Theater as Parkour

Oct 19, 2015

“If two roads open up before you, always take the most difficult one.  Because you know you can travel the easy one.” (Raymond Belle – Parkour Traceur)

As a teenager I was deeply enamored with French impressionist paintings. The canvases, even in reproduction, lit up my heart and fired my imagination and I wanted to live my life as if in an impressionist painting.  The first time I visited Paris, at the age of fifteen, my high school summer program organized a visit to the Louvre, and for me even better, the adjacent Musée du Jeu de Paume.  

Between 1947 and 1986 the Jeu de Paume contained a world-class collection of impressionist works that are now housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Located in the north corner of the Tuileries Gardens next to the Place de la Concord, the rooms in the Jeu de Paume bore fairytale names such as Salle Dégas, Salle Cézanne and Salle Monet. I liked to imagine that the more sedate nearby Louvre Museum, unsure about what to do with the renegade art, banished the impressionist paintings to these nearby buildings. For years I assumed that the reason the museum was named Jeu de Paume was due to someone’s brilliant perception that art is indeed a jeu de paume, or hand-game.  I imagined that an artist’s work was to toss objects into the air and juggle them adroitly. This, I decided, must be how the little museum came by its name.  

A number of years later I was disappointed to learn that the museum was named Jeu de Paume because the building had been a handball court before it housed impressionist art.  No such poetic connotations were meant.  Nevertheless I do continue to think of art as a juggling act, an feat of intense play, of tossing elements up into the air and finding a way to arrange them midcourse.  

To speak, an actor flings herself figuratively from a cliff and carves the experience of speaking mid-flight. She juggles the experience as it happens. There is no net, no stopping; there is only the arrangement, the moment-by-moment articulation and the thrill of lucid expression from mid-air.  The preparations, the rehearsals, only serve to prepare the actor to leap and to juggle in the proximity of a live audience. 

A fairly recent urban sport known as parkour celebrates an attitude of expressive play in ways that I would like to equate with our work in the theater. Parkour is a novel way of moving from point “a” to point “b” using the obstacles in one’s path to interact with the environment in ways that challenge the use and meaning of our municipal spaces. The word parkour is derived from the French “parcours,” or, “the way through” and had its origins in a training program for French Special Forces known as “Parcours du combatant,” or “path of the warrior.” The point of parkour is to treat a space that is rich in obstacles as play and adventure rather than as a dangerous environment in which to negotiate with fear and trepidation.  Individuals or teams run, jump, leap, climb, swing, vault and roll over urban obstacles such as walls, ledges, parks and abandoned structures.  There is dramatic beauty in these great feats of physical action. 

Parkour requires the player, or traceur, to see the immediate environment as a way to express, adapt and free oneself, rather than as obstacles to get through or be fearful of, say, on the way to work.  The traceur approaches the environment in a novel way, imagining the potentialities for navigation in movement around, across, through, over and under its topographies. A traceur known as Animus describes parkour as “a means of reclaiming what it means to be a human being.  It teaches us to move using the natural methods that we should have learned from infancy. It teaches us to touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered by it.”    

Parkour throws light upon our assumptions about our immediate environment and situation.  Do we allow the city to trap or to liberate us?  Do our limitations thwart or energize us? Do the challenges that arise confine us or set us free? Rather than taking the easiest path, perhaps we can consciously choose to embrace and embody the available obstacles that ultimately can challenge our limits. 

For his recent film Victoria, director Sebastian Schipper chose to shoot the entire film in one take.  Shot across 22 locations in a single 134-minute take, the story follows a Spanish night-clubber who finds herself spontaneously caught up in a bank robbery during one wild Berlin night.  Schipper is, in my eyes, choosing parkour.  He calls his own creativity “a little wild monkey that wants to climb.”

In the growth of an artist, the ability to play and an appetite for play is as crucial to cultivate and encourage as the development of technique.  Play, like parkour, is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing flourish simultaneously.  When we play we are freed to be inventive and everything is possible. Imagination and free-flow thinking takes precedence over routine.  Creativity is to a large extent enacted in a state that is both committed and also playful. In play, the act itself is always in relation to a goal but at the same time it is more important than the goal. 

In order to play, to juggle well, I have to be able to gather information swiftly and evaluate options quickly. I must formulate and follow a strategic plan and also know when to deviate from that plan. Play requires flexibility, generosity, spatial and temporal intelligence and the ability to track multiple streams of information simultaneously. In play I must expand my sense of self in order to see what I can do and accomplish in a more expansive fashion than I do in daily life. In the midst of effective play, I feel powerful and proactive. I cannot surrender to anxiety, but must cultivate delight, curiosity, surprise and wonder. To play with others I must communicate effectively and cultivate collaborative skills.  I have to find a way to turn difficult obstacles and perceived enemies into allies.  I have to challenge myself and engage in action.  I cultivate physical excitement, pleasure, hope and optimism while looking for alternatives and strategies.  I need strong attention and must be able to make decisions quickly.  I must be ready for and welcome fast paced action. 

The composer Charles Ives proposed that when we have a choice, it is better to take the harder road. “The road is arduous, fraught with perils, because it is, in fact, a rite of the passage from the profane to the sacred, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity, from death to life, from man to the divinity.” 

And yet, as we grow out of childhood we generally forget how to play, how to engage using our fullest and most heightened abilities.  We become physically and spiritually sedentary and often choose the road well traveled rather than the less predictable one.  We become, both literally and figuratively, victims of the architects of our environment.  The architecture controls us by telling us to move in a certain way. But I can defy this by choosing my own path rather than that of the architect. Chau Belle, a well-known traceur, describes parkour as a state of mind rather than a set of actions, and proposes that it is about overcoming and adapting to mental and emotional obstacles as well as physical barriers. 

The theater provides a high wire act where actors and audiences alike can adapt a game mindset and maneuver together across treacherous landscapes.  The conflict of insurmountable heights in real life can become a playground in the theater. There are real dangers in the theater because in actuality an audience cannot know what will happen. Unlike in literature or visual art or film where the artifact is already made, the theater offers the thrill of a tightrope act in the present moment where the potential for failure is real but the flight can be extraordinary. We must simply look around and think like children.