If we went by name alone, there might seem to be no two genres of performance further apart than Spoken Word and Physical Theatre. The one suggesting a poetic text while the other promises a poetic body. Logos and habitus.
Looking at my work as director over the years I don’t think an most audiences would identify it as physical theatre (except a recent piece, ‘Fragments of Clay‘ with Ian Morgan) but behind the scenes a working through the body is always present, embedded in the work. A working with the body that encourages an extra daily presence but without an overt extra-daily physical vocabulary, work grounded in my earliest performance training which was in Michael Chekhov’s practice.
Back in the day, when I was a stand up comic (always distrusted that fourth wall stuff) I was in the Time Out offices putting in a listing and noticed there was a woman in her seventies waiting by the editorial desk but that no one seemed to be paying here much attention. Turned out she wanted to place an ad and was in the wrong place so I offered to take her to “classified.”
As we travelled down in the lift she told me that there had been twelve of them but now there were only ten and they wanted to pass it on before there were even fewer left. They would do it exactly as he had, they had all his lesson plans. More concentrated though, in just six months. Seeing my confusion she attempted to explain by adding “We were Mischa’s first students. At Dartington. Mischa, Michael Chekhov.” I had no idea what she was talking about but she offered me a discount for helping her and a week later I found myself in studios behind Kings Cross with the ten that were left and a whole group of kids that wanted to be trained in theatre but would have nothing to do with the British Drama School.
After training with Stanislavski. Michael Chekhov developed his own approach to actor training, spinning the work of the system towards the archetypal imagination rather than the individual imagination and the work of analysis from the “round the table” work to a active physical analysis. Shifts that would in turn influence Stanislavski’s own later work on the method of physical actions.
Leaving the USSR as Stalin began the purges that would lead to the execution of radical theatre artists such as Meyerhold, Chekhov went first to Germany then to Dartington Hall in the UK and finally to Hollywood where he appeared in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and was nominated for an Oscar. (The Dali designed dream sequence in Spellbound is not to be missed, Michael Chekhov is the one with the pipe.)
So you wouldn’t look at Indiana Jones and the Extra Chair [extrachair.co.uk] or at No More Worries and say the work was physical theatre but the work of finding our characters begins in the body not on the page, begins in an attempt to recognise the embodied presence of the person we are exploring rather than in a delving into psychology. Mole moving, chasing down those psychological gestures and imaginary centres that Chekhov first began to work with almost a hundred years ago.
Physical theatre and Spoken Word, perhaps not so far apart after all. Doesn’t spoken word in its very refusal of the word poetry point to the embodied presence of the performer, to the meeting of body and text, and text in and through the body.