It’s Up To You

Feature in Issue 17-2 | Summer 2005

Blessing or curse? Laura Eades investigates the legacy of Jacques Lecoq in contemporary British theatre.

It is now more than six years since the teacher Jacques Lecoq died (January 1999). His work lives on in the theatre practitioners he trained and influenced – but what does it mean to be ‘Lecoq-trained’ now that his teaching is passed on through his students? And can we overcome the idea of Lecoq as a Master, with assumptions about his supposed ‘method’ stopping us from keeping his teaching moving?

I raise these questions as one of the new generation of post-Lecoq-trained actor-creators. I studied on a new Lecoq-inspired course at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) in 2003-4, after training at the Lecoq International School in Paris in 2002-3. As a young artist, I have started to feel that if we emphasise the spirit of innovation that his work encouraged, and resist the temptation to see him as a kind of ‘godfather’, it will help emerging companies and schools to forge their own identities.

It is learning to create physical theatre from scratch that defines Lecoq training. Although anti-intellectual, the training goes far beyond movement technique. Its agenda is to put performers in touch with their own creative journey, guided by the body’s impulses. It is this consciousness (largely of the obstacles within oneself) that ties up our journey as artists with who we are, what we have to say; not just the kind of art but also the kind of life we wish to create for ourselves. Jacques Lecoq’s personal approach was stridently pragmatic: ‘He was the king of anti-bullshit,’ says Anthony Hampton of Rotozaza. Lecoq’s aim was to liberate artists from existing strictures, and so his teaching is imbued with subversive energy. ‘The way the journey is constructed, you can't ever settle into something and feel comfortable in it,’ says Lucy O’Rorke of Bouge-de-la. The broad range of Lecoq-influenced practitioners – artistic directors, performers and teachers – I have talked to in researching this article is testament to that original spirit of individual expression.

Complicite is the company whose highly visual and non-naturalistic approach (rather dangerously) typifies our idea of a Lecoq signature style. A Minute Too Late, (their second ever show, revived 21 years later at the National Theatre Spring 2005) switches between slapstick hilarity and dramatic tension in its exploration of bereavement, proving that intelligent non-linear narratives really do come from the body. We can also thank Complicite for helping, with shows such as Mnemonic, to dispel prejudices about physical theatre’s ability to incorporate complex writing into a physical aesthetic. But although Complicite is a collective, theatre can’t resist guru-izing individuals and all eyes are on director Simon McBurney who has become as much a target as Lecoq. When McBurney gave a lecture on how he directed Measure For Measure at the National this summer, he showed exercises taken directly from his Lecoq training, and the roomful of admirers actually gasped with awe. We should admire McBurney and Complicite for forging their own aesthetic, but not view this aesthetic as the Lecoq house-style, thus setting up expectations of the next artistic generation. Shon Dale-Jones of HoiPolloi made the widely-accepted equation that is both a blessing and a curse for anyone who is Lecoq-trained: ‘For me, the work of Complicite and the school are inextricably tied together.’

I asked Complicite performer Jos Houben what he thought about the expectation that such a strong precedent sets up. Jos is well placed to comment – a company member who performed in both the original and the revival of A Minute Too Late who has also, over the years, been involved in many other collaborative projects, including work last year with avant-garde musician Georges Aperghis in Paris. Whilst he still has a passion for A Minute Too Late, he recognises that people are keen to pigeonhole you. ‘At a certain moment you don’t want it on your CV,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in knocking myself off balance. I can’t eat the same dish again and again.’

Lecoq’s aim was to liberate artists from existing strictures, his teaching is imbued with subversive energy.

HoiPolloi are a Lecoq-trained company renowned for their surreal, situation-comedy narratives. ‘What we want to do is a variety of work,’ says Shon Dale-Jones of HoiPolloi. ‘We don't want to be stereotyped. Essentially, every show is an experiment.’ We know HoiPolloi for their heightened worlds, like the strange apartment block in Honestly where the oddities of life are thrown into relief. The effect is comedy, but for them it’s about something more complex. ‘We have a fascination for externalising the imagination, investigating what fantasy is and its impact on our lives. You can look at it politically – war is not a very imaginative approach to solving conflict.’ They are using their surreal style to tackle political issues with a re-working of Moliere’s Tartuffe. ‘We can see a very good play to deal with fundamentalism,’ Shon notes. Their newest explorations feature work with fire, digital film, slide projection, animation, and songs.

