Tag: physical theatre

Creating a Theatre Piece from Fairy Tales

Yesterday, Jake posted a question on the Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre’s Facebook page, asking for tips on creating a physical theatre piece based on fairy tales. The answer is far too long to be posted on a Facebook page, so I thought I’d write a post instead. Jake: thanks for the inspiration.

Frog Prince

Fairy tales are a wonderful stimulus to devise from: they have strong stories, well defined characters and you can set them wherever and whenever you want. They are usually set in interesting locations that will give you a lot to play with: a forest, a castle, a hut, a cottage, a tower… all locations which you will not be able to create literally and so, you HAVE to use your imagination and stimulate the audience’s to take them where you want to.

So, your first questions should be:

– When are we setting the piece?

– Where are we setting it?

– What style shall we use?

The term “physical theatre” is very broad – will you use masks, still images, will your characters have stylised physicalities, will you have one or more narrators, how will you move between scenes? What visual experience will the audience have: A black and white one, a colourful one or a mixture of both?

Will you be telling the story linearly or start at the end, for example, your story could begin with a woman who obsessively cuts her hair. When somebody suggests that she try growing it, just to “see how it looks”, she tells them the story of how she hates her long her: she grew up in a tower, enduring her mother climbing up her hair constantly. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Rapunzel.)

Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sleeping Beauty poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Working with more than one fairy tale – do your research.

If you are working on more than one fairy tale, just pick three. Three is a nice number to give you enough variety. See whether you can link them in some way: by theme, location or character. Or decide to make them completely different.

When Forbidden Theatre Company created Spell, the story began with Frog Prince, where a Prince was so annoying he was turned into a Frog by a witch. The woman in question did not know that she was a witch, but her rage at being ignored by the arrogant prince turned into magic powers. This was the first time that she realised she had magic powers and she decided to use them for good. But after helping the King and Queen conceive, they neglected to invite her to the child’s party and she began to use her powers in an evil way (Sleeping Beauty).

In order to link a few fairy tales together, you will have to read plenty of them, to spot the possible connections.

Don’t just take the story that you all know as your starting point. Look at poems, ballets, films, paintings and illustrations that have been inspired by the tales and all the different versions  that have been created.

Split personalities

Fairy tales are beautifully crafted stories. There will therefore be a moment in the hero/heroine’s journey when they have to make a decision that moves the story along. What would have happened if they had made a different decision? If you are working on one tale, this can be the moment where you can change the story, by showing a different resolution or by presenting more than one story.

Use improvisation to try this out – it will be hard, as the well known decision will be on everyone’s mind, but it’s worth seeing where your instinct takes you.

Arthur Rackman's illustrations can be used as inspiration
Arthur Rackman’s illustrations can be used as inspirationing where your instincts take you.

Create new characters

Make the stories your own. Don’t just create your characters around the obvious protagonists (and definitely stay away from using the Disney versions as a base, look for the Grimm/Andersen /Perrault which will be darker and hence, more interesting). Create characters from inanimate objects. Going back to Spell, the Spell Book became the Witch’s sidekick and was able to provide a different perspective and energy on stage.

Use music and movement

There is no faster way to take an audience somewhere else than through the use of music. Look for instrumental pieces that are rarely heard, to avoid the audience making connections to their own memories. Search the Foreign Film Soundtrack catalogues, they’re a great source of inspiration.

Use movement sequences to show us what a character is thinking, to accentuate an important moment in the piece and to move the audience.

This is by no means a guide on how to create a theatre piece from fairy tales, but I hope it can inspire you or start you off. Do leave your comments and questions below, maybe we can come up with more tips together.


Physical Theatre Bites

I am cleaning up my computer and found this video from our Freestlye Performances, days when we got to experiment with physical theatre by trying out our own work in front of an audience.

Key to this was giving the audience food during the intervals – watch the video, you’ll see all their happy faces! I suppose it was a bit like bribing the audience. But hey, no-one else was doing this: an Ensemble of young professionals getting together for the day to present short pieces written by themselves. The day was full of the spirit of collaboration, as different people took on different roles (writer/director/performers) during the day, supporting each other along the way. All put together brilliantly by our wonderful stage manager Tracey.

Here it is, enjoy!

Freestyle Performances from Pilar Orti on Vimeo.

