Naturalistic Goes Physical Theatre

I love acting. Before ‘Scream For Charity’, before I changed it to state that I was a writer, my Twitter profile said that I am a singer first, a writer and author second. In a way that is still true; my biggest passion still lies in ars musicae, I just seem to be more successful at the writing side of things- this occurrence, I believe is from the connections I have had in the writing field!

However, as much as I play down my acting desires, they are there, just as clear as my literary wishes. The first thing that makes this clear is that it was not English Literature (English Language is not offered as an A-Level at my Sixth Form) or Music that I chose to take as my creative-outlet subject- though we have a complete free-choice, most take three ‘serious’ subjects, and one ‘creative’ that they will drop in A2, the next year- but Drama, or Theatre Studies as it is known here. Yes, it is not fully performance-focused, but I find that little change useful, as I am able still to fuel the literary side of my attentions.

There are only three students (myself included there) who have chosen to take this subject from our relatively small Sixth Form. This point makes choosing the right play to put on for our performance mark- worth 50% of the first-year half of the course- difficult; we needed a play that we could get the most marks on, with three characters, equal amounts of lines for each actor. And, to make matters more complicated, it has to be a fifteen minute extract, five minutes per student, as the scheme goes. (So, if we had gathered more students, the time would have been more anyway!)

We originally chose to focus our ideas on Naturalism, the kind of performances that one sees in TV-programmes and films, or on stage in plays such as ‘An Inspector Calls’ (JB Priestley), ‘The Mousetrap’ (Agatha Christie), and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (Chekhov). The downside of choosing a Naturalistic play, despite the fact that Naturalism is all we have ever experienced in our lower-school performances, is that, unlike lower, GCSE exams, the props are taking into account and marked too. So, if we had chosen ‘Top Girls’ (Caryl Churchill), we would have needed to recreate scenes such as an 80s kitchen and an 80s employment agency.

In the end, the beginning, we came to the conclusion that it would be too difficult to get the top grades doing a Naturalistic production; we needed to select a style of theatre that was completely different, abstract: Physical Theatre.

Hence the title of my post- I, a traditional, Stanislavski-based actress, having performed in such local productions as ‘Bugsy Malone’ (Knuckles), ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’ (Susan), ‘Great Expectations’ (Magwitch), would need to change my entire acting style, experiencing theatre as I had never experienced it before.

Steven Berkoff, practitioner of Physical Theatre

Steven Berkoff, famed practitioner, actor, writer, of the Physical Theatre genre was our chosen influence. His style involves: a use of the actor’s body as props and voice as sound-effects, with everything exaggerated. Costume is often limited to black or white, with lighting being the same constant. Actors move together and are often robotic or fluid, since Berkoff was influenced by the French Mime artist, Jacques le Coq.

From those specifics, we chose to perform his adaptation of the tale of ‘Agamemnon’, a king returning from troubled war into a more troubled homeland. Strife blooms, Queen Clytemnestra (pronounced C-lie-tem-ness-trah) gets restless, and the curse of the House of Atreus- cast when a former king, Thyestes, who was tricked, by his brother, into eating his own children- comes down to ruin Agamemnon.

Berkoff’s adaption includes a chorus, multi-rolling (not having a sole character for a sole actor) at the beginning of the play, their words harsh, ‘gritty’. This adaption of Berkoff is meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable, mentioning cannibalism, vomit and various other physical features that fit the theme of children as food. This…uncomfortable-ness is probably what I find the hardest to overcome. The idea is morally grotesque; I am not too pleased with the idea that I will be shocking my audience with controversy. Oh, well; I should begin to get used to this novel style of theatre!

Though we are all finding it a big change from traditional theatre performances, having to push past our ‘emotional barrier’, putting on a piece of Berkoff is very rewarding I just have to remember to keep my eyes wide, my expression loud as well as my voice.

For more information on Steven Berkoff, I would recommend the dissertation that my class-mates and I used to begin our research into Berkoff, by Craig Rosen and found on Iain Fisher’s website:


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