Making The Ordinary Extraordinary by clare elliott


Thoughts from a past physical theatre workshop held at Tripspace London feb 2014

I had decided to run a physical theatre workshop partly because I had started to experience a mild indigestion in regards to theatre. I have been a happy consumer of theatre for years - though lately a little tired of the same items on the menu, queasy at the idea of bland but over-stuffed productions and certainly hungry for something that honors an art form that can on a good day can change a persons soul - if but for a few hours. So like the cream that rises to the surface the one question I had was how do you set out to make good theatre? 

‘Physical theatre’ can be a bit of a catch-all term for theatre that doesn’t quite fit into any category much to the dismay of DV8‘S Lloyd Newson, and I agree that dance with a few lines of spoken text and theatre with a movement section, doesn’t quite qualify. But perhaps to think less about category then about the things that are unique to physical theatre leads to a more fruitful discussion. ‘Non-dialogue’ based theatre work ( not synonymous with ‘non-narrative’ work ) have their genre-personalities. Mime is demonstrative, circus is performative, Tanztheater is stylistically theatrical..I think the point is and what is unique is that physical theatre is emerging as a form that is both multi-disciplinary and influential because of it’s visceral impact on audiences. 

experiences of the workshop

Rolling on the floor imagining ourselves to be pre-historic skeletons, jumping up and down repeating the same phrases until our tongues were dry, creating short improvised sequences about the mundane things in life and repeating them shamelessly over and over to Bjork, Scott Joplin ,Motzart and some bangin’ drum and bass tunes were certainly valid ways of spending a week. I learnt about the hunger people have for exploring, growing, inventing and re-inventing. I learnt how tirelessly people can hunt down a strain of creative DNA and then meticulously plant it in a petri-dish of dreams, collaboration and sweat. I learnt about the desire we all have to break our own habits and leave them shattered at the door. I learnt how hard it is to pick something up that we love about ourselves and smash on the floor in front of complete strangers. I do know that it was the dedication of the those who came to dance that made it such a vibrant and fruitful week.
I don’t know if i will i ever truly be able to answer my original question, “ What makes good physical theatre?” - but i do know that if there is anywhere you can take an ordinary thing, give it an ordinary story and tell it to some ordinary people - with just a few simple elements,  the theatre is the place where you stand a chance of making those ordinary things seem utterly extraordinary.

"Cool-Ass Matrix Shit!" by clare elliott

Calvert Litho - Lithograph 1890

Calvert Litho - Lithograph 1890


I have a dear friend who often (with a glint in his eye) introduces me as his friend who does "Cool-Ass Matrix Shit!". The responses range from feigned interest to enthusiastic grunts that lead to entertaining debates. I have thus been prompted to wax lyrical on my answer to a question we are all asked far too often at dinner parties, " So what is it that you actually do?....."

Super-human abilities, impossible feats, subverting reality, sensations of flying have been captured in man’s cultural imagination for centuries. Frenchman Jules Leotard first invented the flying trapeze by attaching ventilator cords to a bar above his father’s swimming pool in 1859. A century later, Philippe Petite stunned the public by accomplishing his secret mission of walking across a tight-rope between the Twin Towers in New York City, August 1974.  Tricia Brown’s choreographic work explored figures walking down urban surfaces in the 70‘s downtown NY scene and Hong Kong’s longstanding tradition in wire-assisted stage-craft (wire-fu), brought excellent fight sequences to international screens. 

There have been countless permutations in the use of wires, ropes, pulleys and other systems to enable man to achieve inspiring feats and create alternative worlds. In the past decade the use of harness work in film, theatre, arena shows, opening ceremonies and events have become increasingly sophisticated and very much in demand. Usually however the term ‘aerial’ work within the entertainment industry is used somewhat narrowly to denote particular acts that have originated in the circus. Silks (long pieces of fabrics that performers manipulate and hang from), rope acts and trapeze, both static and flying. Aerial Dance has become a popular contemporary art form with many new companies focusing specifically on works that use aerial elements to create narratives and add a different dimension to choreography. Aerial work within film is often used by stunt coordinators to design falls or by fight directors to choreograph complex fight sequences. Olympic ceremonies and arena shows often make use of aerial work to create large-scale spectacular performances needing to be seen by thousands of people.

And then there is the aerial work that fits into none of those categories. It is a way of using intricate systems of ropes, pulleys, motors and harnesses, often within a theatrical context to create imaginary worlds and to challenge our perceptions of what is possible. In other words to create, " cool-ass matrix shit!"