Working with Masks

I had such a great time the week before last working with a group of drama students for a week, as part of a Forbidden Theatre Company project.

Masks are liberating – having something physical to “hide behind” can really free the actor or the student. That’s why they are such great training tools. Jacques Copeau used masks during rehearsal the first time when one of his actresses seemed completely unconnected to her body. During an emotional scene, her physical expression just seemed… well, wrong. Copeau threw a sheet over her head and, voilá, her performance improved and the first use of the theatre mask in training was born.

Working with the students reminded me how much performers often rely on words to express themselves and convey meaning. This is not at all a bad thing – but it’s difficult to know how to create a new language when words are removed. Somebody asked me if mask work involved a lot of “mime” – it depends on how you define mime, but if you mean replacing words with gestures which depict objects and actions, no. If, however, you mean, using the body to communicate with other performers and the audience, then yes.

It is difficult. The instinct of many performers when they first try to communicate wearing a mask is to find a direct substitute for words. Watching it is fascinating, and I found myself coaching from the sides saying “Don’t try to speak, don’t try to speak.” I think many of them understood what I was going on about as by the end of the week, many of them found an ease to communicate which involved a different way of thinking. A less literal way, a simpler way, as they let the mask find a language of their own.

Devising Theatre – suggested timeline

Assuming you have ten weeks to develop your piece, your time might be used in the following way:

Week 1

Improvisations around stimulus. Research on stimulus (if appropriate). Decide on style. Building the ensemble. Discuss creating and rehearsal process. Do as much research as you can during the first three weeks of the process. This is the time where you are likely to be experimenting and therefore not needing to do much work on the piece itself in between rehearsals, such as learning lines. Once you have decided on the theme/s likely to appear in your piece, research them, and make sure you allocate time to share your findings. Also, do not forget to look into which theatre practitioners are likely to influence you. Again, you will need to research their work.

Week 2

Share your research. Decide on where the piece is going. Maybe the full storyline. Maybe a strong definition of characters.  Begin research on themes.

Week 3

Continue improvising. Individual character work. Character profiles. Research on practitioners suited to the piece.

 Week 4

Set the story line and outline of the piece. Begin CREATING the piece. Order of scenes. What happens in each scene. Begin scripting. Start thinking of set and costumes.

 Week 5

First drafts of set and costume designs.  Continue creating the piece. More character development. Character-led improvisations which will lead to development of plot.

 Week 6

Begin rehearsals. Continue Development.

Week 7

Final set and costume designs. Purchase or identify set and costume elements. Continue rehearsing and development. Ask people to be your “outside eye”.

 Week 8

Rehearsals. Define scene changes (if applicable).

Week 9

Have written down the final script. Run-throughs. More rehearsals.

Week 10

Tech Rehearsal. Dress Rehearsal (x2 if possible) Performance!

Once a schedule has been created, suggest that it is revised at the end of each week. If a group manages to hit on a wonderful storyline on day 2 of Week 1, then maybe they can start detailed character work earlier on so they can give themselves some more rehearsal time. Devising is not only group specific, but project specific too and the process varies continuously.

At the end of Week 1, ask the students to discuss how they envisage carrying out the creation and devising process as a group. Will each member be responsible for a session? Will they want a tutor to run a session on Character Development so that all group members can work on character at the same time? Similarly, ask them to discuss who will be running the warm ups for each session. For some sessions they will need longer warm ups than others, but you should encourage them to always do SOMETHING together, even if it is a quick game of tag to get them all making physical contact with each other before beginning each rehearsal.

Just as it is paramount to schedule an exercise to bring everyone together at the beginning of the session, it is vital to wrap up the session too. Five minutes at the end of each session to reflect on what has (or hasn’t) been achieved are very useful, as is making sure that everyone agrees on what the next steps of the process are and what shape the next session will take.

Structuring the Devising Process

The creation of a new piece will be a roller coaster: some days enormous amounts of material worth keeping will be created, while other days everything created seems useless. Remind students not to give up, not to be discouraged as this is all part of the creative process! It is precisely through creating material that does not seem to work which will help define more clearly where the piece is going. Sometimes it is just as important to discover what does not work as it is to create material that does work.

