Physical theatre

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Physical theatre is the name given to specific form theatrical performance that emphasizes the use of physical movement, as in dance and mime, for expression and the telling of stories.

Physical theatre as a form

Key figures in the evolution of modern versions of the form have been Jacques Lecoq, playwright/performer Steven Berkoff

Physical theatre in South Africa

The form has really taken hold in South Africa since the 1980s, partly because of its vast potential for intercultural communication.

Numerous platforms have been created to show the work, notably the Grahamstown Festival and the annual Dance Umbrella.

Initially, as its prevalence as a form grew, a number of interesting yet futile debates arose about what actually constitutes the difference between physical theatre and theatre or performance in general. Gradually however the term was recognized and accepted by most critics, to such an extent that many plays are now termed "physical theatre" simply because they rather prominently employ kinetic elements, even though they may not actually have been conceived withing the physical theatre framework.

This is perhaps why Gary Gordon coined the rather useful term danceplay to refer to the forms used by himself and the First Physical Theatre Company in their productions. By the same token, a number of creative artists working in the field prefer to eschew any specific reference to physical theatre, beyond recognizing it as a style or approach to theatre making.


While it is generally believed to have been initiated at Rhodes University under the guidance of Gary Gordon, physical theatre is now taught as a form in most Drama Departments in the country and forms part of the training of most of the younger generation of performers. Among the many South African exponents of physical theatre are Gary Gordon, Andrew Buckland, Lionel Newton, Lara Foot, Christopher Goetsch, Ilona Frege, Juanita Finestone, Samantha Pienaar, Ellis Pearson, Bheki Mkhwane, Jaco Bouwer,

South African companies

First Physical Theatre Company, Jazzart Dance Theatre, Magnet Theatre,

Plays and performances

The Ugly Noo Noo; The Well Being; The Anatomical Journey of a Settler Man; Daddy I've Seen This Piece Six Times and I Still Can't Know Why They Are Hurting Each Other; Dialogue (1994), The Unspeakable Story (1995); Dead: A Slight History of One Called Ivan (1996); Lilith (1998); Bessie’s Head (2000); Lake – beneath the Surface (2001); Drifting (2013).


Robyn Sassen. 20165. "Physical Theatre" in Martin Middeke and Peter Paul Schnierer (editors). 2015. The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary South African Theatre. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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