talk show hosts, may simply wear a suit and sit behind a desk.

Does that mean that physicality in theatre, or in clowning, is dead? Far from it.

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