Usually students will have a long time during which to develop a piece (usually in short, sporadic lessons over 10 weeks). This is good news: it means they can experiment with ideas, dedicate sessions to developing character, incorporate the research gradually into the piece… you name it. But in order to keep the process fluid and give themselves room to experiment and play, they need to be extremely well organised.

The first thing to encourage is to set themselves some deadlines for the completion of the practical aspects of devising, such as the costume and set designs and a written script for the sound and light operator. Ask the students to set some deadlines and stick to them – after investing all their creativity in the piece, they probably do not want the practicalities of theatre to get in the way of their greatest enjoyment: the performance.

Different groups work at different speeds. In any case, remind them to use their time together productively. It is no use allocating a lesson to character development, where everyone sits down and writes their character profile individually, when this could be done at home.

Remind them that their time together as an ensemble is incredibly valuable and limited. Similarly, ask them to use your contact time with you and other tutors wisely. If they show you a section of the work during one lesson, they must make sure the next time they ask you to watch their piece, that section has been developed further.

If the students need a script for their lights and sound operator but there is little or no dialogue, they will need to describe what is happening on stage and how the plot is advancing. If there are specific visual moments to act as cues for lights and/or sound, remind them to describe them in detail in their script.

You’ll Never get it Right First Time

“Error is not just acceptable, it is necessary for the continuation of life, provided it is not too great. A large error is a catastrophe, a small error is essential for enhancing existence. Without error, there is no movement. Death follows.”

Jacques Lecoq, ‘The Moving Body’.

Building the Ensemble – The Empty Chair

This game works best with at least 7 people. Distribute evenly the same number of chairs as people playing across the space. Everyone but one person, the Walker, sits on a chair. The empty chair must be at one end and the Walker will start the game at the other end.

The aim of the Walker is to sit on a chair. S/he will do this by walking towards it at an even, slow pace. Everyone else must prevent the Walker from sitting on the empty chair. This is done by leaving their chair and sitting on the empty chair. This will leave another chair empty. The Walker will then try to get to it but someone else from the group should go towards it and sit on it. Everyone but the Walker can move as fast or as slow as they wish.

Note that once a member of the group lifts their bum from their own chair, they can’t go back to it and have to sit somewhere else. When the Walker finally sits on a chair, the game ends and whoever was not sitting down, becomes the Walker.

Once you have played this game a few times and are familiar with the strategies that work, try to play the game in silence. Of course there will be cries and laughter but try to avoid communicating with words and avoid telling others what to do. This will help you to develop your ensemble skills, where everyone in the group shares the responsibility of achieving a common goal.

Building the Ensemble – Grandmother’s Footsteps

One performer (the “grandmother”) stands facing a wall. Everyone else stands behind him/her at the other side of the room. The object of the game is for the rest of the group to creep behind the grandmother and tap her on the back. The grandmother will turn every few seconds and when she does, everyone must freeze. If she sees anyone move in the slightest, they have to go back to where they started. Whoever reaches the wall, becomes the next grandmother.

This game wakes up the body and mind and, though competitive, encourages performers to work in physical closeness to each other sharing the same space.

Grandmother’s footsteps is used widely to teach acting and physical theatre. The game has the added benefit that half of the class can sit and watch. What makes a good piece of drama and what is interesting about watching actors suddenly becomes apparent: enjoyment, commitment, the need to take risks, the need to play within the rules, suspension… this game has all the ingredients of a good theatrical performance.

When we freeze as Grandmother turns, we don’t stop: our emotion is in motion. Our brains are ticking away, making sure that every single element of our body is still, we are holding on to our energy, not letting it go… and we are oh-so-ready, because at any point, Grandma will turn round and then….. we have to be ready to move!

Warm Ups – why?

It is essential for performers to warm-up at the start of the session, to get their bodies and minds ready for the work to come. The importance of warming up together through working on the body individually and playing games, cannot be emphasised enough. Its benefits go way beyond “getting ready”. Here are just some of the reasons why warming up together is essential – some of them apply especially to physical and mask work, but most of them are relevant to all actor training.


  • Connecting the body and mind.
  • Developing physical and emotional awareness.
  • Training spontaneity and “being in the moment”.
  • Training taking risks.
  • Training making mistakes together.
  • Practising communicating in ways that don’t include words – a look, a smile, a gasp, a laugh.
  • Isolation of body parts.
  • Warming up of joints.
  • Spatial awareness.
  • Practising humility, collaboration and commitment.


