There have always been two strands of English theatre, the first is a tradition of popular working class theatre. It was a tradition that demanded immediate impact to keep its audience: physical, visceral, funny and heart felt. The other tradition was an aristocratic one, where young men coming back down from Cambridge would impress their aristocratic chums by writing scripts and hiring actors to perform them. The purpose was to showcase the genius of the writer, so it would focus on intellectualism: placing words and ideas over the physical, emotional and fun. The actors were just there to make the author look intelligent. It’s a focus of English theatre that’s still strong today – and explains the reverence most of the British theatre still has for authors over actors. The work we celebrate in Mimetic is proudly of the former popular tradition.
Due to the touring nature of popular theatre it has never respected national boundaries in the same way that the written word has. The genealogy of popular theatre in England today can trace it’s routes back to the tradition of Commedia Del Arte of sixteenth century Italy. Be it an old-fashioned Punch and Judy performance on the beach or Complicité at the National, Doctor Brown winning the Fosters Comedy Award or repeats of Mr Bean on TV all trace their routes back to the Commedia. Even Burlesque traces its decent from Commedia Del Arte through its latter incarnation in The Masque – where principal characters would carry a ‘burle’ (a stick with a padded end) with which they would slap the other players for comic effect. Much as the ‘slap stick’ lent its name to a genre of physical comedy so too burlesque became a term used to describe scenes based round grotesque characters, satires or physical comedy.
The relationship between modern mime, clown and Commedia is even easier to trace. When the Comédie Française were granted the sole right to present dialogue plays within the environs of Paris the players of Commedia needed a means of survival. Making a virtue of this enforced silence they created the Pantomime – silent plays based round the stock characters or ‘masks’ of comedia. The pantomime flourished in Paris throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century – even creating it’s own character – the famous clown Pierrot. The traditions of the french pantomime became one of the main influence on the physical theatre of the 20th Century, giving seed to both the Corporeal Mime techniques of Étienne Decroux, and the clown and physical theatre practice of Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. You would be hard pressed to find anyone currently involved in contemporary British physical theatre or cabaret who hasn’t been influenced by, if not actually studied in, the schools they created.
The theme that runs through all the work we program in Mimetic is this heritage of popular theatre. They are performances that are physical, visceral, funny and heart felt.
By Alexander Parsonage
Artistic Director of Finger in the Pie Theatre Co
If you’d be interested in studying physical theatre here in London the London International School of Performance (LISPA) offers both short courses and a two year post graduate training in the Lecoq pedagogy.