STUDENT / RESEARCHER
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
PUSH began life as the duet company of Darren and Heather Stevenson. In 2000, the couple moved with their two sons, DJ and Daniel, to Rochester, NY and established PUSH as a way to "push" their art: "pushing" the limits of the human body, "pushing" the limits on storytelling and narratives. Several years later, the Stevensons began to include more performers into PUSH and began to establish the unique and collaborative style that defines PUSH today.
Apart from personal reasons, PUSH was created as a hybrid art form. PUSH takes a variety of technical skills, as well as the skills of its performers, and merges them into a cohesive whole. Adaptation and experimentation are the rule in PUSH, not the norm. A few core concepts are used to unite the whole (corporeal mime and non-traditional partnering being two major examples).
Nope... The name came about when the Stevensons were agonizing over what to name their new company. They brought this problem up with a friend, Paul Bellos in a conversation. Paul pointed out how many times the Stevensons had used the word 'push' in their goals for the company (see above). The name was kind of obvious at that point. Fun Fact 1: The capital letters are to make the name stand out in print, but no PUSH logo has been capitalized. Fun Fact 1: Tongue-in-cheek, some company members have attributed an acronym to the name after the fact: "Pray Until Something Happens". This is completely unauthorized and our official position is that there is always a plan.
Inspiration comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes we develop student exercises into full works. Sometimes we have an idea and combine with another idea that we had years ago. Or juxtapose idea with another that doesn't seem to match and see what happens. One piece even grew out of 6 months of unconnected improvisations. But a great deal of our inspiration comes from our own life experiences. Darren likes to say it this way: "The stories of our lives are locked inside our muscles. Movement sets them free."
Regardless of the source, allowing each concept the space to grow is key. Most of the time, the original idea doesn't work well enough to put on stage. But it may be just the thing to turn the next idea into something amazing We are always looking for new ideas and passing thoughts back and forth conversationally. Usually, what we end up developing is a combination of several ideas. Most often this involves some sort of narrative we want to tell and a unique or difficult technical element to tell it through.
Most of our work is developed out of improvisational sessions with some sort of theme. Some example themes we have used to create work are: movement restrictions, emotions, narrative concepts.
Normally we begin our creative process with improvisation or free play around an idea or concept. Once we establish a few images or movements we think create a core of the work, we begin to build movement and choreography around those elements. Different works take different amounts of time in these processes, but that is our general creative structure.
The final stage for any "finished" work is exhaustive rehearsal to prepare the work for the stage. Improvised bits are slowly refined and then established as repeatable choreography. PUSH will usually "soft-debut" a work as a "work-in-progress" during the final stages of the this rehearsal as a way to gather more feedback from audiences to further refine the work. Finally, the work is premiered and added to the regular repertory of works available for performances.
It is important to note that, for PUSH, no piece ever becomes static "or, is ever completed" maybe also something about how the advantage of live performance is that the work changes over time, now show is ever the same, no sacred cows. Even long-time favorites undergo revisions in the rehearsal process. Because our process begins in improvisation, we often find that familiarity with the "finished" choreography allows us to discover nuances and efficiencies that we can apply to improve the work. Maybe we discover a better way to execute a movement or we realize the pace slows during an unnecessary part of the narrative - everything is mutable. This is an ongoing process and can happen to any new piece even years after it is put on stage.]
PUSH has what we call "company class" which we run at the top of every day in the studio. We have a technique series we execute to keep our core skills sharp, a company workout to augment what we all do on our own, and then discretionary time. The discretionary time is used in a variety of ways. Sometimes we train a technique that we want to improve (can be new or old) Other times we will use this time for rehearsal or creating new work.
We are also famous for coffee breaks and sprawling YouTube sessions. While conforming to the stereotypical expectations of artistic attention spans, there is also a method to the madness. Community is built in the down time and creativity is often spurred by the mental breaks or new ideas.
What specific techniques does PUSH use?
PUSH trains with a combination of a compact core of technical skills and a large variety of supplemental skills. PUSH also has a variety of 'home-grown' techniques that have grown out of its performance history. The variety and unpredictability is intentional and grew out of PUSH's founding principles.
The core skills undergo very slow changes that reflect the continued growth PUSH strives to achieve. Long-standing skills in this group are: corporeal mime, illusionary mime, slow-motion illusions, Hawkins-style modern dance, and non-traditional partnering.
Supplementary skills receive training attention based on the current needs in PUSH. This could be about building a new skill set, reinforcing old performance skills, developing a new performer, or simple physical/athletic development. Some skill are emphasized based on the abilities of the current company and are allowed to fluctuate in importance based on directorial decisions. Supplemental skills include in no particular order: acrobatics, circus hand-to-hand balancing, clowning, juggling, cyr wheel, flash theatre, acting, parkour, hand balancing, yoga, contact improv.
Finally, PUSH often creates unique techniques based on the needs of new work. While these techniques utilize the performers' training, often there is little to no precedent to draw on. PUSH has encountered this in creating work with iPads, crutches and walkers, human-to-human puppetry, and vaulting poles.. PUSH also has it's own variations on mimetic techniques developed to enhance the realism and cinematic quality of various illusions.