Whilst Complicite and HoiPolloi are still going strong, other companies have not found the industry conducive. Bouge-de-la was known for exploring how the body, set and puppetry were devising elements that grew together, creating groundbreaking shows such as Under Glass and Time Flying. The two directors, Lucy O'Rorke and Aurelian Koch, found the industry’s parenthetic approach to design crippling: ‘we would always have technical work and actors in the same space. But it’s not cost effective. Actors can’t take a break whilst you construct set.’ The company is shut down, but their creative journey continues elsewhere: Aurelian is working for Aardman Animation and O'Rorke is now working for the Esme Fairbairn Foundation.

As some fade away, there are new companies popping up. Complicite has produced Quiconque’s recent show, Hideaway. Catherine Alexander, director of Quiconque, has written a criss-cross narrative centring upon two Dutch girls who spent the war in the attic. In Hideaway, you feel that the characters have been discovered in the actors, that there is no pretence, just a straightforward generosity from performers Nadia Morgan and Lynne Forbes. All the roles are embodied by these two actors, and we see how devising has contributed to the development of Alexander as a writer. ‘The actor, the creator is the interesting thing,’ she says. ‘It never occurred to me that I could be a writer. It’s so collaborative, you don't realise what you have taken on board!’

'I realised it didn't have to be theatre as such,' Anthony Hampton (director of Rotozaza) tells me, reliving the inspiring revelation that he was free to interpret his training however his heart took him. ‘It might be a video installation or a fine art project or a happening. A double-decker bus filled with light.’ Rotozaza’s journey has taken him in an unexpected direction. Much of their work has played with giving unrehearsed performers instructions on stage, which they play out for real. It nods in the direction of Forced Entertainment and has something in common with Shunt: ‘I realised that if there was any reason for doing theatre it was because it’s LIVE.’ Rotozaza have made fourteen shows in four and a half years, performing internationally. The influence of the training is present, but not obvious. ‘Even the most abstract work is still based on an understanding of dynamics of people in space. I’ve never encouraged anyone to be a piece of cardboard blowing in the wind, but at the same time it was such a phenomenal experience.’

But what of the opportunities for training now? LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts, offers a two-year programme based on the teaching Jacques Lecoq. The school examines not just how to be creative, but where creativity comes from. Thomas Prattki, LISPA’s founder, says: ‘I have always been interested in the link between physical movement and the movement within in order to construct the invisible. I'm intrigued by the unconscious: the wild, creative energy underneath the surface. I don't want to make people into artists who are just technicians. Nor do I want people to drown in creative emotional moods. I want people to have access to both worlds.’

This year at LISPA there is input from Butoh to Feldenkrais practitioners. Teachers team-teach. Voice is strongly on the agenda, dispelling any preconceptions of mime, and complementing an ongoing writing workshop. There is also a space lab, exploring the dynamics of space through sculpture and 3-D construction. Advanced course students are being given a site-specific project to complete in the final term.

Another Lecoq graduate is Ron East, director of The School of Physical Theatre in London, who tells me that over eighty percent of his students are employed in the theatre. This is an incredible figure that most drama schools could only dream of. ‘It’s important to me to be recognised by the profession,’ he says. He has a lot of experience, twenty years of running a school in Canada, and he coaches his students to value themselves financially as well as artistically. Most uniquely, he offers a production year of training in which a group of students form a company, make, promote and tour a show.

Jacques Lecoq spoke little about the existential effect of his work that is at the heart of the LISPA approach. Nor did he form the connections with the theatre profession that The School of Physical Theatre aims to. Nor did he give instructions to artists about what to do with his work. He just left it open. When he died, he didn’t even leave instructions for his school. He was happy to leave it to the next generation of creators. Aurelian Koch reflects: ‘I think it was just his way of doing it. He'd always say “I don't want to have 500,000 copies of myself running round. It’s up to you.”’

For further information on the training schoois mentioned in this article see: Ecole International de Theatre Jacques Lecoq - Paris. London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA). The School of Physical Theatre, London

This article in the magazine

Issue 17-2
p. 12 - 14