Claire Patton and Lucia Rich, both wearing all-black clothes for the evening’s rehearsal, are sitting in a studio space in a structure outside a North Boulder home, trying to explain what “physical theater” means.
The actors are putting the finishing touches on Quake Theater’s The Awkward Art of Flying, a piece they will debut at the Wesley Chapel on Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1. Improvisation is a key aspect in physical theater, the two say, and they demonstrate an uncanny way of completing each other’s sentences as they explain their training. They explain what a “tréteau” is — a small platform on which Lecoq actors will often perform their works — and how the platform’s limited space forces the actors to redefine the vocabulary through which they perform.
In lieu of words, they both pop up to demonstrate and mark off an invisible platform with their hands.
“Hi Claire!” Rich says cheerily and waves, standing on the wooden floor, braced over an imaginary window and looking down towards the ground. “What are you doing down there?”
Patton, standing to Rich’s right, bends her upper body forward and cranes her neck upward.
“Oh, nothing,” she replies casually.
The two characters agree to meet on the top floor. Rich goes down and Patton goes up, and they maneuver around each other, trapped within the confines of the invisible platform. Patton is suddenly looking down, and Rich is looking up.
“What are you doing down there?” an exasperated Patton asks.
After one more vaudevillian switch, the two end their impromptu scene and sit back down on the wooden floor.
“A lot of what gives us joy is timing,” Rich explains. “A lot of the time, the scenes that give us joy just fall into sequence.”
The two are trained in the Lecoq method of acting, named after Jacques Lecoq, a Parisian athlete-turned-actor and mime who developed a physical theater pedagogy in the mid-20th century. In an article published two years after Lecoq’s death, The New York Times wrote, “His training techniques continue to challenge young theater artists from all over the world. They still attend his school to immerse themselves in a demanding curriculum of movement analysis, acrobatics, masked acting and pantomime that is now recognized by theater conservatories as a fundamental method of actor training.”
“It’s like when artists learn to draw realistically,” Patton says of the training. “That’s what we learn to do with our bodies. … The idea is that the actor is a poet that studies the body and how it moves.”
Patton and Rich rehearsing | Photo by David Accomazzo
“[The training] is … pretty strange,” Rich says. “I remember thinking, OK, I’m getting my master’s in moving like a paper bag.”
Patton and Rich studied under the same teacher, Lecoq disciple Giovanni Fusetti, albeit at different times and in different countries — Patton in Italy, Rich in England. Rich graduated from Naropa University’s Master of Fine Arts program in 2004, which at the time emphasized physical theater. The pair met in 2006, shortly after Patton moved to Boulder and they both performed in the same show. Lecoq training is somewhat unusual for actors, Patton says, and those who have it tend to be drawn to others with it. They became friends and frequent collaborators.
When they talk about The Awkward Art of Flying, they mention how they are fascinated with the “suffering of objects,” and acting out the tragedy of the inanimate with their bodies.
“The tragedy of [aluminum] foil,” Patton says. “It’s flat and beautiful and then you crumple it up and ruin it.”
Rich stands up and holds her arms out to her sides and starts swaying to an imaginary yet gusty wind. She’s miming an umbrella getting caught in the breeze, and suddenly, with a poof of air escaping her lips, the elements get the better of her, and her arms shoot up stiffly over her head as the poor umbrella loses its battle. Rich lowers her arms, and Patton says that in The Awkward Art of Flying both actors take on the roles of objects.
“We are balloons; we are people,” she says.
The show includes many things, including music, Victorian flying objects, absurd physical comedy, clowning, mime and a scene where proper Victorian ladies turn into chickens and try to establish a social pecking order.
And costumes. There will be costumes. During Lecoq training, Patton says, you can only wear black clothing, since costumes can obscure the body.
“Now that we’re grownups, we can do whatever we want,” she says, gleefully tossing a frilly hoop skirt over her rehearsal clothes and putting on a feathery headdress as she and Rich prepare to rehearse the chicken scene.
The Awkward Art of Flying plays at the Wesley Chapel Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Visit bit.ly/AwkFly for tickets and more information.