We call ourselves a 'physical theatre' company. It seems the most simple explanation of what we do. If you ask us what "physical theatre" means to us, we'll tell you something like, "it's storytelling using only our bodies." If you keep hounding us about it, we'll start saying things like: "We are a hybrid art form combining multiple disciplines" and "Our art looks to find the best possible movement out of all possible movements to convey a particular meaning or narrative."
We say more of those kinds of things in our articles. Or you can just stop at "physical theatre" and call it a day...Or you can keep reading.
No really, I need more info. Can you go deeper in what "physical theatre" means?
We call our work 'physical theatre'. It's a hard thing to define what we do as we intentionally attempt to defy categorization. PUSH chose "physical" over adjectives like "visual" to emphasize that our work deals with the potentials and abilities of the human body. Of the two common alternatives, "visual" seems to imply a more spectacle oriented motif and "movement" seems to leave out the emotional quality we portray.
It has been my experience that "physical theatre" is a term that is typically used to define in the negative. As in: "does not emphasize vocal or literary elements" (e.g. dialogue or scripts). In such use, I find that 'physical theatre' seems to be used mainly in regard to experimental work or academic exercises. While not a bad thing, I believe this is a limited idea of the concept of 'physical theatre'.
I would argue that there is a long history of primarily physical forms of storytelling throughout human history. Often these have crossed over with dance forms, Think of the great pantomime stories of ballet (e.g. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake) or tribal dances describing the story of the hunt. Again, this is my opinion, but I think that there is a great argument to be made for defining 'physical theatre' positively, as a form that creates value out of simple physicality.
There is a great deal of abstraction in that argument and there is plenty of room for variety. I think part of the problem is that 'physical theatre' keeps wandering over the line into the realm of dance - which deals much more directly with emotional qualities and less with theatrical narration. The language is different: body language vs verbal language. Gesture vs text.
Do you think a standard definition of "physical theatre" would be limit physical theatre as a genre?
I don't think a specific definition would limit physical theatre because I don't think artists would pay attention - not where it matters anyway. There are wonderful art forms that have come on hard times because their names became limiting factors (see mime's fall in popularity from the 1970's to now). I think there is divide between those who name art forms and those who practice them. I can think of several examples of an art form's name becoming a limiting factor - mime, for example - and then the art form blossoming as something different - "mime training" is now a common component in college courses and actor resumes. (Also look up how many mime-trained actors have been employed by Hollywood as creatures or for interacting with with CG effects.)
So, yes, I believe a definition is unnecessary. Annoying to academic paper-writers maybe, but not necessary. Political repression of artists has always failed to stop artists from doing what they want, I don't see an academic limitation faring any better.
That said, I also think a definition could be extremely useful. The last major shift in the use of the body in performance was in the mid-1900's and was only vaguely understood at the time. But we gradually identified several of the key figures in the creation of 'modern dance' and figured out what ideas they were rebelling against. We also figured out why Decroux decided to prove Gordon Craig wrong and train the human body to be a mime - the 'uber-marionette' Craig dreamed about. Understanding these things gave us Marceau, Alvin Ailey, Tony Montanaro, Pilobolus and on and on. Getting the philosophy - the definition - of physical theatre down will only inspire creativity in the long run. People who don't agree will just start calling what they do something else - and give us the next Isadora Duncan.
How is 'physical theatre' different to physicality within traditional theatre?
I think the difference is both in form and intent. The traditional theatre retains a certain form outside of the actor's abilities. There is a script, there are acts, there is dialogue, there is a set, props, costumes, etc. What changes in physical theatre is the emphasis on the body as the primary form of communication. The actor's movements are now the central theme, rather than a supporting part of the whole. Intent also separates the two ideas. The actor only intends to amplify what he is already given. The physical performer intends to use his physicality to communicate in whole or in greatest part
PUSH is always growing. A conscious effort is made to keep the company from settling into a groove or a habit. There is a cohesive PUSH 'style' but discovering it requires viewing a large quantity of PUSH's work. We are always pushing what we do to find new connections - both to our audiences and in our art form.
We like to think PUSH is also very accessible. If you can't understand any of the other performing arts, we hope you'll at least understand PUSH. We strive to maintain an element of storytelling and emotional connection that keeps your eyes and your mind glued to the stage for the entire show. Art is a two-part experience and what we do on stage is never complete until it grabs your imagination and draws you into your own story.
The overriding goal of any work PUSH produces is to create work that makes sense to the audience. The performance is only complete in the imagination of our audience. PUSH creates with the knowledge that what we think we are doing and what the audience sees can be very different things. This means we do not tend to be slaves to any one technique or style. PUSH is always searching for the best way to portray a feeling or situation, not just the way we did it the last time.
PUSH is a small ensemble company and incorporates a great deal of each member's personality and style into itself. This means that PUSH's "personality" changes over time as performers come and go. Performing as an ensemble requires that each configuration of company members be respected as unique and not cookie-cutter replacements.
We continue to explore new connections in our training and performances. We are always asking ourselves "What is possible" rather than "What can we already do?" This is the matter of course, not a periodic quest for renovation.