What’s the use in being Idle (Motion)?

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Despite its name, physical theatre company Idle Motion has been anything but idle in the past few years. Originally taking its shows to the Edinburgh Fringe as a hobby while still at university, this has quickly progressed to full-blown tours and critical acclaim. Idle Motion’s origins, however, go back much further, to the secondary school where the core members of the company met and first made theatre together, thanks to the inspiration of their “visionary and imaginative” teacher Paul Slater, who has gone on to become Artistic Director of the company.

Meeting at such a young age has meant that the company discovered their theatrical tastes together: “It’s a good shared language that you develop by seeing the same theatre together,” says company member and producer Kate Stanley, identifying Complicité and Kneehigh among their joint influences. “It’s not that you steal from people, but you are influenced by people, and if you’ve all had similar influences or exposure to work then you have a quick language to draw on.”

The main theatrical language employed by Idle Motion is that of props, which are central to the shows. “Whenever we saw theatre where a prop was used not as you would expect, in a really surprising way, those were often our favourite bits of that show. So then we thought, let’s make an entire show using that as the basis,” company manager Grace Chapman explains. “We put boundaries on ourselves to make better work,” Stanley continues. “If you limit yourself with your use of props, it actually increases your flow of ideas.”

Physical theatre is a broad spectrum and Idle Motion is not yet sure exactly where it sits. “Our style is loosely physical,” Stanley reflects. “We like that sort of movement aesthetic that’s in the spectrum of physical theatre, but it’s much more about object manipulation and it’s also quite filmic”. Stanley and Chapman go on to discuss some of the implications behind the label “physical theatre” and to think about the terms in which they might define their work. “A lot of people ask us what we mean by physical theatre and we say we’re not dancers, let’s put it that way!” they laugh.

However it is defined, Idle Motion’s distinctive, prop-driven style has gained ita growing collection of admirers, including critic Lyn Gardner. This support has been vital to the company, not least because, as Stanley puts it, “it helps other people believe in you.” Its Total Theatre Award nomination also gave Idle Motion a considerable boost and was one of the main factors that influenced its decision to commit to making theatre professionally, although they are the first to admit that when it first started out they knew “absolutely nothing” about how to set up and run a theatre company.

“Making the theatre is the easy bit in many ways – or at least the most fun,” says Chapman, speaking about the process of then getting that theatre into venues as being the most challenging aspect of what they do. They give a lot of credit to the support and guidance of theatres such as the Oxford Playhouse in helping them to develop as a company and learn more about getting their work produced. Despite studying drama at university, Stanley did not feel that her degree gave her much of an advantage when it came down to the practical running of the company. “I think it’s the responsibility of drama degrees to teach people a bit more about how to set up a theatre company, because I just didn’t have any clue”.

But Idle Motion seems to be learning fast, moving on from Fringe success to present productions of The Vanishing Horizon and The Seagull Effect at the New Diorama this spring before embarking on a national tour. While very different in many respects, both pieces in its current season draw on real people and events, as did previous Fringe hit Borges and I. Idle Motion explains that this is a conscious decision on its part and that it is a style of working that it plans to continue. Each piece of theatre begins with an idea from Artistic Director Slater that is gradually given dramatic shape through a series of workshops and improvisations, using a collective writing process.

“If you start with a real person or a real event, there’s solid material that you can draw on,” says Chapman. “I don’t think we would know where to start if we were making everything up. You need something to grab onto that’s solid, otherwise I think you could end up in real trouble.” As well as giving the company a solid base from which to work, history offers up some of the best storylines they could hope for. “You can’t make history up,” adds Stanley. “Some of the things that we’ve looked at are just so remarkable, I think that we would have come up with something a lot less interesting.”

Two such remarkable chapters of history provide the inspiration for their current projects. The Vanishing Horizon, which has already received two outings in Edinburgh, acknowledges and celebrates the achievements of early female aviators in the 1920s, weaving the biographies of these extraordinary women together with a personal story of one woman’s journey to discover her past. “It acknowledges their incredible tenacity and bravery at a time when women weren’t allowed to do a lot of things, but they were somehow getting themselves into these machines,” explains Stanley.

The Seagull Effect, meanwhile, marries recent history with fiction in a tale of how one couple are brought back together by the hurricane of 1987 and forced to reassess their broken relationship. This is about more, however, than a fractured romantic relationship, using the central couple as a vehicle to examine cause and consequence. “It looks at chaos theory and weather and how tiny changes can affect huge outcomes at the end,” Chapman tells me.

Throughout its steep learning curve, including a rapid period of growth which saw it go from playing to audiences of single figures to selling out at Edinburgh and picking up rave reviews, Idle Motion has picked up plenty of tips to pass on to other young theatre companies. “Work with people that you really like and that you can tolerate,” advises Stanley. Chapman agrees: “I think you need to find a group of people who are as determined as you are; you can’t have any dead weight in this scenario. Although that sounds brutal – and it is brutal – you just can’t.”

It is the final piece of advice, however, that comes across most powerfully and that is most reflected in their own determination: “want it more than anything in the whole world”. It is certainly a drive that seems to be propelling Idle Motion forwards.

Idle Motion is presenting The Vanishing Horizon and The Seagull Effect at the New Diorama Theatre from Tuesday 13 March to Saturday 17 March. For more information, specific performances and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website here.

Image credit: Idle Motion