The list goes on…. For those students that don’t like playing games because they want to get on with “proper acting” this list can provide a good reminder of how the exercises will help them to be better performers.


Don’t feel like you need to vary your warm ups or play different games each time you begin a session. Practice makes perfect and some of these games become really interesting once everyone is skilled at playing them. This is also a very good way to train the craft of acting: an actor does not change character or script at every rehearsal; the skeleton of the work is the same and it is a skill to be able to explore different things within a tight framework. And once the professional actor is in performance mode, they need to find the freshness of the first performance every single time, through their trained spontaneity.

Creating Text for Physical Theatre

Physical Theatre seems at its best when movement and text are integrated. If you are using dialogue you’ll need to decide whether you want it to match the style of the piece.

Using Poetic Text

A carefully choreographed sensual movement sequence might be accompanied by poetic text to heighten the beauty of the scene. The language doesn’t have to be elaborate, and the vocabulary can be simple. But playing with the rhythm of speech can communicate to the audience a state of mind very quickly. For example, long sentences might communicate a lucid state of mind, while short statements might indicate agitation. For fantastic examples of this, see the works of the master of the English language, William Shakespeare.

Here is an extract from ¨Goddess¨, a piece created by Forbidden Theatre Company. This is the first dream the Woman has, where she explores the idea of forbidden love through the story of Psyche and Eros, love between a mortal and a god. Here, Psyche is waiting to be sacrificed to a monster at the top of a mountain. Aphrodite, Goddess of love, jealous of Psyche’s beauty, has sent Eros to shoot his love arrows at Psyche, to make her fall in love with the monster.

When Eros is about to shoot one of his arrows at Psyche, he trips and shoots himself, falling in love with her. He takes her away with him making sure that she doesn’t actually see him, as he wants to keep his God identity from her.

(EROS spots PSYCHE and gets ready to shoot his arrow. Unfortunately right at that moment he clumsily trips, shoots himself (in the foot) and falls in love with Psyche. Silence. EROS looks at PSYCHE, but she can’t see him. EROS goes to Psyche, and unseen by her lifts her off the ground, teaches her to fly (teaches her to love?))

And then,
A breeze,
A breeze that far from hurting me begins to cradle me….
Then turns into….
A gust of wind, a gentle wind which lifts my feet off the ground
I surrender
A gentle wind…..

(Through the following dialogue, Psyche does not see Eros as he is standing behind her.)

Who are you?

That is not for you to know.

Soft breeze…
Do you love me?

More than you could imagine.

(He lifts her.)

Where are you taking me?

To our home

(EROS takes PSYCHE away from the mountain, saving her from dropping several feet every time she feels unsafe in the air. She tries to hold onto him but slips away, the third time this happens, she is held by the BROTHER, who appears during a sharp intake of breath from all characters, including the WOMAN. The dream freezes, the woman is not just dreaming of love, she misses her brother’s protection. Meanwhile EROS is holding the image of PSYCHE in his hands (she is still in the BROTHER’s arms.))

You cradle me,
Far from being scared I feel safe in your arms.
Do you love me?

More…. More than you can imagine.

You have given me back my life. I must see who has saved me from….

No! You mustn’t, you must never see who I am. We must love each other at night, in darkness….

(As the BROTHER passes PSYCHE to EROS.)

A gust of wind,
A gentle wind which lifts me off the ground
I surrender,
A gentle wind…..


As you can see, the dialogue is kept to a minimum, and is used to pass detailed information to the audience. For example, “Scared, I am left at the top of a mountain” immediately tells the audience where Psyche is. The performer can show by her movement that she is somewhere that is making her uncomfortable, somewhere where she is cold, from where she can look down. The text helps her pass specific information on.

Similarly, a carefully choreographed section can depict flying without the performers lifting their feet off the ground. In ¨Goddess¨, a sequence was created which gave the illusion of the upper body being lifted, – the rest was done by the text: “A gentle wind which lifts my feet off the ground.”

The whole sequence above is performed with the actor playing Eros remaining always behind Psyche.

Through the dialogue

“PSYCHE: Who are you?

EROS: That is not for you to know”,

we know that Eros is deliberately remaining out of Psyche´s sight.